The Last Sing-Along
by Jeff Shannon
It was anything but an ordinary Saturday night. My father had been in the I.C.U. at Saint Thomas Hospital for the better part of three weeks, and had been intubated and sedated for much of that time. He had suffered his second heart attack in thirteen years and had a ninety percent blockage to one of the arteries that fed blood to his heart.
Bypass surgery might have been an option if not for other health factors. Dad was sixty- nine years of age, and had lived with a slowly degenerative form of muscular dystrophy for most of his adult life. In its earliest stages his disease had caused muscles to atrophy in his legs and shoulders. Over time it robbed him of his ability to walk and exercise, which led to a host of other health issues. By the time of this heart attack it had affected his abdominal muscles and his diaphragm. Surgery was out of the question. To say the future was uncertain was an under-statement.
It was April of 2003, and the news networks were filled with non-stop coverage of the War in Iraq. In the days prior to this particular Saturday, Dad’s condition had stabilized enough for him to be moved into a private room, and to have the breathing tube removed. There was still a revolving door of doctors and nurses coming back and forth, but he was relieved to feel less like he was on display. He was even more relieved to be able to speak again instead of having to write messages to us on a tablet. There was a strange contrast between the war playing out on television and the fight Dad was waging for his life.
That Saturday evening found Mom resting at home, exhausted from days of coming back and forth to the hospital. I was tired from having worked the night before, but was determined to go to the hospital and keep a musical promise I had made earlier in the week.
Dad’s hospital room was typical: Upon entering there was a bathroom and a short hall that opened into the main room. The bed was on the left side, with a TV mounted high on the opposite wall, and a myriad of family pictures taped to the empty space below. My uncle Dee was already there visiting when I arrived, seated in a chair on the other side of Dad’s bed near the window. Dad was still hooked up to an array of equipment measuring heart rate, oxygen saturation, and blood pressure. The data gathered was conveniently displayed on a monitor by the bed. This device occasionally made a beeping sound to remind us of its presence, just in case we were able to forget that we were in a hospital, and why.
I sat in a chair on the near side of the bed, in order to better see both Dad and Dee. After we visited for a bit I tuned up my little guitar and began to play. We stumbled fearlessly through a variety of songs. I performed several of my originals, then Dad and Dee joined in singing others: “My Girl,” “All I Have to Do is Dream,” “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,” as well as “Yesterday,” which was one of Dad’s favorites. After the stress of the previous few weeks it was a pleasant reprieve, and just for a moment we were family members enjoying singing together, instead of family members singing together for the last time.
By Tuesday, April 15th, the doctors felt that Dad’s condition had stabilized enough for him to be discharged. Both my mother and I were concerned that he wasn’t being sent to a rehabilitation facility to recuperate further. Dad was just happy to be going home. It was late in the afternoon before the paperwork was in order for us to leave. I spent that Tuesday evening at the pharmacy getting the truckload of prescriptions that he would need at the house. I dropped off the medications and said goodnight before dragging myself back to my apartment. It had been a long day and I was exhausted.
I was awakened by my wife at ten after six the next morning. Mom was on the phone – Dad was gone.
We honored Dad’s wishes and allowed his remains to be used for research. We would have to wait two years before his ashes were returned to us. During that time I struggled with how to process my grief.
Sixteen months passed before I was able to write about the loss. When the words finally came, I was sitting on my back deck playing the same inexpensive guitar I had played at the hospital. The song I wrote was entitled, “Distant Shore,” and I credit that writing experience with helping me come to terms with Dad’s death. In April of 2005, I used the same guitar when I performed that song at his funeral. I still have that little guitar, and its value to me cannot be measured.