Reading Into Grief

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Rachel Eddey (  is a freelance writer in New York. Her first book, a humorous memoir
of the Bride: My Frenzied Quest to Tie the Knot, Tear Up the Dance Floor, and
Figure Out Why My 15 Minutes of Fame Included Commercial Breaks
, is now
available. Join her on Twitter, Facebook, or at any dive bar in New York City. This essay was originally published in the
Chicago Tribune (June 24, 2012), and shares how her struggle to find an editor for that book coincided with her father’s heart attack and emergency sextuple bypass surgery.

In May 2011, I had a good reason to be in Dublin: I was mad about life in New York and trying to escape. I had written
a memoir three years earlier and couldn’t find a publisher. Four failed agents,
a handful of opportunities inches away from my grasping hand, and countless
margaritas later, I was burnt out. At 29, I contemplated retirement.

I wasn’t only disappointing myself. My dad, Lawrence J.
Epstein, has always been my mentor and biggest cheerleader. A retired English
professor who has published ten books on subjects ranging from comedy teams to
folk singers to Jewish affairs, he and I often spent hours talking shop. Though
I’d had some success with newspaper and magazine publishing, a book contract
for me was our shared goal. We had been waiting for this moment my entire adult
life. I felt like I was disappointing him, too.

Five days into my soul-searching trip, my mother-in-law
called my hotel room–at 3am–to say that my then 64-year-old, previously healthy
father had suffered a heart attack and needed emergency sextuple bypass
surgery. Ireland was 3,150
miles from my dad’s Long Island hospital bed.
I changed my flight, packed my bags, and cried the entire seven-hour trip home.
It didn’t help that when the plane landed, the only message I had was from a
friend announcing her brother’s death.

stopped at my parents’ house on the way to the hospital to drop off my
suitcase. The car was still rumbling in the driveway when my Blackberry pinged.
I was annoyed at the interruption–a far preferable mood, admittedly, to the
sheer, unequivocal terror that had been gripping my insides
since I’d left the hotel. Cue a this-never-happens-in-real-life moment: It was
from my dream editor. And he was offering a book contract.

An internal cloud covered me. Selling a book was the
first step in a much longer process. I would have to go through rounds of edits
and get magazines to review it and write a stump speech and schedule myself on
radio shows and take countless other measures I couldn’t yet define. This
wasn’t a battle I had entered alone and it wasn’t one I wanted to finish alone.
But here I was, about to head to the hospital, unsure whether my father was
even alive. I did the only thing I could think to do. I got back in the car.

frightened me. So did my dad. I pretended like the oxygen mask over his mouth
didn’t exist. His arms were black and blue from countless needles that had
prodded his veins before the surgery. I pretended those marks weren’t there,
either. I focused instead on his short, gray hair, the only part of him that
seemed untouched. He wouldn’t be able to speak, the nurse told me. But he could
hear. I fussed with his pillows as he stirred awake.

I could
only have a few lines after a hello. I knew just what they were going to be.

I’ve got exciting news,” I told him, gently squeezing his hand. “I sold my
book!” My long-standing idea of how this moment would go down–screams and
laughter and a Carvel ice-cream cake–gave way to a new reality. My dad’s eyes
bulged, the only movement his groggy body allowed. They stayed wide as I
relayed the details of the contract and expected publication date, then slowly
faded into slits and disappeared behind closed lids. I’m positive it took all
his energy, but he squeezed my hand back before falling asleep.

doctors released him to me and my mom 10 days later. The depression they had
warned us about in hushed tones never came, but complications did. Two months
after the surgery, still frail and cloudy, my father fainted
twice–both attributable to rapid atrial fibrillation (increased heart rate) and
pleural effusion (fluid around the lungs). An ambulance brought him back to the

I came
to his room once he was stable. Short of sneaking him an extra Vicodin (don’t
arrest me–I refrained), there was only one way I knew to help. I pulled out the
newest version of my manuscript.

My dad
reached for it the moment he was well enough to sit up. He juggled a carton
of applesauce and a red pen, inking notes in the margins as he interacted
with nurses and swallowed pills. His five-day stay went by in spurts of
talking with me about my contract, scrolling through the publisher’s
website, and compiling–from memory–a list of marketing books he wanted
me to read. 

Two more
pleural effusions followed and my dad was re-admitted each time. The hospital 
became our office; our work day, the visiting hours. He ordained his top
dresser drawer, in which we stored pens and notebooks and sticky-notes, as
“book supplies.” We used medical tape to secure diagrams and spreadsheets
to the wall. Him on his bed and me in a worn wooden chair, we worked together
on a publicity plan, drafted talking points, and designed business cards.
He coached me on how to decode reviews, the best approaches to a launch party,
and why I needed to revamp my social media approach. (Seriously. The man
has more Facebook friends than I do.) Eventually, the nurses began
bringing me applesauce, too.

father turned to look at me as he signed the release papers on what would
become his last (we hope) surgery-related hospital stay.

you,” he said. “Thank you for needing me.”

him walk to the waiting car, I understood. Illness is a time when people
consciously consider what is important in their lives. He saw a purpose he had
not finished fulfilling, and he used that as a safety rope. I know, of course,
that it wasn’t my book itself that saved him; it was his will to let the book save him. My dependency stood
as a microcosm for all he still wanted to do and all the hope he had for doing

I sat
him in the passenger seat and shut the door. Though I’d had a good reason to be
in Dublin, I
had an even better reason to be home.

Image courtesy ofmuffet, licensed underCreative Commons.

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