Dad in a Coma: A Memoir

photo credit jason revis

In 2007, Dad suffered a heart attack. His girlfriend Marie resuscitated him.  He lay in a darkened ICU room, in a coma. My siblings and I met Marie at Rapid City Regional Hospital. We took turns crying, reasoning, and laughing. We talked with doctors about brain damage.  I drank mocha lattes. My sister wrote notes. People talked Jesus to us. Marie never slept for eight days.  I thought of sawdust.  I wanted something that smelled like Dad instead of the alcoholic hospital.

Dad, a carpenter, carried lumber particulates on his tobacco stained hands and long gray hair.  When I was nine, he would watch The McNeil-Lehrer Report, after he fiddled with foil-tipped TV antennae.  He would lean forward with his elbows on his knees, hands clasped. I would cuddle up and fall asleep, soothed with the smell of sawdust and Dr. Bronner’s Magic Peppermint Soap.

When the song “Sugar Magnolia” didn’t rouse him from the coma, I suggested the soap.  I figured the peppermint-tingly feeling might aggravate him in a good way. I looked at my nieces’ pictures on the wall.

My brother Taylor paced, my sister Beth fidgeted with her black hoodie strings, and Marie wept, motionless.  Red-faced Danny, Dad’s friend, stared at the strong man turned bed-bound. The grandkids’ pictures enlarged and tacked opposite his bed, the peppermint soap, the hippie music, all failed to wake him.  I stared at the white sheets.

Intelligent, assertive, athletic, educated, kind, and self-sufficient, Dad was the only Renaissance man I’ve ever known. I thought he’d awake by the strength of his body and mind. My chest and my belly did flips of dread.  It was time for me to go home. Everyone gave me the room.

I held Dad’s hand.  It was puffy but warm. Mine shivered, trying to ignore the panic. His 52-year-old hands scratched mine, the tips hardened and cracked, stained with black lines. Motor oil from tinkering on clunker cars, the only moisturizer he’d allow.

His brows were furrowed, even in his state of uncontrol.  I wasn’t scared of the tubes in his nose, nor the breathing machine as it clicked and his chest and arms moved while his head turned, making him look like a life-size puppet. The shaved upper lip, though, freaked me out. He looked different missing a moustache with that beard.

“Dad, wake up or I will sing, and that’s going to embarrass us both.”  The heart monitor beeped its steady tune. I drew a hospital-tasting breath. I sang a lullaby, losing melody between gasps and tears.

Brush yer teeth. I’ll get a book. I know you’re tired. I see that look. *

Perfect song for a great dad. He’d fix scrapes, fix cars, go fishing, and build a house. His best role was as a father.  The tears tickled my nostrils.

“You can go, Dad, but if you want to stick around, that would be fantastic.  We are all grown up, now, and we will be alright,” I smiled. I kissed him. “I love ya, Pops.”  I put his hand back on the hospital bed, and turned to leave the room.  Taylor walked into the room at the same time, and rushed to the bedside as Dad groaned and fussed.  I turned for a moment and saw Taylor pick up his hand and clasp reassuringly with both of his.

I fell into Beth’s arms in the waiting room and hugged her tiny hundred pound body.  Then Marie.  Then Danny.  It was time for me to catch my flight back to New York to be with my own child.  I would hear from my brother later that evening as I changed planes in Minneapolis. Dad had woken from his coma when I left the hospital.

*song lyric by Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion “Brush Yer Teeth Blues”


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