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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  • Tim

    Oh shit Ryan this made me cry. You sound like you’ve worked so hard on your relationship with your dad, I really admire that man. Congratulations on the best piece I’ve ever read by you.

  • jenn

    I love Ryan O’Connell.

  • tania rahman

    So glad your dad pulled through, Ryan! And I wish I had a fraction of the bond you have with your dad.. My dad and I barely ever talk.

  • tania rahman

    “So this was his (and my} idea of heaven.”


    • Alison

      really?  all you can think of is the brackets?  did you READ THE ARTICLE?

  • Alex Porter

    An emotionally inept brat couldn’t be this honest with themselves.

    • zoe


  • Aja

    I loved reading this.  I think the best part about being an adult is being introspective and watching ourselves grow and change.  And also documenting how we deal with really rough shit.  The times my father has been in the hospital have shocked me straight to my (often immature) core.  Suddenly nothing else (nothing in this world) matters except that he gets well quickly.  I get through it by making jokes and reading to my Dad a lot.  But in the end, parental mortality is the strangest thing.  It’s something we’re all going to deal with (if we’re lucky enough to have good parents in our life).  But yet, when you’re faced with it, you always feel so incredibly alone.  

  • Heliconnn203

    great article, it made me cry a little. dads are the greatest, and you sound like an amazing son. 

  • Annette Iris Rivera

    Thank you so much for sharing this. 

  • Guest

    Barely knowing my father, I can still relate. Sincere and  touching piece, Ryan.

  • Anonymous

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  • es

    reading this made me feel a lot better. my mom had a brain tumor and surgery earlier this year, i was at school in the city and going home every weekend and everyone seemed to be handling it all much better than i was. my little sister just wanted me to take her to starbucks all the time and people kept bringing edible arrangements to my house and everyone seemed so fucking normal, i felt like a freak when i would go to the library to do homework and go cry in the stacks.

    and now that it’s done, it’s even weirder, because it isn’t like grief when someone is dying, because when their sickness is over you mourn them and start trying to move on. she is better now, and it’s not like i’ve finally realized how much i love her (because we have always loved them! they are our parents and they are amazing). i feel like experiences like this make us adults for our parents, even though we are their children and will always be their babies and all of that. our parents are mortal! what the fuck! it is a weird realization and i think it only hits home in experiences like this.

    anyway, sorry to ramble on about myself. i always love your posts ryan, i guess this one hit me really hard in particular. i am so glad your dad has recovered! happy father’s day!!!!!!!

  • Alisana24

    “I wasn’t the doting caretaker I had assumed I would be; I was a fucking zombie. ” 
    happened to me too but my dad died. Your post made me cry. thanks for sharing…

  • YG

    Please more articles like this less snarky howtos :)

  • Anon

    Hi there. My dad died this time last year from swine flu – he was only 48 and had never had a day off work ill before. It was a total shock. Still can’t move on and completely understand the zombie comment – I struggle everyday with not having been able to say goodbye – I didn’t get to see him because it happened so quickly. He said he felt a bit poorly for a few days, but only a cold. I feel cheated by this disgusting virus – so many things I should have said :(

  • Doc

    My dad had been in and out of hospitals as long as I can remember. He was the kind of man that wouldn’t even go see a Dr. Unless who’s on his deathbed. The only other person he would go see a Dr. For would be me. My dad and I sometimes would get so mad at each other that we wouldn’t talk to each other for up to two months. But my dad would call my wife and and say hello is too little bastard doing. I would call my mom and say how is that pain in the ass doing. But the if either one of us answered the phone we would just hang up but we still loved each other very much.
    The last time my dad was in the hospital just as I was about to go into his room his Dr. Came out. I asked the Dr. If he knew what was wrong with my dad yet. He said yes he’s got cancer and he started to cry. I said well can’t be fixed he said no. I said did you telling my dad what’s wrong. The Dr. said no I couldn’t. I told the Dr. He had to tell him just because my dad busted the doctors chops about being from India and not being able to speak good English was no reason not to tell him. The doctors said no you don’t understand I can tell him because I love you dad through march as if he was my own dad. He walked away crying.
    I walked into my room look at my dad and said I have something to tell you. He looked at me and said I have cancer don’t I. I said yes and that’s all we could say to each other.
    My dad passed away in April of 1979 and it still cry when I talk about it and I’m 60 years old now.
    My dad was about the most stubborn pigheaded man on the face of the year it was his way and that was all there was to it. But no matter how many arguments we got into we still love each other very very much. Not like kids today and I know what I’m talking about because I have a few that truly could care less if I’m dead or alive preferably dead is how they want it.

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