You can ask anyone—I have absolutely NO sense of direction whatsoever, and am completely geographically challenged. In fifth grade, just like everyone else, I learned all of the states and their capitals. Today, if you put a map in front of me, I can still name the states of the West Coast, the Deep South, the East Coast, and I can always find Texas, but ask me about anything in between and I am flummoxed. The names of the capitals are long gone, with a few exceptions. So I accept full blame for what happens in this story.
On Saturday I left San Diego for Aspen, for my mother’s memorial service. When she died, at age 81 last January, my father was hospitalized, too ill to even come to her simple graveside service. So we decided to have the “unveiling” on Sunday, a Jewish ceremony where the engraved headstone is placed on the grave. Traditionally this is done on the one year anniversary of the death, but one year will be January 7, and the prospects of flying in and out of Aspen in winter, not to mention the possibility of having a ceremony in a snowstorm seemed bleak. After the ceremony graveside, my father planned a luncheon for his friends at the Snowmass Club where my parents spent many happy years in their retirement. Dad, ever the professor, had prepared a PowerPoint presentation of his life with Mom, and nothing, not even the fact that he is oxygen dependent at altitude and the protestations of his two daughters at being featured in the PowerPoint could dissuade him. It was going to happen, and it did, without a hitch. Fortunately, as the offspring with the most technical experience, I was chosen to advance the PowerPoint, which I did with great speed, finessing the most embarrassing parts.
All was well until yesterday, when Dad awoke with nausea and a headache. Fearing altitude sickness, I made the executive decision to cut short the trip, and get an earlier flight out of Denver so that I could get him down a few thousand feet, rather than spend the rest of the day in Aspen at 8,500 feet to take the 7 pm flight we had booked. After a brief discussion with American Express, I learned that I had about six hours to make it to Denver, return the rental car to the wrong airport, rush an 88 year old man through a very large airport and board the plane. Remembering that last June, when we drove his car from Aspen to San Diego, his oxygen saturation was fine by the time we got to Glenwood Springs at 5,761 feet, I ditched the oxygen tanks and hit the road like the proverbial bat out of hell. But there was just one little fact that I forgot, which is that Denver is east of Aspen, and to get there we had to go across the Continental Divide through Vail Pass and the Eisenhower tunnel, which is, at 11,158 feet, the highest point on the entire Interstate Highway system.
I told Dad to put on the pulse oximeter, and I watched with some dismay that as we climbed in altitude, his oxygen saturation fell in inverse proportion. Somewhere just beyond Vail Pass, when his saturation hit an extremely low 77 %, he said, “I am going to take a nap now.” Promptly his head rolled forward, and he was motionless. My immediate thought was, “Oh my God–I’ve killed him.” Panicked, I scanned the shoulder of the road for a place to pull off where I could perform CPR. I had no cell reception. I could not call 911. There were no ambulances anywhere in sight. Beads of cold sweat formed on my brow. I had a vision of myself, a lonely figure by the side of the road pumping my father’s recently operated on chest. And then, all of a sudden, I realized that there would be no chest pumping. If my father died with a spectacular view of the Continental Divide, having just honored my mother and seen all of his old friends, by falling easily into an eternal slumber, who was I to argue with that? Fortunately, in that very moment of my epiphany, he took a nice deep breath and woke up. I said, “Did you have a nice nap?”
Dad, I know you’re reading this. I hope you’re not mad. But if you want me to perform CPR roadside at the top of the world, you better let me know!