At the end of this month, I will be 51. I’m now almost three years older than my dad was when he had the heart attack that changed his life and our relationship forever.
The year was 1988. I still remember sitting on the Long Island Railroad, not knowing what I would face when the train pulled in the station. Smart phones and social media weren’t part of our daily diet, and it was a real possibility that I was going to arrive home and learn my dad was gone.
It seemed impossible. I’d spoken with my mother in the morning before I went to work as a hostess in a trendy New York City restaurant. I usually would check my machine while I was there, but since it was a Sunday, I wasn’t expecting any calls.
When I got home I was surprised to find 10 messages on my machine. How’d I get so popular?
With each message my heart beat faster.
At first they were somewhat benign: Daddy may have had a heart attack. We’re on our way to the hospital.
Then the messages kept coming, each one more alarming than the last, until the last one: Where are you? Get home now.
My life changed in a matter of minutes. I finally got through to my mother. She had her sweet, too calm, telephone voice. That was when I knew things were really bad.
“Hi, honey. Yes, Daddy had a heart attack. No, it does not look good at all; he probably won’t make it. Come home as fast as you can. I love you.”
My dad was 48, and in good shape. This shouldn’t be happening.
I called my best friend Kay, who offered to take the train home with me. The entire ride I didn’t know what to think or feel. The truth is my father and I had always had a strained relationship. It wasn’t uncommon for me to call home and just say a cursory greeting and then ask for my mom.
I couldn’t shake the thought that my dad may have died, and I’d never repaired the relationship. He was going to leave me before I had time to make peace with him.
We got to the hospital, and everywhere I looked there was a relative or family friend in the waiting room. Some people I hadn’t seen in years. Everyone waiting to hear any news that might come.
I was weeks away from my 23rd birthday, and the real possibility that my dad wouldn’t be around to see me fall in love, get married, or have children was almost unbearable.
Again, the thought that kept going through my mind was that I hadn’t made peace with this man. We could have such volatile conversations about everything from movies to politics. I had always felt that whatever I did was wrong in his eyes. We loved each other, but I don’t think we really liked each other.
My father had suffered tremendous damage to his heart, and weeks passed before he was out of the woods. The doctors told him he would be lucky if he survived five years.
After the heart attack I knew that time was precious. If I wanted to repair the relationship, I was going to have to do it sooner rather than later.
And we did. Twenty-eight years later my dad is such an important person in my life. I not only love him, I really like him.
I think of all the moments I’ve had with this man since that day: The Saturday he picked me up from the train and I told him I had fallen in love with the man who is now my husband. Dancing with my dad at my wedding. Watching him dance at both my sisters’ weddings. The phone call I made when I told him his first grandchild would be a boy.
The good times continued each time he came to visit me after having all three of my babies. These were times I feared I would never have with him.
He has spent the last six months putting up sheetrock and painting my house. Yes, when we started this project in March, we never thought it would take us until October to finish. Then again, we also didn’t figure on their being no studs in one of the walls in my living room, or how trying to paint with my daughter anywhere in the vicinity would be a fool’s errand.
I’ve made my dad promise me he won’t die. I know he’ll do his best to keep that promise, but in the event that he can’t, I’m eternally grateful that I have had the gift of knowing that I not only made peace with him, but I have gotten to really enjoy being his daughter.
This piece was previously published on the Dishwasher on February 1, 2014, under the title, The Gift of Time. It has been edited from the original.