In honor of Father’s Day

In honor of Father’s Day yesterday, I am re-posting my first blog post from two tears ago. It has some relevance in relation to Father’s Day, but it has special meaning to me as we near the 29th anniversary of my dad’s passing.



June 26, 1986. It was a Thursday. I am 20 years old, home for the summer after my sophomore year of college. I have a full time job and a wonderful boyfriend. The phone rings early that morning as I am in the kitchen getting coffee. It’s my cousin in Indiana. “Sheila, this is Donnell. Your dad died.” A statement, just that simple, can change your life like no other.


I ran out on the deck to catch my breath. I haven’t been able to catch my breath since. There are many reasons why.


He was 47. Sometimes when he traveled to Michigan on business he stopped at my aunt and uncles house in Indiana to stay the night. This was one of those nights.


He died? How is that possible? I just talked to him last night. My mom and 17-year-old sister were out somewhere when he called. I chatted with him briefly and said I would see him when he got home the following week. I don’t even remember if I told my mom he had called.


My sister had just finished up her junior year of high school. She was a typical high school girl in the 80’s, and had recently gotten caught drinking by our dad. Trying to prove that he was in control, he told her that she was grounded until he got home from his business trip. He never came home. She’s 44. Is she still grounded?


What happened after this is still so much of a foggy hazy mess. I transferred to a local college, my sister tried to figure out if my dad died hating her and my mom lived on vodka and tonics and peanut M&M’s.


We had a funeral. I remember struggling with what to wear. Does it really matter? I can wear clothes and breath air. Dad can’t.

Hundreds of people came from across the country. My dad was somebody that everybody liked. Funny, smart, hard working and kind. He had a lot of friends. None of them could believe he was gone and so young. How are you girls going to make it? What the hell, we had no idea.


We went to therapy. We survived. The autopsy came back saying he died of a massive heart attack. Do people die of heart attacks? I certainly did know any that did. I did not have one friend at the time that had lost a parent. Either did my sister.


The one thing I had not counted on when I lost my dad was also losing my friends. I had a pretty close group of girl friends, or so I thought. When you are 20 and you lose a parent, no one really knows just the right thing to say. In my case, my friends said nothing at all. They stopped calling me and stopped asking me to do stuff with them. I even found out later that one of my good friends was telling people that I became addicted to drugs trying to deal with the death of my dad. I called him and confronted him. I remember this like it was yesterday. He admitted he was telling lies about me and sent me dozens of roses as an apology. I threw them into the woods.


I was so wrapped up in helping my mom and sister try to navigate life that I barely noticed my friends weren’t calling. I had that wonderful boyfriend anyway.

After about a year and a half of trying to make our way, my mom decided to sell the house and move to Indiana. Back to the same place my dad died. She is from Indiana and figured that blood is thicker than water so she wanted to move back to where her family lived. She had grown tired of being the third wheel with her friends. At least she had friends.


Now, don’t get me wrong, we had friends. But the people that stuck by me and were there to help during this very difficult time were the guys my boyfriend was hanging out with. They became my best friends too.


My sister had gone off to college. I was working full time and going to school full time. And still dating the wonderful boyfriend. If my mom was moving away, I guess I could get my own place. We had talked about getting married but maybe not for a while, we were so young. But in life, when things don’t work out as you had planned you make adjustments no matter how big they are. So in April of 1988, at the ages of 21 and 23, we got married. My mom moved that July. Life was moving pretty fast.


It gets pretty normal and mundane for the next 20 or so years. We bought a small house, had two babies (15 months apart), built a bigger house, had another baby.

We took vacations, went to thousands of kids sporting events and basically worked hard at life. Meanwhile we raised three amazing kids.


And then a little bump in the road. In May of 2009 at my yearly routine ob-gyn visit as my doctor is listening to my heart, he asks me if I have been having chest pains or shortness of breath lately. My response was, of course, I have three teenagers, isn’t that normal? He walks out of the room and when he returns he hands me a card for a cardiologist and says, I want you to call him immediately.


I did call and was seen in a week. I had so many tests run on me that I had to start keeping a running list with me at all times. A TEE, Echo, Stress Test, bubble test, EKG and finally a CT in August. The CT revealed a 10cm x 13 cm cyst in my chest cavity that was attached to the thymus gland. It had to come out immediately. I was scheduled for a left chest thoracotomy the following week. Life as we knew it was changing drastically.


A thoracotomy has got to be the worst surgery a person can endure. I was in the hospital for a week. One night, after I had been taken off of the morphine pump, I was in such pain that it took me over an hour to move my finger about three inches just to push the button for the nurse. I know this because I watched the clock. He came in and asked me what my pain level was on a scale of 1 to ten. It was a 12. The next three months were horrible, but my family was there to support me and help me through it all. My mom came and stayed with us for a month. Cooking, cleaning, laundry and shopping all fell to her. She was an amazing help.


At my three-month follow up with the cardiologist he says that I should be feeling awesome since that cyst is gone, and not pressing on my heart and lungs. Speaking of that, shouldn’t I be able to breath better? I just wasn’t feeling that great. He did something not many doctors do, but sent me to another doctor. One with more experience.


That Dr. ordered another stress test, chest X-Ray and Echo. I had a V02Max test and finally an MRI. It was decided that a Cardio Catheter would be the best test to reveal what exactly was going on. So in January of 2010, five months after the thoracotomy surgery I was told that I would need to have open heart surgery to repair pulmonary valve stenosis.


Is this what my dad suffered from and why he died so young? It turns out, no we do not have the same issues, but heart disease is hereditary. I had open-heart surgery in March of 2010 at the age of 44 to replace the pulmonary valve in my heart, which is a birth defect. I am a member of the “zipper club”. I have a 10-inch scar running down the center of my chest. So here it is, in almost exactly seven months I have had two of the most major surgeries a person can have. But I am alive. I am a survivor.


Time has passed, my husband and I celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary by going on a two week trip to Europe that included a seven day western Mediterranean cruise. We went with three other couples, some of the best friends a person could have. See! I do have friends! Friends that actually mean something to me.


I am 47. The same age my dad lived to be. I have thought about this every single day since my birthday. And I will think about it every single day until I turn 48. The day I outlive my dad. That is such a strange thing to strive for. But for me it’s not been an easy road.





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