When my 73-year-old father had a heart attack, everyone who knew him was stunned. He built houses, cut trees, dug lakes and never smoked -- he was an unlikely candidate for heart trouble. A coronary bypass was supposed to ensure against another attack. What followed instead were three more surgeries in three months.
There was always the promise of recovery. But inevitably, setbacks would arise, and a new fear -- that we'd lose him. Blindsided, we flailed about, trying to understand how it happened, trying to remedy his pain, and ours.
I said I'd fly to Florida; they said to wait. Mom could focus better alone. Dad wanted me to visit when he got home. Each surgery diminished his strength until he was hoarse and distraught. He was a former Marine; I knew he didn't want me to see him that way.
Impatient and depressed, I escaped to the movies. Right-minded films, where good always trumped injustice: "The Triplets of Belleville." "Hellboy." "Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King," six times. In the anonymous darkness, I could cry unseen.
Finally, Dad seemed better and I booked a flight. The day before my trip, the doctors found an infection in his heart. Dad went back to the hospital for tests.
When I saw him, it was easier than I expected; through luck or wishful thinking, Dad didn't look sick at all. But he was too weak to get out of bed and could barely lift a spoon. On their 50th wedding anniversary, my mother helped him eat. Normally feisty and unflappable, Mom started walking with hunched shoulders, the weight of worry on her five-foot frame.
We came home from the hospital that afternoon, exhausted and discouraged. Needing a distraction, Mom suggested TV.
"Or we could see a movie," I said -- my reliable anesthetic for the bleakest times.
Mom brightened. "There is a movie I want to see," she said, reaching for the newspaper. I waited for a Disneyesque suggestion, something gentle on the nerves.
She held the paper up triumphantly. "Here it is: 'Kill Bill: Volume 2.' "
"Kill Bill: Vol. 2" was an unrestrained choreography of satire and savagery, so audacious that audiences cringed while they laughed. But I could only cringe. I'd avoided "Vol. 1" and planned to avoid "2," especially with my emotions so raw. I glanced at the clock: We had only 20 minutes. "I don't think we can make it in time," I said hopefully.
But Mom had perked up, ready to go. "Of course we can," she said.
And we did. Tense with anxiety, I found even the coming attractions gruesome. The movie started with a violent jolt and Mom was instantly engaged, watching every grisly beating, stabbing, kicking and mauling. I was dumbfounded.
But then, gradually, in this feast of aggression, I recognized something.
It felt like hope.
It had been weeks of tears and second opinions. I'd even tried church. Nothing had worked to salve the complete helplessness we felt whenever we saw my father. So we acquiesced, consumed with anguish. Tried to learn what we surely were meant to learn.
But on this night, in that relentless script, "Kill Bill: Vol. 2" swore and smashed and bled for us, pounded its fists and raged against an unjust world. I found myself cheering a heroine who didn't just prevail -- she annihilated her enemies. It was loud and fierce and unapologetic, and -- Mom was right -- it was the perfect choice.
Afterward, something shifted. We stopped searching for a lesson in Dad's ordeal. It was arbitrary, and it was life -- and beyond our reason or control. But we would not be beaten down by it. We'd outgun practicality and remain undaunted. Whether or not our fervor would change anything from bad to good, we would live as if it could. I imagined us vanquishing our enemies -- far more insidious than Hollywood's, and harder to destroy.
The next day, Mom told Dad that "Vol. 2" wasn't as good as the first -- "there was more action in that one." She laughed -- the first time in weeks. Dad did, too. Later, he got out of bed. Sat in a chair. Ate lunch, unassisted.
He waved when we left.
I flew home on Tuesday. On Thursday, they replaced Dad's heart valve.
It took more than eight hours. I sat outside, waiting, on a beautiful blue-sky day, in the still center of the events flowing around me. I tried not to create any wake.
The phone rang at 8 p.m. He had made it.
But I kept a wary vigil and set my suitcase by the door.
After a month, Dad went home. For a long time he was unsteady -- couldn't walk much, concentrate or drive. Then one day, he played cards with Mom, and won. A week later, they walked to a neighbor's. After that, they spent two hours at Wal-Mart. Dad drove home.
When Mom saw him carrying his shovel to the backyard, I put the suitcase away.
"Kill Bill: Vol. 2" is now on DVD. Mom is more introspective, but with a ferocity roiling within. I returned focused. Tougher. Changed.
But it was a little thing -- just a movie -- that dredged up the resources I didn't think were there. We arrived fractured, and reinvented ourselves in the dark.
And for one night, we were warriors.