Today I woke up to realize that the line between the truth and a lie is a slippery and blurred one that more resembles the lines of cut-out dolls—cut here—than the fences we like to believe hem in reality. We begin to manufacture our own truths in response to our surroundings. I am making my own truth right now.
I am sitting in the waiting room at the hospital. What I am waiting for is not a happy occasion, like a birth for example. I am waiting for my dad to have surgery. Five years ago he ran a mini-marathon. Two weeks ago he passed out at work. Today he is lying somewhere between life and death with a heart that pumps only ten percent of the blood it should. The snow floats down outside and I wonder what will become of all of this. What I didn’t know was that I was in for one of the worst storms of my life.
Once my dad’s surgery was finished the cardiologist called the waiting room and over the phone told my mom it was the worst case of muscular degeneration that he had ever seen. We were lucky to still have him, and that at best he has five more years, unless of course something amazing happens with the pacemaker and the medications. Read unless something miraculous happens my dad will be dead in five years. They don’t know what happened to cause my dad’s heart to deteriorate so quickly and so much; they have no idea what causes congestive heart failure. It could have been genetics. It could have been strep throat. It could have been an inhaled chemical. Or it could have been simple muscle fatigue. I have my own ideas. I think when you give your heart away piece by piece, there eventually is none left for you. What looks healthy on the outside, may be fading away on the inside.
When I was little, my dad worked at least 60 hours a week at a hamburger joint in my hometown. He went to work when he was sick. He went to work when he was well. And much to my mother’s chagrin, he even called work everyday when we would go on vacation. You might be thinking to yourself, what a control freak! What a workaholic! But it wasn’t like that: my dad wanted his employees to know that he cared about them. Whenever he attended one of my sporting events, he cheered just as loudly for his employees’ children, who may or may not have been on my team. I wondered sometimes if he was as excited for their wins as he was sorry for my losses.
The biggest pieces of his heart he gave to people who also gave freely of their hearts. My parents have a wall in their hallway covered with plaques and honors that my father received from firefighters, policemen, and other service personnel. Two of my favorites are from years that we didn’t receive much for Christmas. Those two years, I woke up to find only a portion of the usually immense haul of presents under our tree. I don’t think my parents suspected my observation of the lack of bounty. I didn’t understand then that any donation my dad chose to give at work was paid for out of his Christmas bonus. He literally spent his money on gifts for people in our community.
The first plaque that I admire is the one from our town’s volunteer firefighters. The inscription says something about Burger Chef’s generous and unconditional support of the firefighters during the Bandag Fire. If you were from Hartford City, you would know “the Bandag Fire,” the local legend, and how my dad gave free food and drinks to all the people who came out to help fight back the black billows of smoke as they filled the dark sky above the tire refurbishment factory. Well, you and I know the provisions weren’t really free, but for three days Burger Chef did nothing but make and give away food—to everyone who came through the doors, not just the firefighters.
The other plaque that reminds me of, and somewhat shames me about a year in which I was surly at Christmas, is the one from the winter in which my dad slept at work for three days so that he could provide hot coffee and warm biscuits and gravy to the emergency workers. I remember the sheriff coming to our house on his snow-mobile to pick my dad up for work in the morning when the snow was too deep for us to get out of driveway. The snow was so deep and the roads such a mess that my dad made sure the sheriff would bring us food and kerosene, and he took clothes and stayed in the office, sleeping on the desk, working away his Christmas bonus, and giving away free food to the stranded travelers and snow plow drivers. He has a plaque from the police, city workers, and hospital employees thanking him for his sacrifice.
There is actually one more plaque I love, and maybe I am combining several together in the slippery slope of my memory to create this one that says that my dad was voted the best corporate sponsor for the ICE program at our high school. In other words, the students who worked at Burger Chef, which eventually became Hardee’s, thought he was a great boss. It’s a tough act to get teenagers to fall in love with you, but they all loved my dad. Many of them still send cards with pictures of their babies and letters about their lives to him at Christmastime. In each little act my dad gave away a piece of his heart and now there isn’t enough left for him.
The biggest storm of my life has nothing to do with the fifteen inches of snow that softly fell while I waited to find out what was going to become of my father. My biggest storm is realizing that my dad gave his heart away and trying to find the strength within myself to do the same. People think I am crazily calm when I relate to them what the doctors have said about my dad, but I know who my dad is and where his heart went. I think it just got tired of giving away. While no amount of plaques hanging on a wall can assuage the fear of the next five years, the lives that were changed by pieces of his heart remind me to give mine away as well.
My own truth, the one I am creating now is that those pieces of my dad’s heart continue to beat in the minds of their recipients. The lie is that I am not as calm as I seem and am secretly selfish and want those pieces back. I want to put them back where they belong, back into my dad’s chest so that his heart will beat strong again. I want to rescind his good deeds. That is the lie; it may contain some truth.