In the spring of 1989, I was newly married and moved with my husband and my two girls from Tallahassee, Florida to thirty-five miles north and the small farming community of Cairo, Georgia. I enjoyed that we lived on the fringes of town, on an acre of land that was circled with slash pines and live oak trees. One live oak was particularly huge, with one of its large limbs hanging down so low that it scraped the dirt beneath it and had begun to root there.
From the start of that move, I began to have a repetitive disturbing dream—though some might call it a nightmare. The dream always started with my father coming to visit me in Georgia. Our activities were always different, but they always ended with him having a heart attack, at which point I would wake up sobbing or with a horrified emotion of loss that he had died. And yet, I never actually witnessed him dying in my dream. I always woke up not seeing an outcome of survival or death. I began to wonder why I was waking up then. I think I was afraid to know. I was retelling this dream to a good friend and screenwriter, Kelley Essoe, who in turn told me about lucid dreams. She was quite knowledgeable in the topic, and I found the topic fascinating, and I wanted to learn more. Basically, lucid dreams occur with awareness of dreaming and being able to remain in the dream, participating and observing.
As the dreams continued, my goal was to see the outcome, if there was one, or to determine if there was a hidden message. The process was difficult at first, and I would wake up almost as soon as I became cognizant that I was dreaming. Over time, I was able to stay in the dream longer, going further each time, even if for a moment or few seconds; and, I saw myself reacting to the heart attack. I began to notice how my first reaction of panic and emotion became cool, calm, and skillful, much like those of a paramedic or first responder.
In the fall of 1989, the dream stopped. Several months passed and the dream never returned. The outcome remained a mystery and life went on.
In March 1991, my father—a man who could be quite stubborn—came to visit me in Georgia. He said he wanted to play golf in Georgia, knowing Michigan was still cold and deep in snow. My oldest daughter, a high school freshman, and I took him to Disney World in Orlando, where on our last day there, we met my brother and spent a fun, happy, long day. My brother, who lived in Florida, returned home that night. We stayed in Orlando, planning to visit Cape Canaveral on our way home.
A diabetic, who took pills to control the disease, Dad spent the day sampling ice cream, sugared soft drinks, and other forbidden foods. I didn’t think too much about it as Dad’s habit was to drink a malt on a near-daily basis and not mind his diet as carefully as he should have. Plus, he was a pipe smoker, a habit he refused to give up.
About two in the morning, I woke up, hearing a strange sound. He was sitting in the chair by the window, in the dark, moaning a little. Sensing I was awake, he stopped moaning. “I think it’s my heart,” he said.
I started to get up. He stopped me.
“It’s just heartburn. I ate the wrong foods today, more than I should have, and now I’m paying for it.”
Those moans didn’t sound like heartburn, but I’d never had heartburn before, so what did I know? “Are you sure?” I asked.
“It’s going away. Go back to sleep.” He convinced me that he was fine. I figured if the problem was truly serious, he would have told me so.
The next morning, he and I woke up about the same time. He started getting up, stating he’d use the bathroom first. Halfway there, he passed out, falling to the floor, hitting his head against the wall.
I leapt out of bed, waking my daughter who had shared the second double bed with me. I rushed to his side. He came to, opening his eyes. On the floor, looking up at me, he said, “What happened?”
“You passed out.”
He looked at me, studying me. I studied him, knowing full well what had happened. He had had a heart attack in the middle of the night, convinced me otherwise, and he would do the same thing again now. He was that stubborn.
Instinctively, I knew it would be useless to fight him. Ten years earlier he’d had cancer in his leg, had it surgically removed telling no one, not even his wife, my stepmother, what was really wrong until five years later when he got the okay that he was cancer-free. Even then, he had slipped up, which had me asking pointed questions where he finally revealed the information.
In that moment, I knew, for whatever reason he denied the attack as I had witnessed it, there was no way I would be able to convince him to get into an ambulance or be allowed to drive him to a nearby hospital as long as he was conscious and able to say no. I knew as sure as we were staring at each other that he would say no, thus I had only one option.
Calmly, I said, “We’re skipping the side-trip. We’re going home.”
Immediately, I could see Dad’s expression and body relax. I knew I couldn’t mention heart attack or ask about his health, either. I knew he’d lie about it if I did, telling me he was fine, even though he was still flat on the floor. I had to get him home, my home, which was typically a five-hour drive from Orlando. That goal was my only thought for the moment. We had to get on the road, immediately. I’d figure out the rest as we went along.
“Okay,” he said. I helped him up and he went into the bathroom. I turned to Carrie and could see the fear in her face. I knew I had to stay calm for her. I knew her well enough that she would follow my example. Without revealing what I already knew, I told her that we needed to get home so that he could see a doctor. By the time Dad exited the bathroom, Carrie and I were dressed and had everything packed and in the car.
Rather than going through central Florida on a highway that meant going through a number of small communities, I chose a main highway where there were help telephones strung along the way. If anything happened on the drive home, I knew I could get help via these roadside phones. Cell phones were still an expensive novelty, and it would be several years before I had one.
Less than an hour into the drive, Dad insisted that we stop at a restaurant for breakfast. Mentally, I considered saying no and immediately heard his unspoken argument. I wanted to say no because we were making good time, but I couldn’t risk fighting him. He said that he wanted some coffee. I figured that his blood sugar was probably becoming an issue because he hadn’t had any as was his normal morning routine. As much as I didn’t want to say yes, I did. It’s what he wanted, so my goal was to maintain calm, keeping everything relatively normal for the moment, which was more important than the loss of a little time it would take to get us on our way again.
We stopped and were seated. I had noticed a pay phone in the hall, next to the bathrooms, when we entered the restaurant. Once we had ordered, I said I needed to use the bathroom. Out of Dad’s sight, I called my husband, telling him that I thought Dad had had a heart attack and that he was to make a doctor’s appointment for Dad, giving him the time I estimated we’d be home. I hung up the phone and return to the booth just as breakfast arrived. Fifteen minutes later, we were on the road again. A normal five-hour drive became a much shortened three-hour trip. Thankfully, there was little traffic on the two major highways we traveled. Just as we arrived at Cairo’s city limits, I told Dad that I’d made a doctor’s appointment for him when we had stopped for breakfast. I also told him that he had no choice; he was going.
“I won’t argue with that,” he said. He was a smart man; he knew when to choose his battles, too.
Half an hour later, the doctor called me into the consulting room. Dad sat there, in a chair against the wall, looking small and lost. The doctor confirmed that Dad was either having a heart attack or had already had one. I looked at Dad and he started crying. We both knew it was the latter. I told him it was okay, that everything would be fine. Not happy by any means, Dad conceded to the doctor’s direction that he enter the hospital for testing as it wasn’t safe for him to fly home unless he did so.
Carrie, Dad, and I got back in the car, and we drove the few blocks to the hospital. Once there, Dad opened his door and took out his pipe. “I’m going to smoke it, so don’t say a word,” he said. The three of us made small talk while he smoked for about five minutes, which felt like an eternity.
Once in the hospital, he was wheel-chaired away, while I stayed in the front office to get him admitted. Dad had given me his wallet before he had disappeared down the hall, so I was able to provide the needed insurance information. I sat by the admittance clerk and Carrie sat on the floor next to me. Just minutes into the admittance process, a good friend and neighbor, Rick, who was an anesthesiologist at the hospital and for whom Carrie babysit his kids, saw us and came over, asking what we were doing there. That’s when I lost it. I started crying, saying that Dad had had a heart attack. Carrie began crying, too. We were finally in a safe place.
Rick patted me on the shoulder, saying that he’d go see what was going on. “It’s going to be okay.”
Finally, the paperwork was done. Rick returned and told us that we could see Dad now, but to keep it short for now. Carrie chose to wait while I went into his room. I found Dad secured in bed, hooked up to machines and tubes. Before I could say a word, he said, “You did the right thing.” He admitted that he had been prepared to die on the way home, because he wasn’t about to inconvenience me or my family by being hospitalized so far away from my hometown. “I didn’t want it any other way.”
In that moment, I knew why I’d had those dreams of his attack: I had been prepared for the task it would take and the stoic but determined calm I needed in order to get my father to a safe place that was acceptable to him. To have argued with him, to have cried or fallen apart, to have reacted any differently than I had could have and probably would have created very different results. His own stubborn concern about my daughter and me, which would have stressed him even further, was more important to him than his own health.
I knew what to do because I performed exactly as I had in those dreams from two years earlier, dreams that hadn’t been dreams at all. They had been practice drills.