I write about the 24 hours that changed my life, flipping our middle class lifestyle upside-down. The change shaped my childhood and who I am today.
As you would expect, there are some facts about the day, more than thirty-seven years ago, that remain fuzzy. And then there are other elements about the day that stand-out like a flashing neon sign.
The day for me has long served as a key demarcation line: one day we were a family of five rooted in middle class America and the next my family struggled to keep up, keep our heads above water, struggled to keep three boys fed and dressed.
First a little background
My father had scraped his way up to crane operator at the local steel mill where he worked. My mother worked fulltime in a sewing factory. We weren’t rich, but we managed. We went on cheap vacations. We had a roof over our head, food in our refrigerator, and clothes on our back. We were your typical small town family, no better, no worse, smack dab in the middle of the middle. My father was getting ready to complete a major addition to our small house, one that he promised would give my brothers and me our own rooms and space to spread out.
And then it happened.
The day my life changed
The day started simple enough. My father and my oldest brother, and me in tow, spent the steamy August morning looking at class rings at a local jewelry store. My brother would be starting his junior year and like most kids his age wanted a class ring to celebrate his high school experience.
I remember little about the process, just a salesman showing my brother the many different things you could get on a class ring and how the rings looked absolutely gigantic on my stubby little sixth-grade fingers.
Help, I’m just a kid
In any event, we came home and my dad complained that he was tired and wanted to take a quick nap before lunch. This is the point where my memory plays tricks on me. I’ve seen the story play out so many times in my head that I’m not sure any more what’s my actual memory and what I’ve created to fill in the gaps. All I remember is my brothers yelling for me to come and that something was wrong with my dad.
I saw right away that my brothers weren’t playing a trick on me, that things were serious. My father was convulsing on the sofa and choking on his own tongue. One of my brothers dialed zero to talk with the operator to get our local fire and ambulance company, no 911 back then, while my other brother stayed with my father, trying to hold him still. I watched in horror as my father’s skin turned a ghostly bluish-white and foam started to ooze out of his mouth. All these years later, the image of my father on that sofa remains etched in my brain. I was paralyzed with fear and panic. I was 11-years-old and not sure where to turn, what to do, where to go.
I thought my father was going to die right there on our sofa. Fortunately, a first responder rushed to our house. He was followed a few minutes later by two ambulance crew members. The three of them surrounded my father and worked to hook him up to oxygen, help him regain consciousness, and check his vital signs in our cramped living room. I had to look in between the men to see my father’s face. He looked groggy and out of it. Two times I thought he stopped breathing, but each time he surprised me with a grunt or a groan.
The heart attack would savagely rip a hole though my father’s heart. Years later I overheard a heart surgeon try to console my mother by comparing the attack to “a bulldozer shredding up brush and a field like it was throwaway kindling.” While I found the smug doctor’s bedside manner lacking, I always thought the description was spot-on in describing what happened.
My father would have surgery and be laid up for several weeks, but unfortunately, he would never be the same. Some days the mere act of getting out of bed would take extreme physical effort. Other days, he would be up and dressed before the sun started to peak through the window, but he would be exhausted and full of a damp sweat within an hour like he had just completed a marathon. From that point on, the man who used to work double eight-hour shifts on a whim, just because he could and he wanted the extra money for his family, could never seem to catch his breath.
My father tried to return to work, but could never build-up the stamina to survive and would eventually have to go on Social Security Disability. While a stopgap for my family since it meant we had some money coming into the house, it meant a slow death knell for someone like him who wore his work ethic and his calloused hands on his blue-collar work shirt like a badge of honor.
If my father had his heart attack today, maybe his life would have been different, maybe he would have gone back to school, gotten an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, and taken a desk job. Heck, maybe the EMTs and today’s medical technology would have prevented the initial heart attack from causing as much damaging as it did. Who knows? No matter what, the sad thing about his situation: he was a mere 42-years-old.
From that day on, our lives and our standard of living would change. We stopped going on vacation. We ate simply and counted on left-overs. We didn’t waste anything. We lived paycheck to paycheck and then it usually wasn’t enough. My mother scrimped and saved for every little penny that came into the house. She stopped passing along her extra pennies and dimes to help me prop up my baseball card collection.
Other changes happened too. We drove our cars well past the 200,000 mile mark. We saved our money for big purchases and certainly didn’t spend it wastefully on things that didn’t matter. A dinner out at the local diner or even to McDonald’s of all places became a cherished night out on the town.
A lost childhood
I changed too. I wore hand-me-downs from my brothers; I packed my lunch to save money; I wore my sneakers until they were worn-out; put any money that I earned through odd jobs straight into the bank, and tried my best to keep our financial situation to ourselves.
I wasn’t a kid anymore. I had seen too much.
My mother tried to protect my childhood, but I became intimately familiar with how much things cost. I knew that Nikes were the hot new sneaker, every kid wanted them, but our local store would have a another brand $20 cheaper. I would go with the cheaper version. My Christmas wish list went from a rambling list of toys straight out of the Sears Christmas Catalog to practical gifts, including books and things I needed for school.
From that point on, I started helping where I could. One day when I got home from school early and an important letter from the IRS on my father’s disability request came in the mail, I took on the responsibility of opening it and interpreting the bureaucratic gobblygook for my father. The day after I earned my driver’s license I celebrated by driving my exhausted mother four hours in the middle of the night from a Pittsburgh hospital to our home in Central Pennsylvania. (Fortunately, I had help. I followed my brother who drove ahead of me in my mom’s car.) My father stayed behind, waiting to get better so that he could get necessary surgery on his heart. And three days later, when my mother had rested and needed to return to the hospital, I drove her back.
It’s what needed to be done.
Never going back
While challenging, we certainly were not the poorest of the poor. We had our good times too. We were helped immensely by growing up in rural Pennsylvania by both the people in the community and the lower cost of living. I see extreme poverty in my community now and I shake my head, grateful that we had what we had and for the opportunities that I’ve had to dig out of that hole.
Several years later, I would take out a mountain of student debt, but I would go on to get my bachelor’s degree from Penn State and an MBA too. When I struggled in college or when I didn’t feel that I could go on, I would remind myself of the fear, panic, and the worry that comes with living south of the middle class dividing line.
In the years since I’ve tried to learn from the past too, to put extra money away for a rainy day, to protect my choices, to give back to others, and to make something of myself. In short, my life changed that August day — I’m not sure for the better or worse — but it most certainly changed.