Don Rogers: The heart beats, but who’s there? |

Don Rogers: The heart beats, but who’s there?

Don Rogers
Don Rogers

And so one morning, my father woke up dead.

His roommate of 30 years found him not breathing. Of course she called 911. The paramedics found his heart not beating. But his body, at least, jolted quickly back into operation.

By sunset his body was cooled down, outpacing the respirator, beating away. But the mind, the mind, where might his mind be? We’ve braced for the worst.

A doctor explained from Queens Medical Center in Honolulu, where my sister was born, what was going on and what they were doing, edging ever so gently into my new awful role. Playing God.

In that moment, we have a new relationship. Like I’ve passed some test I no longer cared about, which I guess is the test.

His roommate pleaded early, before I quite understood what would be asked of me: Tell the doctors to do everything. Don’t let him go. She knew someone who knew someone … two weeks … she refused to give in … doctors certain … brain dead … it’s 10 years now … going fine …

My dad has reached 86. His longevity stunned us all, he not the least, hard as he lived between chain smoking and his demon, alcohol.

He was sharp, humor intact, when we last talked at Christmas. He always was brilliant. A genius IQ or near enough. Mom has told the story often about how he found his numbers while a clerk in the Army at the end of Korea. He was there as a child for Pearl Harbor, at first mistaken for a drill, his father a Navy man.

My dad shipped home early for the funeral of his dad, then a pillar of society who helped found the Waikiki Yacht Club and was felled in midlife by a heart attack. I’m named after my grandfather, was told often I’m something like him, though much more of my father’s deviltry runs through me.

And so another morning, my head full of memories, the trip we’d put off too long suddenly was on. Sacramento to Maui, then hop over to Honolulu. Best we could find this quickly.

— — —

I’m using something for a toy razor. Me and Dad, dabbing on our shaving cream. Being, you know, men together. We pee together. A toddler in the shower, I ask him if he’s peeing or the water is just pouring that way off his body. Mom’s shower water doesn’t pour off that way.

I’m shouting under water, everything swimming pool aquamarine, having slipped my grip on the side of a family friends’ pool while scooting around the deep end. Then suddenly I’m riding the back of a great beast, the white whale, to the surface. My hero. My dad!

He’s yelling at me to not be such a chicken: Climb that branch! I’ve got you! Years later, I show my young wife the tree. I could hit my head on the branch.

He knows nothing about baseball. But he coaches for me. I love the game. All I know in the moment, though, is he’s being mean. He’s not like that with the other kids. I make an error and we lose the last game of the season. I’m crying and refuse to go to the team party afterward. Oh yeah, we go. I have a blast.

We go to Friday night high school football games at the old Honolulu Stadium. Texas gets “Friday Night Lights” glory, but the whole island fills this stadium each week. These nights end at a coffee shop — Coco’s? — with a tall glass of green Jell-O, whipped cream and a cherry on top.

I think he must have attended every high school on the leeward side. His dad enrolled him at Punahou, the exclusive private school for pillars’ kids. My dad counted as a great point of glory getting himself kicked out. Then he got kicked out of just about all the public schools. The very devil himself.

— — —

“Don’t do what I did.” He repeats this advice often. But I drink with him.

One night we walk home two miles from our favorite pub, bellowing we’re off to see the wizard, the wonderful wizard of Oz. It’s past 2 a.m. in a driving storm full of all the furies and flashes. Still, some lights flick on behind us, and between thunderclaps someone shouts from window to knock it off. We laugh, and start up again.

Sometimes we sail together, sometimes on other boats. Once we talk at the end of a dock after a rare race into Pearl Harbor. His turn about his race, mine about mine, neither really hearing the other but having a great, great time at sunset in balmy Hawaii at the end of a remarkable day. One of those moments. Now I forget which of us was on a decisive tack when a submarine surfaced in front of our boat.

Past a certain point, he’s a mean drunk. There’s him, a sharp, funny, caring guy. Then there’s him, the nasty drunk. We have a falling out, punctuated with a short fistfight that still haunts me, a young man sculpted by the swells and the sea. There is no excuse.

I take to sleeping on a friend’s sailboat, showers at the yacht club, working as a bartender at a Waikiki hotel. We make up one night when I awaken to the boat headed out the harbor to an ocean riled enough for big waves to break across the entrance. My dad and a friend had a few, decided to go. We scoot out between bigger sets, on the way back in careful to line green lights to starboard, red to port, hope to God to cross the threshold between the breakers.

Before my first year on the hotshot crew in Santa Barbara, apparently I drive my girlfriend nuts ruminating about my father in that way of the son fixated about measuring up.

I fly to Honolulu after that first endless fire season, pockets full from a big year. Dad delivers a putdown across a glass table in Waikiki across the street from the ocean. I tell him in earthy terms he can say what he wants, I owe him nothing, will decide on my own such things, stick it you know where if you don’t like it.

In that moment, we have a new relationship. Like I’ve passed some test I no longer cared about, which I guess is the test. Seems to be a man thing. Like he no longer sees a boy.

— — —

One last test? He left no directive. Another in his line of lessons. But I think I know what he’d want.

We’re flying now, scolded by a flight attendant to get back to our seats while it’s so bumpy, more to come. No doubt.

We learned later he liked to get up, turn on a lamp and read the paper first thing. Lot of memories there. That morning his roommate found the light on, he slumped over, morning edition forgotten. I can’t blame her for calling 911. What else could she do? I’d do the same.

Now the body breathes, the heart beats. But is anyone there? The early signs of brain function all line up exactly the wrong way. But my friend the cardiologist cautioned it’s still early. Anything is possible.

The prognosis will become clearer in 72 hours. We’ll be there, by his side, decisions to make. Dear God.

Don Rogers is the publisher of the Sierra Sun and The Union, based in Grass Valley. He can be reached at or 530-477-4299.

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