Now it was closer to three in the morning. The flight plan had been canceled. Mom and I were ushered into the nursing station next to the ccu. Mom was given a seat with her back to the window between the two rooms. I kept glancing over to the monitor as the doctor recited all the efforts that had been made that night, leading carefully, ponderously to the obvious news. I looked again at the flat line on the monitor, thinking “You might as well just say it, Doctor.”
Finally he did. Dad had died from a massive MI. Heart attack. Just a few weeks after the coronary by-pass surgery. Of course, the doctor did it wrong. Breaking the news, that is. I’m convinced that this news has never been told the correct way in all the history of humanity. News broken, we went in, held the hands that used to be Dad’s, and tried to face what we could not yet accept, or, as Dad would have said it, “come to terms with.”
Just a few hours earlier I had arrived to find that Dad was not at home, but was in this special room at the hospital. Mom had been waiting for me, so we immediately drove the short distance up the hill to check in with Dad. The worst of that visit stands out in my memory. Dad was unable to control some body functions, but quite aware and very embarrassed about it. Very weak and in much pain, he still had his standards. Especially that standard that held the essential Frank Elliott. In pain, in weakness, his first concern was for the rest of us. His compassion for Mom and me, and for the staff who had to deal with the mess his weakness left.
If my memory is of the worst of it in that moment, all I have to do is back up a little. I had come to Red Lodge because of Dad’s call a couple days earlier. I cannot recall many times, even in childhood, when Dad told me what I must do. That day he did. I must come. The care he needed was too much for Mom. Still, it took another day to put things in order in Miles City, to be absent from family and work on short notice. Too much for Mom, too much for skilled medical professionals by the time I arrived.
I have to back up a little more. A few weeks earlier, Dad had been admitted to Deaconess Hospital in Billings to await his turn in open chest heart surgery. His arteries were so blocked they kept him where they could keep an eye on him. I visited with him there one afternoon. There he was, confined to a hospital bed, doing what he always did. He told of all his new friends among the staff, and demonstrated the truth of it as various care-givers came in and out to do their particular tasks. The tasks were done while mutual relationships of understanding were established by Dad’s unique, natural way as counselor. While I sat with him, a nurse came in, on her day off, just to report her progress on a personal struggle she was facing. The dietician came in, settled menu plans for the day. I watched this, a routine task, in and out, except that spirits were being fed along the way, too.
We waited through surgery day. It started late because the surgeon had to do an emergency procedure just about the time Dad expected to be rolled down the hall. Then, it ended up as two surgeries on Dad. Internal bleeding meant they had to re-open to complete what had been missed. He was sent home after the usual recovery period, but he never recovered, except through release from the pain and weakness by leaving this life entirely.
Except – again, except – his presence hasn’t really gone from us. This all happened in 1986. Now it is 2014. I still miss him. I still try to live by his standard of caring for others just as we find them. It works differently, since I am introvert and he was an extravert. Another true thing I must admit: I still pack the trunk of the car just as compulsively as packed the station wagon.