The stinging truth

Thirteen years ago our family had to wait two excruciating months to get one simple question answered: What killed dad?

And when we finally had our answer we didn’t know what to do with it. Turns out it wasn’t the heart attack we’d suspected. It was a random act of violence.
One that he had brought upon himself.

In all losses, there are lessons to be learned. Some are buried in symbolism. In this case, it’s obvious: If you have serious medical issues, it might be a good idea to let at least one other person know. If privacy is a concern, wear a MedicAlert bracelet or necklace.

Concealing a chronic condition serves no useful purpose. If the idea is to spare others any fuss, the purpose is defeated when you die. Funerals, wakes, estates and grieving are all fussy and messy.

I’m sure my brother has his own thoughts about that sweltering August evening when my father stumbled into the house mumbling something about bees. My brother thought dad was having a heart attack. He did what any of us would do: he summoned an ambulance. But it was too late.

My brother punished himself for a long time afterward because he didn’t now CPR. We later learned CPR doesn’t do much for someone in the advanced stages of anaphylactic shock. What does work is epinepherine. But we didn’t know what anaphylaxis was or that dad was deathly allergic to insect stings.  And we didn’t have an EpiPen in the house.

If we had been told of his condition, advised on what to do in the event of  a sting,  we could have at least tried to save him. 

Instead, we all fumbled around like fools, blaming the EMS workers and second-guessing every second of the 30 minutes between his cry for help and the hospital staff telling us he was dead. We alternated between  thinking it was a heart attack and theorizing that he encountered a swarm of bees. There had been reports of such attacks that summer.

Three months later as we prepared for our first Thanksgiving without him, we were stunned to read in the just-released autopsy report that he died of an allergic reaction from one bee sting. Medical examiners found a single puncture — not visible to the naked eye  — on dad’s left wrist. He died so fast his skin didn’t have time to swell. We were told that this type of reaction is a buildup over time. Death doesn’t generally come with the first sting. No doubt he was warned of this outcome and advised on preventive measures.

My father knew and didn’t tell us.  Why? 

We knew that dad wasn’t one to remember things he didn’t want to remember.

We knew he abhorred illness/weakness of any kind.

My mother knew that dad had once sought medical attention after an incident involving a hornet’s nest. But nothing more was said of it.  Mom tried to get answers from the doctor, who declined citing patient privacy laws. 

I wondered if in those minutes before he lost consciousness my father welcomed this hasty exit from life. Was it part of a grand plan? Who thrusts themselves into a bee-infested garden when they have deadly allergies? Or did he have a last-minute regret for being secretive, foolhardy? Perhaps he overestimated his ability to save himself.

I was angry with dad for a long time. I didn’t have a chance to say good-bye or to say how sorry I was we quarreled the last time we saw each other. He barely had a chance to bond with his first grandchild, my now teenaged daughter who was only 18 months old at the time. How quickly Girl from the West forgot her “gampa.” Within a few months, she no longer recognized his image in family photos.

I’ve finally forgiven my father for this final oversight in a long line of omissions. But I can’t help but recall his own words of advice to me:

A man gets to be an expert on survival in the wilderness. He gets a little cocky. He makes a fatal mistake. Nature wins.