The Two Times My Father Almost Died

Two years ago almost to the day, my father almost died for the first time. I remember him calling me when I was out to dinner in Brooklyn with friends and telling me that he felt very ill. I was slightly drunk when I heard this news though and kind of dismissed it. He didn’t seem to think it was that big of a deal either. He figured that it was just a bad case of the flu and even though he felt like hell, it would go away soon.

A few days later, I received a phone call from my stepmother telling me that my father had swine flu and was in intensive care at St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica. I was sort of in disbelief—swine flu seemed like a joke—but I took solace in knowing that I was set to come to Los Angeles in a matter of days. Ironically, I was going to L.A. not to see my father but to have my sixth and final surgery stemming from a car accident that occurred in San Francisco more than two years ago. I was planning on staying in a rented apartment in West Hollywood for six weeks and my mother was going to fly down from Northern California to take care of me for a few days. I thought my father was too. In fact, I had planned on staying at his house in Malibu for awhile to be by the ocean after my surgery.

But this wasn’t about my recovery anymore, this was about my father’s. He took care of me when I almost died and now it was my turn to return the favor. I had no idea what kind of shape he was in but when I landed at LAX, I had a voicemail from a family friend crying and telling me to call him immediately. It turns out that while I was flying to California, my father had been told by a doctor that he had only days to live. After relaying the news to my entire family and leaving me a voicemail, the doctor came back and informed him that he had read the wrong chart and that he wasn’t going to die after all. Oops! I’m so glad that I was in the air when all of this went down. Otherwise, I would’ve just lost my shit at baggage claim and been so angry when I found out the doctor was like, “J/K!”

Even though my father wasn’t going to die in the next few days, things were very much touch and go. He had a severe case of pneumonia and could barely breathe. In the days leading up to my own surgery, I went to St. John’s to see him and was ashamed to find myself wanting to leave the second I got there. Seeing him sick made me shut down completely. I wasn’t the doting caretaker I had assumed I would be; I was a fucking zombie. Look, my father is basically my best friend. We hang out and go on vacations together for fun. We do dinner and a movie; we hold hands sometimes while crossing the street (I know, weird, but not) and genuinely enjoy each other’s company. I could not deal with his mortality so I withdrew in a time when he needed me the most. I felt horrible for being a churlish child but I also didn’t know how to change my behavior.

I had my surgery and everything went off without a hitch. When I felt better, I would go visit my father in the hospital and laugh about how we were both spending the summers in some kind of rehab state. Oh, speaking of rehab, I should mention that the doctors gave me a lot of Percocet after my surgery. Like a lot. And I quickly discovered that it’s really not a good idea to give someone who’s dealing with the mindfuck possibility of death a boatload of opiates. From then on out, I would pop two pills whenever I saw my father and the drugs would put me in a protective haze, like I was in a cocoon. I felt awful going to see my father stoned out of my mind, but my coping mechanisms were shit. I didn’t even want to get dressed in the morning. I felt paralyzed but the painkillers helped me get out of bed in the morning. Ew, this is so #dark and cliche but I really don’t know how else to describe it. It wasn’t Intervention status but it certainly was my own valley of the blah’s.

As he spent more and more time in the hospital, I started to think of excuses not to go visit him. One day, I blew him off just so I could get stoned and go swimming with my friends and I felt so ashamed of myself. The level of my self-loathing that day was off the fucking charts and even though I knew what I was doing was wrong, I honestly felt like if I didn’t have to see it, then it wasn’t happening. I was shocked that this kind of emotional ineptitude existed inside of me though. It felt like an invasion of the compassionate body snatchers had occurred and I had no idea who this person was. The possibility of someone you love dying changes everything though. It can change you into a person you never thought you could be; it can change you into a person who’s incapable of doing the right thing.

Luckily, my father survived. After spending two months at St. John’s, he was finally released and made a full recovery. I was so happy that I finally let myself cry. I also promised myself that if anything like his happened again, I would be more available and not let the power of denial swallow me up.

Eight months later, I got another phone call and realized that it was a promise I couldn’t keep.

Ryan O'Connell

I'm a brat.

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