The DriverMy Dangerous Pursuit of Speed and Truth in the Outlaw Racing World
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2007 Alexander Roy
All right reserved.ISBN: 9780061227936
The Divinity of Purpose
It was a gorgeous morning, heaps of snow having escaped the streets' salting in the wake of the previous night's storm, their knee-high peaks not yet capped with soot from passing cars and trucks.
My cell phone rang as I descended the subway station steps at the corner of Sixth Avenue and Bleecker Street, mere seconds before I would have disappeared into the station and out of range for the next half hour.
"Is this Alexander Roy?"
There was only one reason for such a call.
"This is Dr. Johnson at Beth Israel Hospital."
The world slowed.
"As your father's medical-care proxy, you must give permission for any time-critical procedure during a life-threatening or . . . Mr. Roy? Mr. Roy, can you hear me?"
The bus rumbling mere feet away, the cacophony of voices echoing off the subway station's tiled walls just ahead, the deep hot rushing roar of air out of the station entrance as a train pulled in—all were muted by the gravity of events to which I could only react, and never control.
"I'll be there in fifteen minutes."
"There's no time. We need your permission to perform an emergency tracheostomy immediately."
"Your father will die."
My father was very secretive about his past. While I was a child, the notion of my climbing up his leg to ask a question—to scale the seemingly indomitable mountain that was my father—was terrifying.
My father had always described himself as a lion, and so had everyone else. He'd lost everything during the Second World War—his brother, his friends, his childhood home—and fled with his surviving family to New York City. He joined the U.S. Army at seventeen, landed at Normandy, was shot and wounded twice, and rode with the lead units into Buchenwald concentration camp. After the war he started life anew, founded the family business in 1954, met my mother in 1970, had two sons he sent to private school, bought a Cadillac, and earned (and saved) enough for us to live comfortably. Even his enemies—and these were restricted to business competitors—respected him, trading insults over the phone every week for decades. He spoke fluent French and Spanish, and conversational German, Russian, and Polish. All agreed he was a gifted painter, photographer, and pianist. My brother and I knew better than to interrupt his weekday postwork relaxation time, during which he plucked at the precious custom-made flamenco guitar he'd bought in Seville. He loved work, and intended to work until the day he died. Surrender was inconceivable.
I never believed it possible that he could be withered by cancer, his deep radio-commercial-grade voice cracking from multiple surgeries and chemotherapy, lying in a hospital bed 15 minutes from where we'd lived for more than twenty years. I'd always assumed he'd live to see me married with children. That was his greatest wish.
My greatest wish was for him to reveal what he'd really done between the war and his meeting my mother, a nearly twenty-five-year gap that had been left largely unexplained. My mother's curiosity went further, as the frequent business trips he'd taken when they first met had continued through the late 1970s, ending abruptly in 1980.
Time was now running out.
Radioactive pellets had been placed in his neck to fight a cancerous tumor, and the resultant swelling made breathing painfully difficult. The doctors recommended, and my father consented to, a tracheostomy—whereby a hole was cut in his neck and a breathing tube inserted down his throat. His body, already greatly weakened by months of treatment, reacted badly to the procedure, and I spent long nights beside his hospital bed watching him sleep under heavy sedation.
The swelling persisted for weeks after the pellets were removed, and in heavy-lidded moments of near wakefulness his feet danced slowly under the sheets, both hands raised like claws.
"I wonder what he's dreaming about," said the wife of the patient in the neighboring bed.
"Driving," I said.
Once the tube was finally removed, he began daily, mostly unconscious visits to a hyperbaric oxygen chamber intended to accelerate the closure and healing of his throat.
"He won't be able to speak for some time," one doctor warned as he handed me a pad and paper, "but you can try this."
My father's eyes darted wildly during his first few days of wakefulness, his hands too shaky for anything but scrawling gashes through the paper. Clarity slowly returned to his gestures, and he resumed looking me in the eyes and nodding as I asked him yes/no questions about the business I knew he missed. He struggled to push words up through his ragged, constricted throat. I stared at his mouth and raced like an auctioneer through phrases I wanted to spare him the pain of attempting to utter.
He pointed at the pad and paper, wrote furiously, then turned the pad toward me.
"I'll get you more water," I said, bringing the straw to his mouth.
He swiped it aside angrily and wrote again.
"The tracheostomy?" He nodded. "What about it?"
"You don't want to have a tracheostomy again?"
"C'mon," I said, false optimism tugging at the corners of my mouth. "That's so unlike you."
Suddenly and with vicious strength he grabbed my wrist, pulled my face to his, and whispered through quivering lips.
"You . . . cannot . . . allow . . . it."
"But—" I mouthed in disbelief.
He glowered at me, eyes wide with volcanic anger, and pushed the pad against my chest.
"Mr. Roy!" Dr. Johnson blurted through the phone. "If you can hear me, I need your permission right now if we are to save your father's life."
"What," I said, my eyes welling with tears even as I spoke with literally deadly clarity, "are the odds of his survival without the procedure?"
"Very low. Every passing minute increases the likelihood of oxygen deprivation and brain damage, if he survives."
"Do it now," I said, in tears.