Monday, April 10, 2006


In Which Much is Made of a Tap on the Shoulder...

As I mentioned once or twice, my parents were in town last week. Usually, their arrival provides more or less constant blogworthy material, but as they were here only for a week--instead of their usual three--there didn't seem to be as much hubbub, beyond discussing the evolution of discipline in the public school system over the past 50 years.

When my parents arrive, my dad usually finds himself with a few home improvement projects to work on, which could range from fixing a leak in the roof to almost single-handedly remodeling a bathroom. He's only too happy to do this because, unlike at his own home, where his skills are more or less taken for granted, here at the Magazine Mansion, he is revered as a kind of handyman god. Her Lovely Self caters to him like a, er, caterer, making all of his favorite foods, especially pie. And the Brownie simply knows him as the World's Best Goodest Papa, and not just because he made the Foxhole for her.

This time, though, there were no projects for my Dad. And if there had been, he wouldn't have been able to perform them. Not with his arm in a sling. Not after what happened.

To tell this tale, we have to back up to around December of last year. My dad is foreman on a construction site at a college close to his home. It's a nice idyllic campus, especially in winter, when it gets snow aplenty. But it's also a hilly one. Add the two elements and you get slippery slopes and inclines everywhere. To their credit, the college maintenance staff does their level best to keep all stairs and pavements well sanded and salted. But construction sites were a different matter.

To get to the job site my dad oversees, you have go down a bit of a slope to the base of a new building going up. The hill was a sheet of ice by the start of the work day, and even though it had been sanded, there was a slight sleety mist falling all day, and it quickly froze the hill back over.

I'm told that during one day alone, seven constructions workers slipped and fell on the hill. A few sledded down it on their rumps with no harm done. But three of the men fell hard and those three ended up filling out worker's comp papers.

My dad was the third guy.

It was late in the day, and he had just come from a meeting with the head of the college's physical plant, when he reached the hill and began his descent. My dad, though short and rotund and appearing ungainly in every way a 63-year-old man can, is in fact quite nimble. And having lived in New Hampshire for most of his life, he has learned the graceful art of walking on ice, even on hills. But he misjudged the size of one ice patch and when he stepped over it, his boot hit another patch and down he went. He reached out one arm to recover, but could find no purchase and went sliding head-first down the hill.

It was near-dark and hard to see at the bottom, but not so hard that my dad couldn't make out a large piece of machinery that the crew was supposed to have put under cover but hadn't. At the speed he was traveling, if my dad had collided head-on with it, he'd likely have broken his neck. But at the last second, he twisted, clipped the edge of a very hard piece of metal with his shoulder, then went spinning into the brick wall that marked the start of the foundation at the bottom.

Just glad to be in one piece, my dad hopped right up, brushed himself off and finished his work. He barely noticed his left shoulder, which mostly felt numb from the glancing blow.

But 30 minutes later, while driving home, the numbness morphed into an awful searing pain that tore at him so badly, he actually pulled the truck off the highway to see if some previously unnoticed shard of metal had become embedded in his shoulder.

At dinner he could barely lift his arm and my mom noticed very obvious swelling and bruising on his shoulder. She wanted to drive him to the ER, but my dad said he was fine. He popped a couple of aspirin and went to bed (can you tell we're related?).

The pain woke him up around 1 and kept him up til it was time to go to work. Unable even to lift his arm or even really move his left hand, my dad succumbed to my mother's entreaties and told her he would stop at the ER--just at the edge of campus--on his way to work.

First, of course, he checked in at the site, got distracted by one or two things, and then drove himself over at lunch when he realized his arm hurt to badly even to retrieve a can of Diet Coke from the vending machine.

When he got to the ER, he was able to remove his coat and his flannel shirt, but his shoulder was so badly swollen, they had to cut off the t-shirt.

Even the ER nurses--who have pretty much seen everything--were impressed. It looked like he was wearing a great purple shoulder pad on one arm. He explained what happened and when he did, they had a pretty good idea that he had injured his rotator cuff, but it wasn't til the MRIs came back that the doctor admitted to my dad that this was "the most horrifically damaged rotator cuff I've ever seen."

"Well," my dad responded, "I try not to do things half-assed."

I haven't seen the scans, but I'm told that all of the tendons were torn, there was severe muscle damage--including a tear that ran the length of his bicep--and the ball at the top of his upper arm bone appeared to be chipped.

I should tell you here that this was a pretty good hospital, arguably the best in New Hampshire, associated as it is with a well-thought-of medical school and a staff that includes some of the best surgeons on the east coast.

None of them really wanted anything to do with this shoulder.

"Oh, I could fix it," one doctor told him. "But I'd have to open your whole shoulder and upper arm to do it, and assuming I could get everything back where it's supposed to be, you'd be looking at 6 to 12 months of rehab. And even then, given the damage and your age, you'd maybe get 60 percent mobility back ("goddamn good thing it was my left shoulder," he told me when he was here. "If it's been my right side, I wouldn't have been able to use my shovel for them hot spots in my pants." Har har.)

As soon as I found out, I started Googling and calling various health editors I knew and learned that THE guy on reconstructive shoulder surgery was just two hours south of my parents at this little place called Harvard. Apparently, he's had great success doing elaborate repairs laparoscopically, which is much less invasive than the open standard procedure, would reduce Dad's recovery time to about 3 months, and would restore as much as 80 percent mobility.

Of course, this guy was the kind of doctor who didn't take appointments. He reviewed your case and decided which ones he'd take and which ones he wouldn't.

I'm not saying that I have any juice whatsoever with certain well-placed public information officers at Harvard, and I'm not saying that any of these folks would abuse their position by personally contacting this doctor's secretary and convincing her to slip my dad's file into the pile of cases to review. I'm just saying that a few weeks after I learned about my dad's injury and the location of this doctor, his secretary called my dad and said the doctor was interested in reviewing his case, and had never performed his reconstructive procedures on a case as old as my dad and was somewhat curious to see what results might come of the work.

The good news: the doctor agreed to work on my dad. The bad news: he couldn't fit him in until the middle of May.

So, for the past four months, my dad has been in more or less constant pain (he won't take anything stronger than aspirin. Even 20 years sober, he's leery of taking any other kind of drug that he could get hooked on), sleeping upright because he wakes himself up too often by rolling over onto the injured shoulder.

When I saw him at my grandfather's funeral, he looked pained and tired, but when he got off the airplane with my mom for this visit, he looked haggard. Exhausted.

Worst of all, he looked old.

Boy, those six words were hard to write.

My dad has been very upbeat about this incident. Certainly there are many worse injuries to bear and many riskier surgeries to undergo, and so he chooses to look on the bright side. He's gone out of his way to make this event no big deal, but for his life and his line of work, it seems to me this has really hobbled him. I can't shake the feeling that the injury weighs on him somehow. Not the pain of it--my dad has the pain threshold of a grizzly--but the IDEA of it.

I know it certainly weighs on me. My dad is 63 and while he's in awfully good shape considering the life he's led, he's slowing down. He does his best to dismiss the little fact that his arm is in a sling, but this past week I wondered if he was just putting on an act. I know I died a little when he told his grandson that he couldn't play catch with him. Or when he had to hug his granddaughter with only one arm. Or when he had to stand by and watch his clueless, mechanically disinclined son labor through a minor piece of plumbing that cropped up while he was here (a piece of plumbing he could have dispatched in about 10 minutes, but which took me 2 hours). I hate to see him diminished in any way.

Those of you who have been here a while or read the archives know that my dad wasn't such a great dad when I was growing up, being a drunk and all. But I had no point of comparison then, and so I did what most sons did: I admired him and wanted to be just like him. Especially in matters of physical strength. I was a puny kid. But then as now, my Dad was the strongest man I knew. He came from a line of mighty men who feats of strength were both a matter of legend and a matter of fact. My dad was no different. I grant you, it was not cool when that strength was brought to bear on you, as it sometimes was when you got out of line, or my dad had a snootful and simply decided that you had got out of line.

But those instances blur for me at this particular moment, and the ones that stand out in sharp relief against the backdrop of my memory are mostly good ones.

For example, when I was 5, we were at my uncle Dennis' house. Dennis was my dad's older brother and he had a dog who was not such a great or nice dog.

I didn't know this, of course. When we went to uncle Dennis' house, all I saw was a collie who was a dead ringer for Lassie. Except that this collie was male and his name was Charlie Brown. With such wholesome and innocuous pop-culture references embodied in this dog, I assumed automatically that he was nice. He wasn't. Not to me anyway. He growled if you got near him. And if you walked away from him--as my brother and I did the moment he growled at us, Charlie Brown would follow you, yipping and woofing at you in the most disquieting way. We gave him as wide a berth as we could.

We were at Dennis' house to collect some of my dad's belongings that he had stored in Dennis' barn for a few years. Dennis and his brood were gone for the day, but Charlie Brown was there.

While my parents sifted through the barn looking for their stuff, my brother and I played catch in the yard. I didn't have very good aim then and I over-threw the ball, causing it to roll down a hill that led to a back pasture. My brother ran to get it, grumbling all the while. I waited at the top of the hill for him. Until I heard the growling behind me.

I turned and there was Charlie Brown, stalking me like I was a rabbit. I was just a little guy, remember, and already intimidated by the dog. I backed away from him and started heading for the barn where my parents were. But as I moved across the yard, Charlie Brown growled more loudly and quickened his pace. I made the mistake of panicking and running. And probably peeing down my leg at the same time.

With a low growl, Charlie Brown chased me and I screamed bloody murder as I dashed across the yard. About 20 feet from the barn, I felt a sharp pain in my heel as Charlie Brown nipped me and tripped me up. I fell to the grass, now screaming hysterically. I was sure the dog was going to kill me.

Charlie Brown stood triumphantly, just a few feet from me, barking and growling. Every time I tried to crawl or get to my feet and make it to the barn, he would charge at me and I'd shriek, waiting for him to sink his teeth into my arm or neck. Then the dog would back up and pant in way that seemed exactly like laughing. Just an awful moment.

Then Charlie Brown and I heard a sharp "HEY!" from the barn and we both looked. There was my Dad, arms up over his head. In his hands, he held a huge metal barrel. I'm not talking a garbage can here. This was the size and heft of an oil drum. It had been next to the barn and full of rain water. Even without the water in it, it had to be enormously heavy. It didn't seem to matter to Dad. He kept it high over his head as he began to run at us, yelling.

Charlie Brown no doubt thought himself the alpha dog in this situation, and instead of running away from the yowling red-bearded man with the barrel over his head, Charlie charged my dad. And when he got close enough, Dad swiveled the barrel in his hands and dropped it open-end first right on top of the dog, trapping him inside the barrel like a firefly in a jar.

While the collie bonged around inside the barrel in a certain amount of confusion, Dad came over and checked my foot. Aside from a tear in the heel of my Keds, I was fine. But he picked me up and gave me a rough hug (all his hugs were rough. And scratchy, his whiskers digging into the skin of my neck). Then he carried me back to the barn and sat me up on a milk can, next to my mom, who made a big fuss.

By this time, Charlie Brown was making a fuss too. He was small for a collie, and it was big for a barrel, but he'd had enough of being trapped inside a dark, confined space. I could hear him yelping in increasing panic.

My dad was never cruel to animals, but he didn't have much sentiment for them either. Growing up on the farm, it had been his job to put dogs and cats out of their misery when they got too old or infirm to do their respective jobs of guarding the chicken coop or keeping the barn free of vermin. And he was mighty steamed at Charlie Brown. "Goddamn dog," he said, listening to the bonging and the yelping. "I oughtta leave that barrel on him. Let him suffocate." Then he sighed and pushed the barrel over on its side, then gave it a swift kick, sending it rolling down the same hill my brother had gone down to pursue our errant ball. Disoriented as he was, Charlie Brown was stuck in the barrel for a few revolutions, before finally jumping--well, falling, really--out of the barrel, which continued down the hill and came to rest in the pasture at the bottom (where I believe it remains to this day, although it's pretty much a mound of brittle rust). The collie was unharmed but he did walk somewhat dizzily back up the hill. And he obviously associated me with his disquieting experience because from then on he avoided me, a great blessing. At the time, I was convinced my dad had saved my life.

A few years later, my dad saved another life--and had another accident on the job site--but under entirely different circumstances than the mishap that led to his current injury.

My dad has worked on many different types of projects, but he's a welding engineer and his specialty is working on large-scale pipe, stuff big enough for a man to walk in. He worked on cooling systems for nuclear power plants, and there he had to oversee the joining of pipe large enough to drive trucks into.

But when I was 7, he was working a small-scale job--some kind of plumbing or drainage system for an industrial plant. He and his crew were doing the usual--waiting for a crane to move a length of pipe over to the ditch where they wanted to connect it to other pipes just like it. The pipe they were working with was not huge--maybe three feet in diameter. But it was heavy. Each length weighed a ton. I know a lot of people use the term "weighed a ton" as general hyperbole to express that something was awfully heavy. But in this instance, I mean each length of pipe weighed 2,000 pounds.

As the crane moved it, the pipe was well secured. Or they thought it was. And there was this guy on my dad's crew--Ted, his name was--who was crossing from one section of the ditch to the other. As he did, Ted ducked under the pipe. Not really the safest thing to do, but the pipe was chained to the crane and it was easier and quicker than going around. It was something everybody--even my dad--had done without thinking, countless times.

But this time, one of the chains snapped.

It was a loud snap, that chain, and I don't know whether an end of it clocked Ted or what, but at the same moment, he lost his footing and fell halfway in the ditch, his legs dangling while his torso was flat on the ground. Under the pipe.

Only one chain had snapped. The crane still held it aloft. But that chain breaking had been enough to cause the pipe to shift its weight. It tilted and began sliding towards the ground. Towards Ted.

Without thinking, my dad instinctively stepped forward and grabbed the lip of the pipe as it was tilting down. By his own estimate, he only held it for maybe 3 seconds, just long enough for Ted underneath to find his footing and roll clear. Then my dad let the pipe go and the lip hit the spot where Ted had been with enough force that everyone nearby felt the ground shake.

Now, remember, the crane still bore most of the weight of the pipe. I don't mean to say my father was lifting a one-ton pipe. But everyone present--especially Ted--agreed it was still one of those miracle moments of superhuman strength. Because crane or no, for those three seconds, my dad was holding somewhere between 500 and 800 pounds in his hands. More than enough to have crushed Ted's skull or chest and kill him.

And almost immediately, Dad knew something was wrong with his own self. His arms hurt, of course, but what really bothered him was his stomach. It felt oddly loose and tight at the same time. And it hurt like hell, especially the bulge that he was surprised to feel when he reached down and rubbed his stomach.

The guys on the crew popped Dad in the bed of a pickup and drove him straight to the nearest hospital where, sure enough, he was diagnosed with a strangulated hernia (and some torn ligaments in his arms). By the time someone on the crew phoned my mom, Dad was already in surgery.

And the story of his heroic act had already spread. The Manchester Union-Leader wrote a story about it (although my dad declined an interview, so the piece is from Ted's perspective, and he laid it on thick. I tried to find a clipping, but I don't have one and my dad never saved one).

But I remember Ted coming by the house once my dad came home from the hospital. I remember the look on his face when he brought my dad a very fine bottle of whiskey as a gesture of thanks. He kept telling us, "It was a genuine miracle. Genuine miracle." And he looked at me and my brother and said, "Your Dad's the strongest man I ever saw. I owe him my life." I remember that most of all.

So I'm sure you can see how hard it was to watch him suffer with the limitations of his current injury. Just as it was hard for me to hide the worry--or maybe it's fear--that I feel watching him in this state. Of course, I know he'll be fine. His shoulder injury is far from life-threatening, the surgery will be brief. And yet, even with a top doctor doing the work, things won't be the same again. I can't help but think about the 20 percent mobility he will lose forever. It's not much, but his days of lifting barrels over his head and holding a quarter-ton of pipe for a few life-saving seconds are behind him. And it has left me a little shaken. As did the direction of at least one of our conversations while he was here.

"Yessuh," he said one morning, tugging unconsciously on his sling. "I reckon this will be it."

"What?" I asked. "What will be it?"

"The project I'm on. After I get rid of this goddamn thing--" and here he did acknowledge the sling "--I got another 18 months to wrap up the project. Then that's it. I'm retiring."

My mouth hung open. I can't remember my Dad ever saying the "r" word before, except in jest. But this time he meant it.

"Well," I said, trying to recover from my shock. There had been a time when my dad insisted he'd never retire. "You've certainly put in your time."

"I guess the hell."

"And you'd have more free time to come see your grandchildren."

"Ayuh. The thought occurred to me. And I imagine that daughter of mine--" he doesn't use the suffix "in-law" in reference to Her Lovely Self, which I think is sweet "--can probly dream up plenty of projects for me."

I nodded. "Well, I think she'll give you a rest for a bit." I paused, not sure I should venture there, but then I said it. "Is it the shoulder that made you decide?"

My dad looked at me. "This? Well yes and no. I mean, I been hurt plenty over the years and this is just one more line on the resume." He paused, looked at me. "I'll tell you sumpin. The older I get, the more I see how much alike you and I are. We home in on the job at hand and don't let nothin' get between us and it. We go about our business with a will, and I've come to see that ain't always for the best. Look at you: work yourself to the goddamn bone, and first decent vacation you have in a while and you end up in the hospital. Didja learn anything from that?"

I nodded. I was still thinking about what had happened to me, and I know that part of it had to do with letting myself get overtired from work and get so focused on Having A Good Time during vacation that I ignored some obvious danger signs.

My dad shrugged--or tried to. "Anyways, I've fought the idea of retiring for years. Never thought I'd do it, honestly. I like the work that much. I got so much of myself tied up in it. But holy-O Christ, what the hell am I doing sliding down a goddamn hill in sub-zero weather at my age?" He raised his wounded arm somewhat painfully. "Coulda been worse. Coulda broke my head or my neck or some goddamn thing and there I'd be. Deader'n dead, and me without the life insurance paid up. Instead, here I am with just a busted wing. I guess I figure God was giving me a tap on the shoulder, saying, 'Son, time to put this hawseshit aside and relax a little.'"

I smiled then. My dad may have lost some of his youthful vitality. But each time I see him now I'm reminded that in other ways--in all the ways that count--he is still the strongest man I know, only now his strength is in the wisdom he offers me.

As I thought this, my Dad looked down at his sling again. "I just kinda wish the Almighty hadn't tapped me so goddamn hard."

I know how he feels.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

I suppose that our fathers really are our models for God...

I guess that's why those six words were so hard to write.

p.s. - This one really took you a while, I think, MM. It feels like it, anyway. Good write.
How awesome that you value redemption and change in your Dad, because you can hear the great love and respect you have for him. Great entry, MM.
Good entry. Long entry, but very very good. Reading this however, I have to in the world did you ever manage to condense a story into under 300 words for Shane's contest?? (by the way, I liked yours the best)
Thoughts and prayers to your dad.
I love your dad. He's awesome.

But don't tell him I said so, because from what I can make out of his personality, it'd probably annoy him ;>
It's scarey the first time you see your Dad as old. It gives them a mortality they never had before.

Glad to hear your Dad is going to retire. Although I doubt that retirement for him will mean slowing down or taking it easy. Let us know how his surgery goes!
You know, I've managed not to cry at previous entries of yours, but this one cracked me. It's so damn poignant watching your parents get old. My dad died a year ago and my mom's always been made of steel, but this year grief and pneumonia and some blood clots that found their way to her lungs have brought her down in what looks like a new, permanent way.

The bit that got me was when your dad put Charlie Brown in the barrel. That is the goddamned dad-liest maneuver. My dad would have come up with something like that. That's when the tears came.

I love this entry.
every time I look at my father, I am surprised at how he looks. when I am not seeing him, I imagine him being about 40ish, full of life, full of energy, etc. it is surprising to see him otherwise..
I so adore your Dad. Better the tap on the shoulder than a kick in the arse.
Once he's healed up, I'll bet he's going to be one of the most active retires ever.

This one hits too close to home for me. I'd rather enjoy my ignorant bliss and keep pretending that my Mom & Dad will live forever.

I hope your Dad has a swif and better than 80% recovery, once he has the surgery.
It's hard to see your parents getting older. I don't think I'll deal with it as well as you are. Maybe God knew that a man like your father really needed a big-ass tap to listen. ;)
Now, don't get me wrong, I enjoy reading your blog, I have been fairly accused of being being more than a little long-winded myself, but ... 4500 words? I actually had to read less of the newspaper so that I could still leave for work on time! :>)

As Shannon said, those 300 words for the hotel must have been really painful!
You can write AS MUCH as you want, WHENEVER you want, Mister Magazine Man. Don't listen to the people who say it's too long!

I loved this post. Made me want to call (and hug) my own Papa.
Anthony, hope I didn't make you late for work.

But jeez, talk about damned if you do and damned if you don't. Every time I continue a story til tomorrow, I get taken to task for those hated dots of ellipsis. So once in a while I run a complete done-in-one post. And invariably someone rightly accuses me of being a gasbag.

Right. Next time it's cliffhangers all the way down... :-)
Wonderful beautiful post.
Oh no! Someone put a pillow over Anthony! Don't listen to him MM! I would much rather read one long post than see those damed dots. Patience is not a virtue I don't care what they say!
No, see, MM wants to torture us with cliffhangers. It only takes one post to convince him to go back to his evil ways.
Nicely done, MM. So much of this resonates with me, not just with parents getting older, but dog attacks and shoulder injuries. I'm glad you found a top doc to take his case, but damn, that's a long time to wait. I wish him the best with it.
Dads, it's hard to live with them, but even harder without them.

They call us the "sandwich generation"; those of us who are caught between our children and our parents.

It is hard to see our parents as less than invincible. It is harder still to feel helpless in the face of a loved one's suffering.

I call it the "Stretch Armstrong" generation - because that's how you feel after while. Like you can't stretch your arms out far enough to protect all of those we love, no matter how hard we try.

I know it seems like forever until May, when the World's Best Goodest Papa will have his surgery, but it will come soon enough. And I bet he will bounce back better than you think. I'm so glad that his file found it's way onto that desk!

T. :)
Hey now, I did say I read it, right? And I wouldn't have read it if I didn't enjoy it. Nor, I note, did I say it was *too long*. Part of what makes MM so readible is the length. No, really! Anyway, turn the guns around, put the pillows away, it wasn't meant that seriously.

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