September 2001 is most universally remembered for the 9-11 attack on the World Trade Center. I remember watching the events unfold on TV that morning, including the attack on the second tower. Everybody seemed to be watching TV that morning, although I eventually had to go to organic chemistry.
The thing I most remember about that day is that my brother called to tell me that Popo had suffered from a stroke the night before. I think he had been at the hospital all night with him, waiting to hear from the doctors what was happening.
September 13, yesterday as I write this, was his birthday and I went home to see him in the hospital that year and I gave him a gift-wrapped baseball cap from Mizzou. He was very out of it; it was like he got Alzheimer's Disease over night. My brother told me I should not have given him anything but I wanted everything to be normal.
Soon I started into a routine of going the 136 miles home every week. One week I was there to visit Popo and take care of an appointment with my ear, nose and throat doctor. The summer before I got what I affectionately call the nerdiest sports injury ever, which was a wicked ear infection from my attempt at training for a triathlon. I also got head lice, but that is a story for another time.
So I woke up the morning of my doctor appointment and when I walked into the kitchen for some cereal, my dad informed me rather casually that he had been having chest pains. "What do you mean, chest pains?" I said, "do you need to go to the doctor?" He said that he already had an appointment later that morning, so he would just go then. He was so nonchalant that I just let it go.
I went with him to the doctor a couple hours later and he hooked my dad up to the EKG and didn't see any signs of a heart attack. "But," he told him, "if you experience the pain again, go to the emergency room." So we were on our way to lunch or my appointment or something, and dad suggested that we go to the emergency room. That kind of thing always takes forever, so he told me to go to my appointment across the street while he waited. By the time I came back the ER doctor had come and gone.
"Well... what did he say?" I asked. "He said I had a heart attack," he answered, and then quickly followed with, "Well, you'd better get on the road before traffic hits." I stayed a while longer but then he gave me some gas money and sent me on my way.
Before I went back to Columbia I stopped by Mindy's. We talked for a while and she asked me about Popo, who absolutely adored Mindy, and I answered about how he was still pretty bad and, oh, by the way, my dad had a heart attack today.
My dad had been so easy-going about the whole thing that I didn't make much fuss over it, either. But then Mindy looked at me so seriously and said, "Oh, Ash, I am so sorry. This is a big deal." It's funny but I swear I didn't know it until that second. And that's when I cried.
Dad had a stint put in and was sent home in the next few days, which was good for my brother who was spending every minute of every day at one hospital or another. I was still coming home every week but I also had to be in school. And I was a Young Life leader and I was volunteering as an assistant cross country coach at Hickman High School. My classes were usually the last thing on my mind.
When I went home I would spend as much time as I could at whatever hospital or rehab center Popo was living in at the time. And by that I mean as much time as I could possibly bear, watching one of the strongest and most loving men I will ever know be humbled by dementia and diapers. It is one thing to witness death, it is quite another to witness dying.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention this one thing, because I think about it all the time: I have mentioned before that my dad and grandparents didn't always have the best relationship. Popo was my mom's dad but during this time my dad visited him every day that he was not in the hospital himself, and he changed his diapers and spoon-fed him soft food. If anyone ever were to wonder how I know what love or loyaly are, that is how. That and, when my grandpa was on his last leg and completely out of his mind, he still knew enough to say this to my dad: "you take care of my little girl, nothing compares to my little girl." He never, not for one second, forgot me.
Then a little later that spring my Dad had his second heart attack. He was scheduled for a triple bypass surgery and at this point I had emailed all of my professors to ask them for grace. I told them that if I were not at every class, it was not because I meant any disrespect. I remember taking my anatomy text book into the waiting room of the hospital, and that it was futile. Dad made it through to recovery and my professors definitely showed me grace, but I still got pretty bad grades that semester.
Despite much internal conflict, I decided to stay in Columbia that summer and get a job, or four, as it turned out. I moved into a townhouse with my friend, Amy, and that was the summer that I really felt like I was becoming an adult. Shortly into the summer I got a letter from the University stating that I was on academic probation. I didn't cut myself any slack whatsoever, but looking back I can see that I was wrong to be so hard on myself. It was a really rough year for me and it taught me to say to myself, "your grades are not an accurate representation of you as a person." That was the year that I got a degree in life and love.