The worst thing…

The phone rang at 1:49 am, just into Friday morning. Though bleary-eyed, I recognized my mom’s cell phone number and I sat straight up in bed. Mom has been alternating the night shift at a medical clinic 35 miles from home every other week for over four years, and I worry about her on the road at late hours after a long night of work. And knowing I have a two-year-old asleep in the next room, she would never ring my house phone after 9PM unless it was dire.  I answered quickly, head spinning.

It was not my mom’s voice. It was a nurse from Obici hospital here in town, telling me that my mother was at there at the emergency room. I interrupted quickly and asked, “Is she ok?”



“Was there an accident? Is she–”

“It’s not her. It’s your step father. He’s had a heart attack, and he’s not doing well. We haven’t reached the other girls yet. Come now.”

I shot straight out of bed like I had just downed three Redbulls. Bra, hat, keys, (husband ably in charge of baby, should he wake up) … I was out the door within four minutes of the call. I tried over and over again to reach my other sisters en route to the hospital, only able to get one of them–the only other one with a land-line phone. Living in the woods, I have no choice. But everyone else seems to have foregone the house phone in favor of only keeping mobile lines. Not ideal when I need you at 2am.

I got to the hospital to be with my mother, hold her hand, and tell her everything was going to be okay. Here’s the thing… I thought it would be. 58 year olds have heart attacks–I hate to say it–all the time. Yeah, that’s young, but it’s still common heart attack age. Then they go home and follow doctor’s orders to eat more vegetables, take more walks, and drop some bad habits. End of disaster. Right? And I was thinking, man is he gonna be pissed when we tell him no more bacon and gravy.

<Two sisters have effectively been reached and are en route.>

Two doctors came into the small room where we were waiting. And they sat down. FUCK! Don’t sit down! Quick positive news before they traipse out and continue to make miracles happen is delivered on foot. The worst news our family has ever shouldered was delivered from ugly plastic chairs by two strangers who said they tried their best. I had forgotten that this was a possibility. I had forgotten to know what to say. Is there anything to say?

<No words, only shrieks and sobs. Questions. The kind that have no answers.>

My stepdad’s only biological daughter, my beautiful little sister, just 22, arrived only minutes later. I had also forgotten that this news would have to be repeated over and over as others arrived. Hollow, empty words escaped my lips I don’t know how many times. I know I made a lot of phone calls, scanning the contacts in Dan’s cell phone for names of his family members, but I don’t recall most of the rest of the morning. I remember driving home at 5:30am pissed off at the world, when the song “Daddy’s Hands” came on the radio? Really? Now? Fuck you too, satellite radio! For the first time, I lost my shit. In the privacy of my car, driving down my own street. I stopped just before my driveway, in the middle of the road, and screamed a scream that still rings in my ears. My throat burned fiercely, but I did it again. I feel like doing it again now as I write these words.

Dan was one of the most genuinely fine gentlemen I have ever known. Although sentences are starting to make sense today, and to-do lists are beginning to assemble, there are no words adequate to describe the storm that my family is in right now, and will be in for some time. That’s what the preacher at the service called it– “a storm.” But I find peace in storms… there is no peace in this for me yet. Only worry, grief, self-doubt… was there something I could have noticed or done sooner to prevent this? Did I say “I love you” when we last talked? My sisters and I are a ball of glue around my mom right now. I am determined that she will not feel alone in this. And I am grateful to my loving, helpful, compassionate husband for all he is doing to make this more bearable for all of us. And my sisters stood around me as I spoke these words at Dan’s funeral yesterday. I hope he would be proud of me.

What do you say about the sweetest, gentlest most sincere man who meant so much to so many… well when we all sat down to talk about our favorite stories and memories with Dan, we had a lot to say and a lot of laughs. I also learned that we all have a pretty accurate impersonation of him… “Hewwooo”  …”Whatcha doooinnn”… “Otaaay.” That voice. That sweet baby voice he talked to all of us girls in… his friends at work say they could always tell when it was one of us by the gooey way he spoke…used to tease him even. Give him a little hell for being such a softie. But it didn’t change him. Nothing could. Because if Dan was anything, he was consistent and reliable. 

Everyone depended on him… and he was not one to say no, regardless of the favor or task. He was always up to it. And if he wasn’t, he pretended really well and got the job done anyway. And with that “Dependable Dan” smile on his face. That’s just who he was.  Whether it was assembling a really obnoxious toy for one of his grandkids, moving and schlepping, or wiring just about anything. (Mom would say, don’t mess with the remote, Dan’s not here and I don’t know how to get the TV back right!) And I’m pretty sure between all of his girls he has moved into 96 apartments, installed 22 ceiling fans, repaired 47 appliances, and even shifted an entire kitchen 2 inches when Becky bought a fridge too big. Can’t find it, buy it or fix it? Call Dan. He can either fix it for you or handcraft it out of nothing. And anyone who has a piece of Dan Phelps cabinetry or wood working in their home knows they have something special. He sure was talented. And patient. Boy was he patient. He must have been with all of us! HA!  But his many talents, I hear, do not extend to the golf course…

 His son-in-laws will tell you that 9 holes is going to be a 4 hour affair. And 18 holes is out of the question. The perfectionist that Dan was, he would never leave a ball behind. Which meant he spent a lot of time tromping through the woods. “No, no, no… I know it’s right around here somewhere.” Ordering dinner though? That’s much simpler… “BURN IT.” No seriously, make it like a hockey puck. Whether it was Cazedores or Bunny’s… they know his “usual” and they know to BURN IT.

We all have so many fond memories of Dan, from he and little Danny building countless Lincoln Log cabins in the floor to always counting on Dan to carve the holiday turkeys. Ohh, and many many backstage passes! There are a lot of things that are never going to be the same. I know we’ll never hear Little River Band or Eric Clapton without hearing Dan’s raspy living room jam sesh voice. And many a guitar sing-a-long has taught us what to do when you can’t be with the one you love, honey…

 But guys this is a loss. And not just for his family… for his community. Dan has been a Suffolk man all his life, and Suffolk is losing one of it’s finest in “Danny Phelps.” He was a true Southern gentleman. And he had a smile that could undo a bad day and warm your heart. And you could count on it. This is also going to be a business loss for Casio sports watches and Rockport shoes. And maybe Sonic. Just sayin. Good old Dan. Every time we see an electric blue Dodge Dakota Sport we’ll look for the DTP license plate. And every time we take a family photo, we’ll listen for the 1, 2, 3, count, in German of course.

 So to Dan… Thanks for everything. Don’t worry– we’ll take care of mom. I don’t think we’ll be able to spoil her the way you did, but we’ll do our best. We’re all gonna miss you, buddy. You meant the world to so many. Wuv you! Be sweet! XOX

Some of my favorite pictures of Dan:

June 10th, 2010– holding my son Zachary, just minutes after he was born. Proud Poppy!

Summer 2006– Dan & my husband, Newman, on one of our many fishing expeditions in the Nansemond River.

Good ol’ Dan, laid back as usual… not even sure when this was taken. Judging by my hair, I’m saying ’05ish.

Carving the turkey Thanksgiving ’08… one of the many things our family counted on Dan for.

July 4th, 2012… 2 days before he died… lighting sparklers for his grandkids.



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About dramafreemama

I am a wife, homeowner, teacher, sister, pet-owner, and friend...But the most humbling and moving role in my life to date is that of a mother, or better yet, a MOMMY. We live in a rural area of Virginia and we keep it simple. This blog is about juggling life in all these different roles. Please subscribe/follow and ENJOY!
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17 Responses to The worst thing…

  1. Aimee says:

    You are a beautiful daughter. My heart goes out to you, your mom, sisters and family during this time.

  2. I’m so sorry for your loss. He sounds like a wonderful man! Sending my thoughts and prayers to you and your family. My dad died of a heart attack in March of 2011. He liked gentleman jack too!

  3. Wendi says:

    ily, cuppie.

  4. So sorry for your loss. 😦

  5. Laura says:

    I’m so sorry, Deborah. You did a great job capturing him. Everything you mentioned brought back memories. He was such a huge part of a lot of lives, including mine. Sending you lots of love.

    • Thanks, love. So many friends have reached out and it’s truly touching. I wish I knew who was actually at the funeral, but I couldn’t look up. But i understand your parents were there and I am grateful. Much love. Miss you lots.

  6. Heather Cadorette says:

    Oh Debo, I am so sorry for your loss. I’m sitting here with tears on my face. Let me know if I can do anything for you. I mean it. We are just down the road and willing to help out.

  7. Lynnette P. Hefley says:

    Thank you for sending this…he was one proud Dad! I’m so glad you girls loved my “little” brother and appreciated his big heart and many talents. He was one of a kind; I don’t know when my tears will stop falling nor if/when my heart will ever be mended. Losing my son, Ron, last month, and my younger brother this month has all-but broken me. Thankfully, I KNOW their souls are with Our Heavenly Father and their bodies are free of pain and worry. I’m comforted by this knowledge, yet I yearn for the time when my heart strings can play a happier tune…Eric Clapton, one of Danny’s favorites, aptly sang about missing someone so much…how appropriate that you chose his song to be played at my brother’s funeral. Thanks, for being “in tune” to our broken hearts. You are an awesome daughter…and an awesome niece!

    • There will never be another Danny Phelps, that is for sure. He was one of the good guys. And now I have this sickening feeling that a major appliance is about to break. Hee hee. 😉

  8. Stephanie gwaltney says:

    Hey sweetheart…I am so sorry for the loss your family and you are bearing and for your pain and frustration. I cannot imagine receiving “that” phonecall…nothing can prepare you for it. Other than the fact everyone has switched to cell phones…I believe there was a divine reason you received the phone call. You’re are a tough cookie Deborah…God placed you in a very delicate situation for a reason. Thank you for sharing your story…your step daddy seemed like a genuine man who had a very blessed life filled with many who loved him. Family is a priceless gift from God…I am so glad you have beautiful memories of him that will never fade. I will be praying for you and your family. Love you Hun! Xoxox

  9. Kay says:

    That was such a touching letter about Danny, the little boy I remember getting of the school bus with the dirty face, torn pockets, and missing buttons that his wonderful mom, Stella fixed on a daily basis…not a soul will ever be able to replace our little Danny…I am sure you will all miss him forever….Thank you…Kay

  10. amanda says:

    This was beautiful. I know there were a lot of tears when you read this, both happy and sad. I am so sorry for all of you, but most of all for your mom. I love her to pieces and would do anything for her. I am happy to know that she is blessed with such a loving family. You guys stick together and stay strong. xoxo

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