Monday, October 30, 2000

Family Culture

After I'd had my consult with Dr. Rudolf,
and was assured that I had WPW, and that it really wasn't that
important, I determined that it would still be a good idea to talk to my
Dad about it, since some of the research on WPW suggests that it might
be hereditary.

I called him up this weekend and we spoke about all the usual non-news
and semi-news. I mentioned that Jean had been offered a column at the
paper where she works, I told him about the blowout Kelly had had at
Kindergarten. We determined that each of us was in good health (right
now) and exchanged calendars. Dad should be driving to Florida with
Betty right about now, for instance.

Then I touched on the topic of WPW. Had he ever had an EKG? Several. Had
any ever turned up WPW? No, he had never even heard of it. Well, good. I
told him how the doctor had explained that the only way WPW would ever
likely affect my life was if I found myself in the emergency room for
anything at all. Said Dr. Rudolf:

Be sure that the first thing you do is grab the attending physician by
the lapels and say "I'm WPW Type A!"

This is because emergency rooms have a standard approach to treating
elevated heart rates. They administer Verapamil,
which in the average patient is very successful in lowering the racing
heartrate. But in WPW patients, it causes problems.
Here's the medicalese:

Some patients with paroxysmal and/or chronic atrial fibrillation or
atrial flutter [and WPW] have developed [...] a very
rapid ventricular response or ventricular fibrillation after receiving
intravenous verapamil [...]

All this means is that I shouldn't receive the standard treatment
for racing heart, as it could actually make things worse. I need to
carry around that EKG and try to communicate my condition if I find
myself in need of emergency medical treatment.

So back to my Dad. On hearing this, he related a similar issue that he
lives with. It seems that while serving in Korea (as a medic), he was
sent with several other servicemen onto a refrigeration ship, Korean in
origin. Shortly thereafter, he and all his fellows came down with an
illness that was for several days undiagnosed. Eventually it was
diagnosed as pneumonia, and they were all treated successfully.

However, to this day, he must inform doctors, whenever they take an
X-ray, for whatever reason, that there is a 'fibrous strand' in the
lower-right quadrant of his lungs, caused by scarring from the
pneumonia. It will show up as a shadow on his lung, and has been there
since his youth in the Navy. Can't have the doctors rushing him off to
oncologists every time he gets an X-ray.


The reason this is interesting to me is that it sort of echoes my own
situation, and is a bit of history of my father that I had not heard
before. My relationship with my Dad is a bit distant, I think. When my
sister and I were growing up, he was a stern authoritarian, and did not
hesitate to 'use the belt' for martial punishment. Add to this the
fact that I am introverted and perhaps stereotypically Finnish (stoic,
withdrawn) and it all adds up to a less than embracing relationship with

Now over the years this relationship has mellowed, but we still don't
talk about very deep topics all that often. My father's own life is one
of those shrouded areas. I know some of the popular anecdotes, but I
doubt that he'd open up and tell me of his childhood fears, or what was
good and bad about his relationship with his own father. Truth to
tell, I am inhibited from asking. I can't bring myself to probe that
far. I'm not sure if it's really that important to me, but it does
illustrate why this little anecdote is of interest.


I know that I am boxed in by my personality. I'm not the deeply
touchy-feely type of person, except in my own narrow tribe. Kelly can
hardly breathe sometimes for all my hugging and nuzzling. Jean can have
my hugs and kisses any time she wants. But California cuddly I am
not. In a team-building exercise at work once, the 'facilitator' tried
to get us to give each other back massages, at which point I sat down,
and nearly walked out. "That's it," I said. So I do have my
limits, a wall around myself.

I am okay with this, most of the time. But it does cause problems for me
at times. A few years ago, my mother died. While I'd known that she'd
been having problems with her health, I truly had no idea that her life
was threatened. I was surprised when my dad called to tell me she had
passed away.

My wife and I flew to Michigan to attend the funeral. My sister wanted
to know if I wanted to view my mother in the casket. I was not, nor am I
now interested in viewing the inanimate remains of somebody I once
knew. It doesn't give me peace, help me accept that they are 'really'
dead, or any of those other things people tell you when they have open
casket viewings. So of course I stayed at the opposite end of the
funeral parlor from the casket.

I was matter-of-fact, closed off, business-like during the entire
trip. If anybody ever told me the cause of death, I didn't hear
it. After the fact, my Finnish stoic facade prevents me from asking. I
just don't find it appropriate. So I have an idea what ended my mother's
life, but not the facts. I suppose for Kelly's medical records, I will
have to make the effort eventually.

The real point of this passage is that when I got home, I felt numb, I
helped unpack, then sat on the couch just staring into space. My wife
came in to ask me some day-in-the-life kind of question, and I just
started tearing up. I ended up crying for an hour, gut-wrenching sobs,
accusatory howls, snot and tears and all the unpretty symptoms of ugly
grief. After a while, the physical manifestations died down, and I don't
think I cried about the whole thing ever again. But I surprised
myself. I knew I missed my mother, and was sad she had died. But
I thought I was outside of the deeper responses. Or rather I didn't
think about it at all.

So now I think about mortality and turn my eyes to my Dad. I know we
don't have a truly close relationship, and I don't think we ever really
will. We are too much alike in that respect. But I don't want to make
the mistake of being the prototypical Finnish male, and completely miss
the signs, should they come. I don't want to come home from a funeral
not even knowing what took him, not even knowing if I feel, until the
storm takes me. I don't know what this means, but I'll be thinking about
it for a long time.

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