I was on my in-laws’ computer, opening a web browser probably to check my email or Google Reader or something. Their start page is nytimes.com, and the red breaking news headline was that Tim Russert had died of an apparent heart attack. I gasped. The news was so “breaking” that there was no story to click on. MSNBC.com and CNN.com were still reporting on floods in Iowa and R. Kelly being acquitted. Same with the TV news stations. I did the first thing I could think to do. I called my dad.
If it was Sunday morning, my dad was watching Meet the Press. I generally left the room when it was on, back when I still lived at home. Bo-ring. Now, though, I get annoyed when I forget what time it is and miss the first half. I’ve seen a whole lot of Tim Russert in this crazy election year, especially since NBC/MSNBC is generally my network of choice (and my dad’s, not surprisingly). Amidst Chris Matthews’ non-stop yammering and Keith Olberman’s dry sarcasm, Tim Russert was the papa bear, keeping everyone in line, keeping them honest. He’d be on cable until the wee hours of the morning, waiting for results to come in, and then back on the Today show at 7am, looking nearly as disheveled as I was, having stayed up to watch him, and still up early with the kids the next morning. I became a Meet the Press junkie, just like my dad, calling him to make sure he was watching when Barack was on. Tim always asked the hard questions, but as someone said of him last night, was never trying to trick his guests and get them to say something they didn’t mean. No, he wanted to get them to say exactly what they mean, and make sure it stood up to hard questions.
I had tears in my eyes yesterday as I watched the various anchors and correspondents talk on MSNBC. Brian Williams, Tom Brokaw, Andrea Mitchell, Keith Olbermann and others could barely hold back from crying. Keith’s nose had that red look mine gets when I’m trying to keep it together and not really succeeding. I really lost it when they kept mentioning Tim’s wife and son, the vacation in Italy they were on, that Tim had come back early from so that he could prep for Meet the Press this weekend. He had just seen his son graduate from college. He was only 58 years old.
My dad’s heart attack was when he was 59. It was March of 2006. I was at the dentist’s office for an early morning appointment. My cell phone rang, and much to my surprise, it was my brother. That was odd. I said hi, he asked if I had my aunt Nancy’s phone number. I didn’t have it on me, and was being called in by the dentist, so I told him I’d call back later. We hung up. I was still confused that my brother would call me, especially so early in the morning. We don’t talk that often, plus he was in Chicago, so it was even earlier there. Sitting in the dentist’s chair, my phone rang again, and I knew something was up. Brother again. “Hey, listen, I’m sorry I was bullshitting you. Dad’s in the hospital, I think he had a heart attack, and he wants me to call aunt Nancy [Dad’s sister, a nurse, the go-to person in medical situations].” I told him I’d get it for him and call back. Shaking, I called home and woke up M, had him go to my computer and read my aunt’s number to me, so I could give it to my brother. I left the dentist’s office without getting my teeth cleaned, and drove in to work.
I got updates from my brother, I got updates from my mom (long-since-divorced from my dad), whose sister works in the same hospital system where my dad was admitted. By about 9 in the morning, I got word that the stent was placed, Dad was doing fine. I spent a good chunk of that day on the phone, and a good portion of the day crying. I knew he was OK, though I hadn’t managed to talk to him yet, but it scared the bejesus out of me. M and I had planned on me going off the pill the next month, getting ready to try to have a kid. What if my dad didn’t get to meet his grandchildren? My dad, who was practically already buying stock in BabyGap in preparation… my kids-to-be couldn’t NOT know him. I cried some more, and made my flight reservation to go to Chicago the next day. I was glad the busy season at work had just ended.
My mom picked me up from the airport the next afternoon, and dropped me off at the hospital. The same one where I was born. I walked into his room on the buzzing cardiac unit, shook my head, and laughed. He was sitting in the chair next to his hospital bed, laptop open, talking business on his cell phone. Naturally. My brother said my dad had sent him to the house to pick things up. Dad was in darn good spirits, just annoyed that they were going to make him stay in the hospital another night. Naturally. My stepmom was sitting next to him, still shaking. She hadn’t stopped since she got the call from my brother at 4AM California time, because she was at their place in Palm Springs when it happened.
The story came out of what my dad had been doing the night before the heart attack. As usual, he was flying in from somewhere, probably Washington. He was always traveling, seldom at home or even in the office. Always the road. He grabbed a cheeseburger, hot dog, and fries at the airport, scrambled into the office to pick up a few things, and raced to DePaul, where he was teaching an evening class for the MBA program. Travel, stress, hurry, junk food. It was his last class of the quarter, so he took his students out for pizza and beer afterwards. Got home late, the “heartburn” he’d been feeling much of the night wasn’t getting any better. So he had a chocolate bar. Finally, around 4 or 5 in the morning, he woke up and had a hunch things weren’t right. But he was alone in the house, my stepmom was in California. So did he call an ambulance? A neighbor? Nah, he drove himself to the hospital. Did he use the hospital valet parking? Nah, he parked himself and walked in. Naturally. We tease him to this day that the only reason he didn’t take the motorcycle was that it was still kind of cold out.
Anyways, Dad got his stent and fistful of prescriptions, and instructions that cheeseburgers were now only a very occasional indulgence. He recuperated in California for a couple of weeks, but is back on the road at least as much as always. The talk of retirement has finally turned into a deal that just needs to have i’s dotted and t’s crossed, and the plan is that in two years, he’ll be free to spend as much time golfing and playing with the grandkids as he wants. I’m so grateful that his scare was, in the end, only a scare, and that he’s the picture of health today. He was always a runner, but now eats better at home and on the road, takes his meds, and gets regular checkups. A month after my dad’s heart attack, I threw out my last pack of LoEstrin, and a year and a half later, he was hanging out with his first two grandchildren. Today, he’s in Nevada, visiting his third. He has been to three of his four kids’ weddings.
And so, this is what I thought about when I heard that Tim Russert died. He’s one of those people I forever associate with my dad, with their passion for politics and honesty. I knew that, when I would talk to my dad and say “I was watching Tim Russert, and he said…”, my dad had likely heard the same thing. No more. A hard-working dad who probably spent way too many hours at the office. I’m so glad he was able to see his son graduate from college. I was watching when he ended a Meet the Press broadcast with a hearty congratulations to all of the BC graduates a few weeks ago, and saw the gleam that told you he was most especially congratulating his own kid. I saw the same pride I see in my dad, and I’m immediately sad that the fear of my dad not meeting his own grandkids is now the reality for Tim’s family.