On an episode of the television series The Lucy Show (note to my young readers: that was Lucille Ball’s post-Desi Arnaz and post-I Love Lucy effort—you know I Love Lucy thanks to Nick at Nite but you may not know The Lucy Show, which was admittedly inferior to the venerable classic but was still funny) Lucy’s boss Mr. Mooney, played by Gale Gordon, was bemoaning the fact that he was going to have to undergo major surgery. After a bit of cajoling, Lucy finally got him to say what kind of surgery he was going to have and he announced, with much drama, “A tonsillectomy!”
And the audience laughed.
Lucy went on to explain to Mr. Mooney that a tonsillectomy was no big deal.
Certain things came into my childhood and adolescent world with the regularity and predictability of the changing seasons: chigger bites, excitement over baseball’s All-Star Game, catching fireflies in a jar (where, by the way, have all the fireflies gone?), insomnia on Christmas Eve, the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue (back then it was more innocent or at least much less revealing than it is now)—and tonsillitis.
Every year, without fail, I would come down with it and every year, when my mother would ask the doctor if I should have my tonsils removed, he would say the same thing: “He’ll outgrow it.”
And so it came to pass, in the spring of 1979, late in the first year of my life as a college graduate and as a married man, I developed a rip-roaring case of tonsillitis and the doctor said, “You know, you’re not going to outgrow this.” I thanked him for his insight and he scheduled me for major surgery.
This was in the old days before health insurance companies ruled the world and so I checked into the Middle Georgia Hospital in Macon on the Sunday night before my surgery was to take place on Monday. On Monday I was attended by my good wife, my father, and my stepmother as I went to and came back from surgery. After I was brought back to my room and they could see that I was, despite the considerable risks involved with my major surgery, not dead, Daddy and Imogene went to the S & S Cafeteria on Riverside Drive (it’s still there, by the way, which Middle Georgia Hospital is not) to get some lunch; they brought some food back to Debra who, just eleven months before, had vowed to be with me in sickness and in health until death did us part, and so had refused to leave my side in my hour of need.
The combination of the anesthesia, the unspeakable things that I had swallowed during surgery, and the smell of Debra’s roast beef and potatoes proved too much for me and I began to feel nauseated, which fact I tried to explain to my loving family without demonstrating it and so, with my hand clamped over my mouth, I said “Ahmnawsheeated,” to which my wife replied, “What?” and so I said again, with more emphasis, “Ahmnawsheeated!” to which my wife, who had (and has) excellent hearing replied, “What did you say?” (no doubt followed by something like “baby” or “honey” or “darling”) and so I said, this time with my hand removed from my mouth, “I said I’m nauseated!” and I demonstrated it all over her shoes.
Like I said, in sickness and in health, with puke all over your shoes, until death do us part.
That night (since this was before health insurance companies ruled the world, I also spent the night following my surgery in the hospital) we watched what was that year an awful Atlanta Braves team on television and, as my father predicted they would, they won the game in my honor although I slept through most of it. Sometime before the game was over Daddy and Imogene said good night and drove the thirty six miles back to Barnesville. I’m sure that Daddy told me he loved me; I was out of it and so I regrettably don’t remember.
The next morning, which was Tuesday, Debra, who had spent the night with me at the hospital just in case I wanted to throw up on her again, drove me home and then went to class and to work. Daddy got up and went to his job in the Bleach Department of Thomaston Mills. On Wednesday Debra went to class and to work and Daddy went to work. On Thursday Debra went to class and Daddy went to work. That afternoon, while Debra was still gone, the telephone rang and I answered it and said, my throat throbbing, “Hello.” The voice on the other end of the line said, “Mike, this is Mr. Nelson; I work with you father. He is at the Emergency Room of the Thomaston hospital; it looks like he’s had a heart attack.”
I still remember the first thing that came out of my mouth: “I just had my tonsils out on Monday.”
To Mr. Nelson’s credit, he didn’t laugh at or mock me; he just said, “I know; your father told me. How are you?”
“I’m ok,” I muttered.
“You’d better come as quickly as you can,” Mr. Nelson said.
“As soon as my wife gets home with the car,” I answered.
“OK,” he replied. “I’ll see you later.”
I hung up the phone and watched our little apartment spin around me; it seemed as if all of creation was melting before me. My mother had died of cancer three months before I entered Mercer; now my father had suffered a heart attack just three months before I was to enter Southern Seminary—and I’m afraid that’s how I was thinking of what was happening, at least on one level—how his death, if he died, was going to affect me and why, for God’s sake, did these things keep happening to the people that I loved.
I went to the door to watch for Debra; I wanted very badly for her to get home so I could tell her what had happened to my father and I wanted very badly for her to get home before anything could happen to her, too. After all, I loved her and she loved me and that put her, it seemed to me, on very dangerous ground.
She did come home and I did tell her; we held each other for a very long time.
Then we drove to the Thomaston hospital.
Daddy was in an ICU unit on a ventilator but he was still conscious and aware; they had given him one of those children’s tablets that you can write on and then lift up the sheet to erase what you’ve written. When I walked in the room his eyes grew as big as saucers and he grabbed that tablet and wrote on it in big letters, “How are you?”
I had undergone a tonsillectomy. He had suffered a massive heart attack. As it turned out, he was dying. But he was worried about me, which was hard for me to understand but I was not a father then. I am now. Now I understand.
Four years before, on a Saturday, a doctor had told my father that my mother was going to die and that it might be in twenty four hours or it might be in two weeks. I remember praying, as best a sixteen-year-old boy can pray, that if that was the case it happen more toward the twenty four hour end of the scale.
She died at noon on the next day, a Sunday.
On the Saturday following the Thursday of my father’s heart attack, the doctor told us that his lungs were filling up with fluid and that he would probably not live very long. I prayed, as best I could, that he not linger if lingering meant suffering.
He died at noon on the next day, a Sunday.
That was May 27, 1979. That was thirty years ago today.
I still miss Champ Lee Ruffin, my father, but in a very real way I carry him with me in everything I do, in everything I say, in every prayer I pray, in every person I touch, in every corny joke I tell, in every cutting glance that I give, in every loving act that I undertake, and in every faithful moment that I live.
He was a good man. When I am a good man, then I am most his son.