Stayin’ Alive: How Disco Saved Daddy

After he and Mom divorced, Dad went out some weekends with a group from church. The group, made up entirely of divorced people, was called “Singles Again,” an unfortunate name for a collection of people whose failed marriages had already caused them enough trauma. The church might as well have gone all-out “Scarlet Letter and pinned D’s for divorced to all the Singles Again group members’ shirts and jacket lapels.

On one such Singles Again outing, during a Halloween weekend, Dad unwittingly went with the group to another church’s “Hell House.” An evangelical Christian version of a haunted house, Hell Houses are intended to scare you out of hell by scaring the hell out of you. The tour began with a dramatized car crash involving fatalities, and then accompanied one of the non-Christian deceased on an unfortunate afterlife experience. As part of the drama, the group toured hell in all its garish un-glory, followed by a brief vision of heaven’s splendor. The tour ended with a salvation sales pitch aimed at getting people to opt for heaven instead of hell.

When Dad got home that night, I asked him how it was. He told me that apparently hell looks a lot like a ’70s-era disco bar, with a smoke machine, strobe lights and music blasting. He added that from his brief experience with discos in the ’70s, he agreed with the creative vision of this particular church, that for him, hell would be a disco bar thumping with disco music.

There’s a photo of my parents from Christmas 1976, six months before they married, and two and a half years before I was born. Mom is in the foreground, her brown hair brushing her shoulders, Dad standing behind her, sporting a glorious mustache. His hair is permed and teased high above his actual head.

Dad hates and loves this picture. He had been casually dating two women at the time and had just chosen to pursue Mom instead of the other woman. The other woman was a cosmetologist who loved disco music. She’d given Dad the hairstyle, that Bob Ross white guy ’fro. Dad knew the other woman wasn’t right for him when she did that to his hair and then made him go to a disco bar. He hated the Bee Gees, couldn’t stand platform shoes, and deplored the only pair of polyester pants he’d ever owned. Dad would never be a disco king.

In March 2016, Dad came from his home in South Carolina to visit me and my wife in Nashville. It was Sunday lunch, the food was ready, and in keeping with our family tradition of saying a blessing before a meal, I reached out for my wife’s hand across the table and for Dad’s, who was sitting to my left. That’s when I saw Dad slumped over the table, his bent elbows half-propping him up. I shook him and called out, “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy!” But he wouldn’t say a word. His bright blue eyes stared into the distance.

Once I could tell he wasn’t breathing, I tried C.P.R. I had C.P.R. training once, but it had been over a decade earlier, and I felt like I’d forgotten almost everything I’d learned that day. I laid Dad on the floor beside the dining room table, measured two finger widths above the base of his sternum, and started the chest compressions, with a disco tune, the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” providing the beat. Somehow, the campaign for “Stayin’ Alive” as the national anthem of C.P.R. had been successful in planting that thought in the recesses of my mind. Without thinking, like a reflex, that song began to work its disco voodoo magic on me.

In terms of C.P.R., I couldn’t remember the correct ratio of compressions to breaths. I couldn’t remember how to tilt Dad’s neck to give the breaths properly. So, I just kept on with the chest compressions, “Stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive. I, I, I …” I forgot the words to the verses, but the chorus stayed with me. And the beat was there. I felt Dad’s sternum crack beneath my hands. And the beat was there. I wondered if he was beyond saving. And the beat was there. I told him over and over, “I love you.” And that disco beat was there.

As I kept the compressions going, I couldn’t believe this might be the last day I spent with Dad. We’d just found out we were expecting our first child. Dad had been so happy when we told him. I’d already imagined Dad holding our newborn. His health had been precarious my whole life, from the rheumatoid arthritis that left him in chronic pain, to the quadruple bypass surgery and prostate cancer. Mom had died of melanoma 11 years earlier. Dad couldn’t die now. Who would I have left to call for parenting advice? For how to be a father?

I kept the compressions going, more out of desperation and disbelief than hope.

I was relieved when my wife, who’d called 911, was also able to find our neighbor, who is a doctor. He came over and started mouth-to-mouth. He’d do two breaths, then count me off on the compressions.

The medics soon arrived. The defibrillator made a high-pitch squeal as it charged. One medic called for everyone to “Clear!” Dad didn’t respond.

At the hospital, Dad coded four more times. Between the third and fourth time, they thought they had a sustainable heartbeat and brought me into the room. He wasn’t conscious. I whispered into his ear over and over, “I love you. We’re praying for you.” Three nurses monitored his pulse, one at his neck, one at his left wrist, and the other at his feet. The one at his neck said, “We’re losing it; we’re losing it,” and I was whisked out of the room.

Eventually he was stabilized, but he had to be put into a coma and intubated. A cardiologist brought me and my wife back to see him. I read the names of the medicines in the bags suspended above his bed: epinephrine, norepinephrine, vasopressin, amiodarone, propofol, fentanyl, a dozen more. The tube in his mouth jittered to the rhythms of each breath the machine took for him.

We weren’t sure for days if Dad would live or if he’d ever be himself again. He stayed in intensive care for a full week and then a room on the cardiac wing of the hospital for another week. A month later, a cardiac surgeon installed a pacemaker-defibrillator.

Doctors used words like “miracle” for the fact that Dad lived, especially since he ended up being cognitively intact. No doubt, his life was saved by modern medicine; by the quick action of doctors, nurses, and medics; by my neighbor; and even, in some small way, by that genre of pop music he deplores, the music that inspired Bob Ross haircuts, platform shoes and polyester pants.

I’m not sure what hell looks like, or heaven for that matter, but I’m glad that wasn’t the day Dad found out. With all the faith of a loving son, I’m sure when that day comes for him, hopefully some time far in the future, Dad will wake up in the splendors of heaven and not in some burning disco inferno.

Donovan McAbee is a poet and essayist who is working on a spiritual memoir.

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