Twenty years ago, January 11, 1997, was cold, bitterly cold. The sun was shining, though, its warming rays sprinkling the winter garden of the Brent House Hotel in New Orleans with sparkling rays of sunshine. As I sat quietly reading, “The Nazi Doctors,” I could not wait to tell my Dad about it. I’d inherited my love of history, especially World War II history, from my Dad. We often read the same books about the war, which led to lively discussions around the kitchen table. But on that freezing day, Dad was not capable of talking about books or anything else. Little did I know what that day would hold.
The 1996 Christmas season had been busy. I’d taken off a few extra days from work to make sure my upcoming Christmas soiree would be as festive as ever. Invitations for December 21st were sent with this schmaltz opening: Never a Christmas morning, never the old year ends. That I don’t think of someone–old days, old times, old friends. The food had been ordered and would soon be delivered. My wonderful, old 2nd Street apartment was resplendent with glistening decorations. A good time would surely be had by all! But a phone call from Mom on December 19th quickly put a damper on everything. “Anthony, I need you. Your father’s sick. Come home now!” Without hesitation, I stopped putting the final Christmas touches on the dining room chandelier and rushed home. What I found was not good.
“Dad, you okay?” I asked as I entered my parent’s bedroom. His answer was not one that I had expected. “Son, I don’t feel good.” Knowing that my Dad was a man of few words when it came to personal matters, I knew something was amiss. When he ask me to help him to the bathroom, my suspicions were confirmed. By the time he got there, he could hardly breathe. “Dad, I think you need to go to the hospital…what do you think?” He nodded yes. “Mom, I’m calling an ambulance.” And thus began a journey, one that would prove that I was stronger than I ever imagined.
After sitting for several hours in Gulfport’s Memorial Hospital Emergency Room, a preppie young doctor introduced himself and cut to the chase: “Mrs. Kalberg, we think it’s best for Mr. Kalberg to go to Ochsner. His tests indicate a severe blockage in two arteries, possibly some in the aorta. We can call Ochsner…get the ball rolling if wish.” Of course, we said yes. Dad had had heart surgery at Ochsner in the early 1960s, performed by its founder, Dr. Alton Ochsner. That surgery helped correct my Dad’s heart from the ravages of childhood rheumatic fever. Dr. Ochsner told my parents if they had waited six more weeks, Dad would have died. But for now, Dad would stay at Memorial until after the New Year.
Mom took the night shift, and I took the day shift. Dad was weak, so weak he could hardly walk, talk, or eat. It was difficult to get him to do any of those things. But the first order of business was canceling my Christmas party. I enlisted the help of David Delk, who called my guests–all 100 of them–and let them know that the party had been canceled; family always trumps a party. While hospitalized, Dad would walk for me when he wouldn’t walk for Mom. I knew why. He was more than aware how delicate she was, both mentally and physically. She didn’t say much, but I knew deep inside she was fearful of what was coming–major heart surgery.
My journal entry for January 9, 1997, started with these words: “I’m sitting here alone in a celery-green sitting room, which is part of the Surgical Intensive Care Unit at Ochsner…” Leave it to me to write about the room’s interior, which looked as if it hadn’t been redecorated since the 1960s. I also wrote about the families in the room. Some were in tears, some were laughing, but I sensed that everyone was somewhat fearful of the future. I too was one of those people. Mother was in our hotel room. For those that don’t know, the Brent House Hotel is attached to Ochsner Hospital, which is most convenient for families with loved ones there. Knowing my mother as I do, I knew that I’d be on my own for whatever the future might hold. And how true that would be!
Dad’s surgery was originally scheduled for January 8th. However, it was delayed until the next day due to a child’s emergency heart surgery–hospital rule, children always come first, which is understandable. January 9th did not go as planned either. Dad’s surgery was rescheduled for 5:00 A.M. The Front Desk was supposed to call us at 3:30 A.M. You know where I’m going with this story: they didn’t. I woke up from a sound sleep and knew something was amiss. I called Front Desk. The desk clerk told me it was 5:10 A.M. Yikes! Not a good start to what would be an incredibly long day. I told HER to call the Surgical Unit and inform them why we’d be a tad late! I quickly jumped into some pants, a sweatshirt, and slung a ball cap on my head. I then woke Mom and Dad, got him dressed, and dashed off to the Surgical Unit with Dad in a wheelchair; Mom said she’d follow right behind once she got dressed. When I arrived at the Surgical Unit, I don’t know who was more apologetic: the nurses, due to the Front Desk snafu, or me for not having a travel clock, back in the day when folks still traveled with such.
The nurse quickly put Dad in a room and started prepping him for surgery. Once she did, he was placed in a bed in another room with other patients who were waiting for surgery as well. After looking for Mom, I found her, and we went to the room where Dad was. Our pastor, Dr. Kiley Young, came in to greet us. What a surprise! He was there visiting another church member. We prayed for Dad’s surgery and its outcome until the nurse interrupted us. “Mr. Kalberg, it’s time,” she said. In the poignant silence that followed, my Dad’s eyes filled with tears. I’d only seen my father cry once before. It was at my sweet Granny from D’Lo’s funeral. He hugged my mother, who was crying too. He told her he loved her very much. Then he looked at me with his huge brown puppy eyes and said forcefully, “Son, you take care of your mother!” I said I would and with that, he was wheeled out of the room and down a long hallway. Just before turning a corner, Dad looked back at me with a strange, forlorn look on his face. I think he knew deep inside that the surgery would not go as planned. Alas, there had been no time for me to tell him that I loved him or him me.
For the next five hours, Mom and I cooled our heels in the celery-green waiting room. A few dear family members came to keep us company. It was a delight to talk with them and play catch-up. Occasionally, a nurse would give us an update: All was going as planned. Late in the afternoon, Dad’s doctor came to the room with good news. The surgery had gone well, which surprised the doctor considering all that was done. He’d replaced Dad’s aorta and mitral valves; a bypass was also completed. We all breathed a sigh of relief. Mom and I hugged and kissed our relatives and said goodbye. Dad was resting peacefully in Intensive Care, so Mom and I ate supper. After that, we went to our room, got into our bed clothes, and went to bed. It had been a long, long day! Sleep came quickly. Unfortunately, so did a call from Intensive Care.
“Mr. Kalberg, please come to I.C. as soon as possible…your father’s taken a turn,” said a monotone nurse’s voice. “Yes, ma’am. We’re on our way.” Mom was awake when I got off the phone. I told her what the nurse had said. For the second time that day, we quickly dressed and dashed to the hospital. Dad’s doctor met us in a private waiting room and told us what was happening. “Mr. Kalberg has developed some internal bleeding, caused by all the new surgery. This is a serious development, one that I was not expecting. We’re doing all that’s humanly possible for him.” Mom started crying. I held her close to me. “Doc…what’s going to happen?” I asked with hesitation. The doctor looked directly into my eyes and said with great kindness, “Within twenty-four hours we’ll know. I’m very sorry” He smiled, shook my hand, and left.
The nurse came in and ask us if we’d like to visit Dad. The Intensive Care Unit was huge. There must have been thirty or forty patients in it. As we passed room after room, we could see the patients with tubes and wires all over their bodies. Above each patient was a series of computer monitors recording heart rates and such. Just before we got to Dad’s room, the nurse stopped us. “Mrs. Kalberg, Anthony. I just want to warn you that Mr. Kalberg’s swollen due to the internal bleeding.” Then we entered the room. Mom gasp. I inhaled deeply. Dad looked bad, really bad. The nurse told us that he probably could hear us but could not speak. He could barely move.
As we approached the bed, I could not help but notice the tube in Dad’s mouth or the myriad of wires that spun around him like a huge spider web. He was covered in a thick blanket. And like the other patients, hanging above his bed were computer monitors; their green lines and numbers flashing. But it was his face that was the most distressing. He was so swollen, he was almost unrecognizable. His eyes were swollen shut, as were his lips. His face was bloated and jaundiced looking. Mother spoke to him, as did I. But I’m not sure he heard us, much less understood what we were saying. The nurse arrived and said it was best that we leave.
On our way back to the hotel room, Mom was silent. I’d heard that silence before. It always meant that she was shutting down, withdrawing into herself. I also knew that from that point onward, I’d be on my own. I was accustomed to that too. Being an only child, I’d learned long ago to survive by myself. Or should I say, by myself with God’s help? For the second time that night, we got into our pajamas and went to bed. I fell asleep to the sound of Mom crying.
The next morning, January 10th, dawned bright and cold. Mom wanted to stay in the room and have breakfast sent to her. I order her some and left. “Mom, I’ll keep you posted. I’m gonna have some breakfast and read in the winter garden after I see Pop. I love you.” She only smiled. It was a bittersweet smile, but a smile none the less. I could only imagine what was she was thinking. At 10:00, the first visit of the day was allowed. The celery-green waiting room emptied and was silent. I once again passed the many rooms with their very sick patients. I paused when I came to Dad’s room. I was not sure what I would see.
I then heard a very cheery voice. It was one of Dad’s nurses. Her name was Rosie. Kevin and Lilly were his other nurses. I laughed and told them that I was terrible when it came to remembering names, so I’d best nickname them. Rosie was christened Sweet Rosie O’Grady. Kevin became Kevin Costner. Lilly accepted her Tony as Lilly Langtry. We became fast friends. My journal entries for that day were posted about every two hours after visiting Dad. As the day lingered on, my entries were a mixed bag of fear, sadness, and a bit of anger. Why was this happening and why now? God are you up there? If so, where?
Lilly told me that Dad’s body had so much excess fluid in it, the doctor had ordered a dialysis machine to help the body drain. Kevin came into the room and started that procedure, as Rosie emptied the urine bag. It was dark and murky. The room reeked of alcohol and disinfectant. Dad still had blood on him for the surgery, which Lilly started to clean. And the noise! Buzzers! People moaning in pain! Family members crying! And above it all the monotonous hum of the lights in Dad’s room!
I knew that I needed a respite, a peaceful place to unwind and pray. Kevin told me where the chapel was. My last entry that day was at 10:06 P.M. It stated the following: “Have just spoken with the Doctor. He said at this point, Dad’s chances of surviving the following day were slim. And now new machines–one for Dad’s lungs to help him breathe; one to help his heart pump; a blood machine to keep his blood flowing. He’s so bloated and has a sickening, yellow-green color. Oh! Watchman, what of the night?
My next journal entry stated this: January 11th, 5:45 P.M. Daddy’s gone!
To this day, I’ve never forgotten those words. They are acid-etched in my memory! Late on the afternoon of January 11th, when the doctor told me that Dad had only a short time to live, I dashed to the hotel room to get Mom. She met me at the door. “Is Frank gone?” she asked, tears streaming down her face. “No Mom, but he’s going fast, very fast. Do you want to come with me?” She paused and looked at me with her big blue, tear-stained eyes. I knew she didn’t want to come. “Will you be okay?” she asked. “Yes, Mom. I’ll be just fine.”
I then heard a voice on the intercom. “Will the Kalberg Family please report immediately to the Intensive Care Unit on Fourth Floor.” I hugged Mom. I knew this was it. I dashed back to Dad’s room and was greeted by his doctor, along with Lilly, Rosie, and Kevin. They told me that Dad had only minutes to live. The doctor once again said how sorry he was, just as he was paged to another floor with an emergency. He quickly departed. “What’s gonna happened now,” I ask.
Rosie said that they would give Dad a massive injection of morphine to ensure that he would feel no pain in the end. Rosie said that once that happened, I should watch each of the five monitors. I had a huge lump in my throat. I wanted to cry but couldn’t. I then ask if any of my three new friends were Christians. And to my surprise, they all said that they were. “Okay, give him the shot. But before you do, please hold me, just hold me until it’s over.” And they did. I stood there and watch, as one by one the monitors flatlined. I knew Dad was in Heaven–no more pain, no more tears, no more fears. Only an eternity of peace, love, and happiness knowing that he was Home in the loving arms of Jesus!
Not a day goes by that I don’t think of my Dad. Oh! How I miss him!