Five hours after getting the call that my dad was having an emergency heart bypass, I’m parking my rental car at Tampa General, exhausted after a crazy day at my law office in Cleveland and a bumpy plane flight.
None of it feels real. Even the tropical plants wreathing the entrance look fake, like plastic soaked in perfume. My dad sounded fine when I talked to him a few days ago; a little tired, maybe, but fine.
How can this be happening?
He and I talk on the phone every Sunday morning at eleven while Mom’s at church, wading quickly through the how’s my daughter, how’s my dad stuff before diving into what really impassions us and binds us together: politics and religion.
These are subjects we don’t discuss with the rest of the family. We’re divided right down the middle, like the rest of the country: Dad and I are Democrats, Mom and my kid brother are Republicans.
Making things even dicier, Mom and Sam are born-again Christians, while Dad’s a staunch atheist and I, hedging my bets, an agnostic.
“I can’t believe in a fairy tale,” he’ll say, “and I don’t see the point of trying. You live, you die. Why isn’t that enough for some people? What makes them think they’re so special they get eternal life?”
“Some people” being Mom and Sam, of course.
It hits me again as a blast of cold air in the hospital lobby hits me: I might lose him, my best friend. He could be gone already.
I take an elevator to the cardiac ward on the eighth floor and a nurse directs me to a recovery room. I’m relieved, but then I see him lying there, caught in a web of tubes, his skin yellow and deathly.
Mom and Sam are in the room, as I expected, but who’s the man next to Dad’s bed, holding his hand? The guy says, “For God so loved the world, he gave his only — ” and it registers. He’s Mom’s pastor, presiding over a deathbed redemption.
I can tell my dad is barely conscious. He looks tiny and confused, and all at once I’m seized by an overpowering impulse to protect him from what I know he would never go along with if he weren’t helpless.
“Please stop,” I say to the pastor firmly. Then I turn to my mother: “How could you do this when you know how Dad feels?”
She starts to cry, and Sam regards me as if I were Satan’s second cousin. “Don’t you want your father to go to heaven?” Mom says.
“Please, just let me talk to him a minute,” I say. “Alone. Please.”
They hesitate but then they move into the hall, leaving me with Dad and a nurse. I bend over to kiss him and his cheek feels cold. I sense that he’s upset, and I don’t blame him. Who would want to spend what might be their final moments on Earth undergoing some ritual they don’t believe in? I regret my harsh words to Mom, I know she meant well, but I’m also pleased that I was able to intervene in time.
I feel like I’ve saved him.
“You shouldn’t have done that,” Dad whispers.
“What?” I say, uncomprehending.
He takes a labored breath. “Louise. When you’ve been married a long time, like your mother and me, one of you owes the other one, you know what I mean? Well, I owe her. Makes her feel better, you let her do it.”
I want to ask him why he’s the one who’s indebted, but something stops me.
“I don’t believe this,” I say.
And so my Dad accepts Jesus as his personal savior.
His doctors say he’s going to make it, so I’m heading home, back to my condo and my cat. I should be preparing for a mediation hearing set for first thing tomorrow, but instead I’m looking out the plane window, wondering.
Sally York is a former reporter and attorney who is working on a collection of flash fiction.