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Requiem for a Pepperoni Pizza; Part 1 - September 10, 2007

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"Mike, your mom just called. Your father's just had a stroke. He's in really bad condition. I'm so sorry."

It was the day before Thanksgiving during my sophomore year of high school. I had just walked in the door at my friend Seth's house after a long evening of skateboarding by streetlight when Seth's mom gave me the news. My flannel shirt still smelled like the smoky, New England fall air that I had been exerting myself in for the last few hours. I dropped my skateboard and Seth's mom ran over to give me a hug. Seth just stood there, not really knowing what to say or do. I don't think Seth, who had been home schooled his whole life, ever had to deal with any kind of family crisis before. About a minute passed before I released myself from her hug. I stuttered out some broken response about needing to go home and I walked out to my '87 Buick Regal in the pitch black driveway, trying to wrap my head around what I'd just heard.

I gripped the steering wheel firmly at 10 and 2 as I wound my way through dimly lit back roads on the dead silent ride home. My father, to whom my mother had been married for 14 years and divorced for 10, was a raging alcoholic and degenerate bookie/gambler. To get back at my mother for divorcing him, he refused to pay child support and spent most of that money drinking, smoking, and eating himself into critical condition. He made a large portion of my childhood nearly unbearable. As I drove, I went from numb to furious.

How dare you try to check out on us. Not until I've had a chance to finally tell you how I feel about you. How my family was forced on government assistance while I was growing up because of you, about all of the awful boyfriends my mother had since you left that I had to deal with, about having to steal loaves of bread from a local university convenience store sometimes to kill the hunger pains in my stomach, about how much you fucked your children up. After that, you can go ahead and die if you want, but not yet. You aren't going to die yet. Don't die, Dad. Don't die.

My eyes welled up as I pulled into my parking space.

My mom was standing in the kitchen when I walked in. She wasn't crying. In fact, she was very composed. I didn't really understand it, but I figured a decade of separation was probably enough time for love to turn into indifference. Seeing the redness of my eyes, she walked over and gave me a hug to comfort me. She explained to me what happened.

My father had been taking care of my ailing grandfather up at the inn he owned in Vermont when it happened. Louie, the shifty, hairy, lecherous Albanian manager my grandfather hired to take care of the business discovered my father. He called the paramedics and they flew my father by helicopter to Mass General Hospital in Boston because his condition was far too serious for any facility in Vermont.

She told me they had to crack his skull open to release the pressure on his brain from the aneurysm. The doctors didn't know how much brain damage the pressure had caused yet. My mom said we were going to the hospital right away, and that a lot of the family was already on route to meet us there.

The ride down to the hospital was almost completely silent. My mom just stared ahead and drove while I sat in the passenger seat and stared out the window. I tried to picture what life would be like if my dad died. I thought about how much I hated my mother growing up because we had no money, and how much I loved my dad because when I visited him, he lavished me with toys, candy, spending money and all sorts of fun day trips to the dog track. I thought about getting older and realizing he was not paying my mom any child support in order to make us love him more. I thought about how much I resented him for making me build him up to be some kind of super hero while my mom struggled to pay rent and feed us. I thought about how I was his favorite kid growing up, and all the times that friends and family told me how much my dad loved me. I started thinking about the duality of man (I was smart at 16), and how nobody was thoroughly an angel or a demon. I didn't even think it was possible to be half angel and half demon; that idea was too black and white for me.

During that ride, I decided all people had both good and bad sides to them. The sides weren't equal, though. They were distributed in people more like toppings on delivery pizzas. You might order a half pepperoni and half mushroom, but it's never truly split evenly; there's always a little more pepperoni than mushroom, or vice versa. All of a sudden I felt sick to my stomach, disgusted with myself for thinking the way I did on the drive home from Seth's earlier that night. Dad wasn't a bad person; he was just more mushroom than he was pepperoni.

A couple of my older half brothers were waiting outside the main hospital doors when we arrived. They said that Dad's condition had stabilized, but they had to wait until he woke up in order to understand just how much brain damage he'd suffered. There was a chance that Dad would never wake up, they told me. I walked in the main entrance with everyone, and a sense of fear immediately washed over me. Something about the contrast of the soft, waiting room muzak and the white, sterile environment of the hospital with the knowledge of the sickness and agony people were suffering through inside of it terrified me. I imagined that if there was a Hell, it probably looked a lot like a hospital.

We rounded the corner and entered my dad's room. He was lying on a bed unconscious, with a bunch of tubes and needles sticking out of him. He had lots of electrodes taped to his balding head and chest. From the cranial surgery, his head reminded me of the stitching on a baseball. His whole body was grayish, save for that big red wound with staples holding it together. I asked my brother if he could hear me. He said he didn't know, but he had been talking to him anyway. My brother tried to lighten the mood by telling jokes. He said that when Dad got out, he could be the new mascot for the Red Sox. "They'll call him Baseball Head!" I laughed. I was so glad that my brothers were there. They were always good in tough situations.

I walked over to the side of the bed and held my dad's hand. It was cold. I tried to warm it up by rubbing it, but it didn't work and he didn't squeeze back. I tried to be tough, but my eyes started to fill up with tears. I told everyone that I was going outside for some fresh air. I didn't know if my dad could hear me or not, but if he could hear, I didn't want him to hear me cry.

I walked outside the hospital doors and headed over to a spot where the overhead light wasn't illuminated so I could dry my eyes and light up a cigarette without anyone seeing me. Nobody in my family knew I'd started smoking. Em, one of my brothers, came out a few minutes later and managed to find me almost immediately. He didn't even ask me about the cigarette, he just asked me about how school was going and what was new in my life. I think he knew that I needed to talk about something other than Dad for a minute or two so I could compose myself. Inevitably, the conversation looped back around, and Em asked me if I knew everything about what happened to Dad. I told him that I knew he had a stroke in Vermont and had to be flown to Boston in a helicopter. Then my brother filled me in on what really took place.

"Apparently, Louie was eating dinner in the kitchen with the old man when it happened. He dragged Dad into his bedroom and shut the door, leaving him to fucking die. Only when Popop (our grandfather) asked what Dad was up to did Louie admit what happened and called the paramedics." Em's body and voice were calm, but his eyes were wild and dilated, a telltale sign that he had reached the end of his legendary short fuse. I listened on while taking amateurish drags off of my stale Marlboro Red.

"If they had found Dad in time he would have been fine, but since he was left like that for so long, there's no telling what he's going to be like when he wakes up. If he wakes up."

"Why would Louie do something like that?" My mind became a tempest of anger, curiosity and disbelief when I came to grips with what actually happened. The cause of my dad's condition had gone from a freak accident to attempted murder.

"I don't know why," Em continued, "but I do know that Louie is nuts and he's always hated our family. You've heard about his migraines, right?"

I silently shook my head "no."

"Louie always gets these intense migraines during a full moon, like brutally painful migraines. He actually howls out in pain all night when he gets them, scaring the guests at the inn, like a wolfman or some shit. He's fucking nuts. I can't believe Popop hired such a scumbag lunatic. Don't worry, me and Marty (my other brother) are going to drive up to the inn tomorrow morning and we are going to take care of Louie." The intensity in his eyes penetrated the darkened nook that we were talking in. He asked me for a cigarette and we sat there in the dark smoking together. I balled up my sweaty little fists and thought about what Louie's pizza would look like; all mushroom with maybe one shriveled, burnt pepperoni slice dangling from the crust.

On the car ride home, my mom explained the different kinds of things that can happen to stroke victims, and how one half of the body or the other is usually affected. She said that Dad might have paralysis in half of his body, but chances were that he would be able to regain most of his motor function through physical therapy. I didn't really say much on the ride back to New Hampshire. I couldn't stop thinking about what Dad used to tell my sister and me on long rides in his old Caprice Classic station wagon as we gorged ourselves on convenience store snacks and he sucked back nip after nip of Fleischmann's whiskey.

If I ever end up in a hospital bed and I can't take care of myself, I want one of you to pull the plug. If there's no plug to pull, just get a gun and shoot me. I could never live like that.

We always thought Dad was just being ridiculous and, as kids, we never thought he would end up like that anyway. He was invincible to us; the hero who let us have candy and soda for dinner and stay up late to watch scary movies. He was the hero who gave me my first Nintendo after it "fell off of the delivery truck." Dads don't get sick; dads are the toughest people on the planet. I nervously flipped through the cigarettes in my pocket the whole ride back to our house as I thought about Dad, Louie, my brothers, and what my life was going to be like from that point forward.

A week later, the doctors told my mom that Dad was awake, and the left side of his body was paralyzed. They were going to move him into an inpatient physical therapy clinic because they believed he would regain control over most of what wasn't working if he devoted himself to rehabilitation. They let me talk to him on the phone a few minutes later.

"Hey, Mickey MacDoogle. Whatchappening?" He sounded funny, which my mom explained to me was because he could only talk out of one side of his mouth.

"DAD! How the hell are you?"

"I'll tell you, I've got a schplitting headache."

We both laughed for about five minutes.

"I'm arive, and thatch pretty good iv you ashk me. I'm gonna be in here fer a whire doing de rehab monkey dance, but I won't be in fer long. I've rearry got to schtraighten out and put my nose to the grindstone show I can get back on my feet."

"Awesome, Dad. I'm so psyched to hear your voice. You sound pretty good, actually. So do you think that you are going to be doing the rehab thing for a while?"

"Hopefully not, the food here ish terrible."

I laughed again. Leave it to my father to be cracking jokes immediately after he had suffered major bodily trauma.

"But scheriously, this was a wake up call for me, Mikey. Dere's a lot about my life thatch got to change, and I'm going to do it. I'm going to pull through."

I remember hanging up the phone feeling upset that my dad, once again, had managed to put a spark of hope into the wet kindling that was my relationship with him as a young adult.

A few hours later, I got a call from Em.

"Hey, Mr. Mike, what's happening? I heard you talked to dadoo."

"Yeah, he sounded kind of weird, but he seems like he's in good spirits."

"He sounds like he's chewing on a tree branch, doesn't he?"

I laughed. "So did you end up going to Vermont with Marty?"

"Yeah, we went up the next morning. We threw all of Louie's belongings into the street, and shortly after we threw Louie into the street after them. He didn't put up a fight or anything. Marty and I told him we didn't want to see him around the inn ever again. His brother came to pick him up a couple hours later, and he was gone."

To this day, nobody knows Louie's whereabouts. Some people say he went back to Albania; some people say he actually died. I like to imagine that Louie actually turned into a werewolf and a bunch of fearful Albanian peasants hunted him down with pitchforks and torches through the hilly woodlands of his hairy, worthless homeland. That always makes me laugh.

The first few months of my dad's recovery went great. He ate well (or as well as the nurses would let him eat), he made daily progress in physical therapy, and he read voraciously. His friends and family couldn't send him books fast enough. He took special comfort in flipping through the Bible. Dad was always a Christian, but in his own way. I remember one day when I was young, and he asked me, "Mikey, you know Jesus loves you, right?" I didn't know what to say. I mean, I knew who Jesus was, but I didn't understand how my mother's decision to return the BMX bike Dad got me for my birthday so we could buy food could be construed as the warm touch of Jesus' love. Nor did I understand how drinking, gambling and gluttony could be part of a sentient Christian's lifestyle. He might have been a hypocrite, but I was glad that Dad was enjoying his religion. Nobody needed a crutch, literally or spiritually, more than he did at that point. I was proud of him. We talked regularly on the phone. He would tell me about his progress on the parallel bars and how he wooed the staff into submission with his legendary storytelling abilities. He was overcoming the odds, and doing it in style. It was amazing. For the first time in a long time, Dad was my hero again.

Posted by KungFu Mike at 3:58 PM

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Comments

Wow, I could never say that I know what you went through. Obviously, you are the only one who can really relate and understand the pain and confusion of the situation. My father almost died of a staph infection seven years ago (I was 16 at the time) and I remember not being able to believe that a world can exist without my dad. My father is and always has been an amazing person - probably 3/4 pepperoni - and to this day I cannot talk about those first touch-and-go 48 hours. So, I could only imagine how difficult it is for you to write this experience down but this really is very good writing. Thank you!

Posted by: Dina at September 10, 2007 06:15 PM

it's interesting to see you writing something deep. but you do it well there's no doubt about that.

Posted by: sheylala at September 10, 2007 06:28 PM

Very well written. I always thought my Dad was invincible, too, until I found him keeled over in our trailer. He didn't wake up, though, and I am still very, very angry.

Posted by: CBlast at September 11, 2007 07:23 PM

Beautiful!

Posted by: at September 11, 2007 07:54 PM

Wow...it takes a lot for a short story to move my tortured and calloused soul. Namely, quality writing and emotional honesty. Bravo.

Posted by: John Deere at May 7, 2008 06:00 PM

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