Letters To My Papa
A personal story of Hope, Grief, and Love
ASHLEY HERTZOG EMBRY
Table of Contents
The Initial Letters
Additional Days In The Hospital
The Aftermath In Pennsylvania
Life Goes On In Tennessee
Cast of Characters
About The Author
Welcome to my heart: It is ever-breaking and ever-loving. This book invites you to explore my innermost thoughts, feelings, and experiences as told to my precious Papa Bear. What you’ll find in the pages that follow are my letters to him.
On the evening of Sunday, November 25, 2012, everything changed in the instant my father collapsed with a brain aneurysm. That day and the next melted into one long day – almost as though Monday had never happened, because sleep never happened. On Tuesday, I wrote a letter to Papa in my journal for a variety of reasons: 1) I wanted to talk to him, but he was in a coma, so I wrote to him instead. 2) I knew that when he woke, he would never believe what had happened to him, so I volunteered to tell him his own remarkable tale. 3) It was a way for me to process what was going on. 4) It was a visualization practice born of fierce hope and tenacious optimism. I told myself, if I write this letter to him, surely one day he will wake and be able to read it.
That is the first letter you will find in this book. It is a glimpse inside my heart while in the midst of chaos.
The next day, his numbers improved ever so slightly. Though he was still in a coma, even the smallest shift in momentum offered us hope. As I picked up my pen to write him again, the purpose for my words came into focus: I would write a letter every day until Christmas. A month of handwritten messages to my Papa would make the perfect gift – something meaningful that could fill in the gaps of what his memory couldn’t recall. From that point on, I made it my sole purpose to show up and pay attention, and make sure that no matter what, I felt connected to my Papa.
When Christmas arrived, we were still spending our days in the ICU of the Thomas Jefferson Hospital for Neuroscience, so I was still writing. As a family that had carried on the same holiday traditions every year since I was born, we decided to postpone our Christmas
celebration. We would do whatever we could to make the most of Christmas Day in the hospital; all of our usual festivities would wait until Papa was home, rested, healthy, and ready to celebrate the holiday season. The calendar didn’t matter; it was togetherness we were after.
I extended my writing deadline several times – first “until he gets to rehab,” then “until I return to Nashville.” Eventually, I decided to write until he was well enough that I no longer needed to keep track of his story, and he could carry the rest in his own memory. I stopped writing in mid-January to compile my letters into a gift book for the Valentine’s Christmas that our family was anticipating. Then life took an unexpected sharp turn, landing him back in the hospital. Oblivious to what lay ahead for us, but presuming there must be another chapter to our story, I resumed writing.
Ultimately, I wrote through what proved to be a less-than-happy ending. But I had gotten into such a habit of writing those letters that I craved the catharsis. And now I faced something I never had to confront in my whole life – grieving the loss of a parent. So I continued to write to him through my grief every day for another month or so, and more sporadically after that. The bulk of this book takes place between November 2012 and June 2013, with occasional letters thereafter.
My first letter was written from pure adrenaline. It was lengthy, dramatic, and occasionally eloquent. As I continued writing about daily life between the hotel and the hospital, it is clear that we settled into routines. As a result, so did my writing. I recorded vital stats and facts, and wrote to Papa much the way I would have spoken to him on those days – to a man recovering from a brain injury. I kept things simple and relatively free of poetic flare.
During his early recovery, I started to look ahead to the day we would take life off of “pause.” At that time, reality hit me, and I became consumed by my own worries and personal responsibilities again. I “talked them out” to Papa in the letters.
When Papa’s health took a scary turn again, I initially reverted to my simplistic, optimistic writing, with a fierce determination (in hindsight, some might say “delusion”) to witness a full recovery. Upon Papa’s passing, my writing grew introspective. My emotions ran deep and my thoughts ran deeper as I contemplated and reevaluated EVERYTHING IN MY LIFE.
This is the story of a father/daughter relationship. The story of a man fighting for his life. The story of a family determined to be there for the man who shaped their lives. The story of hope, grief, and love all tangled together. It is also a story that Papa blessed in his final days. He knew I’d been writing these letters, and looked forward to reading them. And though the story doesn’t have the same ending I originally anticipated, that somehow makes it even more important to tell. It is the story of a man who deserves such a beautifully lasting legacy that I had no choice but to write this book to honor him.
I will let the letters speak for themselves, narrating our journey one day at a time. While I have made edits to improve readability, I was careful not to compromise the facts or embellish the truth that I originally recalled each day. I made a few connecting notes to give the letters and related events necessary context. Additionally, in the back of this book, you will find a “Cast of Characters.” This quick reference tool ties supporting information to names that were regularly mentioned throughout the book.
Unfortunately, Papa never got to read my letters. But you will. I hope and pray that as you get to know him through the pages that follow, you will understand the goodness that was so prevalent in his life, the goodness that he stood for, the goodness that he instilled in others. I hope my words do justice to his legacy, and that somewhere today he is proud of his “Blondie” for sharing our journey with you.
Thank you for reading. Thank you for getting to know me and my family, most of all, my precious Papa Bear.
The Initial Letters
Tuesday, November 27, 2012
I am sitting here in the waiting room at Thomas Jefferson Hospital for Neuroscience. It’s Tuesday afternoon, and it has been a long couple of days. I can’t help but feel optimistic about your recovery, but it was scary for a while. Who am I kidding? Even with optimism in tow, it’s still scary.
Sunday evening, following my Poetic Soul Gifts party, Kent brought Sherman to the house and helped you order Christmas cards online. Mama and I drove down the street to visit Jane and Tony and show them the video I made for them. Luckily for us, they had already gone to bed so Mama and I came home. Kent was getting ready to leave, but since we returned, he stayed a few more minutes.
I stood in the dining room tearing down from my open house when Cory called the home phone. You answered and briefly joked around with him. Then I heard you say, “My daughter? Yeah, I think she has a few minutes to talk.” You handed me the phone and walked back the hall. Cory and I only chatted for about a minute before I heard a heart-stopping sound. There was no stumble and crash, no drop and bounce. There was just one frightening thud that shook the floor beneath me and rattled the wall behind me. I thought to myself, What in this house could even make that sound? I panicked and ran back the hall. There you were, lying facedown on the bathroom floor. I threw the phone and screamed while Kent and Mama ran to help.
“What the hell happened?” asked Kent.
“I have no idea!” I cried.
They turned you over onto your back while I scrambled for the phone to dial 9-1-1. I was too flustered to speak, so Kent took the phone while I tried to open your airway because you weren’t breathing. Your whole body was rigid. Every muscle was tense, your hands were clenched, and you were biting down hard on your tongue. I failed to pry open your airway, so your quick-thinking son grabbed his wallet and wedged its leather corner into your mouth, separating your teeth. Your immediate exhale sounded like air racing out of a balloon. Your whole body relaxed, and then you started snoring as if you were in a deep sleep. Kent held the wallet in your mouth while I held up your head so you wouldn’t swallow your tongue. We looked at each other in utter disbelief, fear and confusion coursing through our veins.
I kept talking to you. “Papa, it’s Blondie. Please keep breathing.” “Papa, can you hear me? It’s Blondie. Squeeze my hand if you can hear me.” No response. But you were still breathing so, in that moment, that was enough for me.
Before long, the ambulance crew arrived. So I kissed your face and let someone else hold your hand. Meanwhile, in the kitchen, Janelle Weidman wrote down what medications you take as Mama listed them off to her. It was eerie: Janelle was wearing the same sweatshirt she had on that morning at The Heidelberg when we all went to breakfast after church. We all sat there dining together, cracking jokes, laughing, blissfully unaware of what was lurking around the corner. Who could have known that mere hours later she would be summoned to our house on an ambulance call?
I ran over to Grandma’s side of the house where Sherman was sequestered away from the chaos, and I called my friend Katie to ask her to pray. I didn’t know what to tell her, but I knew I needed a friend to be praying for you.
When I walked back into our living room, I heard you sneeze twice. I had never been so happy to hear your deafening sneezes in my whole life! I thought, Hey! That’s a normal bodily function. Good! You were still unconscious though, so of course it was purely reflexive.
Before long, your fellow township supervisor and another guy on the crew carried you out the door to the ambulance. Outside, Kelsey and Arlene Moll were standing in our driveway. Word sure does travel fast in a small town. Apparently, one of Kelsey’s friends with a police scanner called her and said, “You better go check on Mr. Hertzog!”
Kelsey offered to ride along with me to the hospital so I wouldn’t be alone, since Mama was riding in the ambulance. I accepted her offer, and when we got in the car, I looked at her and confided, “Okay, I need to be a baby for just a minute.” She hugged me, and I fell apart. I sobbed in her arms, crying out, “I need my daddy.” She assured me that you would be fine, and we headed to the Reading Hospital ER. On the way, Mama called to tell me you were awake. She was seated up front in the ambulance so she couldn’t hear what you were saying, but she knew they were asking you questions, and you were responding in some way.
When we arrived at the hospital, we told the attendant at the nurses station we were there to see Noel Hertzog, but they didn’t know what room, if any, you were in yet. So we waited. In the meantime, I called Barry and Deb, who had just arrived home in South Carolina after leaving from our house that morning. Then Kent arrived (after dropping off Sherman at home), and soon Leon Moll came, too. He had been holding down the fort at the Stouch Tavern, and Arlene had relieved him so he could come see you.
The next thing we knew, the hospital chaplain came to get us. I nearly passed out. I thought the worst. And who wouldn’t? Why else would the chaplain send for us? Then he took us – not into a hospital room – but to a family room, where Mama was already waiting and crying. I thought that was it. That was the room where they would tell me my father had passed away. I shook from head to toe. I looked at Mama with fear and panic in my eyes, and she flashed me an expression that without words somehow told me, “I’m scared too” and, “It’s not what you think” all at the same time. I breathed a slight sigh of relief and sat down next to her. A doctor entered the room to tell us they conducted a CAT scan and found bleeding on your brain. Next, they would perform an MRI to determine if the bleeding was what caused the fall or if it was secondary from the fall.
In the meantime, I called Al, my boss, to let him know I would be staying in PA indefinitely. He compassionately told me to take all the time I needed. I also called Cory to bring him up to speed. He told me that after he got to his parents’ house that night, he stood outside wondering what in the world happened since the abrupt end to our phone call. He asked God for a sign that everything would work out and that you would be okay. Just then, a single shooting star streaked across the sky above him. Hearing that made me happy and hopeful! I let Cory know that if he needed to go back to Nashville in the morning (as was our original plan) that he should go and I would fly back at a later date. All I knew in that moment was that nothing was going to pull me away from you until I knew you would be all right.
After getting off the phone and pacing around the hallway for a period of time, I saw Maureen and her family in the waiting area. Mama, Kent, and I updated them on your condition. Before long, we were told you were back in your room from the MRI and we could see you, so the three of us rushed to your side. You were awake – groggy, but awake. We talked to you. You knew who we were without ever a moment’s hesitation. Thank goodness, because it would have devastated me if you failed to recognize your own loved ones. I was overcome with gratitude that merely an hour earlier I thought you were dying, and now here you were talking to us. And you knew us! And you knew who you were. And you could answer questions when the nurses asked you. Though you didn’t answer all of them correctly, your memory just needed a little jogging. One of the nurses – who graduated from ELCO High School in my class – asked you what year it was.
“Twenty-twelve,” you replied. Then she asked what month it was, and you answered, “September.” My heart sank.
She told you, “No, not quite. It’s November.” That seemed to puzzle you for a moment until she reminded you, “We just had Thanksgiving.”
You quickly remembered. “Oh, that’s right! We had 19 people at the house.” And that was right. That was our exact headcount for Thanksgiving dinner. We all breathed a sigh of relief. Then you told us, “I feel like I’m getting a dull headache.”