The first time the preacher’s ticker had a meltdown was in December of 1982. I was 13. I’d gotten off the school bus and flung open the front door of my home with sophomoric confidence. I was glad to be done with what I considered the captivity of the school day, glad to forage freely through cupboards for an after-school snack. But I hadn’t known the drama that had quietly unfolded in my home just hours before I’d arrived there.
My sister, home before me, had discovered an open Merck Manual laying on our parents’ uncharacteristically wrinkled bed (someone must have been laying there but left in too much hurry to straighten covers). The preacher’s wife, who always greeted her children when they arrived home from school, was nowhere to be found. Three children home from school. An absent mother. A Merck Manual. Wrinkled bedspread. And a half-filled glass of water on the nightstand. Things were obviously amiss, but we would have to wait to find out the meaning of it all.
I remember feeling very strong when the preacher’s wife came through the door, keys in hand, and explained why she hadn’t been home. I remember the words “heart attack” and “hospital.” I’d gone to school the next day, feeling composed. But then she took me to see him. The preacher’s wife took her youngest child to see the six-foot-three preacher with the booming bass for a voice and intense, deep-set eyes, the strong man, the proud German-Irish man with the big torso from which dangled long, skinny legs, the man who could silence me with the slightest raising of his eye brow, a man I admired and feared both.
Past the nurses’ desks in the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit, through the open door to the preacher’s room, I’d walked behind my mom. And then I saw him, the larger-than-life preacher, shrunken and weak, blending into wan hospital sheets on a bed that seemed to spring wires and tubes like a spilled pot of spaghetti. He had trouble keeping his eyes open. His huge hands, hands so familiar it was as if I’d been memorizing them all my life, had had no grip, no vigor. The strong man lay low. And I remember feeling for the first time real fear. I remember thinking the world had indeed trembled beneath my feet, and I was no longer sure of my footing.
My older, married brothers came home with their wives. The family rallied, joined by a common event, the preacher’s grand event, one he hadn’t planned but put on all the same. I remember one night, when the preacher lay weak and carefully monitored in that hospital room, the rest of us were telling family stories in the living room of our parents’ home. I remember a particularly sad story my mom told from her childhood, but she’d misunderstood a question, and what had been sad suddenly became very funny. And we’d rolled on the floor laughing uncontrollably, clutching bellies in pain. And through the laughter, we let out some of the fear and the struggle to control our hearts: catharsis on the brown shag carpet in the split-level home on Faun Road, the one the preacher’s church owned and used to house us.
It took months for the preacher to recover. A quadruple bypass followed a few years later. An angioplasty. Stents. Medications. The preacher’s ticker would remain a source of weakness, but the proud, independent preacher wouldn’t let it bother him too much. And when, thirty years later, it started melting down again, he’d gone to sleep and waited ’til morning to tell a doctor. And God who holds that ticker in the palm of his hand, let him sleep, watching over him, staying death. And this time, when I heard the words “heart attack” and “hospital,” I was an adult woman, a wife and mother, and I’d drive the hour to the hospital to see the preacher with the ornery, uncooperative ticker, wondering if it would be 1982 all over again.
But I didn’t see a weak, shrunken man this time. This time, he was sitting up in the hospital bed, coy and a bit embarrassed at having been lectured by his doctor in front of his children for not going to the hospital when he’d first felt pain. His color was good. He was stronger, a bit testy but also witty, nurses bringing him special meals, coming in when called. He is the penultimate squeaky wheel who gets extra dispensations because he commands a room — and apparently a hospital floor. I was always embarrassed by that growing up. Now I chuckle quietly inside when his tray is the first one off the cart, when the room phone rings and a dietician on the other end asks what he wants to eat for his next meal.
He’s 77 now. And I’m 43. He is a couple of inches shorter now, his cantankerous side more loveable than frightening. His stubbornness is not just annoying but what helps keeps his ticker pumping in spite of its own bent towards betrayal. And I know myself better, detect that same stubbornness in myself. I am the preacher’s daughter, and my own ticker beats out a life cadence influenced in no small part by him.
In spite of the obdurate, this day is gift, every breath and every tick. I no longer expect the earth beneath my feet to never tremble. Who knows what death is stayed by hands larger than all of ours or how often our drums were almost silenced? For today I am thankful the preacher’s still beats.