Sunday, May 18, 2014

May 17th 1964

There were four of us in the park that day, but I am the only witness left.

It would be easy to tell the story as, “We went to a dog show and my dad died of a heart attack.”  It would be easy and….so… incomplete.  That is the end of the story, but not what happened.  Does what happened that day matter, when we know the end of the story?  I have lived for 50 years with what happened.  I have told the story only a few times.  I was 10 the day it happened.  I was 40 before I could tell the story.

Sunday outings were common with my parents in the early sixties.  Sometimes we visited friends, sometimes we had picnics or flew kites and sometimes we just took a drive in the afternoon.  We would have a big breakfast after Mass at St Paschal’s and at some point in the next hour or so, as my parents were reading the Sunday papers, my father would say to my mother, “Want to take a ride?”   And it would begin…another Sunday adventure. 

The previous year had been tough, Daddy had a heart attack on May 2, 1963 and both my parents had been on edge ever since.  They had several big arguments that year...a result of serious stress…my mother was convinced my father was not caring for himself very well, working too hard and spending too much time in the office.  My dad was bored blind by the limitations the doctors had placed on him.  They were both scared to death.

One of my father’s new and doctor-approved hobbies was the German Shepherd puppy that had come into our life the summer after his heart attack.  “Rocky” (AKC: Sir Rocko’s Black Knight) was a gift from one of my father’s customers and our entire family embraced this much larger-than-normal puppy as the new baby in the family.  For my dad, training and playing with the puppy was one of the few things he got to do that made him feel like himself…like himself before we ever had heard the words coronary thrombosis.

Rocky’s lineage was pure-bred-show-dogs and while his breeder had warned us that our puppy was clearly going to be too big of a dog to ever compete, my dad liked the affiliation with the other owners, so we went to a few dog shows that year.

On this Sunday there was a dog show in Palo Alto.  But, when my dad said, “Want to take a ride?” my mom did not jump up and pack a lunch.  She did not want to go.  She hesitated…and pointed out that they had been out with friends the night before and maybe dad should “rest” on this afternoon.  My dad pouted.  There is no other word for it…my dad was a world-class pouter.  Mom got cranky, but relented and as we prepped for the outing it was tense in the house. 

My brother Tom was 18 and off with friends.  My brother Don was 12 and had been invited to go fishing with some buddies.  So that left 6-year-old Sammy and me in the backseat of the station wagon with the puppy in the “wayback” to head across the Bay Bridge from Oakland and down the peninsula to Palo Alto.

As we pulled out of the driveway, my dad stopped the car in the middle of the street and ran back into the house.  When he climbed back into the car, my mother, who was still in a bad mood, said, “What did you forget?”  “Nitroglycerin,” was the response.

My father loved the San Francisco Bay Area and a drive across the Bay Bridge (which he did every day, his office was in San Francisco) was seeing the world anew for him.  And, my mother was recovering from her crankiness, so Daddy was using all of his charm on that trip.  That is all I remember of the car ride…thinking, “ok, they are happy again.”

The park in Palo Alto was at Embarcadero and Middlefield Rds.  The place was mobbed with dog owners and hundreds of German Shepherds.  There was a festival feeling to the event with sign-in tables under some trees and a few tents with folks selling dog-related product and a voice over a loudspeaker directing the festivities and announcing events.  People were spreading picnic blankets out a few hundred feet from where the show-rings had been staked off.  We spread our sand colored picnic blanket (two old Navy blankets my mother had stitched together) out under a huge tree on the Embarcadero side of the park…farther away from the show-rings.

My father instantly struck up a conversation with folks around us.  My father might have been the most profound extrovert ever put on the planet.  He admired their dogs, asked about their involvement in the show, asked for interpretation of the event and offered them whatever refreshment we had on hand…he found common ground and then made them laugh…my father made everyone laugh.  In a short time Daddy was the center of a small crowd entertaining them and joking around.

One of the men from a neighboring picnic mentioned that they had not closed the registry for the 1-year-old puppies.  He encouraged Daddy to sign-up Rocky and show the puppy, “just for fun.”  Daddy thought that was a great idea and took the dog off in search of the registration table while Mom, Sam and I looked around.

Dad returned quickly and explained that the puppies were “on” right now…so we made our way to the show-ring and tried to find a place to watch.  It was crowded and Sam and I could not see well.  I remember seeing my dad trot by with Rocky on a leash, I caught just a glimpse of his brown pants and white shirt.   I could not see his face.  Rocky was eliminated on the first rotation….and daddy and the puppy came walking out of the ring…both a little winded.  Dad was flushed.  We walked back to our blanket.

“Are you ok?” my mother asked my father.  “Sure, I am just going to sit here a minute,” replied Daddy, “I’m fine.”  Rocky was already asleep in the grass next to the blanket.

She hesitated a minute and then said, “I am going to watch the rest of the puppies,” as she took Sam’s hand and turned away.

I started after my mom, but paused and I said to my dad, “Maybe I should have run around the circle with Rocky?” 

“Don’t be silly, honey,” were my father’s last words.

I was about ten feet away from our blanket when a woman touched my arm, pointed and said, “Look!”

My father was lying face down with his arms under him…his fists at his face. 

I turned for my mother…I had to run a few steps and grab her hand….all I could say was, “Get….daddy!”  And I ran back to the blanket.

Mom called out, “Bob! Bob! Bob!”  As we both knelt down next to him.

“Help me turn him!” she said to me and together we rolled my father over.

His fists were still at his face his arms close to his chest.  His face was purple and grey.

She kept calling, “Bob!”

“His medicine!”  she said…”in his pocket..”

I climbed over my father’s stomach and patted his right pocket…no pills…I reached back to his left side and worked my hand into his pocket and found the pills.  Opening the little, square, flat container with the tiny Nitroglycerin pills inside.  I took one and Mom said, “Under his tongue, it has to go under his tongue.”

And then she fainted.  Mom stood straight up next to my father and then fell backward like a tree. 

I just looked at her for a second and then went back to trying to get the pill under his tongue.  I could get his lips apart, but his teeth were clenched shut.  I could not open them.

I heard my mother stirring and looked over at her.  I had entirely lost track of Sammy….”Bob!” she cried as she regained consciousness….”Noooooo!” she wailed, “I cannot live without him!”  My mother crawled next to me. 

“I cannot get his teeth apart….” I said….
“Pry them apart!” 

And then mom knelt upright and fainted sideways alongside my father. 

I went back to his pockets and found his comb…I placed the back of his comb between his teeth and started prying his teeth apart…I was kneeling next to his head and could not get any leverage….I moved to straddle his chest….I got the comb between his teeth and just as I thought I had succeeded the comb broke and half of it went flying into the crowd that had gathered….

That was when I was first aware of the crowd.  I have no idea how much time had passed since that woman had touched my arm…2 minutes?  2 hours?  But enough time for a crowd to gather.

I looked up at the people who had gathered around us.  The broken comb in my hand, my mother unconscious next to my obviously dying father…there were so many of them watching us.

I heard a woman’s voice softly say, “Oh, please, someone help her.” 

And then things started moving at a faster rate of speed.  Two hands took me by the shoulders and lifted me up off of my father and into the air.  When I was set down on the ground, I saw Sammy.  He was standing about 25 feet away holding the hand of a beatnik.  A man dressed all in black with a black beret and a black goatee.  He was simply standing there watching, holding Sammy’s hand.

A group of men closed in around my father.  Some others were attending to my mother.  I heard her voice…”No! No! NOOO!”  She stood up and again fainted dead away like a tree.

The men worked on daddy.  Uselessly.  We were all useless that day.  They were pumping his legs and moving his arms about (this was 10 month before Asmund Laerdal invented CPR).  Useless.

I heard the ambulance sirens.  Two.  One for Dad and one for Mom.  Mom was conscious again, sitting in a chair someone had brought to her…with her head down.  When the ambulance attendants tried to put her in the ambulance without my father she refused and I can still see her climbing into the back of the ambulance with Daddy…her slip was showing and it was dirty from where she had fallen.  She never looked back at us.  And then the ambulances were gone.

And Sammy and I were left in the park. 

For the next few hours Sammy and I sat alone on a swing-set in the park at the corner of Embarcadero and Middlefield Rd in Palo Alto, California waiting for our lives to come back to us.

A teenaged girl, daughter of one of the men my father had charmed just a few hours ago, came to check on us every 15 minutes or so.  I realize now that none of the adults came to check on us, because they knew we would ask questions they did not want to answer.  At one point she told me that her father had driven over to the hospital and there was a red-headed man sitting with my mother in the waiting room.  I assumed it was my Uncle, Tom Naddy, who lived not far from Palo Alto in San Carlos.

One of the other families that had shared pleasantries with us earlier, had Rocky staked to their picnic blanket and had given him a bowl of water.

Every few minutes during the second hour, over the loudspeaker, a voice would ask, “Tom Householder, Please come to the registry desk.”
I explained to the teenager that Tom was not with us…and she promised to tell whoever was in charge.  But the request for Tom continued until the dog show was over.

And the dog show had ended…the park had cleared out.  These two families remained in place…one watching our puppy up-close and one watching two small children from afar.

The teenager returned and said, “Your mother’s back.  She is in the parking lot.”  And she led the way for Sammy and me.

It turned out that it was a red-headed stranger not my uncle Tom with my mother.  When I approached her in the parking lot he was standing next to her with his arm around her shoulders.  I was confused by this, but I did not ask her about it for several years.  It turned out he was just a guy that realized she was alone and followed her to the hospital.

The two families were deep in discussion figuring out a way to drive us back to Oakland.  They settled on Mom, Sam and me in the back of one car, the dog in another and one of the adults from these two never-having-met-before good Samaritans following in our car.  Mom was participating in the discussion and smiling at all involved.  Perfectly calm.

I listened to all of these arrangements for several minutes before getting my mother’s attention.  “How is daddy?”  I asked.

“Oh, honey, daddy died.”  My mother said.  And then she wrapped me in her arms and swayed back and forth for a while.

“My father went to a dog show and died of a heart attack.”   That description has always tormented me.  It is accurate for my siblings who were not there that day, but it is not the comprehensive.

We went to a dog show on May 17th 1964 and everything about our life changed. 

I changed forever that day.  When I saw daddy’s face, I changed.  When my mom fainted, I changed.   When I dug in his pockets for pills and a comb, I changed.  While waiting in that park with Sammy, I changed.

I am the black sheep sister in a family.  I became the black sheep fifty years ago in a park in Palo Alto.  I am not sure Mom ever forgave me for failing to get the medicine to daddy in time.  I am not sure my older siblings have ever forgiven me for being there when they weren’t.   None of them have ever asked to hear the story of that day.  And who can blame them, it is not pleasant.

But, we went to a dog show one day and my father charmed the crowd, showed his adored puppy and had a heart attack; my mother became hysterical, could not remain conscious of the events and left a ten year old to manage it, then, ultimately in her fear and grief forgot she had two small children with her and climbed into an ambulance without ever looking over her shoulder at them. 

Strangers came to our rescue, watering the dog, minding the children, following her to the hospital to assure she was not alone, waiting long after they needed to be there and then driving us a long way home to the Oakland hills.  So far out of their way as it turns out, that one family did not get home until long after midnight that night.

That is what happened on May 17th 1964.


The rest is the end.