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Lucky George (1)


It was the first Christmas I could recall without the presence of my father, George. Only days before, my dad – at the time, just 59 years old, which seemed so old back then but which now, at age 56, has me saying, “How young!” – had undergone the first of many medical traumas in his life. He suffered a heart attack.

It was rough but my father must have been born under a lucky star. It was the holiday season and George was helping my mother out by cleaning potatoes for a meal. My mother noticed he was acting a bit oddly. She found him sitting at the kitchen table, a potato in his hand, staring into space.

“What’s wrong with you?” she asked.

“I’ve run out of potatoes,” he said in an odd monotone.

“Well, then get some more.”

He looked up, shook himself, and said, “I’m going to the hospital.”

My mother made light of it, but my dad knew best. He had a keen instinct for self-preservation. Who else, in such circumstances, would have insisted on calling his son to take him to the emergency room? (I remember one of our neighbors once complained to his wife of chest pains. They were in bed and she pooh-poohed him, saying it was probably gas; when she woke up the next morning, he was dead.) My brother, Peter, came by in a cab and took my father the two blocks to the hospital.

Again, that was lucky. As we later discovered, if he had walked up the hill from his home and then the two blocks to the emergency room, that exercise probably would have induced a heart attack on the street (much like the one that killed his idol, Adlai Stevenson, who collapsed from heart failure on a busy New York thoroughfare). As it was, he got to the emergency room, the doctors examined him, and while they were discussing the results, he had a massive heart attack. His heart actually stopped for 20 seconds – but he was saved because the doctors were right there. If you’re going to have a heart attack, Geore later noted wrly, have the good sense to have one near doctors who have equipment that can save your life.

My brother was there through it all, and he went back alone to my mother. He told her what had happened, and her reaction was a kind of surprised matter-of-factness that was typical of her. “He wasn’t fooling then,” she said.

We were thankful that he had survived, but it was a body blow to the family, which had never been without George. When I arrived at the house that night, it was too late to go visiting, and I remember the three of us, sitting around the kitchen table, weeping.

(George later told us of his own thoughts that night. The 10-room apartment he called home had just been repainted for the first time in years, and all his paintings, posters, artifacts, and framed photographs sat on the floor waiting to be hung up. “It’s lucky I survived,” he said on many occasions. “I had visions of people coming by the apartment after I died and saying, ‘Look at this. He had all these things and he never hung them up. What a slob!’”)

My great-Aunt Xanthe, my grandmother’s youthful sister who was close to George, insisted on going over to the hospital on the night of the heart attack. Despite the fact that visiting hours were over, she apparently bullied her way in. When we arrived in the morning to see him, an orderly told us, “He’s over there; his wife has been with him all night.”

The next day, my grandmother arrived from Greece. Because my mother wanted to tell her face to face, she had not been told about the heart attack. So, as the fates would have it, Xanthe and I were on our way to the hospital to visit George when we ran into my uncle and grandmother getting out of a cab in front of my parents’ building.

“Hello!” said my yia-yia (Greek for grandmother).

“Hello!” said Xanthe, hustling me out with her.

“Where are you two going?”

“We’re going for a walk!” Xanthe said hurriedly.

That must have seemed odd to yia-yia, as the temperature was below freezing. But she said nothing.

My father stayed in the hospital for a week or so, and we celebrated Christmas when he came back. He felt guilty because he hadn’t been able to shop for presents, and thus had nothing to give us. But he was wrong about that, for – as I realize more and more since his death on January 8, 2009 – he gave us something that nothing can replace.  I miss you, dad.

 December 30, 2012