Along the Altered Road

by Sean Zak

The Road

The paths we take in life can become so commonplace. The daily commute to work is defined more by its length in minutes rather that its scenery or landmarks. Or take the less frequented roads we travel upon, like to and from a parent’s home, which are distinct only through memory of the intersections involved.

These roads seem to have no ultimate meaning, just the singular purpose: consuming travellers at point A and depositing them at point B. They are never more important than a middle ground and never more frustrating than when under construction or hosting heavy traffic.

Once in awhile, however, certain roads and their locations become engrained in our memory, for a multitude of reasons. I’ll never forget highway 41 because it shook me, strained me and took me to a memory I’ll never forget.

It took me to Door County — my home for 18 years — on an early April weekend. With my girlfriend in the passenger seat and best friend in the back, we traversed northeastern Wisconsin on a beeline to the normally stunning peninsula.

However, this time of year, in early spring, Wisconsin isn’t quite itself, and the “Cape Cod of the Midwest,” as some have famously nicknamed Door County, was no exception. Patches of snow lined the ditches as my grandpa’s silver Buick Century — the classic grandparents car — jettisoned northward. The grass is a paltry gold, far from green, lengthy and mushed down by months of snow. The trees fail to bare leaves; if they did, the wind would likely remove them.

As all weekends home from school do, time was on fast-forward and before long our Sunday morning departure was imminent. Back on highway 41 we went, on a three-hour trek I’ve made too many times. Only this time the plan was to cut it in half with lunch at my grandparent’s home in Oshkosh. Grandma would bake a couple simple pizzas and Madison would regain our attention on highway 41.

The landmarks and intersections that have become scenes of second nature along the drive hadn’t changed. The exit to the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, with neighborhoods of student housing in clear view; the uphill straightaway that leads to the towering, baby blue Leo Frigo Bridge; the always-hectic on ramp that follows at exit 192B.

The Timber Rattlers — a minor league baseball team — hadn’t started their season yet, so Fox Cities Stadium in Appleton sat, unperturbed along the right side once the small forest was clear of sight. It may not have been beautiful yet, but the idea the spring was in the air was not far from mind. All these things flew by through the 13-year-old dusted windows, and although I passed them going 65 miles per hour (likely more), they stand out to this highway 41 veteran.

Until in an instant they are blurred into irrelevance. One phone call was all it took.

It was from my father back in Door County, so surely, I had forgotten something at home.

“Sean … You can’t go to Grandma’s … they won’t be there,” he spouted, tears audibly slipping into the phone.

“Grandpa Zak is dying.”

The Detour

We were cruising along highway 41 when that call arrived. Mid Vallee Golf Course flanked the road to the right, its golfers always threatening the streamline of cars with the possibility of an errant shot. Seconds later we would pass by its neighbor course, Royal Saint Patrick’s. My father continuously struggled to spread the bad news.

“He’s at the hospital in Oshkosh. Go to the Mercy Medical Center in Oshkosh,”

“Well Dad, you have to get down there,” I shouted back into the phone, not knowing he, my mother and sister were already southbound, en route.

The location and fact that Grandpa’s life was on edge was all he knew, so that was all we knew. A meticulous man, whose emotions had slipped only when his children graduated or affirmed their faith in Christ, my father was on edge, too. His quivering voice painted a picture of hasty fright, hurled onto the highways and intersections I had just passed an hour earlier.

His son’s psyche was in no better condition. I had mishandled scheduling the pizza lunch date.  It was supposed to happen a few days prior, on the Friday headed home to Door County, in the opposite direction on Highway 41. However, my own laziness throughout the week beforehand meant Grandma and Grandpa had made other plans. Sunday seemed like a perfect alternative, though.

Alas, it was not perfect enough.

10 minutes later, Grandma Zak called. Word had passed from phone call to phone call, but Grandma wanted to tell me herself that there would be no pizza date in their home at 1914 Oak St. Nor would there be anyone waiting for me. Instead, Grandpa was headed for surgery in just 15 minutes, a surgery that would culminate with him either breathing and upright, or lifeless and horizontal.

An aneurysm had swelled in Grandpa’s abdomen. The complication is seen most commonly in men over the age of 60, whose cholesterol and blood pressure is abnormally high. It’s also common in men who smoke or had smoked in their past. Sure enough, Grandpa had smoked cigarettes throughout much of his earlier years, relegating to cigars only after the cigarettes were discarded.

But to his credit, he hadn’t smoked tobacco in years. Quitting was a goal Grandma made him achieve, largely for the sake of his 10 grandchildren. Nonetheless, the causal signs of an aortic aneurysm were there, and the swollen vessel had burst sometime during the night, causing mass amounts of blood to percolate throughout his torso, the majority relocating in his lower back.

Grandma didn’t know much, so likewise, we didn’t know much. Her innocence as a high school kitchen supervisor for much of her life kept her from fully understanding everything that was happening to her husband of 58 years. She wasn’t shook, though. Grandma was a rock for the family, handing out hugs with the same consistent phrase, “Grandpa is going to be just fine. Grandpa is going to be just fine.”

The lack of information or context was troubling, however. Doctor-talk was easy to understand for half the crowd, but not myself. It was also a virgin experience.

Death was new to me. Both sets of grandparents were healthy and happy. All my great-grandparents had passed before I could remember. It was an awful concoction of feelings: bewilderment, desperation, confusion, insecurity, blind optimism, blatant pessimism, etc.

But family would be waiting at the hospital to help make sense of the puzzle I couldn’t piece together. I needed to be there and I needed to be there quickly. I needed Highway 41 to be more like a driveway and less like an interstate. The faster we would go the better I would feel. 70 miles per hour. 75 miles per hour. 85.

It didn’t matter. I was 38 miles away. We still had to cross through Kaukauna, where a tire on Grandpa’s Buick Century blew out with me behind the wheel. And then we had to pass through Menasha, where Grandpa would watch my summer baseball doubleheaders. And then we would pass over Lake Butte des Morts, near the back roads where Grandpa let me test drive that Buick Century for the first time, just months before I would buy it from him.

It was clear Highway 41 wasn’t going to distract me from this deathly detour. The hospital was just 30-some miles away, seemingly within reach, but too close to the surgical deadline. The last thing Grandma said was that I wouldn’t be able to get there in time to say goodbye or good luck or even good riddance. Unfortunately, she was right. 

The Destination

Taking an emotion-filled phone call in the middle of traffic on a Sunday morning is rarely scripted for safety. Tears spilled over my eyelids into my lap and the ends of my shirt became my tissues.

My friend and girlfriend talked me into pulling over and switching drivers. Into the backseat I went, propped behind the driver’s seat for the first time since Grandpa himself was the driver.

That thought stuck with me, as Highway 41 was whisked to a blur. So too, did the idea that if not for my own sluggish scheduling, I would have seen Grandpa already. It became a personal battle of emotions as we crept closer to Mercy Medical. Prayer was followed by fury, which was followed by hope. More prayer, followed by more self-resentment.

When was the last time I heard his voice? Did we talk about golf, the game that connected us years ago, or just about my budding life, something that always piqued Grandpa’s interest? How selfish had I been as a grandson? The self-interrogation was pointless, but made Highway 41 even more of a blur as my tears and breathing fogged up the window.

Finally, Exit 119 took us away from Highway 41. Omro Road on the east side of Oshkosh took us through multiple roundabouts before a left on N. Oakwood Road brought us to the hospital parking lot. A destination, at last.

The path that this trip started on was so straight and structured, but now it was winding, winding between cars in the parking lot, winding between patient rooms and hallways and prayer rooms and offices in the hospital.

My brother stopped me halfway through the hallway with a hug like he’d never given me before. I supplanted my remaining tears on his shoulder as we walked to the family room, arms around each other.

Grandma and my aunts met me with hugs and my uncles met me with jokes to keep the sullen room just a little bit brighter. The time spent on Highway 41 was far from calm, but with family passing out snacks and the Brewers playing on the television, it rivaled Thanksgiving in my grandparent’s basement. 

The urgency was now gone and the information we received was clearer. My girlfriend doubled as a nursing student that day, calming not only myself, but also my extended family. Her words may have been simply rooted in the expensive textbooks chosen by a university, but they were perfect for a group of people who wanted and needed to hear more.

Many tears had dried upon my cheeks and tired my eyes enough for short 15-minute naps. Any commotion woke me, however, as it felt the news on our favorite patient would come at any moment. It wasn’t the type of update you wanted to greet with exhausted eyes.

As the minute hand wound around the clock, more and more family arrived at Mercy Medical, each of them taking their own tours via Highway 41. Likewise nurses came and left on their own tours through the hallway beyond the waiting room. Each one that passed meant waiting longer for an update. The wide windows continued to remind us that this wasn’t Grandma’s basement.

Grandma, who had been cheery all afternoon, a stalwart for her less-than-stable grandchildren, broke down just once as a nurse balked an entrance at the door before passing down the hallway.

After another short nap, the surgeon appeared at the door. Grandma and her four sons retreated beyond the windows as grandchildren and wives inched to the edge of their seats to watch.

The doctor’s face and their visual sighs of relief said one thing: Grandpa had survived. He had trumped the merciless 50/50 odds of survival that the surgeon gave him and he would be able to see his family again.

I wasn’t ready to meet death that day. Not for the first time with my favorite man in the world. 

The Road Continues

“Who knows where life will take you. The road is long and in the end, the journey is the destination.” It’s a passage first seen in One Tree Hill, a teenage drama television series from the early 2000s, but it’s a passage whose truth extends beyond the soap opera-like context.

Who knows where life will take you. Who knows which highway will turn into an exit ramp and an afternoon spent elsewhere? Who knows when a simple phone call means more than it normally should? Who knows? The roads we come to know so well are tossed into the back of our mind as ordinary, routine.

But life can throw a fork into any road. Grandpa’s Sunday of survival is literally living proof of that. In the end, the poorly planned Oak St. pizza rendezvous turned into an unplanned Oakwood Road family reunion.

And while the day was was long and its context impossible to expect, I’d like to think, however, that my destination was never about seeing Grandma and Grandpa for a truncated pizza stop. Instead, my destination was seeing Grandma battle her wits, seeing my family link arms in prayer, seeing my friends bend over backwards and eventually see my Grandpa fend off death.

That journey became my Sunday destination.