John Denver wrote the song “Back Home Again” to express the joy and comfort of being close to loved ones after a long and difficult time away. My Dad, also a brilliant and respected musician, had the pleasure of meeting him and even sat in on his last studio recording before John Denver died.
Last week, my parents traveled to our home in San Francisco for a special 10-day adventure with my family of three. They had a few reasons for this particular visit: to help me with my son while my husband traveled internationally for work, to attend a gala where said husband received a leadership award, to celebrate my birthday and to spend time with their adorable grandson.
All great excuses to see us, but the most noteworthy part of this trip was that it was their first time back to San Francisco since our son was born almost three and a half years ago.
Before you jump to conclusions about my seemingly negligent parents, allow me to explain why they have been absent. The three-word answer: idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. IPF is a chronic and fatal lung disease, characterized by a progressive and irreparable decline in lung function.
My Dad was diagnosed with this horrific illness in 2013 and the last time he was in San Francisco, he was tethered to oxygen and his face was a gray as city snow. He struggled to walk down a flat driveway, so you can imagine how taxing it was to travel cross country and climb up the two flights of stairs leading to our apartment.
Yet, both my parents were determined to be there for the birth of their first grandchild, which meant the world to my husband and to me. It also terrified us. My Dad later quipped, “I felt so bad that you were probably wondering if I was even going to survive that visit when all you should have been worrying about was just having that baby.”
He was right; the childbirth did feel surprisingly manageable compared to the stress I was feeling about his worsening condition (thanks for that, Dad).
Fast forward to a year later and my little family was thriving. We had been on a handful of trips back East to see our families and we loved parading around our bouncing boy, but our happiness was diminished as we watched my Dad’s health rapidly decline. He kept an incredible, albeit dark sense of humor to add levity to the utterly grim situation.
When my son was old enough to require baby-proofing, his new favorite game was tugging/trying to remove Grandpa’s oxygen cords, to which my Dad would reply, “Don’t pull the plug on me yet, kid.” It was morbid, yet cathartic for us to keep laughing through the pain.
As their absolute last hope, my parents eventually flew to Duke University Hospital to see if my Dad was a candidate for a lung transplant, only to find out that he was not eligible due to coronary heart disease. On that serendipitous visit, he was introduced to a former Duke transplant surgeon who had just started a transplant unit in Orlando, where my parents happen to call home.
To gloss over what happened before and after this juncture feels like a gross injustice, but in the interest of not burying the lede, my Dad received his life-saving double-lung transplant (and heart bypass!) in January 2016 in Orlando, Florida. The week prior, my entire immediate family traveled to be together and waited anxiously for his new lungs to “arrive” and on the day of, we sat through a painstaking nine and a half hour procedure to find out that he had survived the extremely risky surgery at the age of 72.
The impossible seemed to have happened and we were all finally able to take a collective deep breath. Following his transplant, every trip home got better and better. My amazing Dad continued to grow stronger and exist without the use of supplemental oxygen. He has miraculously defied all odds and been gifted a beautiful redefined life to live.
We sincerely hope this first trip back to San Francisco marks the start of many shared experiences in our City by the Bay. It certainly feels like a new age for our family now that we are able to enjoy our respective cities, together. Just as the John Denver song goes, my family has finally found ourselves back home again.