By Gina Miller-Meinema
“I know this guy. Glenn? Glenn, can you hear me?”
“He can’t hear you.” I say to the fireman, even though I knew it was pointless. They always kept yelling my dad’s name no matter how many times I told them that he can’t hear. I couldn’t help myself. It was habit, really. Usually it irritated me to no end; why didn’t they just listen? Even the ones who knew him did it; why did they insist on talking to him when he was like that?
As a nurse, years later, I got it. I was taught, as all emergency medical personnel are, to always assume that the patient can hear every word you say because hearing is the last sense to go. I was also taught never to use the word “normal” to describe a patient’s condition. What is normal to one person may be completely out of the ordinary for another. As a twelve year old in 1983, I knew my family life was unusual, but to me it was still normal. So when the firemen paramedics didn’t listen to what I was telling them, because I was the one in charge and I did know what was going on with my dad, I didn’t get it.
That day in 1983 was slightly different. From the rushing rapids of my life, I was plucked up and deposited onto a soft, promising life raft. Clinging to that raft, the ineffable relief and gratitude I felt was so vast, I was sure I would drown in it anyway.
My dad, Glenn, was a brittle diabetic, prone to obscenely low blood sugar levels and grand mal seizures on a daily basis. His condition was so out-of-the-ordinary that doctors never believed it to be possible.
Then one day, during a routine visit, one lucky M. D. witnessed it for himself and saw how impassively my mom, Sue, handled Dad as he convulsed all over the doctor’s office— banging into coat racks, kicking the contents of waste baskets to the floor, grunting and snorting like a wild boar. It happened so quickly and was accompanied by such violence, that the doctor actually accused my dad, who in that state was oblivious to the world around him, of faking it. A simple finger prick (which turned out to be not so simple while Dad rolled around on the floor and jerked his entire body at the most inopportune moments) quickly revealed to the doctor, the error in his thinking.
Fast food and convenience store employees in our area had called the paramedics for my dad on multiple occasions. If I was there, I tried to stop them. In the absence of my mom, I was the first to notice that Dad wasn’t acting right, but because I needed to get some sugar into his body, I was forced to ask the employees if I could borrow a Pepsi (being a child, I was not in the habit of having money on hand) and then I implored them not to call the ambulance, “I’ll get him out of it and he’ll be fine. Really. This happens every day.”
Unfailingly, the convenience store clerks and fast food employees dialed emergency medical services. What did a kid know?
Although Mom always told my siblings and me that we could call the ambulance (a regular number, along with other emergency numbers, posted near our phone) anytime we were alone with our Dad when he was “getting sick” (Mom’s euphemism for Dad’s grand mal seizures), I did everything I could not to call. My younger sister Cheri, on the other hand, dialed with gusto.
Or so I thought.
Whereas I was steadfast and practical about caring for our daddy (we didn’t actually call him “Dad” until we were teens), Cheri was emotional and fearful, seeming unsure of what to do with our flailing father in the absence of Mom or me. Whereas I was embarrassed by the noise and commotion of the sirens and paramedics, Cheri seemed to relish it. Whereas I preferred to take care of Dad myself, Cheri preferred to let others do it for her.
Wherever I was, I would hear the sirens, run home, and yell at Cheri, “Why did you call?”
What a cruel and thoughtless sister I could be sometimes.
As a mom years later, even as an older teenager, I finally knew why Cheri always called. Our dad looked intimidating to most adults when he was having a grand mal seizure. The scariest part: his eyes. They remained wide open and staring, yet completely vacant of any trace of our real daddy. As a kindergartener, I was sure his bulging eyeballs belonged to the zombie who took over his body when he was like that; they were the hardest part for me to overcome, too. On some level, I think I always understood why Cheri called in the professionals.
(And what a smart little kid she was for keeping a level head! But to me, as a child only three years older, I thought she was something along the lines of hysterical for summoning the ambulance so often. Thankfully the years have made me wiser and more compassionate. She was right for calling when she felt like she could not or did not want to handle it on her own. Cheri helped me to be a better nurse. We all react differently to situations and no one reaction is wrong, only different.)
But as a shy kid wanting some measure of privacy, I had an aversion to the ambulance and fire trucks full of emergency workers who showed up on our street and crammed themselves into our tiny townhouse where Dad lay on the floor, upstairs, downstairs, or in the basement, depending on the day. I resented the mobs of gawkers that shamelessly collected on our front lawn waiting to get a glimpse of our dad.
And the questions: “Gina, is your dad going to be okay?” “What’s wrong with your dad anyway?” “Are they going to take him to the hospital this time?” And my favorite: “Don’t you ever get tired of the ambulance and all these people coming to your house?”
As the oldest, I learned how to handle Dad alone by the time I was five years old. Mom was a teacher in Clinton Township, so she would leave to drop Cheri at our grandma’s house long before my Tweety Bird alarm clock went off at 7:30 a.m. It was my job as a first grader to get myself up and ready for school, and to make sure Dad got up for work before I left.
Sometimes, while he slept, I could tell Dad’s blood sugar was already too low. I knew by the way he began to purse his lips and roll around on the bed that I had to take care of him before I went to school.
I learned back then that even though my dad’s eyes were open, he could not really see. I became an expert at feeding him the sugared juice in the baby bottle with the specially-cut nipple Mom had made, at just the right moment so he didn’t snort it back into his lungs and aspirate; or, during one of his moments of puffing his cheeks up with air and pushing it out with puckered lips, he didn’t spray it all over both of us. I learned to stand clear of his thrashing arms and legs that could, at any moment, suddenly spasm into a forceful blow at anything in the vicinity. Dad was known to break lamps and chairs with the explosive movements of his body.
* * *
It’s strange what becomes normal in a life. Twenty some years later, about a month after Dad died in 2004, I was driving on a road near my house when I heard the familiar wail of sirens. I immediately grabbed my cell phone to call Mom. It took a few seconds and then it was a hard jolt to my heart. For the first time in my life I knew the sirens were not for my dad. I wondered at how I had not heard the sound of sirens for a full month. We lived just a mile from a hospital; they were ubiquitous. My parents live about three miles away, so inevitably I would wonder about Dad because quite often, it was for him. I can only guess that I needed that time of silence to be truly struck when I finally heard the sirens again.
It was the first time I thought: Maybe my family life was not as normal as I’d always thought.
The shock of it stayed with me for months, years, even.
Late or middle of the night phone calls were another normal phenomenon in my life. From hospitals: “Is this the residence of Glenn…Loooh…DAHV-ski?” There is no “k” or “ahh” in our last name, but they always seemed to add them in there to make Dad Polish, or maybe Russian. The mispronunciation was all I needed to hear: “Mo—omm,” I would call out, “Dad’s in the hospital again.”
From Mom, when I was an adult: “Dad’s at the hospital. Can you come stay with Tony and Katie so I can go get him?” Tony and Katie were the youngest of our family, ten and twelve years my junior. Tony was the result of Mom and Dad’s successful attempt at trying for a boy one last time, and Katie was their happy “Ooops” who came two years later. Mom got her tubes tied immediately following Katie’s birth.
From Mom again, slightly out of breath, but always matter-of-fact, when Tony and Katie were older, but out with friends: “Your Dad is convulsing on the bathroom floor. Will you come help me get him out of there so he’ll stop banging his head between the toilet and the wall?”
And from a tearful teenaged Katie getting ready for school in the morning when Mom was out of town for a conference: “Gina? Will you come help me with Dad? He’s lying outside on the front lawn! He’s really cold, and he won’t wake up!”
“Is he breathing?”
“I don’t know!”
“Cover him with blankets and put pillows under his feet. I’ll be right over.”
When I arrived, the still figure of my unconscious father on the front lawn was a more disturbing sight than any I could remember. He looked so little;so vulnerable under the towering pines. I stared, momentarily suspended by the thought that he could be dead. Then, my whole body released a sigh I had not realized I was holding, as I discerned the faint cloud of breath intermittently hovering over his face on the cold fall air.
Katie and I were unable to lift our dad’s barely five feet two inch frame of completely inanimate weight, so I called my husband, who had not yet left for work, and still, we had difficulties. Thankfully, our dad was not the size of a normal man.
As we struggled at the doorway, I noticed a sack of Dad’s favorite mini burgers on the side of the porch, unopened and completely cold. With Mom gone, I knew he had decided to sneak the extra car out. My dad was a night owl. At two or three in the morning, he probably figured there wouldn’t be anybody on the roads. His driver’s license had been revoked long ago for getting into one too many accidents due to his seizures. Though he had taken to riding an old red and white bike, the kind with the extra wide seat and a basket on the handle bars (the kids of the neighborhood called him “Pee-Wee”), he still loved to drive, and obstinacy was a trait that stayed with Dad until the day he died on his living room floor three and a half years later. Ironically, he did not die from complications caused by a seizure or his diabetes, but from the blood thinner he was taking for his new heart valve. It happened just minutes after midnight, the day after Easter, when an hour earlier, he had said to the spirit of death, and again to the spirits of his brother, his mother, and his father, and later again to the spirits of his mother-in-law, his brother-in-law, and his best friend, Bill, “Just give me another hour. One more hour.”
Mom was unaware of the family reunion in their living room, but she sensed something amiss. It came out of her mouth disguised as irritation with her husband, “Glenn! Glenn? Who do you keep talking to?”
He was trying to stay alive long enough to prevent his living family from having to memorialize his death with every Easter celebration thereafter. But on that early fall morning, before Katie discovered him unconscious on the front lawn, his stubborn determination to get safely home before the seizure completely took hold of him only got our dad as far as the front porch, with his sack of steaming square burgers that smelled deliciously of greasy, cooked onions. It was then that he lost all control of his mind and his body and fell off of the porch onto the concrete walkway. He convulsed his way over to where Katie had found him on the lawn, hours later, fifty feet from where he started, between a metal rake left lying pointy side up, and the cement bricks surrounding the pine, that had been laid at sharp angles to resemble a circle of little red rooftops. There was blood on the side of Dad’s head and also on the walkway. I easily deduced, from reading Nancy Drew mysteries throughout all of fifth and sixth grade, and sometimes seventh, that he had tumbled off the porch and smacked his noggin, as he so often did over the years.
Although he was unresponsive and in a diabetic coma, by that year, injection shots of glucagon were available by prescription for diabetic emergencies. It still took him a very long time to come out of it, but within three or four hours, Dad was basically okay. I always believed our dad led a life charmed by the providence of guardian spirits who watched over him.
Long after Dad died, a middle of the night phone call would still catch me off guard. The first one came more than a year after he’d been gone. Although I no longer slept with the phone near my bed, and although it was only a wrong number, I reflexively popped up and ran to the den to answer it with Dad as the star of my thoughts, and then: Wait. No. It can’t be about Dad. He’s not here anymore.
* * *
“Glenn? We’re going to get you out of this car, okay?” It was the fireman who knew our dad. I didn’t bother to tell him again that he had no idea what he or anyone else was saying and that they could do whatever they wanted when he was in that state. I was just overwhelmingly relieved to have the burden of keeping us all safe off of my shoulders.
Minutes earlier, I had been hanging over the front seat trying to keep the car from veering into oncoming traffic, while two year old Tony wailed from his front car seat, “Daaadddyyy! Daaadddyyy!”
My friend Mimi and nine year old Cheri were screaming and pounding on the windows of the car, “Help! Somebody help us! Why won’t they stop and help us?”
I had been trying to wrestle the steering wheel from our dad’s convulsive grip for the last ten minutes of the ride. His foot was pressed to the floor as we sped down the road. My twelve year old, gangly girl arms fought to keep us mostly in the turning lane until, without warning, a spasm of Dad’s entire body caused him to let go of the steering wheel and lift his foot from the gas pedal. I inadvertently turned the car almost perpendicular to traffic in the middle of the turn lane. I did not know how a car worked; I only knew that the other pedal must be the brake, and that I had to get Dad’s foot to press on it.
Since we were rolling slowly enough, I yelled for Mimi to jump out and run for help. Cheri continued to cry hopelessly and Tony was hysterical. Cars were zooming by, with horns blaring, swerving at the last minute to miss hitting us. I tried to climb to the front seat so that I could press on the brake pedal with my hand, but Dad was jerking too violently by that time; I realized that I still had better leverage by reaching over the front seat.
“Cheri! Stop crying! Roll the window down and wave your arms so someone can see that we’re kids!”
I never found out his name, but a normal looking, twenty-something man finally stopped and came running over to ask if we needed help. He opened the car door and muscled Dad over toward the middle of the bench seat of the station wagon so he could straighten the car out and put it into park. I was finally able to lift my baby brother out of his car seat so that I could comfort and soothe him and even soothe myself. The man stayed with us, asking me questions about the goopy green gel I began forcing into Dad’s mouth after handing Tony over to Cheri. He listened as three little girls rehashed the harrowing story of their adventure, until the fire trucks and ambulance that Mimi had summoned, arrived at last.
On that not-so-normal day, I had never been so happy to hear the sirens and see all of the trucks pulling up close to our car, forming a protective barrier around us. For once, I welcomed the attention of others into my normal life.
About the Author:
Gina Miller-Meinema is a nurse-turned-writer, living in Corona de Tucson, Arizona since August of 2013. To help make ends meet while she writes, Gina works part-time at the local desert mountain Corona Ace Hardware, where she enjoys the camaraderie of her bosses and coworkers, and the easy companionship of the regulars, with strong vintage names like Earl, Virgil, and beautiful Louise. “Normal” is Gina’s first published story.