When you’re young, you feel invincible. Your world seems elevated and tinged with gold on the edges. But then something happens and your eyes are opened to the fine line between life and death that you walk so innocently each day.
It happened on a Sunday. I was about to go to tennis practice. “Hurry, you’re going to be late!” My mom announced above the beats of 103.5 radio. I was in the bathroom, struggling to pull my cloud of curls into a neat bun.
It was Sunday, August 26th, 2018 and the embers of summer shinned hot that morning. I wished summer would never end.
The stairs creaked slowly as my father ascended the stairs. “Dev!” He called to my mother. He fell to the floor in the hallway right before the entrance to the bathroom. My mother shrieked and ran to him as I stood frozen in front of the bathroom mirror, hands still tangled in my hair.
“Tyler call 911!!”
The words felt suspended in air, a fantasy, a caricature of dramas I’d watched on light afternoons, never dreaming their contents could affect me. I ran through space and somehow tumbled into my bedroom. I felt as if I were moving through quicksand, my hands fumbled with the screen of my phone, oh my god, oh my god, OH MY GOD. My mother held my dad’s head to her lap in the hallway. “Vic, can you hear me?” She asked my dad as he groaned incoherently. “HE’S NOT BREATHING. Tyler hurry!” she cried.
It seemed like centuries before I finally got a hold of a 911 respondent. “911 what is your emergency?” A female voice chirped from the other line. “Um, my father -um, he isn’t breathing, he’s collapsed on the floor.”
It’s amazing how time stretches when your life is falling apart. Like molasses, like old taffy stretched too thin. The ambulance arrived 15 minutes later. By that point, my father had gotten into an upright position. He was leaning against the wall, twitching his leg to try to stay conscious. “I don’t want to die.” He repeated to my mother as she held his hand tight. “You won’t,” I stated firmly, but we all knew that at a time like this, nothing was certain.
The police officers flooded the house and hoisted my father onto a gurney. The neighbors stood like grim mourners as they gathered to watch the commotion from their doorsteps. My mom told me to ride with my dad in the ambulance and that she’d meet us at the hospital, but I couldn’t hear her. As I sat there in the passenger seat of the ambulance, my anxiety surged like ocean waves. He’s going to be okay. He’s going to live, was all I could think. I felt like a blank page, like a programmed system whose data’s been wiped from its memory. I’d lived a life for 16 years, yet I would, and never will know, how to tackle that day.
As we zoomed to the hospital, my eyes danced across the rearview mirror towards my father and the medics in the back. Periodically I called out “Dad?”, to make sure he was still with me. 911 calls aren’t what you’d expect: things move slowly and it seemed like centuries before we pulled out from in front of our house. The men with white lab coats talked in rough, staccato voices, and I craned my neck to make sure they were helping my father. We need to go faster. We’re running out of time!
Minutes rolled by and we arrived at the hospital. My father was unloaded from the vehicle and wheeled into Urgent Care, past rows and rows of patients and into to a big white room, the only privacy from the busy hallway beyond, offered by a blue and white curtain.
My mother met me in the hospital room and we sank nervously into two gray chairs across from my father’s bed. Nurses fluttered around him like angry white moths, sticking and prodding and taking tests. Eventually, the white-coated doctors announced that my dad would be taken in for an EKG test. They didn’t yet know what was causing him to be so sick.
Hospitals are not a place you want to be. What I noted most were the noises. The clacking of shoes, the skuttle of machinery, the beeps of IV machines. In rooms all around me were families like my own. People whose grandmas were sick, whose mothers had broken an arm, whose children had contracted a bad cold. There was a collective waiting, an anticipation of the unknown, so thick and palpable that I could feel it in my mouth like the remnants of a bad meal.
Beside me, I saw tears rolling down my mother’s cheek and I held her tight to me. “He’ll be fine. We’re going to be alright,” I said to the air. “We’re going to be alright,” she repeated.
Looking back on these memories, I realized I never cried during these days; not once. Crying would make it seem too real. So I steeled myself and thought positive thoughts instead.
Hours later, after wheeling my father back to the big white room, the doctors reported that my dad had had a pulmonary embolism as a result of blocked arteries close to his lungs. The day before, my father had driven with his fraternity’s mentoring group, the Sigma Beta Club, from DC, back home to New Jersey, and hadn’t stood up throughout the whole drive. According to the doctors, this inactivity for an extended period of time had caused the treacherous clots to form in his legs and spread to his chest. After much consideration, the doctors had determined that instead of surgery, he’d be on blood thinners for many days in order to prevent the formation of further clots in his body.
My father was in the hospital for 5 days during his recovery. My mom and I slept there, vigilant overseers to his rehabilitation. I was so moved by the outpour of love that came from far and wide for my father. His Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity members came to visit, talk and pray with him every day that we stayed in the hospital and many of my friends were there for me, sending loving texts and prayers, and calling to check up on my family for months after the fact. My grandparents, aunt, and uncle even drove up from Richmond, Virginia to see him. That day my grandparents visited the hospital was the first time I’d ever seen my father cry. When he saw his mother part that blue and white curtain, he broke down sobbing, a moment that was tender as a rose at full bloom. At first, the moment shook me to my core. My father, my rock, crying seemed unreal, like seeing hearing a dog talk or tasting a bad batch of my grandmother’s famous gumbo. However, after weeding through my own preconceived biases on masculinity, I reminded myself that after having a near death experience like my father’s, I would be really emotional as well. And those emotions have to exit your body somehow, they can’t get bottled up. Emotions are scary, for it means facing yourself at your best as well as your worst. After that day, I saw my dad as braver than ever, for he faced his enemy, pain, and sickness, and battled it head on, summoning it to exit his body through his tears.
The third day that my father was on the hospital’s recovery floor, I had to attend tennis preseason at my school. I automatically thought I should share my father’s situation with my coach and stay at the hospital, but my father called me over to his bed and said, “You go out there and play for me.” And so I went, and I had never played so hard in my life. With each swing of my racquet, I thought of my father and how strong he was to overcome his illness. I hoped to be just as resilient and fierce as he was, and because of him, I played my way onto the varsity tennis team.
Today is February 9th, 2019 and it’s the day before my birthday. Though months after that terrifying day, my dad and our family still feel the grips of his illness. For weeks my father has had crippling anxiety about whether the clots will come back, often having panic attacks and checking himself into the hospital because he feels “sick”. One night, I was downstairs studying for a test when my father doubled over, frozen with anxiety. He called out to me, instructing me to call 911, and as I swiftly dialed the 3-digit number, my mother sat next to him, holding him as he started to cry. That was one of the most painful nights, for at that moment he seemed worlds away. Through his sobs, I could feel the waves of his pain and struggle, but I found myself grappling in vain for a way to help him. During this time, and even today, I felt immense guilt that I haven’t helped him enough and that I should be doing more.
The reason I’m sharing this story is because my life was changed forever that day on August 26th, 2018. Though this story is still unfolding, I believe the lesson to draw from it is how precious time is. I believe that this, all this pain, happened for a reason. At the time, my mother and I were often wrapped up in our busy schedules and my father was going through a rough time as he was unfulfilled by his work. However, this experience served as a harsh wake-up call to us all, reminding us of what truly mattered in life; each other. If my mother and I had left for that tennis lesson 15 minutes earlier, my father wouldn’t still be with us today. It was truly a miracle that he was saved that day, for we were about to walk out the door, and thus into a different life. My father was meant to be saved and through this experience, emerge being motivated to create that fulfillment that he had been searching for outside of himself. My father’s sickness led me to become more passionate and empathetic at my school, for I never shared my difficulties with anyone there except for my teachers and that made me think about all the things my classmates could be suffering silently through as well. We never know what others are going through, and I wanted to be a beacon of light and positivity in other’s lives. I still struggle in trying to not be so guarded at school and sometimes do revert back to the cocoon of quietness, that I now see as my protective mechanism, however, what’s most important is that I’m trying to live up to the highest version of myself.
I never thought I’d get this personal on Afro Puff Chronicles, however, I think me sharing this experience speaks to the power of this community and we’ve built. I feel so safe and loved in this space, and I hope that by sharing my story today, others will feel encouraged to speak up and share theirs as well. My message to you all is to cherish your parents, friends, and family. Things really can change overnight and you want to know that you have made an attempt to have the best relationship possible with them. Next, be kind to others. I know it’s cliche but ‘everyone is fighting their own battles’. You want to be a person that adds to the light in other people’s lives, not one that brings negativity. Lastly, believe in the magic in life. The universe is truly on our sides and shows up in unexpected ways to those who believe in its power. During my dad’s toughest days, I always said, “He’ll make it, he’ll triumph,” and eventually he did.