Happy Birthdays and Harrowing Hospitals

Thirty-nine years ago, today, my niece, Erin was born. My sister, Arlene, and her husband, Tim, had moved back to Tim’s hometown of Jena, Louisiana about a year before, so my mom flew back to give her a hand with the new baby. Arlene and Tim already had their hands full with Jacob, who was a rambunctious couple of months past two, and after raising six of her own, mom knew how to get things organised.

I was living up at Lake Tahoe, a restaurant manager at the Hyatt Lake Tahoe, and living in a great house with Michael, Susan, and Clare. In those pre-email, cell phone, and texting days, we weren’t involved in the day-to-day minutiae of everyone. I called home once every week or two and caught up on the latest round of gossip or family drama. I knew mom had flown back to Louisiana and that Arlene was due any day. I’d get a call when the baby was born.

The call I did get that day sent me – and the entire family – into a tailspin.

Pop was a San Francisco Fire Fighter and, in 1980, was Director of Training. He had his own red car – and could drive it like Mario Andretti when heading to a fire. Back when he was in the Rescue Squad, he was given the task of driving the new Lieutenants – always shooting down the wrong way on California Street, siren blaring, running the red lights all the way down – and scaring them shitless. The man had fire-fighting in his blood – his grandfather had been Fire Chief of Omaha, Nebraska – and he had no qualms being the first one into a burning building. He was also slightly crazy.

That morning, there was a 5-alarm fire downtown – and he was there. He wasn’t actively fighting the fire, he was loading and exchanging Scott air packs – doing his part and being part of the action. In the middle of it all, he had a massive heart attack.

It was a quiet Tuesday at the lake. I was at work when I got a call from my roommates – call home, right away. I wasn’t overly concerned, thinking at first that it was about Arlene and a new baby but I called and got the news – Pop had had a heart attack and wasn’t expected to make it. I became overly concerned. I headed over to the bar across from the restaurant, had a stiff shot, and headed home.

Those pre-email, cell phone, and texting days were also pre-credit card days. I borrowed some cash from Michael and Clare – both casino card dealers who made great tips – and Michael drove me down to Reno for a flight home, buying a ticket with cash. I had been given a Fire Department number to call when I got my ticket, and a firefighter met me at the airport in a red car and drove me directly to the hospital. I do not remember the guys name, but the entire ride, he spoke about Pop and what a great guy he was, what fun he was to work with, some of the antics they had pulled on other firefighters… he did everything in his power to distract me from the fact that my father was lying in a hospital room, dying.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, Arlene gives birth to a gorgeous little girl. My mom got the call that her husband of 32 years had a heart attack at a fire and was not expected to make it – and she wasn’t there to be by his side. Leaving Arlene and the new baby – and Jacob – in the care of his parents, Tim drove my mom to Houston to get a flight back to San Francisco. He did the same thing as the firefighter did for me – talking non-stop to distract her.

By the time I got to the hospital, my other siblings, spouses, boyfriends, cousins, and firefighters galore were in the waiting room. I think I’ve mentioned before that I do not come from a quiet family – and this was no different. Even somber, we’re loud. We tend to invade hospitals – for fun things like births or serious things like heart attacks or simple operations. We are not demanding as a group, stay out of the way as much as we can, and don’t look for any special accommodation. But, we’re also not leaving. The hospital arranged a room for us where we could gather, smoke, drink coffee – and probably do shots – and they kept us abreast of what was going on.

Finally, Pop was conscious, and they let us see him, one-by-one. Mike went in, and then me. Pop was sitting up, looked at me, and asked what are you doing here? He knew I was supposed to be at Tahoe and was a bit miffed that I had come down just for him. I made some sort of innocuous response, and I walked out, knowing that he was going to be okay. Five minutes later, they ushered us all into the room to say that he was back down and wasn’t expected to make it. I couldn’t grasp what they were saying. I had just spoken to him. He was going to be fine.

Meanwhile, Mom arrived, looking like three shades of death warmed over. She had fallen running through the Houston airport and seriously sprained her ankle. The medics there wanted to keep her, x-ray it, and give her some proper medical attention. She would have none of it. She was getting on her plane and no one was going to stop her. I think I’ve also mentioned that my mother could be a formidable force. They wrapped it, wheeled her to the plane, and had a wheel chair waiting in San Francisco. She was also picked up in a red car and taken directly to the hospital.

Mom hadn’t slept, hadn’t changed clothes, wasn’t wearing any make-up – my mother, one of the truly great vain people in the world – looked like hell and didn’t care.

After a while, Pop was stabilized and we talked mom into going home for a bit of rest. Her idea of rest was to head home, bathe, put on her war paint, and head back to the hospital. She walked into his room – wearing her favorite pink outfit he had bought her – and Pop’s first comment was why are you limping? And then it was Arlene, baby, what’s going on… You really couldn’t put anything past him.

We held vigil for a couple more days and Pop finally came home – a forced disability retirement from the SFFD. Retirement was far more difficult for him than having a heart attack. Volunteering with the Firefighter’s Toy Program kept him busy – but it was never the same as hanging off the back of a fire truck – or driving one the wrong way down a one-way street in rush-hour traffic. I did mention that he was slightly crazy, didn’t I?!?

If I had thought about this sooner, I would have made breaded veal cutlets and dirty potatoes for dinner, tonight. That was Pop’s go-to dinner, although I have no idea where I would find the veal cutlets he used to get – they were a frozen breaded cutlet with a little square of butter attached to them. If anyone else made them they would have been gawd-awful, but there was just something about the way he would make them… Much like his coffee – he would buy 3-pound cans of Lady Lee brand coffee and brew a pot that could dissolve titanium – and it was the best damned coffee on the planet. Go figure.

Maybe I’ll try and hunt them down for his birthday next month… but for tonight, I made something in honor of Erin being born in Louisiana! And nothing says Louisiana better than andouille sausage!

Chicken and Lentils with Andouille Sausage

  • 2 chicken thighs
  • 2 links andouille sausage, diced
  • 2 leeks, sliced
  • 1 bell pepper, diced
  • 1 hot pepper, minced
  •  1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 cup lentils
  • 3 cups chicken broth
  • 1/2 tsp thyme
  • salt & pepper, to taste

Brown chicken thighs in an oven-proof pot. Remove from pan and set aside.

Add diced andouille sausage, leeks, hot pepper, garlic, and bell pepper to pan and cook until leeks are wilted. Stir in thyme and a bit of S&P.

Add broth and stir in lentils. Return chicken to pan, cover, and place in a 300°F oven for about an hour. Check after 35 or so minutes to see if you need more broth.

The chicken was fall off the bone tender, and the lentils just spicy enough. The andouille added a lot of flavor so I didn’t need a lot of extraneous spices to jack it up.

There are a lot of happy endings to the stories…

Not long after Erin was born, Arlene and Tim moved back to California and little baby Erin now has four gorgeous daughters of her own – the eldest being 18. Big brother has four kids, as well.

Pop made it through another 28 years and Erin has reached 39.

There’s nothing quite like getting upstaged by your grandfather on your birthday…