April 19: Clinging to Life at the Nexus of Private & Public Terror

Charles Porter's photograph of firefighter Chris Fields holding the dying infant Baylee Almon won the Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography in 1996. [Source: Wikipedia]Fifteen years ago on April 19, I had a heart attack about the same time  that Timothy McVeigh blew up the Murrah  Federal Building. A medical transport helicopter was lifting off the roof at Miami Valley Hospital when paramedics pulled my gurney out of the ambulance. As they rolled me through the emergency room doors, one paramedic nodded at the chopper and  said. “I wonder if they’re headed to Oklahoma City?”

“What happened there?” I asked.

“Big explosion. Nine-story office building. Maybe terrorists.”

From that moment on, my sense of personal fear has been intertwined, inextricably with America’s sense of public terror. I lurched toward cardiac arrest but clung to life long enough for doctors to save me. Later, in the intensive care unit, I heard one nurse say to another, “Keep an eye on this one tonight.” While they watched my EKG on a screen at the nurses’ station, I watched CNN, trying to understand what was happening in the wider world.  By the end of April 19, I had survived one more day, but 168 innocent people in Oklahoma City had not.

I’ve  told the story of that day in a thousand small stories, but I still haven’t articulated the whole story, the mystery and hard facts of life and death, at my particular nexus of private and public spheres. The closest I’ve come in writing is Not This Pig:

I was 39. I was having a heart attack. As my heartbeat slipped away in the emergency room, I lost consciousness. I felt as if I’d fallen to the bottom of a well. I didn’t see the apocryphal light that others have reported at the edge of death, but I heard a voice. It was my voice. It was saying, “Mark, what the hell are you doing down here?”

After a jolt of atropine, my heart started again and my eyes opened. I heard the emergency physician say, “Mark, come back.”

Then a nurse ran my gurney down the hall to the cardiac catheter lab. Another nurse jogged along side me. She held up a clipboard and explained, “This is a consent form.”

“I can’t see that,” I said.

“That’s OK.” There was something gentle in her voice that I needed to hear then. “It says that you understand and agree to have a heart catheter procedure. Depending on what happens with that, you may go right into surgery. This form also gives your consent for open heart surgery if it’s needed.”

I don’t know how many seconds it took for that to sink in. As I scrawled my signature, illegible in the best of circumstances, I knew that this might be the last decision I would ever make. In that moment, all my dignity as a human being was focused in the simple act of making that decision. Now, and from this distance, you might say that the act of signing a consent form then was purely a formality, something the hospital’s lawyers required in the name of risk management. Had I lost consciousness again, they would do whatever they had to do anyway, whether I signed or not. But I saw it differently. I was being given a choice, and I was determined to choose for myself.

I flirted with tachycardia in the catheter lab. I heard a remote voice on a speaker shout, “De-fib!” The imaging cameras swung out of the way. A nurse came toward me with defibrillator paddles. In an instant I thought, “Settle down, boy, you’re about to get electrocuted.”

My heart settled down. Another voice said, “Wait.” The nurse was close enough for me to see her face and make eye contact, an intimacy I experience but rarely with strangers. I watched emotions race across her face: fear, mercy, resolve to act, relief at not having to do so.

After another hour of clot-busting drugs and angioplasty, my coronary arteries were open again. I was transferred to cardiac intensive care. I felt a fleeting sense of euphoria when I found my children waiting for me there. Read more.

That night my mind was working overtime thinking about unfinished business that I might leave behind. A hospital chaplain calmed me down when he said, “Other people will take care of that for you. Let it go.” Then he crossed an ethical line by reminding me that there are no agnostics in foxholes. I wasn’t ready for the Rapture, either.

“I can’t check out now,” I said. “I’m not done raising these kids.”

When I saw Chenoa and Brendan again that night, I said to them what a father must say when it might be his last words. I loved them. Being their father was my life’s most fulfilling gift.

I held on to that commitment to unfinished business, then, as a way of clinging to life. Sometime after my son reached the age of majority, when we began to address each other as “George” by way of acknowledging our adult bond, I realized that I needed to move the goal posts. I started saying, “I want to live to see my grandchildren.” Now that gift is happening, too,  and I need to move the bar again. I’m going to stick around so I can dance at my granddaughters’ weddings.

My daughter Chenoa and granddaughter Teagan came to visit for Easter.

About the photos: (top) Charles Porter’s photograph of firefighter Chris Fields holding the dying infant Baylee Almon in the wreckage of the Murrah Federal Building won the Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography in 1996. [Source: Wikipedia]; (above) my daughter Chenoa and granddaughter Teagan [Photo by Miranda Lloyd].

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15 Responses to April 19: Clinging to Life at the Nexus of Private & Public Terror

  1. jafabrit says:

    I like what James Morrow said “‘There are no atheists in foxholes’ isn’t an argument against atheism, it’s an argument against foxholes.”

  2. Mark Willis says:

    Yes, the prevention of foxholes is the path to salvation.

  3. Robin says:

    Very moving tribute to that day. And to love and life.

  4. Mark Willis says:

    Thanks, Robin. You know the office where my part of the story began.

  5. Chenoa says:

    Thank you for the text this morning. There was only so much I could say then, as I was getting Teagan ready to head out the door. I thought ” I am so glad you are still around to teach her the beauty of cranes in the sky, and the way that ice on a river will talk to you. I am glad you are here to teach her the primeval ‘yawp’. I am glad that you are here to teach her the beauty of things seen and unseen. I am glad she will know her Great-Grandpa and Great-Grandma Willis through your stories.” I am glad you are here, and I can’t wait to see you dance with her at her wedding. I love you, dad.

  6. Mark Willis says:

    Ah, Chenoa, you bring me to tears. The opportunity to teach Teagan such things will be a great joy in my life! All my love, Dad

  7. Ms Modigliani says:

    I’m ready to start practicing those dancing moves for Tegan’s wedding.

  8. Mark Willis says:

    And Ruby Madeline’s wedding, too! [We] will do it!

  9. Ms Modigliani says:

    I too was moved by Chenoa’s words because I know the truth of them and how much you will delight Teagan and Ruby Madeline with stories and images, just as you capture me.

  10. Mark Willis says:

    Someday in my dotage I will remind you of this when I repeat a story one too many times!

  11. Mark Willis says:

    On the Media produced two radio stories documenting the significance of the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building on April 19, 1995.

    Suspicious Minds: “In the immediate aftermath of the Oklahoma City Bombing 15 years ago, both media and law enforcement leaped to the conclusion that the attack must have come from Islamic terrorists. As a result, Oklahoma City’s Muslim population underwent a crisis. Why were they under suspicion? Had one of them done it? Reporter Scott Gurian looks at the ongoing impact of that misguided rush to judgment.”

    Killing by the Numbers: “Since the “shot heard round the world” rang out on April 19th, 1775, the date of April 19th and/or April 20th have been imbued with significance. From Hitler’s birth to the killings at Waco, Columbine and Oklahoma City, each event echoes or evokes the anniversary of the last. Bob Garfield and Brooke Gladstone weigh in on the numerology of terror.”

    Follow the links for transcripts.

  12. Mannoushka says:

    Dear Mark, I fancy Teagan looks a bit like you (or like the only picture I’ve ever seen of you) in that photo. Do you two resemble each other in facial features? Don’t answer if it’s too private! She’s adorable.
    Also, I wonder if I can ask you to drop me a line at my gmail address. There’s something I need to report, but can’t as I’ve lost your email address! (By the way, am I glad about the outcome of the private side of that day!)

  13. Mark Willis says:

    Not sure about the transmission of looks, but I surely hope Teagan loves to listen, just like Grandpa. Good to hear from you, Mannoushka. I’ll send you an email, and you can always reach me at mark.willis@williscreative.com.

  14. Sara H says:

    I’m also glad you’re here! Your daughter and granddaughter are beautiful! thanks for sharing.

  15. Mark Willis says:

    Yes, Sara. Thank you very much!

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