Just the Other Day: The Final Approach

He knew about it.  Although he didn’t tell me until about six months before it happened, he knew about it for several years. Why had he kept this from me?


“I feel great, better than I’ve ever felt.” He said.  I suppose to ease my concerns, he added. “It’s not a big deal. I’m not in any pain, it’s not affecting me at all.  The doctor said I have a heart valve that is leaking a little and eventually it will need to be changed.”


“Change a heart valve?” I repeated with concern. “That’s open heart surgery and that does sound like a big deal to me!”  I said. He fired right back, “They do this procedure successfully all the time.  It’s almost routine.” Then he added, “You’re making more of this than it is, and besides, it’s not going to happen for quite a while so don’t worry about it.  I just thought you should know.”  To change the subject, he asked, “Now, do you want to go flying?”


Dad and I went to the airport; he flew left seat – pilot in command. I watched as he flew the Bonanza.  Leveling off at 3,500 feet, he reduced the power, adjusted the prop, leaned the fuel mixture and adjusted the trim.  He was a very good pilot. I always admired his piloting skills, and aspired to be that good someday.


With everything in order on the control panel, Dad gazed out the windows at the green fields, ponds, roads, houses and everything on the ground below.  I could only imagine he was thinking about his heart. He had to be wondering if he would ever fly again.  I could tell Dad was more concerned than he was letting on.


A few months later, Dad told me his surgery was scheduled for January.  “I wanted to wait until after Christmas.” He told me, “The last thing I want is anyone in this family focusing on this procedure. That’s not what Christmas is about.” He said. “They need to remember the meaning of Christmas.”


One day in mid-December, Dad called me. “I went flying today.” He said, “I did something I’ve never done before.”  “I already heard about it, Dad. It’s a small town.” I said. There was a pause. “It was the most perfect landing I ever made.  I was on short final for runway four. Everything was just just right – my altitude, airspeed – I couldn’t have been more squarely lined up with the center line.” He told me, “I brought it in a little fast like I always do. When I went to level off and into my flare, the stall warning sounded off.”


“I knew I wasn’t stalling, my airspeed was a little fast, if anything.  I let it settle down to the runway. Then I heard the prop striking the pavement.”  He paused, “If only I would have put the gear down first.”  Then complained, “The stall warning and the gear warning are the same buzzer.  That’s just a poor design.”


The “Final Approach.” It’s when a pilot turns on to the last leg of his landing pattern toward the intended runway at his destination airport. Most pilots just call it “turning final.” It’s also when pilots go through a final checklist to make sure everything is as it should be.


“Why didn’t you call me, Dad?” I asked him, saying, “I would have gone flying with you.”  “I just wanted to go around the patch a few times.” He said, “I wasn’t going any place, so I just thought I’d go alone.”


He was embarrassed. I could feel it. He landed his airplane with the wheels still up. I was concerned because Dad was a better pilot than that. There’s an old saying, “There are only two kinds of pilots. Those who have, and those who will, land gear up.” I just never imagined my dad would be one of them.


“Green lights. The gear is down and locked. I have green lights.” He would tell me when teaching me to fly the Bonanza. “Don’t just say it, point to the green lights and say it out loud.  I want to hear you say it out loud on every landing, even when you’re flying alone, and point to the green lights. Every landing.  Every time.”


He harped on the subject. “You can never be too careful in making sure your gear is down.” He would say.  “Without the gear extended, a perfect landing is just an accident.” Dad had a perfect landing that day, except for the gear position.


For Dad to land gear up, he had to have been distracted. He was probably thinking about his surgery rather than being focused on his flying.  He had told me he was worried that he wouldn’t get his flight medical certificate after the operation.  And now, on top of everything else, his airplane was damaged.


January came. I wanted to go to The Mayo Clinic with him for the surgery, but he was adamant. “You have to stay here and run the radio station.” He said, “…and stop worrying about this.  Focus on the station – this is not a big deal.”


I did worry. I worried all day until Mom called me after the operation. “Everything went fine.” She said, but she didn’t sound overly convincing. “So he’s good?  Everything went well? There were no problems?” I asked.

“They changed his heart valve and everything went fine, but then they had to open his chest again.” This didn’t sound good. Mom explained, “His aorta ruptured after the operation.  They caught it and were able to repair it, but because of the second round of anesthesia, he developed pneumonia.”


I told mom I was coming up there.  Mom assured me he was going to be okay.  “You just stay there and tend to the station.  Everything here is going to be fine.”  I said, “Okay.” And hung up the phone.


I went to the airport and rented a Cessna 172 from Ottumwa Flying Service, and flew to Rochester, Minnesota.


My sister, Nancy, her husband, Bill, and my daughter, Sydney, just over one-year-old, rode along with me.  The air was very smooth, so I let Sydney get out of her seat.  She came up front and stood between the two front seats.  I set her on my lap. She played with the controls and held the yoke. “You’re going to be a great pilot one day.” I told her.  When we were getting close, I had Nancy buckle Sydney back in her seat as I prepared to land.


In a borrowed courtesy car from the flying service, we drove to the hospital.  When we walked into Dad’s room, he looked and asked, “What are you doing here?  I told you, you didn’t need to come.”  “I heard you were giving the nurses a hard time.” I said, “I figured I better come give them a hand.”  Although he tried acting upset, I could tell Dad was really glad to see us.


When he saw little Sydney, standing next to me, holding my hand, Dad’s eyes lit up, “Sydney!  Hey, hey! How are you kiddo?” I lifted her to see him. She smiled, reaching for him, saying, “Papa.” I held on to her, explaining, “Papa has an owie, you have to be careful.” Dad lifted his hand a bit and Sydney held his long index finger in her tiny hand.


I told him we flew up to see him and naturally Dad had questions about the flight. “Did Sydney get to fly the plane?” He asked. “Of course.” I answered, “I let her sit in my lap and fly.” Mom piped in, “You did not!” “Yes, I did.” I replied.  Mom’s lecture began, “That’s not safe.  Flying is dangerous! You have no business putting that little girl in an airplane, let alone letting her out of her seat.”


I drifted off to days long ago when I was little.  Dad let me stand between his legs to fly the airplane, or sit in his lap to steer the car.  Times were different then.  Mom kept talking.  I smiled and thought to myself, “As long as dads will be dads, doing the things they do, moms are going to be moms.”


Dad seemed to be in good spirits, although I could tell he was experiencing a lot of pain from the surgery. Dad never let his pain show. He always hid pain and fear behind humor.  He was telling lots of jokes, which had the nurses laughing, but concerned me.


It was time for us to go home.  I told Dad I loved him and said, “I’ll come back up to see you tomorrow.”  “You don’t need to do that, I’ll be fine.”  He said. “You also said I didn’t need to come today, but I came anyway.” I replied, then added, “So, I’ll see you tomorrow.”  “Okay, I’ll see you then.” He said.


When we drove back to the airport, it was cold, only six degrees. Anticipating the cold temperatures, I had asked that they pre-heat my engine for our departure. On the way back to the airport, I called to make sure it was done. “We’ve got the heat on it now.” The lineman told me.


At the airport, I walked out to the plane.  A fuel truck was parked in front of the 172.  They had a hose from the truck’s exhaust pipe stuffed into the opening of the engine compartment.  “What is that doing there?” I asked the lineman.  “You asked for a preheat.” He answered. “That’s how you heat an engine? With exhaust fumes?”  I questioned. “We do it all the time.” He answered.  “It doesn’t seem very safe to me.” I said, but he insisted that’s how they did it.  I paid for our fuel and we left.


Around 800 feet above the ground, the airplane started acting funny.  The engine began running rough and the airplane wouldn’t climb.  It was like a giant put his thumb on the top and said, “You’re not going any higher.”  I immediately got on the radio.


“Rochester Tower, this is Cessna 2-0-3-4-5.” I said, as I rolled the plane into a shallow bank, turning back to the airport. “My engine is running rough and the aircraft won’t climb.  I suspect carburetor icing issues. I’m coming back to land on runway 3-1.” The air traffic controller confirmed, “Roger, Cessna 20345, understand you’re having engine trouble and returning to the field.” I replied, “20345 affirmative.”


The ATC made another call, “Lear Jet 000, abort your approach, turn right heading 3-6-0 degrees, maintain 4000 feet. I have a single engine Cessna with engine trouble, returning to the airport.”


The ATC asked me, “Cessna 2-0-3-4-5, do you want me to dispatch emergency equipment?”  I answered, “Negative. That won’t be necessary.  I’m maintaining my altitude. I can glide in from here if I need to.”  ATC called me again, “Cessna 2-0-3-4-5, how many souls on board?”  I hate when they ask that.  What it really means is how many people are we looking for if you crash?


I landed the airplane safely.  The lineman and I had words about his method of pre-heating.  The moisture from the truck’s exhaust had built up inside the engine compartment, causing the trouble. I wasn’t going to risk flying it home again that night.  I would leave it at the airport for the night.


I called Mom and told her what was going on, then asked if I could use Dad’s car to drive home.  She agreed, but not without resuming her lecture on the dangers of flying, repeating “You shouldn’t have a baby in that airplane…” I interrupted, “Mom.  Can you save the lecture for tomorrow? I just need to get home.”


We returned to Ottumwa in Dad’s car.  I went back to visit him in Rochester the next day and a couple more times before he came home.  At the end of each visit, I would tell him when I was coming back, and Dad would answer, “Okay, I’ll see you then.” He was in the hospital for about six days before going home.  The normal hospital stay for such an operation was two or three days, but the second operation on his aorta was a setback for him.


Once Dad was back home in Ottumwa, he started going to the mall everyday to walk.  It was late January and still very cold in Iowa.  He seemed to be enjoying himself and would tell stories of who he saw at the mall each day. He appeared to be a man who was given an extension on life.  Although he still had some pain and tenderness from the surgery, his condition was improving.


One Friday afternoon, shortly after Dad came home, I was in the middle of an interview with an applicant for the afternoon disc jockey’s position at the radio station.  The interview was going well.


There was a soft tap on my office door and Debbie, the front office employee, poked her head inside. She said, “You have a call on line two.”  It was out of character for Debbie to do that.  I asked, “Could you take a message please?I’m in the middle of an interview.”  She replied, “I think you need to take this call.”


I glanced at the phone.  Line two was flashing on hold. Line one was open.  Only family and employees knew to call line two to get through faster.  I pushed the button for line two, picking up the phone and said, “This is Tom.”


Mom was on the other end of the line.  She sounded very shaken and I could tell she had been crying. “I need help with your Dad. Can you come right now?” Debbie would have told Mom I was in an interview and for Mom to ask her to interrupt, it had to be urgent. I responded, “Okay, I’ll be right there.”


I stood up, abruptly ending the interview, I grabbed my jacket, saying, “I’m sorry, I have to go. Can you stop at the front desk on your way out and reschedule with Debbie?”  Not waiting for an answer, I walked quickly out the door.


I jumped in my truck and started driving.  I called Mom on my big cellular bag phone.  “What’s going on?” I asked. “I don’t know.” She replied. “He is in a lot of pain.  He said his leg feels like it’s on fire.”  “Did you call for an ambulance?” I asked. “No, not yet. He told me not to.” She said. “Okay, you go stay by Dad and I’ll get an ambulance on the way.”


At that time, the 911 system was in its very early days. It didn’t work with the fairly new cellular telephones.  Fortunately, I had the hospital number memorized.  They answered, “Ottumwa Regional Health Center.” I said, “I need the ER, please.” “One moment, sir.” There was a short clicking sound, “Emergency room, can I help you?” “This is Tom Palen, my dad recently had heart surgery.  He’s having problems with his leg. I need an ambulance sent to…”


That’s how we did it back then.  911 was new and not yet a reliable system.  Everyone kept a list of emergency numbers next to their phone: Police, Sheriff, Fire Department, Hospital.  “We have an ambulance on the way.” They told me.


I ran into the house. Dad was laying on the bed in the front room – a room he never used.  “What’s going on Dad?” I asked. His breathing was labored with  short, hard breaths. “Oh, your mother is making a big deal out of nothing. I just have a little numbness in my leg.” He said. “She wants to call an ambulance. I told her I don’t need an ambulance, I just need a little rest.”


“I called for an ambulance, Dad.  You’re obviously in pain.” I told him. That upset him. “I don’t know why you people can’t just mind your own business…” About that time, I heard the front door open and someone called out, “Hello? Paramedics.”


I knew most of the paramedics. The radio station worked with them to promote EMS week and other events.  I walked into the hallway and saw Vicki Nelson, one of my favorite paramedics. I don’t remember who was with her, but I led them to the bedroom.  They all knew my dad.


In an elevated voice, as medics will use, Vicki said, “Hello Dan. Why don’t you tell me what’s going on.” Dad in his normal fashion, immediately reverted to humor.  He answered, “I have a little numbness in my leg and they’re making a big deal of it.” As she was taking his blood pressure and vitals, she asked in a loud clear voice, “You’re breathing hard. Are you having any chest pain?” Dad answered, “No, and you can stop yelling. The problem is in my leg, not my hearing.”  That drew a good laugh.


After a short exam, Vicki said, “Dan we’re going to take you to the hospital to let a doctor check your leg…” Dad interrupted, “I don’t need a doctor, I just need a little rest and maybe something for the pain.  Do you have any aspirin in that bag of yours?”  More laughter.


“Well, we’ll get you to the hospital and you can ask the doctor for an aspirin.” Vicki said. Dad responded, “I don’t think that’s necessary.” Vicki interrupted, “Dan, with your recent heart surgery, I want the doctor to have a look at your leg. Besides, you have very nice legs and I’m sure he’d like to seem them, too.” Vicki could draw laughter as well.


Vicki was good!  I felt very comfortable with Dad in her care. She responded to Dad’s humor with humor.  She knew how to handle a resistant patient and he was going to the hospital. He eventually saw it her way.  As they were putting the stretcher into the back of the ambulance, Dad asked, “How much is this ride going to cost me? Because I can get a cab ride into town for under three bucks.”  More laughter.


Doctor Elliott came out of the emergency room wearing his blue scrubs.  He pulled the blue cap from his head and explained. “A major artery to his leg collapsed, blocking the circulation.  It’s like a serious case of your leg falling asleep and it’s very painful.  I was able to open the artery just enough to give him some relief, but he is going to need surgery.”


Mom asked, “Can you do the surgery here?” Dr. Elliott replied. “No. Because of all the blood thinners and meds he is on, I’m going to send him back to Rochester.” Mom asked, “Will they take him there in an ambulance?” “No, I have a helicopter coming from Mercy Hospital in Des Moines. They’re closer, so they’ll come get Dan to transport him. I’ve notified his physician at Mayo.  They will be expecting him and will perform the operation as soon as he arrives.” Dr. Elliott was very good. I will always be grateful for his help.


Mom said to me, “I want you to ride to Rochester with your dad. I don’t want to fly in that thing, and I don’t want him to be alone, so you go with him.”  “Mom, they don’t allow passengers to ride along in the helicopter.”  I told her.


I recalled a broadcast we did promoting EMS week. We had a life flight helicopter and medical team at the event.  I interviewed one of the paramedics. One of my questions was if they allowed passengers to ride along.  She said no, explaining, “The interior of the aircraft is very small. Space is tight. Also, the patient is being airlifted because they are in serious condition.  If we have a problem with a patient, the last thing we need up there is a family member freaking out.”


While we were waiting for the helicopter, Mom disappeared for a bit.  Pretty soon a man wearing a navy blue jumpsuit approached me. He had scissors in his pockets, along with other medical gadgets, and patches up and down his sleeves. “Are you Tom?” He asked.  “Yes,” I answered. “Your Mom told me you’re a pilot, too.” He said, I confirmed I was. Then he asked, “How would you like to ride along with your dad for the flight to Rochester?”


His question caught me completely off guard. “Can I fly left seat?” I asked.  He laughed and said, “No, but you can ride with your dad in the back, if you would like.” “Are you sure that will be okay?” I questioned. “Yes,” He said, “I’m sure, but we have to get going.”  “Yes,” I replied, “I would love to ride along.”


I followed him to the landing pad.  They brought Dad out on a gurney and put him in first.  Then they squeezed me into a small seat next to Dad’s head.  Two medics climbed on board, then someone outside closed and latched the door.


The pilot was starting the engine.  There was a slow whirring noise. It got faster and faster.  The big blades were turning.  I heard the engine turbines winding up.  The blades began making a rhythmic chopping sound.  Someone outside gave the pilot a thumbs up.  The pilot returned the gesture and the aircraft began to lift straight up into the air.  The pilot kicked the tail around, turning the aircraft  to the north.  We continued climbing. He tilted the blades and the nose forward, then we started moving forward as well.


“That was a smooth takeoff.” Dad said. “Tell me what you see outside.”  “There’s a lot of stars out tonight.” I said.  “I can see that from here, laying down. Tell me what you see on the ground.” He said, then asked, “Do you know where we are?”  I answered, “We’ve passed Des Moines and we’re coming up on Ankeny.”  “How do you know that? He quizzed. “I can see the two tall WHO Radio towers.” I said.  “Well then, you’re right.  We’re coming up on Ankeny.” He said, adding, “You always have to watch for those towers when you’re flying. They’re two-thousand-feet tall, you know.”  “I know, Dad.”


I continued talking with him. “You know what, Dad? I always say we should go to Colorado together, but we never have.  We’ll work on getting you healed up and we will go this spring.”  “That would be nice.” He said. I told him, “Let’s just do it.  We’ll fly the Bonanza out west and rent a Jeep. I can take you to some really beautiful places I’ve found in the mountains. We can hike and camp, and watch the birds fly, and  I know some really good fishing streams.” Dad was smiling, but still wincing with pain. “Then, we’ll fly around and visit as many airports in the mountains as we can find.”  I would like that.” Dad said, then asked, “Who’s paying for all this fuel? Are you paying for the gas?”  I chuckled. My eyes welled up. He was masking his fear behind humor, again.  “Sure, Dad.  I’ll pay for the fuel. We’ll go this spring, okay?”  “Okay.” He said.


When I was a little kid, Dad would sit in his big green, overstuffed, simulated-leather chair.  He would let me get on the ottoman, walk across the arm of the chair, then climb up to sit on his shoulders, while he watched Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show. I would rub his head until he fell asleep, shortly after the monologue.  It was a sure way to beat the “bedtime rules” and stay up longer.


Dad would snore a bit. Mom would come into the living room, look at me and say, “You go get in bed right now!”  Dad would snap from his slumber, “Oh Bev, he’s not hurting anything, he was just watching Carson with me.” She interrupted, “You’re not watching anything, you’re sleeping, and he’s too young to understand Carson, and he’s going to bed now!”  “I wasn’t sleeping,” Dad protested, “I was just resting my eyes.”


Dad would help me down from his shoulders, give me a kiss and tell me, “Goodnight, Tommy. Don’t forget to wash your face and brush your teeth before you climb into bed.” I would give him a hug, “Are you sure you don’t want me to rub your head a little longer?” I would plead.  “You better go get some sleep.” He’d say.  “Goodnight Dad.” I would say, while sulking off to my bedroom.


In the helicopter, I began rubbing Dad’s head.  It was only a matter of minutes until he was asleep.  I smiled, thinking to myself, “The monologue must be over.”  I kept rubbing his forehead and saying my rosary until we reached Rochester.


The pilot turned the helicopter toward the hospital rooftop, on final approach. In the landing area, I could see another helicopter parked.  I asked the medic, “Do we have to wait for that other guy to move?”  “Nope. He’ll land right next to him.” “It looks real tight.” I said. He replied, smiling, “He’s that good.”  The pilot maneuvered the aircraft sideways, inching it in, then setting her down gently, on the deck, with the door facing the building. I was very impressed.


As soon as we landed, a crew came out to meet the aircraft, opening the door.  It was bitterly cold outside. I jumped out and stood to the side as they rushed Dad through doors marked “Emergency Staff Only.”


I thanked the pilot and crew for letting me ride along.  The man in the blue jumpsuit said, “You don’t remember me, but I met you before, in Ottumwa. You interviewed me on the radio during EMS week. That was pretty cool. I’ll say a prayer for your dad, Tom.” He waved goodbye as he climbed back on board the chopper and closed the door.  I walked toward the building.  The helicopter started to lift off again, going back to Des Moines. A nurse led me inside and showed me where to wait.


It felt strange being the only one in the family who was there.  The others will be along soon, I thought to myself.  I took my rosary beads from my pocket, holding them as I prayed, “God, Dad really needs you right now.  God? Are you there? Can you hear me?” Maybe He’s already in the other room with Dad.


It seemed like a long time had passed when a doctor came out. “Are you here for Dan?” He asked. “Yes, I’m his son, Tom.” I said, introducing myself. “The procedure went flawlessly.” He said, then explained.  “The artery in your dad’s leg collapsed completely.  It will require a deep abdominal surgery to correct the problem, but, it’s too soon following his heart surgery.”  I was trying to keep up as he continued.


“What I did tonight was place a temporary tube, just under the skin, that connects the artery in his good leg and his bad leg together, bypassing the failed section.  We found a couple other areas where the arteries were restricted and were able to open them up as well.  Once Dan has healed completely from the heart operation and he’s off the blood thinners, I’ll go back in and make the permanent corrections. But for now, his blood circulation is flowing better than it has in a very long time. Do you have any questions for me?”


“How long does he have to stay here?” I asked.  “We’ll keep him several days.  This is just a temporary fix and we’ll want to keep an eye on him.  He’s doing great. I think he’s  going to be just fine.  They should have him in a room in just a bit. The nurses will let you know what room number.”  I thanked him. As the doctor walked away, I thanked God, and apologized for being snippy with Him while Dad was in surgery.


A nurse showed me to Dad’s room. He was sleeping, but woke up shortly after I got there. “Hello,” I said, “How are you feeling?  “My leg sure feels better.” He said, adding, “Boy, that was a real stinger!”


Dad asked me, “Do you want to hear some good news?”  “Sure,” I said, “I could really use some good news right now.”  Dad said, “My feet are warm.”  I looked at him, thinking he was still goofy from the anesthesia. “What?” I asked.  Dad repeated, “My feet are warm. Take my socks off and feel them.”  I removed his socks and felt his right foot, then the other. Indeed, they were warm.


Dad smiled, “For the first time since I was a kid, my feet are warm, really warm, on their own!  I’ve always had such poor circulation, that my feet were always cold.  But now they are warm.”  Again, tears began to well up in my eyes.


Mom, and my oldest brother, Peter, came into the room.  Soon, more siblings arrived. We stayed for awhile, then a bunch of us went and got a hotel room.


I stayed in Rochester with Dad and the family all day Saturday and Sunday.  With lots of brothers and sisters there, it felt like a reunion, and we had much to celebrate.


Around 8:30 p.m. on Sunday, I needed to start the drive home. I had to be on the air at the radio station at 6 a.m., Monday.  I went over to tell Dad goodnight.


“I’ve got to go Dad, I’m on the air at six.”  I told him. “How are you getting home?” He asked. “I’m driving.” I answered. “Driving what?” He asked. “My truck, why?”  “How did your truck get here?” He questioned.  “I drove it here?” I replied, wondering what his point was.


“You rode up here with me in the helicopter.” He said, smugly. “Would you like to take my car home? It’s an awful long way to walk on a cold night.” That flight seemed so long ago. Mom was taking this all in, holding the keys to Dad’s car out toward me.  “Yeah, that would be great.” I said, taking the keys.


I told Dad, “I have a meeting tomorrow night, but I’ll be up to see you on Tuesday after work.” Dad replied, “Okay, goodbye, Tommy.”  I started to turn to walk away, but thought about what he just said.  I turned back to him and said, again, “Dad, I’ll be back up on Tuesday night.”  “I heard you. You’ve got a long drive, now get going. Goodbye, Tom.”


I hesitated, then took his hand. Holding and rubbing the back of his hand, I said, “I love you, Dad.”  “I love you, too, son.”  He said.  I gave him a kiss on the forehead, said to everyone in the room, “See you guys later.” Then headed for the parking garage.


A few blocks from the hospital, I was stopped at a red light.  I began thinking. Every time I told Dad when I would be up next, he always said, “I’ll see you then.”  But, tonight, he said goodbye, and he said it twice.


I clutched my rosary, tightly, in my right hand, and began to cry. “Oh dear God, that was just a coincidence, right?” Tears fell on my beads, “Please let it be just a coincidence.”  I was trying to believe I was only imagining things.  Letting my mind wander to bad places, where it shouldn’t go.


I heard someone tap on their horn. I looked up, the light was still red.  I looked in the rearview mirror to see flashing red lights right behind me. “Crap!  Where did he come from?”


The officer walked up to my door. “Is everything okay?” He asked. I responded, “Yes. Why? Did I do something illegal?” He said, “I’ve been sitting behind you waiting. The green lights have cycled twice and you sat through them. Can I see your driver’s license?” I handed it to him.


He looked at the license, then asked, “Have you been drinking tonight, Mr. Palen?” I answered, “No. I have not been drinking tonight.”  “Are you sure?” He observed, “Your eyes look pretty bloodshot and your face is flushed.”


I was becoming perturbed. “Look, I just left my dad at the hospital and I’m not so sure things are going all that well, okay?” “What’s your dad’s name?” He asked. “Dan Palen.” I told him.  “Wait here a minute, I’ll be right back.”


I suppose this close to the Mayo Clinic, cops hear that excuse all the time. I don’t know if they had a way of checking to see if I really had someone in the hospital.  I thought sure as heck he was going to write me a ticket, but for what?


He came back to the window, handed me my license and said, “I’d like you to pull around the corner and sit for bit. Get yourself together before you start driving again, Okay?”  “Yeah, Okay.” I said.  Then he said, “I hope everything works out with your dad.  You have a safe drive home.”


The entire drive home, I kept praying and telling myself, everything was going to be okay.  It was just Dad using some different words. At home, I went straight to bed and cried myself to sleep.


The night was short.  The phone was ringing.  Every morning, the overnight DJ at the station would give me a call at five a.m., to make sure I was awake.  I opened my eyes and looked at the clock, while reaching for the phone.  It was 1:30 a.m.


“Hello, I’m up.” I said into the receiver.  That’s what I always said.  “Tom, it’s Peter.” “Why are you calling so early. Are we off the air? What’s going on?” I asked. “Tom, it’s Peter. I need you to wake up. Now.”  I was so tired, I felt dazed. “I am awake, Peter.  What’s up?”  There was a pause.


“Peter?” I sat up in bed, “Whats going on?” He was choked up and said, “Dad passed away last night.”


“What do you mean he passed away?”  Peter repeated, “He passed away last night…”  “No he didn’t!” I yelled. “That doctor told me the operation went flawlessly.  He told me Dad was going to be fine.  He said they were just keeping him there to keep an eye on him.  His feet were warm for the first time since he was a kid.  Tell them to get that doctor back in there and fix this!”


Peter spoke softly.  “It wasn’t the arterial operation that failed. Dad’s aorta burst again, and this time they couldn’t save him.  He died.”  I was crying, as was Peter.  There was another long pause.  I couldn’t believe what he was telling me.  “Are you okay?” He asked. “Yeah, I just need a bit. I can’t believe this.” I said, then asked, “Are you okay?”  “I’m alright.” He said.  I began crying harder. “How is Mom?” I sobbed. “She’s pretty much in shock. I’m staying with her.” He said. “Okay,” I said, “Go stay with her.  Thank you for calling to tell me.”


I hung up the phone and reached for my rosary.  I was angry and hurt. I felt crushed and completely alone.  Time was moving very slow and without direction.  I was still disoriented.


I needed to have a conversation with God.  I wanted to ask Him: “How could You let this happen? You told me everything was going to be fine. You told me Dad was going to be okay. You said you would stay with him. You told me you were going to answer my prayers.”


Suddenly, I felt a comforting presence that was lifting my burdens. I thought about all of my questions. Dad wasn’t suffering anymore. His pain was gone.  The helicopter ride would be the last time Dad and I ever flew together, and it was beautiful.  The very last time I saw Dad, he was at peace and his feet were warm. The last words I spoke to him were, “I love you, Dad.” His last words to me were, “I love you too, son.”  God did answer my prayers. All of them.


I could envision God holding Dad in His arms. There is nothing that could be more “fine,” or more “alright,” than to be embraced in the loving arms of our Creator.  I felt at peace.


As I laid there, I began to smile and shed more tears.  These were tears of joy and happiness. I knew I would miss him dearly. There were many hard days to come. Still, I was so happy for Dad and so proud of him.


How many times in life do we do things that make us nervous?  We’ve all experienced this at one time or another. We’re pretty sure about what we’re doing, but we still have the jitters. Getting married, becoming a parent, buying a house or a new car. The anxiety at these moments is called “getting cold feet.”


Dad had just turned on to his final approach, and he did so with perfectly warm feet.