1. “Look, a bunny rabbit.”
Seconds before my father collapsed from cardiac arrest, he pointed out a rabbit to his granddaughter. He had been at dinner at Disney World with his wife, her daughter, and her daughter’s kids. As they cut through a parking lot on the way from the restaurant to their hotel, my dad spotted a rabbit and wheeled the stroller around to show the two-year-old. Then he fainted, then he died.
2. “Beep. Beep. Whoosh. Beep. Beep. Whoosh. Beep. Beep. Whoosh.”
Resuscitated by lifeguards and paramedics, my father had been without oxygen for at least five minutes. Doctors recommended “code cool,” in which a patient is put into a hypothermic coma to prevent brain damage. There’s a five percent survival rate for people who receive this treatment after their hearts stop. While he was silent, asleep but not dreaming, the machines beeped, whooshed, sizzled, and scatted, sometimes a jazzy rhythm, sometimes a thumping set of electronic beats, house music at the hospital.
3. “Why am I like a battery in a bag of potato chips?”
My dad loves jokes, crosswords, aphorisms, bon mots of all kinds. He once gave me a collection of sayings—some his, most not—typed, bound, and titled “Phil’s Gems.” None were attributed. I understood the impulse to use someone else’s words to express how you feel. He got Playboy for the centerfolds, sure, but he loved memorizing the jokes too. “Why am I like a battery in a bag of potato chips?” he’d ask. “Because I’m Frito Lay and Eveready.”
4. “It’s a waiting game.”
One afternoon, when I was about eleven, I stayed behind while my father and brother went grocery shopping. Bogie, our miniature schnauzer, and I sat in my dad’s Nissan 300Z, a sports car the color of oxblood, as I read the ending to A Patch of Blue, in which the sighted black man and blind white woman are parted forever. I cried and cried about the viciousness of the world, its resistance to unconventionality, its brutality. My dad arrived mid-cry. If he’d had a knife, he would have brandished it, a gun, he would have cocked it. He dropped the groceries, spinning around, dizzily asking if someone had hurt me or the dog. The world has always been us and them, and them always wants to hurt us.
At the hospital, it took twenty-four hours to cool his system into a coma. From that point, he had seventy-two hours to wake up and show some brain function.
5. “Bodies are fragile.”
And strong and ugly and smelly. In the days following his collapse, my dad lost sixteen pounds. His skin sagged and pooled like blankets on an unmade bed. Orderlies and nurses peered close, looking for bedsores. Then they wanted to know if he was a biker.
No, not a biker, we’d say, although he looked the part, with a robust mustache and twenty-something tattoos. One is a wizard pointing thunderbolts at his groin. One is the moon, one is a star. One means “life” in Hebrew, one means “luck” in Yiddish. A Nike swoosh on his leg, the Lacoste alligator on his chest so long the brand has come back into style. One says, “No ordinary bird.” One is a butterfly, one is an owl, one is a bull, one is an eagle, one is a parrot, one is a turtle. He has a rooster near his wrist, another on his leg. In recent years, he’d specialized in getting old tattoos redone; it gave him a hobby during his retirement in Florida besides lifting weights and nagging my stepmother.
A nurse loved the small red heart on his forearm. It was my favorite too, even more than the woman with flowing locks meant to be my mother on his shoulder, which had hardly faded since their divorce. One afternoon, this nurse edged my comatose father’s feet out of the way to sit on his bed. She scrolled through her iPhone, finding a photo of her daughter, a burgundy heart tattooed on the side of her neck. She brandished the phone as if it meant a goddamn thing.
6. “I’m going to die.”
Five days after his heart stopped, my father told me he was going to die. “You’ve been in a coma for days and this is your life lesson? That you’re going to die?” I asked. It was a joke that wasn’t a joke. He lay curled up, wedged against the guardrail, brown hands tucked under white-frothed head. His eyes were wide and wild, goggling us in cloudy gray-green. My husband thought he had lost brain function, so unfocused was his face. He looked ten years older than his sixty-four, maybe more. “I’m going to die,” my father said, and swallowed. Lids closed, lids opened. “I like your hair.” He was awake.
“You’re a good person,” he would mumble to whomever entered his line of focus, including, occasionally, the pundits on ESPN’s SportsCenter. Around his bed, a crowd. We all said, “I love you.” Sometimes he screamed, “ouch,” sometimes he barked, mostly, “aw, fuck.” There hadn’t been any brain damage. He often spoke like that.
7. “This is how the body says, ‘fuck you.’”
The doctors’ words formed a kind of polysyllabic poetry: echogram, cardiograph, cardiomyopathy, idiopathic, idiocy. I kept mishearing the name of the procedure for figuring out what had happened to the heart and how it could heal, so “heartgraft” became “heartcraft.” Sitting with my dad between tests, I transformed the heart on my father’s arm into a version of the organ in his chest. What I imagined was a crumpled and yellow thing, dented on several sides, barely beating. The cardiologist explained that while no one would ever know exactly what caused my father’s heart to stop, hard living had been a significant factor. Of this the doctor was certain.
When he arrived at the hospital post-collapse, my father’s blood alcohol content was five times the normal amount, likely due to his body’s difficulty in breaking alcohol down using enzymes, likely due to decades of drinking. By the way, an internist noted, thirty-five years of smoking had given my father “a touch of emphysema” as well as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. That he had quit almost twenty years before mattered not at all. We think we know ourselves or each other, but we are the accumulation of so many small gestures, inhalations, learned behaviors, memories, sips, so much disregarded or forgotten, so much hidden behind skin or familiarity. “Absolutely stupid,” the doctor didn’t so much say as spit.
8. “You’re the Energizer Funny.”
Like a child, my father wanted to hear the same story over and over. He wanted us to describe how he played with his grandkids on Thanksgiving, how he face-planted steps away from Mickey Mouse & Friends, how he had died and come back. The EMTs from Disney World called. The critical care RN who started the code cool stopped by. Most people who experience sudden death stay that way, but my father lived. The word “miracle” got tossed around. Ditto “second chance.”
Inside his chest was now an implantable cardioverter defibrillator, abbreviated as ICD. Whenever, or if ever, my father’s heart suffered an electrical malfunction and stopped, the ICD would zap it back to beating. “You’re carrying the paramedics around with you,” said the nurse with the tattooed daughter. “You’re the Energizer Funny,” said my brother.
9. “School is always in session.”
I was a freshman in high school when my dad told me to drink vodka because it left no smell on the breath. While he never drank during the week, never came home and opened a beer or relaxed with sitcoms and cocktails, he drank on the weekends. Friday or Saturday nights, he would have eight or ten drinks, all doubles, just vodka. Six-or-so feet, a bit shy of two hundred pounds, really strong, he could take it, so went the family line. Only once I saw him stumble up some stairs.
Was it just once? Or was it just once that I can remember?
Whenever life surprised or stung us, my father would say to my brother and me, “School is always in session.” Probably Phil’s most polished gem, it was less an axiom about the wonder of the world than a cynic’s view. Life was cruel, the saying implied, and would remind us, repeatedly, if we forgot. It would beat you down, wear you out, keep you weeping in the parking lot. Still, how hard it is to learn what we already know, to see what we don’t know we see. Such as the number of ways for hearts to fail.
For weeks after my dad was released from the hospital, I walked around with my fist against my chest. I was so mad. I am so mad. My father spent his childhood watching his father drink whiskey and terrorize his family. Several years later, Dad checked his mother into rehab for her drinking problem and manic depression. Another twenty years go by, and it turns out that the youngest child of two alcoholics had slowly been pickling himself to death. I hadn’t noticed. No one had noticed.
My heart beats not like a bird but a bat, not one bat but several, all aching to break bone and explode in a rush of wings and muscle. This is my inheritance, or one of them, I think, again lifting my hand to my heart, my life, my rage, my death.
Jessica Allen has written for The Boston Globe, CNN, Mental Floss, The Onion A.V. Club, and The Washington Post, among other publications. She lives with her husband and their son in New York City.