My Hero

Uh-oh. I do not like the sound of this at all. I am out here in Malibu with Alex and the dogs. It's morning. Last night, we had a lovely relaxing evening eating and reading and playing with the dogs while the surf crashed off shore. Or maybe that should be on shore. Tommy's at Nerd Camp as I call it, or Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Camp as he calls it. That means we can sleep really late. Anyway, I was sleeping my little head off this morning when the phone rang at about seven my time. "What maniac would be calling at this hour?" I thought as I heard the rings. A few minutes later, I dragged myself to the answering machine. It was my sister calling from Brooklyn.

"Pop is in the hospital," she said. "He had some bad chest pains, so he went in and he's at GW Hospital. But he says he's doing okay and he doesn't need or want for either of us to come see him."

Yeah, right. I called him. He told me about his episodes, about his nitrostat. About his tests. No, I do not like the sound of this one bit. I had better get there pronto and wield my scalpel. No, I had better just be there.

I had a million things to do, but I did the minimum I could, and then I made my airline arrangements, and then I went into town to pack.

Naturally, it was a spectacularly beautiful Los Angeles day. It's always that way when I have to leave town. With such late notice, using my AAdvantage miles so that I didn't have to pay the "no advance" fare, I could only get on the premium section of the "red eye" that left at 10 p.m.

Tina, our lively assistant, drove me to the airport. She told me horror stories about various people's lives to make me feel better about my father. Naturally, her stories didn't help a bit. We stopped at Del Taco and I had a chicken soft taco, and then I was at the airport. (I only mention Del Taco and the chicken soft taco because it was about fifty cents and tasted amazingly good. When you get good fast food it can be really good.)

My flight was almost empty in premium. I sat with one other paying passenger and the usual mob of flight attendants gossiping in the galley about their love lives. As I sat in the darkness, I thought about my father, just as you might expect.

My father sitting out in front of the house in Silver Spring when we lived on Caroline Avenue, smoking cigarettes and listening to the Washington Senators' baseball games while fireflies flew all around him. There were no little transistor radios so he ran a long extension cord through the window to hear the games. I think he had to be outside because my mother did not want him smoking inside--even though she smoked herself in those days, as everyone did. (This would have been about 1951.) There was a tiny little tree attached to a stake next to his chair. A few months ago my father and I went out to see that tree. It's a monster oak with immense branches covering an entire lawn of decent size.

My father sitting out on the deck of our next house, on Harvey Road, overlooking Sligo Creek Park in Silver Spring with another radio, this time a tube-type portable with batteries, also listening to the Senators while a wall of cricket noise rose like a tornado from the creek banks and the maples in the park, circled around like a banshee, and slammed against the house.

My father and I walking around the South Lawn of the White House when he was chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers for Nixon and I was a lowly speechwriter. We talked endlessly about Nixon and how could he ever get out of the mess he was in, and then we realized he couldn't. My father and I eating
lunch at the White House Mess while names that are now in history floated around us: Elvis Presley, Bob Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, Maurice Stans, John Dean, Chuck Colson. We ate our steaks and our hot fudge sundaes and knew it would all come to an end some evil day, and sure enough it did. But how good that steak and that fudge tasted, and how sweet it all was.

My father in an earlier day coming up to meet me in New Haven when I took a leave of absence because I had such crazed nerves about being in law school with such mean and sadistic people as I had teaching me-and because I was treated for studying anxiety with drugs they use to treat psychotic serial murderers. (I wish I had known to sue them at the time.) Imagine, those of you who know medicine, treating someone who was anxious about his paper in civil procedure with massive doses of horrific Trilafon.

Most of all, my father these last two years waiting for me to come visit him after my mother entered immortality. He would be there sitting on his leather swivel chair under his lamp, thinner every time, with all of his news and views and beaucoups, eager for company and just as ready to hear my news.

"Who will be waiting for me anywhere but in L.A. from now on?" I thought.

I soon fell asleep and then I was at Dulles, waiting for the Avis bus. Trouble. They had me in the wrong car. They refused to give me a no-smoking car. They would not give me the car I wanted for anything and acted as if they had never seen me before at a station I rent from about fifteen times a year. I finally got a car and headed into town. By then it was dawn.

Monday

To my total amazement, at 6:30 a.m., as I was racing into Washington, there was a ton of traffic. Why? Who gets to work at 7 a.m.? I guess plenty of hard-working men and women. But what a madhouse of traffic. I realize more and more that there is a lot of world out there that takes its responsibilities
seriously.

I rested at my hotel, the cheerful, perfect River Inn, and then headed off for the GW Hospital.

Good Lord it is HOT! Boiling, seething, unbelievably hot. Like an oven, like a blast furnace, unbearably hot at 9 in the morning. Welcome to Washington, D.C., most unbearable spot on earth in the summer. (Guess what the most pleasant place on earth is in summer? Hint: It begins with an M and ends with a u.) The heat is just seething off the brick sidewalks. Torture.

My father was lying in bed in a tiny room with several I.V.'s in him, talking animatedly with my sister about the estate tax. Hmm. That could be a good sign or a bad sign. When he saw me, he greeted me cheerfully and resumed his talk about the estate tax.

Nurses came in to take blood and read his cardiac rhythms, and another nurse came in with an aspirin. "To make your blood flow smooth and happy," as she said. She also told him he was being moved to Washington Hospital Center, where there were better cardiac facilities. An ambulance would take him in an hour or so.

I went back to my room and slept for a couple of hours and then drove my smelly car over to the Washington Hospital Center off North Capital Street in view of the Capitol. It's an immense hospital complex near Catholic U., next to a reservoir and a filtration plant, and about a mile from where I had to park my car. As my sister says, it seems to be in a no-man's land.

However, the hospital itself is jammed, humming, madly filled with purposeful men and women hustling to and fro, mostly with quite serious looks on their faces. It took a few minutes to track down my father, but there he was, in another tiny room, talking to my sister, who had bravely come over with him in the ambulance. He was getting news from the nurses and doctors and it was not good. Some enzymes in his blood test said he had suffered a heart attack and his coronary functioning was seriously impaired.

The bad news about a heart attack seemed to settle in the dingy room like an unclean fog, an ancient dust from thousands of other patients who had been in the room and gotten bad news about their tickers and let the news slide to the floor and attach itself to the wall and the ancient curtains until the room was grimy with bad news.

We all commiserated and tried to be cheerful. A doctor came in and said there would have to be an angiogram the next day. That's where they run a catheter--a very small catheter--into the coronary arteries to have a look at what's happening in the heart, blood-flow wise. I felt light-headed, but my father took it bravely and my sister more bravely still.

I do not like this at all.

Wednesday

It is very, very early in the morning. I am here at the hospital. They could not do the angiogram yesterday because they "forgot" my father was on blood thinner, which he's been on for about twenty years. So now they're doing it this morning. They brought in my father a little earlier than planned, so I was barely able to catch him before he was to begin. But I did find him in a bay with about twenty other patients who were about to have angiograms. Big business. The nurses all fuss over me like mad insanity because I am a TV star. I like that because in this case, they let me spend a little longer with my father than they normally would a patient and his son. They even offered to let me watch, but that's out of the question. I do not, not, repeat not like blood at all.

Anyway, soon the folks were ready, and my father bravely signed off on my presence. I went into the "cardiac cath" waiting room and waited along with many other people. The custodian of the room was a beautiful black woman named Keeyana. I flirted with her for about two hours, and then Dr. Kenny Kent, the famous cardiologist who does the cardiac caths, came to talk to me.

He looked grim, and with damned good reason.

He showed me on a model of a human heart just how blocked my father's coronary arteries were. His situation was grim. I felt sick. "I have to remember everything he's saying," I thought to myself, "so I can tell Mom and she'll be able to be informed."

Then I realized I would not be telling Mom for a while. I looked next to me for my sister, who tends to be very level headed. But she had gone back to New York the day before. Her daughter, my charming and accomplished niece, Emily, was to be married that Sunday at the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens. She had to make preparations.

I was all alone hearing--as well as I could make out--that my father was about to die. It was a lonely, deeply troubling moment, as if I were looking into a deep pit of sorrow.

Dr. Kent offered to show me moving X-rays of the results of the cardiac cath. He took me into the lab and showed me photos of a heart with blood spurting all over the damned place. I started to throw up and faint all at once, just as I do when I have a blood test. The head nurse of cardiac cath, Debbie, got me a gurney and had me lie down and breathe while they put pillows under my head and knees. "This is great," I thought. "Let's just have all of the Steins die right now."

But soon I was right as rain. I thanked Debbie and Dr. Kent. Debbie is a black woman with enormously complex corn rows and an immensely capable brain under them and a big heart under that.

My father was back in his room. "Well," I said, "they're working on a plan for you. There is some blockage, but they'll fix it."

He looked at me dubiously. Actually, I was sure Dr. Kent would come up with a plan. It's just not in these cardiac guys to give up.

Soon, in fact, Dr. Kent did call me in for a talk. He did have a plan. " We're going to do an angioplasty with a stent on one of the arteries and open that up. Then we're going to do a 'keyhole by-pass' surgery and take his mammary artery, which is useless in an 82-year-old man, and transplant it to his heart. He should be up and about in a few days. Sitting up in a day, walking in two days. I think it's got minimal risk and it's going to be fine."

I told my father, who pretended to be cheered by the news. Bypass surgery is horrifying stuff. But this keyhole surgery is supposed to be far better, far less taxing. They just make a little tiny hole and work through it and next thing you know, he's great.

Oh, I hope this works. My father looks so thin and drawn and scared, and I feel even more scared.

Friday

I am up at 3:30 a.m. That's because the doctors, in a fit of total confusion about how the human body works, have scheduled my father to be brought down for surgery at 4:30 a.m. Don't they know that's when people are weakest and most vulnerable and their bodies and brains most frail? I argued with them but to no avail.

Anyway, my father was lying in bed. I told him he looked great and was being very brave. He was in a ward with a kind of scary tough Korean nurse who kept calling him "sweetie" as if he were brain damaged. He had not slept at all. Then he had dozed off and dreamed he was at home and my mother was standing over him. In his dream he heard himself saying "free at last, free at last."

Uh-oh.

"That means you'll soon be free of this surgery stuff," I said hopefully.

We went down in the elevator. Words cannot tell how brave my father was. Not a word of fear, not a word of complaint. I would have been sobbing with terror.

Then they took him through some double doors into surgery, and I went into a waiting room, as tired as a man can be, or at least as I have ever been, to wait.

I sat near a family with a lavish Tidewater accent waiting for their Mom to have brain surgery. We made small talk--and what isn't small talk in that situation? Then I put on Bob Dylan and "Idiot Wind" over and over again on my Discman. The brain is amazing. I fell asleep in that tiny rigid chair for about
two hours. When I awakened Dr. Pfister, a very serious and clever looking surgeon, was shaking my arm and telling me that the surgery had gone great. "He'll be up and about in a couple of days," he said with a look of total sincerity.

Dr. Pfister said I would not be able to see my father for a few hours, so I went back to the hotel to sleep. When I returned, my father was in the Cardio-Vascular Recovery Room attended by a beautiful nurse named Mary Beth, with blond hair and alert blue eyes. He had on an oxygen mask but otherwise looked great. He recognized me, nodded wearily, and went back to sleep. I watched him for a while and felt happy.

True, the course of surgery had sounded a bit, well, maybe stretching the envelope for an 82-year-old man, but apparently it had worked out well. Bravo. I chatted and gossiped with the nurses for a while--hospitals are perfect for me in that way because I have a captive audience to show off for. Then, back to sleep at the hotel, feeling groovy.

Saturday

Now this is not good at all. They moved my father into the Surgical Intensive Care Unit last night. The only reason for the move--they said--was that to save on staff they were closing down the CVRR for the weekend. That was fine, and the SICU is paradise in a certain way I am about to describe, and the doorway to paradise for more obvious reasons. But this afternoon, after a visit from a very special pal of my Dad's, he started to look peaked. In fact, very weak and pale and laboring desperately trying to breathe. His heartbeat went haywire, and they started an I.V. of heart-regularization medicine. They gave him blood pressure medicine. Then he calmed down and looked better. But this is not supposed to be happening. He's supposed to be recovering, not laboring in surgical intensive care.

I especially do not like this because I am here all by my little self. What if some horrible turn of events happens and a big decision is required of me? I don't like this at all.

I am so incredibly tired, too. This is really getting scary. Back at the River Inn, I lay in bed covered with a thin blanket and a heavy shroud of fear.

Sunday

I came to the hospital with my suitcase today, planning to fly up to New York to my niece's wedding. She's a lovely young woman and my sister, a well-organized and tasteful woman, has arranged a lavish fete. I sat with my father and he did not look good at all. He's in a chair, but looks weak. His heartbeat is irregular. His breathing is poor even with an oxygen mask. Pneumonia is setting in.

I question whether he'll survive this day. Not a great way to feel. But imagine how he feels! To think that life is about to end. To think that he's about to enter immortality. He must feel so alone.

Very surreptitiously, I asked two of his doctors if I should stay or go. Both of them said they would stay. "It doesn't do any good," one said, "but it's Jewish guilt."

"No," I thought to myself. "It's love and duty."

I told my sister and my niece I was not coming. They took it well but I felt nauseous and distraught missing the wedding of that sweet girl. Politically, we're at different poles, but she does not have a mean bone in her body and she has the discipline of a Trojan.

Tuesday

This is getting worse and worse. Today, I was in my father's room when all of a sudden his blood pressure monitor, atrial fibrillation monitor, and oxygenation monitor all started buzzing and flashing at once. My father was sedated so he didn't know what had hit him. His heartbeat went up to about 115 beats per minute while his blood pressure dropped to about 40 over 25. I ran for nurses but they were already all over him.

In just a moment, they had an endo tube in him, a tube running down his throat, past his larynx, down into his lungs. That meant he couldn't talk at all. Of course he was unconscious already. Then they attached a new catheter to his heart and on its other end it was attached to a bedside pacemaker. When his heartbeat reached a certain level, he got a shock to make his heart beat. In a very few minutes his "breathing" was better and his heartbeat on the monitor was perfectly regular.

His blood pressure came up, and all was better. But he is now on what anyone would call "life support" and that terrifies me.

When he had that episode, I clutched my cell phone and thought, "Holy smoke. I am going to have to call my sister in a second and have to tell her we no longer have a father on earth. My hands were sweating. I was dizzy. I do not like this at all. The room is still the same neutral horrible green, and the sun is still beating down outside, but I am about to lose my father and he's been so brave for long it's just a crime and what will I do without him?

But, as I say, he's better now--for the moment.

Thursday

Better and better indeed. My sister is back here to keep me company. My father is still on the ventilator, but the doctors are all saying that he's stable and trending up. The nurses are beaming. The nurses...well, remember I said that the surgical ICU is like paradise in a way? Here's the way: The nurses here are the most nearly perfect specimens of humanity I have ever met. They are attentive, intelligent, good natured, eager to help, startlingly knowledgeable, always ready to explain, and some of them are amazingly good-looking. In fact, while all of them are fairly good-looking, there are a few young women here who are heart-stoppingly beautiful. I am not going to say their names because that would not be gentille to the others. But suffice it to say, I have never been to an audition or been on a set that has so many great-looking women. Yeah.

In fact, taken all in all, if you could take your most optimistic dream of how a ward should be run, it would have to be something a lot like the surgical ICU of the Washington Hospital Center. The doctors are thoughtful and always in attendance. The orderlies genuinely want to please. Real care is given to how the families of the patients are getting along. True, the walls are a depressingly dingy color, and true, there are no decent waiting areas. But also true, this hospital surgical ICU really wants to save lives and save spirits as well.

So, since the nurses are all telling me that Pop is recovering rapidly, and since the doctors are all saying the same, and since my sister is now here to relieve me, I am going back home on American 75 tomorrow, back to my little Tommy Boy and my big wifie.

Sunday

This cannot be happening again. I am on American 75 and I have just called my sister at the hospital from the plane. "It looks very bad," she says. " He's starting to get more atrial fibrillations. And his pneumonia is worse. They're in his room working on him all the time."

So here I am in mid-air once again hearing that my parent is gravely ill. Just like with my mother back in April of 1997. Only that time I was flying east and this time I am flying west.

I called every few minutes and the reports were steadily worse. Irregular heartbeat. More and more blood pressure problems. More and more breathing problems. Raising him to 100 percent oxygen on the ventilator and he's still not getting enough oxygen in his bloodstream.

The cabin was deserted and freezing cold. I told a few stewardesses what was happening. Just as when my mother was terminally ill, they totally or almost totally ignored me except for one who showed some sympathy.

What a long flight home. I tried to read the newspapers. There was a story in the New York Times about how the Treasury is planning to buy back high interest debt with the surplus that's been building up. The idea is to save money by not having to pay those high coupons. But, I thought to myself, I'll have to ask my father about this. Sounds like a scam. Won't the holders of the bonds demand exactly the present value of the bond's total of interest payments plus the payoff amount of the bond? And isn't that amount exactly the same as what the Treasury would have to pay the bondholder anyway? Absent a call provision allowing calls, won't the Treasury be in the same position if it buys back the bonds or just pays them off over time? I'll ask my father.

Then, with a cold shiver, I realized that I might not be asking my father anything any longer. Who will know everything? Who will always be around to answer any question about history or economics or literature or opera? Who will be around to offer his judgment that maybe spending a million dollars on a house in Oxford, Maryland, that I'll only live in one night a year might not be a great idea? Who will be the voice of prudence? Who'll tell me I should not feel bad about not knowing in what month the U.S. dropped the atom bomb on Japan? Who'll be there to tell me that getting and spending are not the only ways of measuring one's progress in this world?

Who's going to be the Daddy?

This is really scary because I can hardly trust my own judgment about many of these things. It's so interesting to me even in extremis to think (looking at my sugar cookie that the attendant just brought me) that in all the years I have known my father he has never been particularly impressed by whether anyone--me included--made a lot of money. He thought Ed Dennison was an unsung genius of economics. He thinks Murray Foss and Marv Kosters and some others at AEI are sound and thorough economists. He has a very high opinion of Pete Sampras and the highest opinion of all of Michael Jordan and he never stops praising Simons and Knight and Viner. But he never talks about how much money anyone has made. I have said it before and I'll say it again. I have never known anyone as indifferent to money as my father, the economist. (My mother was different, and so am I.)

Who's going to be there waiting for me in the East where the sun rises?

And also, am I going to just have to turn right around and go back to D.C. on the cursed redeye?

The plane landed. As fate would have it, my wifie was not there to meet me. I called her. Stuck in traffic.

I called the hospital. Miracle. My father is doing better. He's stabilized. His blood pressure is regular. He's taking less oxygen. He's still extremely critical, says his nurse, but he's better.

Thank you, God.

Then, down to baggage claim, and there's Tommy frantically looking for me with tears in his eyes. When he saw me, he even let me hug him.

On the way home, I asked him, "It's your birthday on Monday, my boy. What would you like?"

He looked shy, and Mommy said, "He told me to tell you he just wants you to be here for it and not have to go back to Washington right away."

Back at home I called the hospital again.

"Better and better," the nurse said.

Oh, happy day.

Saturday

Tommy actually agreed to come out to the beach with me, which is rare. He actually agreed to take Puppy-Wuppy for a walk with me by the home of the great diver, Greg Louganis. And now he has dug out an ancient tape of "Ren and Stimpy," set up the new VCR, and is watching it next to me. He's happy that Daddy's around, and I know the feeling.

"Remember when we used to watch these every Sunday morning when I was little?" asks 11-year-old Tommy. "Remember when you used to make me French toast?"

Daddy remembers.

To be here in Malibu. To hear that my father is much better, although still very critical. That's a gift. My father, who looks so frail, apparently still had his cavalryman father's heart. God bless him, and He obviously has, and me and my boy.

To be in the sun and know your father is on the mend....What can I say? I'm in the pink.

Thursday

But what a difference a few days make. I am back in D.C. My father has taken a turn for the worse, been extremely critical, and now is better again but still very critical. He has been so brave, suffering pain and discomfort, fear, sleeplessness, terror, shortness of breath, embarrassment, every kind of piercing and tearing and intrusion and he has never complained once. He lies there in the ICU and cannot talk because of his tracheal tube. But he looks as if to say, "Well, what can you do?" and he just endures it. This is tearing me to pieces and my sister, too, but this is Pop's finest hour. Every child wants to know his Dad is a hero, and this is my Pop's Battle of the Bulge, his Inchon, his rendezvous with pain and fear and coming through. My sister and I can look on, but he's doing the suffering and hurting and bearing it.

This is going to be a protracted struggle, as De Gaulle said after the Germans overran France in 1940. But however it turns out, Pop's my hero.

Benjamin J. Stein is a writer, actor, economist, and lawyer living in Hollywood and Malibu.

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