Forgiveness: A Father's Final Gift
Howard Banks doubled over and gripped his chest as the EMTs rushed his stretcher out of the ambulance and into the emergency room. Nurses and doctors quickly administered nitroglycerin, morphine, and aspirin, and after confirming with blood tests and EKG that Howard was having a massive heart attack, they consulted a cardiologist. Since I was finishing up my cardiology rotation, I shadowed Dr. Jackson, the cardiologist, to the emergency room. Dr. Jackson performed an emergency arteriogram and stent placement into Howard’s left main artery, the heart vessel ominously referred to as “the widow maker”. After the procedure, while we scribbled orders at the nurse’s station, Dr. Jackson informed me privately, “I don’t think Howard will make it.“ He shook his head sadly and frowned. “Why do people with crushing chest pain wait over three hours before seeking medical attention? By then, the damage is done!” The angiogram confirmed that Howard’s heart now only pumped a dismal 15% of normal.
I nodded. “Somehow the general public needs to learn that just taking an aspirin and a couple of TUMS is not adequate treatment for a massive heart attack!”
We finished our nursing orders on Howard and handed them to the unit clerk before dashing off to our next cardiac crisis.
When I checked on Howard a few minutes later, it appeared Dr. Jackson’s dire prediction was coming true: Howard required massive doses of Levofed just to keep his blood pressure at 80/50. Plus, his heart monitor revealed QRS complexes that were wide and ectopic—ominous prognostic signs.
When I asked Mr. Banks if he was still in any pain, he reassured me he wasn't. He then grabbed my hand and looked at me imploringly. “Would you call my daughter, Jamie, and let her know I’m here?”
“Sure,” I said, and scribbled down the phone number he provided. He then added a bombshell: “Jamie and I haven’t spoken to each other in three years, so I don’t know how receptive she’ll be…”
My stomach clenched. This man could die any minute, and he was at odds with his only child? “What happened to create such a wedge between you?” I asked, wanting to be prepared for a potentially volatile reaction from his daughter.
He inhaled a deep breath of oxygen from his nasal cannula then released a long sigh before answering. “Jamie and I had a run-in three years ago when she moved in with her boyfriend. I didn’t like the guy one bit--still don’t, for that matter. I told her what I thought of him, and I told her she was making a huge mistake. It made her mad, and she’s refused to talk to me ever since.”
I nodded but remained silent, sensing he needed to unload the full story.
“Unfortunately, I’m not totally innocent, either” he admitted. “Truthfully? I said some pretty awful things to her that day--things I now wish I’d never said.” His hands gripped the bedrails. “I never meant for this rift between us to last so long, but she said such cruel, hurtful things to me my pride got in the way. I guess I felt like she should apologize first.”
“No doubt, she was waiting for you to apologize first, as well,” I said.
He nodded. “Probably so." His eyes welled up with tears. "I never dreamed I might die before we reconciled, though.”
I wanted to re-assure him he wouldn’t die, and he’d have plenty of time to reconnect with his daughter, but with his blood pressure hovering at 80/50, even with maximum support, and with his QRS complexes wide and erratic, I knew there was a good chance he wouldn’t make it. As much as I wanted to, I couldn't lie to him. I might not be able to cure his heart, but perhaps I could help sooth his soul. Perhaps, even at this late date, I could help him make peace with his daughter.
I reached for a clipboard, paper, and a pen and handed them to him. “Why don’t you jot Jamie a quick note? Write down what you’d tell her if she were standing right here,” I said, pointing next to me. “Meanwhile, I’ll go call her.”
Unfortunately, Jamie wasn’t home, and since this was long before the days of cell phones, I was forced to leave a message on her home answering machine that her father was critically ill, and he desperately wanted to see her and make amends. I could only pray she made it to the hospital in time.
I returned to Howard’s bedside, and he handed me the clipboard with his hand-written letter. While the writing was feeble--the scrawl of a dying man--at least I could make out his words. “Promise me that if I die before Jamie gets here, you’ll give her this letter.” His eyes bore into mine like laser beams.
I squeezed his hand and reassured him, “I promise to get the letter to Jamie, Howard. But let's hope it won't come to that!" I folded his letter into quarters and placed it securely into my lab coat pocket.
I wish I could say this story had a happy ending, but life does not always come with happy endings, especially in the coronary intensive care unit.
Within two hours of writing his note, Howard collapsed into sudden cardiac arrest, and even aggressive CPR and ACLS did not revive him.
Minutes later, Jamie returned home, heard my frantic voice message, and rushed to the hospital. After I broke the news to her that her father had died, she crumpled into a chair sobbing inconsolably. “I can’t believe he’s dead! He was only sixty!"
I placed a comforting hand on her shoulder unable to think of a thing to say.
She brushed tears from her cheek with the back of her hand. "I never got to say goodbye or apologize for all the horrible things I said to him. I never got to ask him to forgive me.” Her shoulders heaved in despair, and guilt-ridden eyes gazed up at me. “The last words I ever said to him were, ‘I hate you!’”
I handed her a tissue, though by now, my own eyes were pooled with sorrow.
She wiped her eyes and blew her nose with shaking fingers. “I loved my dad, but now I’ll never get the chance to tell him. It's too late."
The letter! Now was my opening. I tugged Howard’s letter from my lab coat pocket, unfolded it, and handed it to Jamie, praying it would somehow balm her guilt and grief. "He knew you loved him, Jamie. And he loved you, too. He wrote this for you and asked me to give it to you if he didn't make it."
Her voice trembled as she read the letter aloud softly:
Jamie, I’m sorry for the things I said to you, and I know you’re sorry, too. I forgive you, honey, and I hope you’ll forgive me, too. I love you. I always have.
She burst into tears and clutched the letter to her chest, her shoulders heaving. "He still loves me!" she exclaimed in disbelief. She read the letter again and smiled this time, her guilt and despair lessened by the final gift of her dying father: the gift of forgiveness.
I learned a harrowing life lesson that day: Life is fleeting and can be frighteningly unpredictable. Relationships are fragile and must not be trampled upon or taken for granted. The harsh words we lash out at someone may be the last words he or she ever hears from us. Is that the legacy we want to leave? Was Howard's heart attack hastened because of his unresolved anger toward his daughter? I have learned unforgiveness and pride come with a caustic price: erosion of the soul and aging of the body. May we learn vicariously from Howard and Jamie's story.
Is there someone you need to forgive and reconcile with before the lid on the coffin gets slammed for good?
Matthew 5: 23-24 “Therefore if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering to God.”
*** All names have been changed to protect patient confidentiality.