SotD: Melissa Etheridge, “Similar Features”

My mother turned 59 on Wednesday, April 12, 1989. I gave her a call that evening, but not from my apartment: I suppose I had been doing some work in my office on campus, so I hoofed it next door to the Illini Union, where I used a pay phone in its basement (I guess I wasn’t able to use my calling card from the phone in the office). We didn’t talk all that long that night, but Mom told me she’d had a good day—both she and Dad were doing fine.

The weekly Math Colloquium at Illinois was always on Thursday afternoons. Usually folks gathered a little before the talk in the commons area on the second floor of Altgeld Hall for cookies and coffee; we’d then migrate to the big lecture room across the hall to hear our guest lecturer. The details are long lost to me now, but the speaker on 4/13/89 must have been at least a moderately big name in the math world. That evening there was a reception for the speaker at the hosting professor’s house. Even though I didn’t often go to such events often, I made an exception this time. Mostly I stood on the periphery of things (as is my wont), but I do remember engaging in a couple of conversations.

One was with a grad student from the institution of the Colloquium speaker (perhaps it was her advisor who’d given the talk?). The other was with Bruce Reznick, a ten-year member of the math faculty who was just about to receive his promotion to Professor. He’d taught the abstract algebra course I’d taken my first semester there, almost three years earlier. I’d really enjoyed the class, in part due to the growth in mathematical maturity I experienced, but also because Bruce was friendly and kind and liable to crack a joke at virtually any moment (he came by that honestly—his father had been a comedy writer for Hope, Paar, Carson, among others). I hadn’t taken a class from him since, yet there he was, making time to chat for a bit with an aimless third-year grad student.

And aimless I was. It hadn’t become any clearer to me since passing most of my exams in January how I was going to proceed on to the dissertation phase. I was continuing to read papers with a faculty member in algebraic number theory, but wasn’t getting close to determining a problem I might want to tackle. A suspicion was growing stronger inside that I wouldn’t be following my current path much longer. Where to turn, though?

Suddenly, right there at the reception, something clicked: what about Bruce? His areas of study were wide-ranging enough so as to defy easy classification, but I thought there was sufficient overlap with subjects that interested me. He had just one grad student at that time, and she was just about to finish up, so he should have room to take me on if we both thought it would work. Plus, it was clear he would be supportive. I headed home that evening resolved to talk with him soon about his work in more detail and to ask for papers I could read that might give me the beginnings of an idea for a dissertation problem. I didn’t know how things would turn out, but for the first time in a while I felt hopeful.

Baseball season was just ten days old, so it’s a solid guess that John and I watched highlights on SportsCenter after I got back to the apartment. I was worried, though—my throat felt a little scratchy, a sign that I might be coming down with something. As a precaution, I took some cold medicine just before going to bed, something that would make me drowsy. I had to teach in the morning, but I expected its effects would wear off in plenty of time.

I’m certain that pill was why I didn’t hear our phone ring at around 2am.

My first thought when I arrived at his hospital room, thirty years ago this morning, was that I’d never seen anyone quite with that color before—an ashen gray.

It was about six hours later, and I was at the ICU in St. Luke West, about two miles from my parents’ house. I walked from the door of the room to his bedside and sat down. His left hand was resting by his side, over the covers. I picked it up—it was colder than any hand I’d held. His eyes opened and slowly turned toward me; there may have been a weak smile.

“I came anyway, Dad.”

John, of course, had answered the phone and roused me. Mom was reasonably calm as she delivered the headlines: Amy had taken Dad to the ER; it was likely to have been a heart attack; he had given her instructions to tell me not to drive back to KY right then. We talked for just a few minutes. Maybe my head wasn’t clear from the medicine, but as the call ended I was planning on going back to bed so that I could teach reasonably coherently in the morning before heading out for home. John set me straight with an “Are you crazy?” look and assured me my class would be covered. I rang Mom back and told her I’d be on my way soon.

I didn’t stay at the hospital all that long—after all, he was in the ICU. The initial reports were encouraging enough. Dad was very weak but stable, there didn’t seem to serious damage to heart muscle, and the worst appeared to be over for the time being. I got a little breakfast at home and took a short nap before heading off to Warsaw, about thirty miles away, with Amy to break the news to our 87-year-old Aunt Birdie. On the way there, Sis filled me in on some details.

It was unusual for Amy to be spending the night in Florence—by this time she was working and taking classes in Richmond, ninety minutes south on I-75. Yet by sheer fortune there she was, sleeping on the couch in the living room (likely she’d been reading after turning the TV off) when Dad came stumbling down the hall, sweating beyond profusely. He’d reported not feeling right pretty much all day Thursday, but things were now an order of magnitude or two worse. Amy didn’t take the time to put in her contacts before driving Dad to St. Luke; it’s fortunate that she didn’t have far to go (I can imagine Dad would have resisted calling an ambulance—might be a coin toss as to whether he got the care he so needed as quickly as possible this way).

It took me a few minutes to get fully awake and throw some clothes, etc. in a bag. I’ll bet I had to get gas and grab some caffeine before I hit the road, too. It was a clear night and I pretty much had I-74 all to myself. There was no trouble in staying alert, though—it was as if I hadn’t taken anything for the feared cold, which never came.

Despite being a preacher’s kid for the first eleven years of my life, I’ve never really been one to pray. At this point in time, I was about four years in to an extended hiatus from going to church, as well. Even though I was in a pre-cellphone-era information vacuum and plenty worried, I didn’t offer up any words of supplication as I sped down the road.

The sun started coming up as I rolled across the bridge over the Ohio River into KY. As I pulled off the interstate, I allowed myself to wonder how different life would be going forward.

Aunt Birdie had taken the news as well as could be expected, and after a while, Amy and I headed back. The rest of the weekend is mostly a blur now, but we soon learned very good news. Dad’s problem had arisen due to a small blockage, but another vein had fully taken over the role of the defective one.  No stent, no bypass surgery, no anything required—he just needed to take better care of himself. I felt comfortable enough with the state of things to go back to IL on Sunday evening, though I returned home regularly for a few weeks.

Dad had been a bit overweight for his frame prior to the attack—not anymore after he got released. Almost as soon as he arrived home, he tried to get out and walk. Toward the beginning it was hard to go more than a couple hundred yards, but over time, he built up to a few miles each day. After he returned to work, he’d do laps inside the vault of the bank between customers. I joined him when I was home, and sometimes on our jaunts around the neighborhood he’d tell me a little about his personal history, before marriage and kids.

Dad faithfully walked for years and never had another problem with his heart. He fell just months shy of living an additional quarter-century.

It hasn’t escaped my notice that I’m now only about 30 months away from being the age Dad was at the time of the attack. I’m quite possibly in worse shape than he was then. Discipline and exercise are needed.

It’s funny the things you remember at stressful times. I must not have grabbed any cassettes to take with me before I hurtled through IN in the middle of the night, so I wound up flipping stations on the radio for four-plus hours. As I got close to home, I realized there was just one song I’d heard twice on the trip.

I’d bought Melissa Etheridge on vinyl sometime in the fall of 88 but had listened to it just a few times. The fine opening track, “Similar Features,” was easily the song that I enjoyed the most. I noticed when it was released as a single with accompanying video in the spring of 89; it had crawled onto the Hot 100 at #94 (as high as it would get) just a week earlier.

I never think of this song without being taken back to that star-filled night ride when I truly didn’t know what the future held, and vice versa.


(And yes, Bruce became my dissertation advisor.)

5 thoughts on “SotD: Melissa Etheridge, “Similar Features””

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