It was a normal Minnesota winter; not like the wimpy Mexican winters we've been having lately. When I finally went to bed the night before it was near 35 below zero and the wind was howling so hard that through my storm and interior windows came an occasional poof of snowflakes to spread their icy fingers over my down comforter.
I hadn't thought about the fact that my father was still working the overnight shift more often than not. Although Cathy and I lived right across the street from them and I visited quite often, I guess we hadn't chit chatted about his work, railroading being pretty boring altogether.
Oh, he still told his tall tales out of school; stories about his coworkers like Levi, the young, black bible thumper throwing switches and climbing boxcars to make money for divinity school. There was Tim Foresman, the only guy my dad ever called his friend, though because of my mothers illness they'd never gone to a ball game or shared peanuts and brews at a local pub.
There were engineers and trainmasters and union guys and union busters and all manner of colorful, middle class worker bee that dad just couldn't stop talking about when given half a chance; and I gave him as many chances as I could as I loved his stories. Even the ones that bored me to tears because I'd heard them a thousand times.
He'd tell me about the majesty of a lamp lit train yard, the world's strongest overhead spotlights strung just 20 yards apart and together, no match for the darkness of the city's backyard.
The crash of cars joining and separating could be heard for miles, the popping of the diesel engine, straining to start then stop then start again gave rhythm to the night; a muscular, tense energy that must have taken years for nearby neighbors to learn to sleep through.
Raccoons, deer and muskrat, and even once a stray black bear who'd wandered a hundred miles too far south had walked the tracks my dad worked around nearly every night; hungry animals who knew that the crashing of boxcars filled with grain and meal would blow huge puffs of chaff and smallish pieces from their loose doorways each time an engine "tied on".
He'd see them digging through the snow and ice along the tracks, tiny furred fingers clutching a few pieces of seed corn, late fawns sucking the snow off the ground, making slurry of wheat dust that had found it's way from it's steel enclosure and into the frigid air as the train jerked it's way along.
Many's the night he'd walk 25 miles all told, back and forth throwing switches for his own hundred car train, which then might pause along a siding while dad walked another mile and threw a switch so that the West Coast Amtrak could pass on it's way to Chicago.
Then he'd walk the mile back through knee deep snow at times, climb on his own train and off they'd go again dropping one car on track 8, the next on track 4 and on through the night.
It was a job that paid well and so, no employee left for better work elsewhere. As an untrained laborer, there is no better work; only inside work perhaps. But for those who work on the railroad, outside is the only place to be and so far as the weather... you just-made-do.
I remember when he'd first started, before snowmobile suits and North Face and Columbia/teflon/kevlar/thinsulate et al, he'd stuff newspapers inside his bibs and around his legs like he did when he played goalie in childhood pickup hockey games. Six or seven layers around his torso were not uncommon; I could hardly believe he could breathe with all that crap on.
He wore a woolen pullover cap that he folded back once and sometimes twice if he'd bought one too big, but he never wore a ski mask, preferring frostbitten cheeks to breathing in and around fake wool, which would condense water and freeze the material to every stub of facial hair on one's face.
On his feet were two pair of socks and tennis shoes the first few years, covered by those high top rubber galoshes with the big brass buckles and a yellow stripe around the top.
But all that changed in the modern age, by the eighties he was in polyester thermals regular inexpensive work clothes and a snowmobile suit and boots. In the 20 years he'd worked winters outdoors, modern technology had stripped 30 pounds from his winter dress, and left the Sunday newspaper to those who might read it rather than wear it.
The phone call was at 6am if I remember and as it rang I'm sure I said a few unkindly words for whoever the asshole was who'd had the bad sense to call me before ten.
“Come Now, Come Now” was all she could say. I couldn't miss my mother's voice, but now it had a special airy squeak to it, as if she was not yet awake herself or was being choked and couldn't get free.
“What? What's up?” I said as I bolted up in bed with Cathy right behind me.
“It's daddy, daddy's legs. Come Now, Come Now!”
People always gave me a hard time that I'd bought the house across the street from my parents home; the house I'd pretty much run away from at 15 or 16, the moment we'd moved there.
It was an accident really, just a fluke though I never convinced anyone of that fact but my wife, as she knew the truth.
As I'd lived in my parents house now and then, I'd see the old lady across the street in her heavy pea coat atop the porch flat roof, shoveling snow after a particularly bad storm. Over the years that scene would play out many times and my curiosity about who she was and what her house was like drove me nuts; but I never got up the nerve to approach her as ours was an empty nester neighborhood and as the only kids on the block, we were reviled for the most part.
She'd died finally, rest her soul, and the house went up for sale, brokered by yet another neighbor that I knew a little. I just <u>had</u> to see the insides so I made an appointment and Cathy and I went to just look, as my family might have when we were kids, my parents using the "Parade of Homes showcase" as a Sunday outing.
We fell in love with the building within the first few steps taken, and after discussing long and hard the ramifications of living within binocular range of my parent's house, we bought it and moved in immediately.
In this case the proximity was only a blessing as there would be no long drive with my stomach churning in fear; mom was a hundred yards from me and I made ready for travel as fast as I could. I slammed on a pair of pants and grabbed a sweatshirt off the floor, slipping my shoes on over bare feet before nearly taking my front door off the hinges to explode onto the sidewalk.
The icy air damn near stopped my heart, I'd taken no coat and not yet zippered my jeans, and within the first few seconds a layer of frost had formed on my upper lips where sweat had already been oozing my worry into drops of liquid.
As I slipped and slid toward the street looking all too much like a circus animal I'm sure, two men in black long coats came walking from my parents door toward me, a certain purpose in their hurried stride. They stopped me just as I'd crossed the street, my untied tennis shoe no sock feet were just barely on the family curb when one blurted out that he'd something to tell me.
I'd always thought that nearly passing out thing they do in the movies was overdramatic claptrap, for years I'd chuckled at scenes showing men dropping to their knees or swooning over a guardrail, trying to catch their balance after hearing of some Hollywood tragedy. It was absurd I thought, even women stopped fainting once the corset had found it's rightful place as a museum of the macabre artifact...hell, men would never fall apart like that.
Luckily it didn't occur to me as I was falling like a stone, crashing my hundred eighty pound torso directly onto my knees in the frozen tundra of Eighteenth Avenue. It took a few minutes to regain my eyesight; between the sudden focus problem and the quickly freezing tears it was impossible to see well enough to even grab the coat of one of the two railroad union stewards to haul myself off the ground.
Cathy was a dozen yards behind me as women have more things to put on before leaving the house in a rush than men, and as she watched me collapse she let out a scream that likely woke the neighbors as it certainly got the block's watchdogs to workin'.
One of the stewards had rushed her and helped her across the street, telling her the facts as she crossed so I wouldn't need to repeat the horrific image.
There'd been a derailment in the yard my father had been working as a substitute crew foreman, an overtime shift that he'd picked up for spending money as his wage went to the household with nothing left over for his beloved Hershey with Almond bars.
Dad was on the side ladder of the car that jumped the track, and while they didn't yet know all the details, they did know that he'd lost both legs and was at this moment being rushed to the hospital, or so they hoped.
I'd never seen my mother so frail. She was tall for her generation, 5'7" and average weight so she was not a small woman by any means. But that morning as I entered the front door of the family home she stood quivering, holding a cigarette near her lips so as to not miss a whiff of narcotic, and bent over as if her bones had collapsed on themselves making her petite before her time.
She had that distant look as if something was just out of reach and she was searching for a path on which to walk to it's side. My brother was there and as helpful as he could be, but this was over his head as much as it was for the rest of us. All we could really do was make a few phone calls as quickly as possible and drive to the hospital faster than the state allows in the best of weather.
My sisters on their way and my baby brother wrapped in his special suit after 20 minutes of fighting to get it over his clutching legs and arms, we left the house in two vehicles, racing to get to our patriarch’s bedside before, if the unions guys were correct in their assessment, the worst case was realized and dad met his maker.
Alone in a Crowded Room
No Yeggs! No Yeggs! Gimpa has no Yeggs!
Maybe all of five years old, my sister's son Bobbie walked to each of us in turn, shaking us until we'd meet his red eyes with our own and announcing all he'd heard, so that we'd be well informed of the news he couldn't possibly understand.
They'd told us as they herded us into the 20 square foot space that it would be only temporary, but it'd been an hour already and it was beginning to rattle our cages. There were 13 of us family, two railroad apologists and a hospital chaplain crammed into that tiny white space with a couch and two chairs, a nondenominational crucifix and a coffeepot.
It was so hot I was bathing in sweat, the air was so thick I could have flung dirt at the ceiling and made chocolate pudding. There were tears and anguished cries, fetal clutches and plenty of swearing in disbelief as we tried to collectively comprehend what had happened and what the hell would happen from here on in.
The union stewards were acting as guardians; bringing drinks, checking news, offering any and all service the moment any of us whimpered a need or desire. They were big men, by appearance more the railroad detective type than switch tenders and as I'd never seen them before nor since, I was never sure where they'd come from.
They were kind and gracious and careful to stay out of our way, and I've no doubt it was nearly as hard for them to live with our pain as it was for us. But I couldn't help but resent them being there at all. It seemed so patronizing at the time, as if tobacco farmers would stand at my bedside when I finally take my last hard earned breath, singing my praises as a faithful smoker and company earnings contributor in order to help soothe my grieving wife.
We were finally moved after a couple hours and a rash of loud, caustic complaints made by a large, scary man who in the best of times had trouble keeping his thoughts to himself.
The new room was a hotel suite in comparison to the first; dark blue, dimly lit, very well appointed...almost like a funeral director's office. It was the ICU waiting room and it was our luck that dad was the only patient of the hour, so they'd needed to call housekeeping and freshen up for our arrival, squaring off the magazines and perking fresh coffee while we sweltered en masse downstairs.
For a few minutes we gathered together as the scrubs wearing bad news delivery doc made his way down the hall and to the imaginary podium where he'd address us at a safe and protected distance; just in case we didn't like what we'd heard no doubt.
It wasn't good of course, dad was likely dead whether now or moments from now; but while pointless, the good doctors of Hennepin County Hospital were going to do their utmost to do the impossible, as the impossible was the highlighted goal of every surgeon's career. If there was any chance at all....
We took the news graciously, my sister the nursing school dropout and I vying for the smartest question award as we peppered the poor man with all manner of rhetorical inquiry, asking while knowing there was no way for him to speculate under these conditions, but wanting the answers to the universe all the same.
And then he left and we were on our own; even the railroad guys had gone home so the room and it's many nooks and crannies were all ours to use as we saw fit. And so we did.
Like any dysfunctional family, we split up and took individual positions, staked out personal territory for the long wait ahead so to speak. Upon first news I'd made an attempt to hug my sisters, but as we'd never touched each other before beyond the occasional bitchslapping, it was a horridly uncomfortable and quickly ended routine.
I'd never felt more alone or more disconnected, and my wife wasn't helping me any. Cathy wanted my attentions, she was crushed, she loved my father, she..she..she..she..
I failed my husbandly duties, I was a coward. Not only could I not stand up and take my place as family he-man in absentia, at least so far as championing positive vibes goes, but I was so devoid of strength that I had zero to give anyone else, my own wife included. I pulled away, I wanted to be alone, I could neither give her comfort nor accept what little she'd give without double that in return.
She never forgave me for that slight, she brought it up more than once over the next few years and used it tagged onto the “you don't really love me” chip whenever she decided to play relationship poker for guilted cash and prizes. But at the time I wasn't interested in what pettiness might come out of my personal grief; I just wanted it to be me on the operating table and my father sitting with his wife and consoling mine, and everything else could go to hell.
It was in the throes of my myopic musings that I spotted the coat rack across the room, the slag metal hangar rod, boot holder combo that is probably present in every public building from Delaware to Oregon. The fact that there were no coats in residence only made the boots more obvious; snowmobile boots, black, calf high, about size ten men's, facing the wall away from me.
I wondered almost aloud if those were his boots, if they'd brought in his severed appendages and slid his boots off before taking them to the operating table for possible reconstruction. It was absurd really, I <b>knew</b> they'd been crushed off and there would be nothing but bloody, mangled tatters for footwear at the site.
But I stared at those boots for what must have been a half hour, remembering how he loved to walk, how he ran like the wind, how he stood every smidge of his 5 foot 10 inches tall next to me whenever I got haughty about my mammoth proportions compared to his dainty frame. And I couldn't stop crying for what must have been another half hour, inconsolable and ruthlessly distanced from the very people that might have shared my pain with me had we not spent lifetimes pushing each other away.
He was over eight hours on the operating table, but in the end he was alive and his journey had taken on a whole new flavor; one that more often than not made him gag if not choke down his feelings of freakish unworthiness. He looked dead as I saw him in ICU after they wheeled him out and made him presentable. He had that grey pallor his father had in casket, and if the monitor wasn't feebly beeping away I'd have thought it was simply a matter of the nurses wanting to fool us so we'd go home and leave them to their coffee breaks.
But I put my ear to his chest to make sure, and he was breathing as only a 30 year smoker could, gravelly, even while unconscious. It was a blessing to have him at all, but it was a serious state of affairs in imagining what would follow, on the presumption that infection wouldn't kill him anyway and we'd all be doing this again.
I held his hand for a moment, his callused, thick fingers lifeless and cold against my own. It was hard to do considering that we'd <b>never</b> touched to my knowledge; and while we'd never discussed same gender sexuality much less expressed a phobic distaste for all things unmanly, there was still an air that men didn't hold hands, nor hug, nor for God's sake, kiss, even on the cheek.
And as I stood there stroking the back of his balm with my thumb, I looked toward the space where his feet would be if he'd had any, and noted the falling off of the bed sheet; its prematurely dropping near where his knees should be and smoothly following the contours of the mattress to it's farthest reach.
Bobby'd been right of course. Gimpa had no yeggs.
The Long Road
The ambulance chasers were on us within a few days of the accident. It seemed everyone was our friend, and they all could deliver huge dividends if only we would trust them with our business. In fairness, the railroad was at our door at the same time; both the union steward and a company liaison pleading with us to listen to them before signing any contracts. It’s an ugly side of life, but a necessary one in the end. Beyond his own needs my dad had a non working wife on medication and a 15 year old infant son to worry about much less the normal mortgage, utilities and all of that.
I wasn’t actually appointed to be the arbiter. The job more or less fell into my lap as some negotiations needed to be made quickly and my father suddenly felt less than capable.
He was an ordinary man, one that truly believed a laborer’s wage was the best he’d ever be able to take home. His answer to inflation was extra hours, to a medical emergency, a second job. Never in his wildest dreams would he have imagined himself “set”, taken care of, financially worry free. Life was always a struggle, and the only question to answer was how much would he personally need to go without in order to provide for those he’d pledge to take care of. So when lawyers and company men began throwing around numbers in the very small millions, dad just kind of folded up and turned it off.
How well I know how fun it is to play with someone else’s money. Business people do it every second, politicians, every split second. I have to admit I felt a little powerful having these big dogs grovel at my feet, lobbying me to gather signatures and end their angst with a wave of my all influential hand. Yet after a few weeks of nattering back and forth it became obvious that the only real thing in my control was the direction we might take, not the bottom line. Both sides offered the same amount, only the “private sector” side guaranteed they would walk off with a third to half of the proceeds, where if I were to trust myself there would be no fee.
I didn’t do it alone certainly. I did do the face to face time, but then offered all the options and my opinions to my parents and siblings to get their ideas together. The biggest issue was that whatever we decided, whatever we worked out in the end, would be for all time; there would be no going back. We covered every base we could imagine from prosthetics to vehicles to medications to continuing insurance. Of course I was afraid we’d missed something, that the moment he returned home there would be this head slapping moment and hundreds of costly changes would be immediately obvious. But as with all decisions, one had to be made, and no one wanted to wait long for it.
You’d think the fact that I spent this much time on explaining the settlement portion of the tragedy could mean that I was overly interested in the financial rewards of my father’s limb loss. Quite the contrary. It never occurred to me that I’d see any of the money except in some offhand way, like picking up a dinner tab. The burden of determining the safety and security of my parent’s future was overwhelming. If I screwed up, not only would I feel an enormous guilt for their (presumed) suffrage, but I would feel an absolute obligation to fund whatever it was I’d neglected to take into account, intellectually putting my livelihood at stake right along with theirs.
Soon enough a structure was agreed to that hadn’t required a lawsuit. It was outlined and jotted and left to ponder for a time so we could concentrate on recovery rather than humbuggery. I was thrilled. It was hard enough to visit my newly and completely altered father during the days I could get off from work, then the evenings with my mother who was tapped and broken and in need of people to carry her load, and the nights dealing with a wife who was certainly sympathetic but no less demanding of my time and energies, without having to schedule in meetings with officials and barristers and well wishers of all sorts. Too many people were pulling on me and I was often caught between manic depression and rage. Perhaps those opposite energies were all that kept me moving at the time.
The physical trauma of an injury of that magnitude is more than most bodies can bear. His recovery was miraculous in that way; that I recall he suffered no serious infections. Amazingly he’d not had a second heart attack, as he’d had one some years earlier and had a serious genetic propensity for clogged arteries. Even during 12 surgeries, constant nips and tucks, his heart banged away like a hammer on an anvil.
He was at least six months in the hospital, most of that time in a bed. I hadn’t remembered this until speaking with my brother, but at first my dad was downright giddy. He spent a lot of time on the phone, calling people and recommending they visit his room and chat about the fact that he’d kicked the reaper’s behind. He had plenty of reason to be amazed by his situation. Not only was he a poster child for “miracles do happen”, but he had been taken to a teaching hospital, and as survival of a trauma this serious in combination with his being one of few if not the only instantaneous double amputee in the hospital’s history, he was the star of the show. Every surgeon in the state came by to say hello, people crowded around him, praised his fortitude and kept him in endless conversation. He loved people; he had just not been allowed to be with them for much of his life, so for months it was like being a kid in a brand new sandbox.
In the main we didn’t discuss the “freakishness” of his new reality, though as time went on, once in a while he would start spontaneously crying and say “what am I gonna do?” I didn’t have an answer for him, I had no idea, and I certainly didn’t want to start rattling off happy chat as the hospital’s counselors and chaplains would do when they visited with consistent frequency. It wasn’t going to be a bed of roses, and as he’d taught me the benefits of realism, I wasn’t going to propagandize him with tales of heroic paraplegics all living amazingly full lives seemingly without a moment’s hesitation. I left that for the preachers and other do gooders.
What I did do however was break hospital rules by sneaking him out of his room to smoke, and by ferreting in bags of foods he liked that his doctors and nurses had disapproved. Happily there was a burger joint just across the street from General hospital, so every few days I’d show up with a bag of red meat and greasy potato sticks. Conveniently I’m a large man, so hiding a few pounds of heart stopping solidified cholesterol on my person was a simple feat. Chow mien was a little harder, given the packaging and the smell, but I learned the value of certain shapes of Tupperware over the course of his stay, and eventually could have carried in slabs of barbecued bone-in ribs if I’d wanted.
I owned a recording studio during that time, and though I had a raft of serious problems with my partner and employees over the course of that summer, I spent the lion’s share of my time at or near the hospital, because I could. We were both cribbage addicts, and we loved the language, so between playing cards and Scrabble there was always something to keep us occupied, and for some reason throughout the years we could always find something to talk about.
Finally he was discharged and scheduled for two years of intensive physical therapy, meant to get him on his feet again. That, he had no desire to accomplish. He was a straight talker and had impressed upon his doctors the need to be brutally honest. They were, and the result was not pleasant. There were many reasons why he could just drop over dead one day, but if he lived his days could be filled with pain, his walking hampered by blisters and open sores, infections and perhaps even further surgery. His life had been hard already. Now the difficulty would increase ten fold, and he needed to stand up to that challenge, in spite of the possibility of organs failing and blah blah blah.
Before he’d come home we’d fixed the house as best we could with the railroad’s money of course. Not much could be done, it was a hundred year old two story home and the idea of moving immediately to a more handicap friendly building was too much to add to the already complicated circumstances. A ramp was built to afford access, and the bathroom was modified to make it slightly easier for him to function within. The interior doors really needed to be widened, but never were, so he struggled from room to room, but he made do.
It was a month or two before the darkness came. My mother to that point had been strong and stoic. She’d taken care of her young son, with some help, had kept up with the household and had spent as much of her time at the hospital as was possible. Once he was home and it became clear what he could and couldn’t do, she began to relax and eventually slip into a prolonged sadness.
Shortly thereafter the money issue became the focus as it needed to be resolved. Dad was no fool, nor was he financially incompetent; but the concept of using a single stroke of a pen to guarantee or ruin his family’s future was far too bizarre for him to fathom. All of what had been tentatively decided came back into play, as he was truly the final arbiter and he of course wanted to make the perfect determination. With that stress on him he became somewhat morose, fatalistic, even paranoid. At one time he worried terribly about the news of his settlement reaching the newspapers, giving criminals reason to kidnap his children or grandchildren for ransom.
But some things won’t wait. He had to decide, he had to sign something, all parties involved had to come to an agreement and put the matter behind them, at least financially. And so reluctantly, with a lot of coaxing and support, he made his appearance in the law offices of a railroad attorney and gave his blessing to a plan that in the end would work splendidly.
Then, still reeling from that episode, he began therapy. It was harsh and grueling, he did develop sores and he did fail often. Dad never gave up, but he never resolved to being a walker either. He learned well enough how to handle two plastic legs, and used them when necessary; but he never really liked it. He only wanted to pass their tests so they would leave him alone.
Perhaps 8 months from his release from the hospital, a check the size of the Hoover dam appeared on his doorstep. He did do the right thing and find reasonable financial advise, setting up a trust account with a small liquid fund. With that, he wanted to play, to give people some pleasure from what had been so painful for us all. He paid for my brother to take my mother and two nephews to Disney World in Florida, a trip that likely never would have happened on a switchtender’s paycheck, so he thought, and a nice break for all of them, his home alone self included. It was there my mother suffered the beginnings of congestive heart failure, from which she never recovered. (For some reason I’ve always remembered it as them giving her two months to live and she living two years, but after discussions I stand corrected. She lived less than a year.)
Life as it was degenerated slowly for the next ten months. With an infant in the house, a mother who couldn’t lift him without having to spend ten minutes catching her breath and a father that couldn’t reach him on the floor without falling out of his wheelchair, every second began to move in slow motion. My brother was living there at the time and did what he could, as did the rest of us, but we all had lives as well and after almost two years of caring for others we’d all run out of paid time off much less patience and will.
She died while he held her hand the following spring, and Stevie, their special boy, a few months later. Those two tragedies, but particularly the death of his innocent, young son, took all the wind out of his sails. My father had decided he’d had enough of Minnesota. Struggling with a wheelchair was hard enough, without snow drifts; and I’m sure reminders of the misery he’d lived through nearly all his adult life.
He had a sister in Phoenix, one that had left the family at 20 and had become somewhat of a stranger to him, but who now was a friend in waiting. He thought to begin again in a whole new world. It didn’t work out all that well, but after all he’d gone through in the 3 years hence, it was a damned impressive chance he took, and testament that the man with no yeggs still had some kick left in him.