Six months after my mother died, my 73-year-old father pulled his kayak out of the Colorado River and his heart stopped.
It stopped only for a few seconds and then started again. My brother took him back to his house in Glenwood Springs and my father insisted on driving home to Butte, Montana.
I was on my way to Refuge Cove in British Columbia where my friends would pick me up in their 1928 Lake Union Dreamboat and take me cruising to Desolation Sound. The year had been long, with several losses, and I was looking forward to the vacation. On my way west, I detoured north to the Cabinet Mountains to climb Snowshoe Peak with a friend.
We made it to the ridge two thousand feet above Leigh Lake. The sun was setting, and a snow field blocked the path to the peak and neither of us had an ice axe. A boy had been severely injured earlier that year and, in favor of safety, we made an agreement that we’d bag the excursion and return another time when we were more prepared.
We got off that mountain and drove to the near town of Libby, Montana, where I called my brother from the pay phone at the Town Pump. He told me that Dad needed heart surgery. It was scheduled in three days. I canceled my trip to the islands and went to Butte to stay with Dad and take him to the hospital. That way, if his heart stopped again, he wouldn’t be alone.
I’d been hiking all summer and my dad pulled out his maps to look at hikes for me. The maps took our minds off his broken heart. He showed me the trails to Brown’s Lake and the place where he and my mother had a picnic before they were married, a sweet sandy beach nestled in the beautiful Montana mountains.
We were fine, looking at maps and enjoying future possibilities. We were fine until I pulled out the almanac and he started looking at the special interest sites. His attention caught on the Lewis and Clark Caverns. He said his dad found a secret hole near the Caverns entrance that he dropped into once. “He had a hard time getting out of that cave,” he said.
The next thing I knew, my dad was on and off the phone and had the car keys in his hands.
“Come on. If we leave now, we can make it for the last tour.”
“No. You’re scheduled for heart surgery on Thursday.”
“You can drive,” he said and tossed the keys to me.
With a good deal of protesting from me, we drove past Whitehall and Cardwell to the Lewis and Clark Caverns. We bought our tickets right next to a very large sign that said, “If you have heart trouble, talk to the guide”.
“Seeee, Dad,” I said.
“If you can make it up to the top of the path, you’re probably fine,” said the maybe eighteen-year-old guide, making no fat lot of good for my case that we should go home.
“Seee, Lan,” he said.
We started up the hill and he started sweating, became nauseous, and his chest started pounding. All signs of heart trouble.
“Just make it through your surgery,” I said, “and we’ll come back next year. I promise.”
“I can do it now,” he said, with more sweating.
I pointed to the tiny people five hundred feet above us. “That’s where we’re going.”
He sat down, dizzy.
“My brothers will kill me if I kill their dad by taking you on a tour of the Lewis and Clark Caverns,” I said.
“I guess that it would be bad if I croaked on the Beaver Slide.”
We walked back down the hill to the car, forfeiting the caverns, and drove to Whitehall to eat some dinner. At a small café, my dad ordered beef barley soup, which he didn’t touch. He was still sweating and nauseous.
He went to bed as soon as we got back to his house. My brothers called to check on him. “How’s Dad doing?”
“It’s only seven o’clock.”
“He’s tired.” I didn’t tell them that we walked halfway up the path to the Caverns. I’d wait until he made it through his heart surgery to tell them about the trip.
Three days later, the heart doctors in Missoula, Montana rolled him into surgery. My brothers, sister-in-laws, nieces and nephews, and I drank coffee and watched bad TV in the waiting room. Several hours later, the nurses brought our dad out and rolled him into his room.
He was asleep, on a ventilator, and on an IV. The doctor came into the room. “The surgery went fine,” he said. “He had what looked like a spider web of scars across his heart.”
All his broken hearts, I thought.
The following year, we went back to the Lewis and Clark Caverns. We went on the entire tour, and, much to my happiness, he did not croak on the Beaver Slide. He enjoyed the tour and the meal afterward. He went on to live nine more active years with his good heart, walking, kayaking, looking at maps, and simply enjoying his life.