On Grief Part 2: Gratitude
Today marks one year from the day my father died. To say the first year without him has been “weird” would be an understatement. Since I’ll do any mental gymnastics to avoid accepting this new reality, I’ve tried to be more grateful for what I do have. A tighter, supportive family. Kind, generous friends. A patient and compassionate girlfriend. But most of all, I’d like to thank the stranger who shared the hospital waiting room with my family and I on the day we said goodbye.
My dad was rushed to Staten Island University hospital on March 12, 2017. On his second day there, after doctors hit the medical equivalent of the panic button, he was induced into a medical coma. The staff was doing their best, but when we left that night, the outlook was bleak. To add literal frosting to the garbage cake, the next day brought an impending snowstorm. Winter Storm Stella was set to dump two feet of snow overnight onto the 10-mile road between my parents’ house and the hospital.
We planned to head back to the hospital in the morning, hopefully after the roads were cleared. Plans changed. At around 2:30 AM, my mother woke me up from what was probably the last tolerable dream I’ve had to tell me the doctors called. We needed to head back to the hospital ASAP. The call wasn’t made lightly, with officials already declaring the conditions outside a state of emergency. Everything was fucked.
I got dressed, shivering. I helped scrape the snow off the car, shivering. Even in the warmth of the heated leather passenger’s seat, I was shivering. Not from the cold, but from my body rejecting the fact that I might not have a father by the time the day was over. The weather was comforting in a way. It was as if nature was saying “I see you.” A normal night would have felt off, like Christmas in Florida. My mother played a recording of the rosary on her phone as my two brothers and I sat in deafening silence. I didn’t have the energy to protest. I’ll never forget that car ride.
We arrived at the dark ICU waiting room when it started to look like my dad might recover. Outside of the occasional squish-squish in the hallway of a nurse’s wet sneaker, the open room was eerily silent. I took the silence and glimmer of hope as permission to push two industrial wooden chairs together and try to go back to sleep. An hour or so passed when I heard the distinct beep of late 90’s Nextel technology. There he was. My hero.
A short, stout, thumb of a security guard was now seated across the waiting room. Well, a security guard by uniform only. Every few minutes, he’d receive a loud message on his walkie talkie that would go unanswered. To attempt to describe his appearance any further would falsely suggest he had any distinguishing characteristics whatsoever. He had more of an essence, filling up the space like an impressive fart. He was the kind of guy that would have hung out at the bar from Billy Joel’s “Piano Man,” but wasn’t interesting enough to actually be included in the song. A man that only buttons his pants when he’s at work. One who probably thinks it’s still okay to say words like “suckjob” and “dungarees.” I don’t know if he even had a given name, so I’ll just refer to him as “Jim”.
With my nap abruptly cancelled, I tried to figure out what Jim’s deal was. Was he on break? Why did he choose to rest his feet across from four people waiting for their loved one to expire? Did the snow scare off his usual entertainment — judging stab victims in the ER? He stared at his phone for what could have been thirty minutes or three hours before disappearing.
At some point after sunrise the doctors came in to let us know things had taken another turn for the worse. As the the doctors, PA’s and nurses painfully explained my father’s declining condition, Jim returned. The staff left us to make a decision, and we sat there and talked about what my Dad would have wanted. Meanwhile, Jim made a decision of his own: to call his friend.
In a meaty, never-crossed-the-Verrazano accent, Jim said things that could just as easily have been shared via text. None of it was memorable or important in any way. As my mother called my aunt to relay the news, he loudly delivered the only quote I remember verbatim: “So much for two feet [of snow]. I guess this is the fake news they talk about.” He then proceeded to laugh at himself in a way that indicated he had no idea where he was or what his duties were. Had it not been the worst day of my life, I would have laughed, too.
Despite the distraction, my family and I eventually came to a decision. The decision. The decision you hear people joke about because no one expects to face it in real life. The decision that, ironically, inspired an entire Kramer storyline on Seinfeld. I was apoplectic. All I could think about was the last interaction I had with my dad on the phone, where I brusquely told him to put my mother on, and how that phone call was a fraction of the length of the one Jim was currently having.
Seriously, what kind of sick fuck voluntarily lounges around outside the ICU? Did he not know what the word “Intensive” meant? Couldn’t he have sat literally anywhere else in the 714-bed hospital? Then again, as a lowly comedy writer, what did I know about the healthcare system? So a week ago I called Staten Island University Hospital, where a pleasant man named Charles told me the hospital has ten different waiting rooms. Meaning Jim had NINE other options that didn’t involve grieving families. Was there even someone else on the line? Or was he observing and recording, like some emotional peeping Tom, as fodder for his own Medium piece on grief? The Impractical Jokesters are from Staten Island. Was this some elaborate impractical joke? Was the doctor going to remove his surgical mask and hat to reveal the sheepish grin and trademark Kangol cap of famed Impractical Jokester, Q? This was preferable to reality.
We left the waiting room to say our final goodbyes. We returned a few minutes later, nothing but mounds of flesh and tears. I was dripping with exhaustion and terror and overwhelming sadness and other words that could also describe a critically acclaimed documentary. I had just lost the one person in the world who would appreciate Jim as much as I did.
He shamelessly watched as we all consoled each other and made the necessary phone calls. Anger is not an emotion I express healthily. I express anger by letting it age and cure inside like a fine soppressata. The best I could do in the moment was to make eye contact. I remember staring through tears into his soulless eyes, doing my best to telepathically ask who the fuck are you? He didn’t look away, and neither did I. He showed zero expression, offered no sympathetic nod or even pursed lips of acknowledgement. For a moment I wavered, and considered asking him to be my new father. Too soon. He left shortly after, presumably to watch cars skid into each other headfirst outside.
On the way home, I asked one of my brothers if he noticed the guy in the waiting room. He did. We ripped on Jim for a healthy amount of time and I smiled for the first time in days. My first laugh without a father was one of my most memorable. It reminded me that no matter how bad things get, there is always laughter. My dad knew that secret. He passed it on to his family, and I’ll pass it onto mine. I am still years from coming to terms with the fact that my father will never meet my kids, or see mine or Kristaps Porzingis’ respective careers blossom. But I am ready to thank Jim for waking me up from a living nightmare.