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Dad Next Door: Loves me like a rock

A little encouragement from across the fence


I got my stubbornness gene from my mom. She and I butted heads all through my childhood and well into my twenties. I don’t even remember what most of it was about. One of us would dig our heels in, the other would follow suit, and before you knew it there’d be steam coming out of our ears. My dad and my brothers used to just shake their heads and walk away, leaving us to battle it out.

Over the years, we both mellowed considerably. Once I had kids, I realized how hard it must have been for her, keeping four boys fed, sort of clean and mostly out of trouble. And when my teenage daughter proved just as pigheaded as I was, my karmic comeuppance was complete. Eventually, I saw my mom’s stubbornness as an unexpected blessing — a constant, consistent immovability that anchored my life like a giant hunk of bedrock.

Then, a few weeks ago, she sent me an email, and that bedrock crumbled.

Jeff, can you call me about a cough that’s bothering me?

To say my mom is stoic is like saying Mount Rainier is big. It’s accurate, but it doesn’t really capture the scale. She has an arthritic hip joint that’s bone-on-bone, but she won’t even take a Tylenol because she doesn’t like medicine. Complaining isn’t really her thing.

On the phone, she told me she was short of breath, and coughing up blood-tinged mucus.

“Mom,” I said, “you have to go see a doctor."

“Sheesh, really?” she said. “Maybe it’ll just go away.”

“It could be serious. You need an exam and an X-ray.”

“Oh, that’s too much trouble. Couldn’t I just wait it out?”

We went on for half an hour, during which I argued, pestered, begged and cajoled, all the while wondering why she had bothered to call me (not to mention put me through medical school) if she was going to ignore everything I said. In exasperation, I hung up and called my little brother, who lives near her. He listened to me rant for a while, then said he’d drive her to the emergency room. Even over the phone, I knew he was shaking his head.

It turns out my mom had developed severe congestive heart failure. One of her heart valves was so narrow and calcified it looked like the tip of a water pistol on an echocardiogram. The cardiologist offered two options: do nothing and lose her within the year, or replace the valve. It was a choice without real options, and I told her so. This time, she believed me.

My brothers and I took her to the hospital together. She was too short of breath to walk from the car, so we put her in a wheelchair. The planned procedure was a marvel of modern science — an artificial valve snipped from the lining of a cow’s heart, fused to a collapsible metal cage, and mounted on a catheter that could be inserted at her groin and snaked up into her heart. In the pre-op room, we each kissed her on the forehead, squeezed her hand, and told her not to flirt with the doctor.

It’s hard to describe what it felt like keeping vigil in that hospital waiting room. My mother hadn’t been sick a day in her life. The thought of losing her, even at 91, had never really crossed our minds. In that moment, I realized she’d given us the best gift a parent can give: a love so certain and solid we simply took it for granted.

A couple of hours later, the doctor pushed through the double doors, still wearing his surgical cap and blue scrubs.

“It went perfectly,” he said. “She’s in recovery. She’s doing great.”

An hour later, she was sitting up in bed, eating lunch. “When can I go home?” she said. “Do I really have to stay the night?”

A week later she called me to say she’d dismissed the home health nurse and physical therapist. “Too much trouble,” she said. “I’m fine.” This time I didn’t argue. I figured, after 91 years, she’s earned the right to call her own shots. Besides, it’s probably that damned stubbornness gene that keeps her alive.

After I hung up, I went for a run down by the lake. It was the first summer-like day of the year, and everyone was out in T-shirts and shorts, exposing their ghostly Seattleite skin. A snow-capped Mount Rainier was out in all its glory, too — glistening, and pale like a Microsoft programmer’s legs. I stopped in my tracks and gazed at it, carefully taking in every glacier, ridge and crag as if I was seeing it for the first time.

After all, this is Seattle. The rain will be back, probably sooner rather than later. You have to enjoy the sun while you can.

Jeff Lee stays fed, sort of clean, and mostly out of trouble in Seattle.

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