Five Minutes

departing LAX

This post was inspired by the The Red Dress Club memoir writing prompt. The one below is based upon the prompt as opposed to this one. For those who don’t like clicking, the prompt was “imagine that after you have died your daughter/son will be given the gift of seeing a single five-minute period of your life through your eyes, feeling and experiencing those moments as you did when they occurred. What five minutes would you have him/her see? Tell us about them in the finest detail.”

I find people to be…fascinating. They are endlessly amusing creatures who like to think that the things that they do are based upon logic and reason, yet they aren’t. They rarely do anything that isn’t arbitrary in nature. We don’t like to admit these things. We don’t like stare at our own foibles or accept our own mortality.

It is late afternoon and I am seated on an American Airlines airplane waiting to fly back to Los Angeles. The seat belt sign is on and the flight attendants are preparing for takeoff.

My toe is tapping and my knuckles are turning white from gripping the seat. For a moment I wonder if I can crush the armrest with nothing but my fingertips. I am trying hard to think about anything and everything other than my father.

He lies unconscious in a hospital bed some 30 miles away from the airport. He is being kept alive by machines and medication. The flight home will take almost six hours and it is possible that he will die while I am in the air.

A short time earlier I sat next to his bed and spoke softly to him. In the midst of the beeps, clicks, clacks and whirling noises made by the machines that keep him alive I told him about his grandson and reminded him that his daughter-in-law is pregnant

Asked him to wake up for me, begged him to open his eyes and acknowledge me. Asked him not to die because I needed him. Told him that I want him to celebrate my 35th birthday with me and squeezed his hand, but he didn’t squeeze it back.

The captain makes a few announcements but I can barely focus. I don’t know what to do. I am not panicking because dad wouldn’t panic and so I won’t. But he is unconscious and I can’t do anything to help save his life- not from 3,000 miles away.

I close my eyes and think of my son. He is almost 3.5 and I can’t believe that there is a chance that my father will die before they really get to know each other. I can’t believe that he might not get to meet the baby who is yet to come.

Dad is a huge presence in my life and always has been. I feel guilty leaving him. I feel guilty leaving mom there. I hadn’t realized until this moment that he was/is human.

But I can’t stay. I am a father and I learned from my dad that I have to take care of my family.  My grandparents don’t know how serious this is. I didn’t tell them that I wasn’t sure if he would survive long enough for me to fly out and now I have to do it all over again.

I remember telling dad and grandpa about my uncle dying. I remember the pain in my father’s eyes and how I made grandpa cry. I told him that his youngest son was dead. Am I going to be forced to tell him about his oldest too.

The plane pulls away from the gate and begins to taxi towards the runway. For a moment I consider jumping out of my seat and demanding that they let me go. I am sitting close to and emergency exit. I calculate the distance between the door and my seat, figure that I can get there fast enough to open it and jump.

It is crazy and I know it. But my father might die. There is a voice telling me that I am betraying him by not being by his side.

He wouldn’t have left me. That is not how our family works. I am the only son. I know him differently than my sisters. My grandfather wouldn’t leave me either. I can see him crying, can hear grandma say no. The moment haunts me. It is one of a few that stick with me.

The engines roar and as the plane gains speed I am pressed back into my seat. Now all I can do is wait and make silent promises to the future.

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  1. Kris March 26, 2011 at 7:39 pm

    A powerful piece of writing.

    My father died.

    All I felt was relief.

    That you were able to take me to a different place speaks to the strength and vulnerability of your writing here.

    • Jack March 26, 2011 at 7:44 pm

      I think that most of us are never too old not to miss our parents or be concerned about their welfare. That experience with my dad changed me.

  2. Kelly K February 21, 2011 at 7:05 pm

    Wow. Stuck between the rock and the proverbial hard place – where neither answer by itself is the “right” one: torn between the family that you created and the one that created you – a true “no win” situation.

    You did an excellent job of capturing the sensation of being pulled apart, your fatherly duty calling you home while the son in you wanted nothing more than to be there for both of your parents, even if it meant jumping out of a plane.

    I’m so glad the ending was happy.

    Excellent work.

    • Jack February 21, 2011 at 7:50 pm

      That really was one of the tougher moments I have experienced. It all worked out and I can smile now, but I have wondered what I would have done if it hadn’t turned out the way that it did. It would have been harder to feel good about my decision. Of course looking back now it is harder to capture the fear so who knows.

  3. Annie February 16, 2011 at 5:18 am

    Although I have not yet experienced this with my parents, my stomach was in knots and was with you as you struggled on that plane. Great tug of war! 🙂

  4. Clark Kent's Lunchbox February 15, 2011 at 9:00 pm

    Having just gotten on a plane and left my boys this weekend, this post resonates with me on a very personal level. Very powerful stuff.

  5. Lydia February 15, 2011 at 8:18 pm

    This was almost painful to read. I could imagine myself in the same situation(almost but of course not quite) and the feelings which must have been pulling you in two different directions. I could feel the conflict and the moment when the plane jerked you back into your seat it seemed like it had mde the decision for you. This was really moving and I’m so sorry for your loss…

  6. Mandyland February 15, 2011 at 7:22 pm

    This post was heartbreakingly honest, heart achingly sad.

    I’m so sorry for your loss and I’m so sorry you had to make such a difficult decision.

  7. Aidan Donnelley Rowley February 15, 2011 at 6:49 pm

    Goodness, this is so raw and powerful. Probably my favorite post of yours I have read, Jack. Thank you for sharing this.

  8. Leighann February 15, 2011 at 6:29 pm

    I don’t think there are words that can take away the heart ache when someone loses a loved one especially a parent. You have to grieve. you did a wonderful job.

  9. Nichole February 15, 2011 at 1:33 pm

    I have been trying to find the right words to leave here for the past hour.
    I keep looking at this blank box … no words can express my sorrow for your family.
    I lost my father when I was two and I have no memories of him and in so many ways, I think that must be easier…to lose something before you know what you have.
    Stunning writing, so open and vulnerable…I’m so grateful to you for sharing.

    • Jack February 16, 2011 at 12:32 am


      I appreciate your taking the time to try and express yourself. I apologize if I wasn’t clear about dad’s condition. I took some artistic license and hid some of that so that I had more material for a “sequel.”

      But it is also true to say that the memories remain. It was…frightening.

  10. Adelle February 15, 2011 at 1:17 pm

    I wasn’t there for my mother when she died either. I was taking care of my young family, but the guilt remains.

    This was so honest and true and real. Thanks for linking up!

    • Jack February 16, 2011 at 12:30 am

      It is almost seven years since this “event” took place and I have had time to try and gain perspective. Certainly it is tempered by his having survived, but taking care of our children has to come first. Or so I have come to believe.

  11. Katie February 15, 2011 at 12:57 pm

    I have been here.

    Only it was my husband’s father.

    And we had to say goodbye and leave because my husband’s appendix was almost ready to burst.

    But it still felt wrong. Wrong that he died without us there.

    My FIL never met even one grandchild. Not on earth.

    This struck a chord in my heart. thank you for sharing.

  12. Cathy February 15, 2011 at 12:56 pm

    They say the hardest loss to endure besides a child is your same-sex parent. I can attest to that, and it sounds like you can too. Beautifully written Jack.

    • Jack February 16, 2011 at 12:27 am

      Hi Cathy,

      My father and i are very different and yet very similar. That is not unusual, but this experience really made a difference for us. It is fair to say that we were close before it, but this really changed things. It was a reminder that our grip on life can be ever so tenuous.

      He taught me about being a man and I am still learning from him.

  13. Cheryl February 15, 2011 at 12:44 pm

    I have been there. I flew home, back to my husband and, at the time, two kids, and I wondered if I should’ve stayed. My father had decided to stop all treatments and I knew he would be gone w/in a couple days. I had already extended my stay. I had said goodbye to him in a moment I will never, ever forget. And then I left. He died, with my mother and brother in the room, two days after I left.

    But like you, I had family to take care of. And like you, I’m sad he didn’t get to know my eldest, never met my daughter (he was too sick for visits from a baby, but he had her pictures all over his room and knew she was a lot like him), and then I got pregnant with my third after he was gone.

    I’m sorry for your loss, for your family’s loss. This post really, really touched me. Thank you so much for sharing.

    • Jack February 16, 2011 at 12:24 am

      Hey Cheryl,

      We got lucky because dad beat the odds. I am sorry for your loss. Even though we got lucky I experienced some of the fear and anguish. It is so hard being far away and even though I knew that I couldn’t do more, I still felt guilty.

      My sisters and I have talked about how much it changed us.

  14. Brooke February 15, 2011 at 12:19 pm

    I wanted to know what happened, which speaks volumes about the success of this vignette.

  15. Leah February 15, 2011 at 11:34 am

    What a beautifully written piece. I’ve been there, and the devastation is immeasurable.

  16. tulpen February 15, 2011 at 10:01 am

    I haven’t been there… but you had me on that plane with you. I’d have wanted to run back to him too.

    • Jack February 16, 2011 at 12:20 am

      The crazy truth is that I really did figure out how to open the door and jump. There was a moment where I thought that I had to do it before the plane was moving so fast that I would be seriously injured.

      I just had this image of jumping out the door and running for the fence.

  17. I Thought I Knew Mama February 15, 2011 at 9:15 am

    I can really feel your devastation and the tug of war going on in your heart! I’m so sorry you had to experience this,but you did a beautiful job capturing it.

  18. Jennifer February 15, 2011 at 8:50 am

    You did such a great job of describing being caught between loves, families, obligations, heart and mind that even by the end of the piece I couldn’t decide if I wanted you to get off the plane or not.

    • Jack February 16, 2011 at 12:18 am

      Hi Jennifer,

      One of the reasons I chose this story is because it really fits my family. We are fiercely loyal. If you ask my little sisters they’ll tell you that I wasn’t the easiest big brother to have. But they’ll also tell you that no one else was allowed to mess with them.

  19. Caitlin's Concepts February 15, 2011 at 7:51 am

    Beautifully written.. this whole piece just gave me chills and had thinking of all the times through cancer and heart disease I was faced with my own father’s mortality and the possibility of not being near his side if his time came. Thankfully, he’s still with us, but being so far from family brings about all these painful decisions. Unfortunately, there’s no way to tell which decision is the right one..

    Thank you so much for sharing this with us!

  20. Lisa February 15, 2011 at 4:37 am

    Sorry – guess I commented in the wrong place. What a rock and a hard place. You did a wonderful job of sharing.

  21. Jessica February 15, 2011 at 4:27 am

    I felt the tug of your emotions through this whole piece. Such a devastating situation with no right answer. I am so sorry for your anguish. Beautifully written.

  22. Nancy C February 15, 2011 at 3:12 am

    This is devastating. It’s not ever right or fair to lose a parent. The push-pull between taking care of your family and taking care of your family of origin….we’re living that right now with my husband and my mother-in-law as she battles cancer.

    It tears you in half, and you bring us right there.

    I’m so sorry for your loss.

    • Jack February 16, 2011 at 12:14 am

      Hi Nancy,

      Thank you for your kind words. I suppose that I need to clear something up. My father survived. It was touch and go, unexpected by the doctors but he is still here. Words don’t express my gratitude properly.

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