The Phone Rings. Life Falls Apart.

The Phone Rings. Life Falls Apart.

Love the people you love with all your heart. Because you never know when the phone will ring.

Rosy and her dad in Greece, 1983

I got “the call” late at night. Or early morning, depending how you look at it. It was me they called because I was the only one in the phone book. Of course, I was also the only one who would answer in the middle of the night, since I pretty much worked around the clock. I knew right away it could only be bad news.

My dad had a heart attack. He had died on the way to the hospital. And someone needed to ID him, because he had been home alone.

My parents were married for over 40 years when it happened. But just a little over week before “the call” my granny had fallen off the stairs and broken her hip, so my mom was with her, a good 8-hour drive away. She was supposed to return in a few days, because my Dad had been scheduled for bypass surgery.

Earlier that week, he’d gone into the hospital with chest pains and after tests, they scheduled him for a bypass seven days later, and sent him home in the meantime. I was with him when they did the tests and we asked several times what to look for and if it wouldn’t be better to remain in the hospital until the surgery. We explained that my parents lived up on the mountain, about 30 minutes from the hospital and that Dad was currently alone due to my grandmother’s injury.

But the doctors insisted that staying wasn’t necessary, and that Dad could do anything he wanted as long as he watched what he ate and drank. The doctors and my Dad, too, were so laissez-faire about it that I also went home and went back to work.

Looking back on this decision, I wonder if I would have been more insistent that he stay in the hospital if it wasn’t such a difficult time in my life. I had a chronic rash had already lasted six months and had me in the hospital regularly. My apartment had been broken into and the startup I worked at was on the brink of bankruptcy. We were basically working around the clock to save it. My partner always worked a lot, but now that I was working all the time and always sick, my relationship wasn’t doing well. As just a few weeks before, I had been diagnosed with uterine cancer.

As Dad used to say, the devil always poops in a pile.

And so I went home to unload work on my team and to reschedule my own operation so that I could be there for Dad when he had the bypass. Except that day never happened.

A lot of what happened right after “the call” is fuzzy. I know I called my boss and he lent me his car because it was safer.  I cried the whole 3-hour drive to the hospital with Matchbox Twenty’s Bent on loop.

And then I had to see him. It was the hardest thing I have ever had to do. I remember vividly what he was wearing – his favorite jacket. I don’t remember any of the other details.

I don’t remember who received me at the police, or how many people were there. My family had yet to answer calls; it was too early. I don’t even remember making all the calls.

I don’t remember much of what the doctors said either.

But I do remember the time I spent alone, waiting for family to arrive. In my head I went over every conversation with my Dad. We usually called at least once a day, and that day, we had talked several times. He was doing stuff around the garden and he gave me advice on my projects as he usually did. The last time we talked was around 1:00 AM, and I could not help but think that I should have noticed something, because only a few hours later, he was gone.

Rosy’s parents

But that’s the thing with a heart attack. It can come suddenly. There is no way to prepare. Even after it happened, the doctors still were adamant that it was the right call to send him home.

It took me years to deal with my guilt: I should have refused the hospital’s discharge. I never should have left him alone. I never should have put work first. Apart from the guilt, there was no real chance to say goodbye. It seemed like it should have made it easier – like ripping off a band aid – but the opposite was the case.

A week later, I got another call in the middle of the night: my brother had totaled his car. And it was another uncertain drive to the hospital. My brother miraculously survived and spent the next week on my couch (I wasn’t letting him out of our sight). My mom stayed with me as well so that she could help take care of him. I needed the help: I had my own operation to deal with. Then the day after the operation, I was called into work to fire half of my team. It wasn’t enough. Later that day, the entire company closed. My boyfriend decided this was a good time for him to move to London, and after my family left, he asked me to please move out. Thankfully, a friend took pity and took me in.

The next few weeks weren’t perfect. The combination of heavy doses of cortisol for my never-ending hives and pain killers for the operation left me feeling numb. And with nothing but time on my hands, I spent hours going over and over in my head how much I had lost in just two weeks. My career. My boyfriend. My apartment. My health. My brother’s accident. But only one really mattered, and now 20 years later as I write this, I realize it’s the one that I have still not managed to get over: My dad.

This is when I find the positive in the experience and tie up this article in a pithy little bow of strategies that I used (and you can use, too!) to get over a loss like this. But it is hard to see anything positive in how he died. People say, At least it was quick! And I agree that a quick end could be a gift for someone suffering from a terminal illness. But other than his heart, my dad was so healthy. And his death was so avoidable. Seeing the positive still does not make sense to me.

And I still feel his loss. My dad supported me on all my major decisions and every time I have to make a tough one, I feel the loss again. For years I was scared every time the phone rang, and to this day I hate unplanned phone calls. And every time I hear Matchbox Twenty’s Bent, I’m right back there again – in that car, on that night, driving to the hospital.

February is American Heart Month. Here’s what I want people to know: Love the people that you love. Love them with all your heart. Because you never know when the phone will ring.