Early June in 2008 was hotter than most. That’s saying a lot these days, when the late spring and early summer months seem to turn up the swelter to “darned near unbearable” more often than in the past.
Or so it seems anyway.
I was taking a walk. Not all that unusual. I like to get in a little exercise whenever possible, even when the outdoor temperatures are not so hospitable. It often depends upon where I might have to appear shortly after the walk ends. Soaked in sweat isn’t a professional way to present oneself unless it’s for one of those scouting combines pro sports teams conduct.
On this particular June afternoon in 2008 I was a little more restless than normal. I was in my hometown of Danbury and had nowhere else to go. It wasn’t a planned trip. We had seen each other enough over the past few long days spent at medical facilities in Winston-Salem. I simply had to get out of my parents’ house for a moment or two. I couldn’t stand it any longer.
I wandered away from the house and walked down the steep hill that leads from the house my mom and dad built on the side of a mountain. As I reached the highway below I barely noticed the “Slow Funeral” notices placed along the main roadway when I got that far and made my way past the “Welcome to Danbury: The Gateway to the Mountains” sign that lets people know they’re in the corporate city limits of a town they’ll exit more quickly than a blink.
As I walked toward a store I knew almost as well as my own bedroom, someone stopped their car in the middle of the road and posed a question in my direction.
“Who died?” the woman asked, assuming I might know. It is that small of a town.
“My dad,” I said and paused … “Ed Taylor.”
The woman hesitated a beat then said, “He lived a long time with that heart.”
“Yes he did,” I agreed, before she drove off without another word.
Yes he did.
MY FATHER was 59 going on 60 — just barely older than I am now — when we believe he suffered congestive heart failure in 1990. I always suspected it happened on another hot day, the one when we held a yard sale at my grandmother’s house before she moved to a retirement community in Charlotte. My dad became weak, short of breath and very ill that morning as we moved items large and small into an open space across the road from her house. My father was prone to medical issues so we didn’t make too much of it. He had no idea the problem was as serious as it turned out to be. Only months later when he visited a doctor was the diagnosis made. By then, the damage had been done — and then some.
He was told the only course of action available would be a heart transplant. I could remember when the first one was ever conducted, that’s how recently it had occurred. I could even visualize the surgeon, Dr. Christian Barnard — the most famous surgeon since Frankenstein. It first happened in 1967 and he was interviewed on TV more than the president. Even by 1992, I had never met anyone who had a heart transplant.
The idea still seemed experimental but necessary. My dad got into a program for heart transplant patients at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte and was placed on a waiting list.
And he waited, and waited, and waited.
Meanwhile, plans were mapped out for the day when a compatible heart would be available. It’s no routine thing to get someone from Danbury to Charlotte in time for a transplant when organs become part of what they call “harvest.” It was almost military-like in its planning and called for a helicopter to land in a place we all know locally as “Scott’s Meadow,” named for a former congressman who once lived up the hill overlooking that grassy expanse of land.
And then my dad waited some more. In fact, he waited so long he became convinced doctors would never give him a heart at his age.
In early October 1992, though, he got the call. One of Charlotte’s murder victims was an organ donor. Go figure, right? The chopper was dispatched. The town of 175 people was abuzz. It’s not every day that a helicopter lands in Danbury.
It was the kind of unintentional public spectacle that galvanizes small towns, like when the gold truck was coming through Mayberry. Folks remember the day they took Ed Taylor by helicopter to get a new heart.
A week later, my dad was out of the hospital and home. At that time, it was the quickest a heart transplant patient had ever been released from Carolinas Medical Center. I’m sure that record is long gone. But it was a cool thing to note at the time.
His period of recovery was long — just as it was for my father-in-law a few years later when he had a heart attack and triple bypass surgery. Opening a human chest is no small matter. Post-operation patients can’t lift anything heavy for a while. Driving is forbidden. There is a much longer list of can’t-dos than can-dos.
Eventually, that balance changes substantially.
MY DAD lived for nearly 16 years after his heart transplant. He survived to be best man at my wedding to a woman he both adored and respected. He got to see me become the man he always wanted me to be. On the day I got the job as editor of the Times-News he was unspeakably proud. I was never sure why. Then, of course, he wondered when the publisher’s job opened up a year or two later why the hell I didn’t apply.
Once a dad, always a dad.
He felt pretty good for a lot of those years. I’m sure he wouldn’t trade them for anything. And the truth is, had he followed the recommended diet he might’ve done much better. What can I say, the man loved his bacon and a glass or two of wine. He could never be anyone other than who he was. That’s what made him a memorable figure.
Ten years have passed since we lost my father to a heart problem that actually began 28 years ago. His last few months on the planet were tough ones. His last good day was Mother’s Day in 2008. My father loved that we took the time to make it a special day for mom — especially Roselee supplying a mound of food. She put together a wonderful picnic spread that we took to Danbury and celebrated. Dad ate like a horse, even sampling and declaring the tabouli salad, “pretty good.” Shortly thereafter he tumbled into steep decline — a victim of failing kidneys, gout, his heart and, well, too many things to name — and placed in the hospital. The last time I spoke to him was on May 31, 2008 — the 50th anniversary of the day he married mom. We planned to attend a baseball game in Washington and visit over the weekend with friends. He told us to go and enjoy ourselves. After one night I got the call that it would be wise to return to Winston-Salem. The end, as is often the case, arrived far too quickly.
By the time we arrived my father had decided to go into hospice and was already unconscious but breathing. We said our goodbyes — the nurses said he could probably hear and understand, but there was no acknowledgement. I thanked him for being my dad. It wasn’t enough. It never is. On June 9, 2008, he was gone.
Today, 10 years later, nothing is really the same. A friend told me this would be the case. It’s very true. My mom lives on her own atop that hill. My brother stops by nearly every day to take care of little things she might need done or drive her to medical appointments. This year we once again took lunch to Danbury for Mother’s Day. We took tabouli salad, too.
That would’ve made my dad very happy.