"Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them." - Henry David Thoreau

Friday, October 28, 2011

It Was Twenty Years Ago, Today...

This is a tough one, so bear with me.

In the fall of 1991, things were going pretty wel for good old Tom. I had been working my way up the ladder at the Las Vegas TV station where I had been employed for around nine months. I had gone from Assignment Editor to Associate Producer of the 11pm newscast. The News Director at the time had given me the chance to produce the station's weekly Public Affairs program, Newsmakers. Yes, it's as boring as it sounds. It's one of those shows that run early Sunday mornings in order to meet minimum FCC requirements for airing shows that 'serve the public interest', so a station can keep it's broadcast license. 

The fact that only a handful of people were watching the show never mattered to me. I was now officially a television producer! Name in the credits and everything! Of course, being TV news, I was getting paid next to nothing, so I was living with my parents in their palatial estate in the shadow of Sunrise Mountain. 

On October 21 of 1991, my father was complaining of chest pains. Now, my father was never the type to complain about anything. In fact, I never remember him being sick once. The man was a bit accident prone, though. When I was seven years old, a pot of cooking oil caught fire in the kitchen. My Dad, in a moment of panic, decided to try to grab the pot and dump the hot oil outside. Not the best plan, since hot oil splashed out of the pot, severely burning his left hand in the process. It was one of my earliest memories that's still vivid in my mind.

A decade later, our cat bit him on the same hand and caused a terrible infection that almost necessitated the hand be amputated. The cat had to go into protective custody for a while, though. Then there was the time he decided to walk to the nearby Baskin & Robbins to get some ice cream for us. He fell down a hill and broke his ankle. The man had to literally drag himself to a nearby house to get help. The ice cream didn't make it. Still, Dad never complained once. He was a tough cookie.

My mother and I knew that, if my Dad was actually concerned about these chest pains, we'd better take him to the hospital. They ran tests and discovered that several arteries were blocked and suggested a procedure called angioplasty, where the blockages are opened using a balloon that is inserted into the blood vessels. The procedure was fairly common so, we were optimistic about the results. The doctors performed the angioplasty and after a few days in the hospital, my father was released. 

Something wasn't quite right, though. He just didn't seem the same. He wasn't his usual energetic self. For the first time, he seemed every bit his sixty-seven years. My Mom and I just chalked it up to the recovery process. After all, he'd only been home a couple of days.

The morning of October 28 I was awaked by the sound of screaming.

My mother was yelling for me to call an ambulance. I grabbed the cordless phone and called 911 as I ran down the stairs. Mom was hysterical as she pointed to the bathroom. I went in and saw my father slumped over on the toilet, eyes half open. The 911 operator was asking me what was going on. I told her. She was sending help. She asked me if I knew CPR. I had been certified in CPR a few years before while in High School, but had never actually performed it on anything other than a practice dummy.

Francis Thomas Feeney
I hope I never have to do it again. 

I lifted my Dad off the seat and laid him down on the bathroom floor, my mother watching from just outside the doorway. I am not sure if it was the adrenaline pumping, but I remember being surprised how little he weighed when I picked him up. I started the CPR, but I knew he was already gone. He was cold. I did the breathing and chest compressions as instructed by the operator. After each breath of air pushed into my father's lungs, the chest compressions would only force the air right out again. My father had dentures and the rush of air caused them to rattle like those novelty wind-up chattering teeth. That's a sound I will never forget.

I kept the CPR going until the paramedics arrived. I knew my Dad was gone, but I didn't want to stop while my Mom was watching. I didn't want her to think I was giving up trying to save him. The official cause of death was a massive heart attack. There was no autopsy. I wish we would have requested one, because you don't leave the hospital after a relatively simple procedure and die less than a week later with no connection.

There was no funeral, no service. My father was cremated and we spread his ashes under the tree he planted in the backyard. That's what he wanted. The next few months were pretty rough. I was worried that my Mom would just shut down completely. And she did, for a while. We didn't even celebrate Christmas that year. We didn't even have a tree. My Dad was the one who loved to put up these elaborate light displays each holiday. Didn't seem right to celebrate without him. I volunteered to work Christmas Day because I didn't even want to think about it.

Twenty years later and I sometimes find it hard to remember his voice. I still see his face every day when I look in the mirror. When he died, I was just beginning my journey into adulthood. There were many times I could have used his advice. We didn't always see eye to eye and there a lot of times that I believed he just didn't 'get' me. We were very different. Now, I think we're very much alike.

The days and weeks after my father's passing are pretty much a blur to me now. There is one thing I remember vividly; My mother told me something the day after Dad died that made me sad and happy at the same time. She said, "You know, he really liked you." 

Even typing those words now, I feel myself well up.

I really liked you too, Dad. 

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Day After

On September 12, 2001, Americans woke up in a different country. Things had changed. There was an eerie stillness in the air. It wasn't just that the only things flying at that time were the birds in the sky. The entire nation was in a state of collective shock.

I spent that morning like most of us did...eyes glued to the non-stop news coverage of the devastation and the ever-growing body count from the attacks. We were a country operating on auto-pilot, holding our breath waiting for what could or would happen next. Many went back to their jobs, trying to resume some semblance of normalcy in a world that had fundamentally changed.

We drove, we shopped for groceries, we ran errands, we moved forward from nothing more than sheer inertia. 

That day, my mother had an appointment at a local hospital to have a carotid angiogram. It's a procedure where a special dye is injected into the bloodstream to help an x-ray locate possible blockages in the arteries. In the majority of cases, the procedure is perfectly safe and is performed with no ill effects. 

Not this time.

I dropped my mom off at the hospital for her appointment. We were told the procedure would take at least an hour, so I went to a nearby record store to look around while my mom was having the angiogram. When I got back to the hospital, I asked the nurse on duty if she knew when my mom would be done. She got a strange look on her face and asked me to wait a moment. Seconds later, a doctor came out and told me what happened.

The dye they injected dislodged a tiny piece of arterial plaque that traveled into her brain. My mom suffered what is called a TIA or Transient Ischemic Attack. In effect, she had a mini stroke and had to be admitted to the hospital. I rushed up to her room and I saw her there, sitting up in the bed. She smiled at me and I asked her how she was. She didn't answer.

She couldn't answer.

The mini stroke had left my mother unable to speak. Her mental faculties were not impaired in any way, but she had become aphasic. Now, my mother was never the most emotionally accessible person. She didn't like outward displays of affection and hardly showed her feelings to anyone. She took out a notepad one of the nurses had given her so she could communicate. She wrote something on the pad and handed it to me;

'I love you.'

I pretty much lost it after that.

I spent the next four weeks with her as she struggled to get her power of speech back. Every day she got a little better, her words came a little bit more easily. She seemed changed by the experience. While the rest of the world was dealing with the aftermath of 9/11, I was dealing with being a caregiver. I had to be her voice. We bonded in a way we hadn't before. 

I didn't know at the time that those few weeks would be her last. 

One month later, on October 11, my mother had a cerebral hemorrhage. In the middle of the night, my mother awoke with a terrible migraine headache. I called an ambulance and watched as the paramedics put my mom on a stretcher and lifted her inside. Before they closed the doors, she told me to be sure to look after her purse.

It was the last thing she said to me.

My mom had been on blood thinners to prevent another stroke while awaiting a surgical procedure to remove the plaque from her arteries. She developed a brain bleed that could not be stopped. The doctors told me that the damage to her brain was too severe and she would never regain consciousness. On October 12, I had to make the most difficult decision of my entire life;

I had to have my mother taken off life support. I held her hand as I watched the numbers on the heart monitor slowly count down to zero. 

Looking back on those dark days, I am grateful for a few things.  My future wife dropped everything, put her own life on hold and flew out from New England to be by my side. She was a real source of strength for me. My brother also came out to help me make all the necessary arrangements. I never could have held it together without their support.  

I am especially grateful for those last few weeks I had with my mother and would not trade them for anything. 

While September 11, 2001 changed the lives of all Americans, my own life began a transformation the day after. I would soon leave the bright, brash confines of Las Vegas and venture eastward to begin a new life and start a new family.

I still miss my Mom, but I see her every day in the face of my own daughter. I only wish they could have had the chance to know each other.

Friday, September 9, 2011

My 9/11 Story

September 11, 2001 was an awful day for America and all Americans, myself included. I don't need to remind anyone of that. Thousands died that day and many more have perished since then during the two wars we have waged in the aftermath. For an entire generation, this has become the 'Where were you when...?' moment in their lives.

I am old enough to remember where I was when I heard Elvis Presley had died, when President Reagan and John Lennon were shot and when the space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after takeoff. All were moments in time that will forever be burned into my memory. None compared to the horrific events of 9/11.

And yet, my memories of that day are dim at best.

I remember having to go into work early that day. I was living in Las Vegas and had a crappy call center job to pay the bills while I pursued a career as a TV producer. It was just before 6AM local time when the first plane hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Shortly afterwards, word made it to the call center floor that there was some kind of explosion in NYC. I had a pocket radio (remember those?) with me and I tuned it to the local NPR station to hear the coverage. I remember listening intently at the news coverage, both as an interested party and as a former journalist.  

You see, I spent 1991-1997 as a news writer/producer at KTNV-TV 13, the ABC affiliate in Las Vegas. For three of those years, I was producing the morning newscast; Good Morning Las Vegas. I was a news junkie. I loved the immediacy of it, the rush of experiencing information as soon as it happened. I felt part of the action, even though I was in a control booth wearing oversized headsets and trying (with limited success) to get the news anchors to stick to their scripts. I'd seen raw video of some truly awful things...things that could never be shown on the air.   

So, I had learned through the years to look at terrible events with a certain detachment. That's how I felt just after hearing the initial report.

It wasn't until the second plane hit a few minutes later that people started to realize that this wasn't an accident. That's when my detached curiosity quickly turned to fear and confusion. This was deliberate? Who could do such a thing with impunity? Who was capable of an act? What were they going to do next? As additional reports came in, it was clear that the worst of it was yet to come. There was word of evacuations in Washington D.C.  The White House and Capitol Building were being evacuated. Were they also being targeted? It was like something out of a Hollywood hugh-concept action movie.

Less than a half-hour later, the Pentagon was hit. My heart sank. I felt physically sick to my stomach. From that moment forward, I could only think about one thing...where is my brother?*

My older brother Michael was a colorful guy, to say the least. He joined the Navy to avoid some potentially serious legal trouble and wound up making the military a career. After leaving the service he became a computer security specialist. Not long before September 2001, Michael and his wife moved to Arlington, VA because he had a new job as part of a government contract. 

On September 11, 2001 my brother was moving into his new office space. At the Pentagon. 

I spent the rest of that day trying to find out if my brother was dead or alive. The phones there were not working, obviously, and those days (I say those days like it was a long time ago. Oh wait, it was.) not as many people carried cell phones. It wasn't until later that evening that my brother was finally able to reach me. As it turns out, he was in an adjacent building when the main structure was hit. 

Sadly, my brother's life would be cut short by failing health eight years later. I wonder how he would've commemorated this anniversary. I wish I had the chance to find out.

As I said, my memories of the day itself are fuzzy at best. Yes, September 11, 2001 was a terrible day to be sure.

For me, however, the following day was much, much worse. 

To be continued...

*My future wife was in NYC that day, with her Mom and sister. They had tickets to see a taping of The Rosie O'Donnell Show. They never made it to that taping. They endured a terrifying ordeal while scrambling to leave a city in total chaos. Amazingly, they managed to drive out of NYC before it was locked down. I forgot they were going to the city for the day. In a strange way, I'm glad I forgot.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Midnight in the Kindergarten of Good and Evil

The day started with a sleepy optimism as my young one slid out of her bed like a blond-haired Slinky® to prepare for her first day of really-real school. I was pleased by the lack of nervousness and apprehension at the breakfast table. I'm talking about my child, of course...I was a nervous wreck. The first day of Kindergarten qualifies as a Big Damn Deal. It marks the end of toddler-hood and the beginning of a new and scary and amazing and scary and momentous and scary and exciting time.

Oh, did I mention scary?

This is the point where parents lose control of their kids. A time when teachers, coaches, volunteers and other children begin to have a more direct impact on your child's daily life...an impact that can be for good or ill. I don't mind admitting that the idea scares the hell outta me.
NOT my kid's school entrance. Thank God.

What if she makes friends with a kid I don't like?

What if she makes no friends at all?

What if she learns bad words or bad manners or bad habits from the other kids?

What if she doesn't learn anything at all?

What if I worry too much? Too late...

What if she winds up like me?

When I was the age my daughter is now, I was a superstar among my family. I could already read and write. I could memorize and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. My parents thought I was some kind of child prodigy. By the time I was ten, it was obvious that wasn't the case. I peaked at around eight years old. After that, my poor social skills, non-existent math ability, recurrent stuttering and ADD-driven lack of focus kicked in full gear. It was not a winning formula and very frustrating to my parents who had seen such 'potential' in their son early on. Their disappointment was palpable and it left scars that still haunt me today. I don't want my kid to experience that kind of stress and pressure.

So yes, I am a basket case. I know it's only Kindergarten. I simply don't want this to be the first day where life starts to drain the joy from her spirit, one drop at a time. I want to hold on to the bright-eyed, optimistic ball of energy that makes me smile every single day.

While I was at work, I got a text message from Mrs. F. Not all good news.

My little one's first day was long and tiring and she didn't make friends as easily as she usually does. The light had dimmed a bit. But, she's a real trouper. No complaints, no whining and she's ready to go back and do it all over again.

She'll be fine. No one gets through childhood unscathed. I know this. I also know that she will always have people she can rely on when things get rough. The Spawn has a strong support system of family and loved ones who will keep her on the right track and love her unconditionally.

Yes, she will be fine.

The jury is still out on me, though...