The Death of Robert Whaley

For as long as I can remember both of my parents were heavy smokers. Dad had a couple of minor heart attacks when in his 50s, and his doctors warned him it was important that he quit tobacco. When I was visiting my parents in Texas for the holidays in December of 1979, I had quite a talk with Dad and Mom about smoking. Mom, ever the rebel, said she enjoyed smoking and if that meant she had no future, so be it. Dad, on the other hand, told me I was right, and that he was going to quit very soon. “I have a future,” he assured me.

In mid-July of 1980, Dallas, Texas, where my parents lived and where Dad was an Assistant District Attorney for the City and County of Dallas, had a record-breaking ten or more days of 100° temperatures. On Saturday, July 12, Dad was out in the yard hitting golf balls at the weekend home he and my mother maintained at nearby Tyler, Texas (it was next to a golf course, of course). Adding to heat stress was that he was in the middle of prosecuting a complex death penalty case. My parents returned to their apartment in downtown Dallas that evening, and in the middle of the night Dad had a massive heart attack, with his heart stopping twice. The elevator was too small for a gurney, so the EMT people strapped him to a computer chair on wheels and wheeled him out of the building and into an ambulance.  He had just celebrated his 61st birthday on June 20th.

The next day, Sunday, July 13, my sister Mary Beth (coming from Florida) and I (from Columbus) arrived in Dallas and went immediately to Baylor Medical Center where Dad was being treated. It was another 100° day, and the contrast between that heat, the icy air conditioning in Dad’s hospital room where Mom was holding his hand, and the almost white color of his skin, made my head swim. I started towards the bed, and then sat down suddenly on the floor, worried I myself was about to have a heart attack. Both parents transferred their concern to me, but I quickly scrambled to my feet and asked Dad how he was doing. Mary Beth arrived almost at once, and we hugged (it had been eight years since we had last physically seen each other!). Dad said he was feeling much better, and Mom pretended she thought he would be fine.

Not long thereafter Dad cardiologist appeared and made small talk with all of us. As he was leaving he nodded to me to follow him, so I excused myself and did so. In the hallway, outside their hearing, the doctor said to me, “Mr. Whaley, I have very bad news for you. You father’s heart attack is not survivable, and he is certain to die soon.” That news almost put me on the floor again, but I asked him if he was sure . . . was there was no possibility of long term survival? “Not with the severity of the attack he’s experienced,” the doctor replied. “If he were to survive, he’d be a vegetable. I didn’t tell your mother or sister this; I was waiting for you. You can inform them or not as you think best.” At this he patted my shoulder firmly, repeated that he was sorry, and left me standing there. Stunned, but covering, I went back into Dad’s hospital room.

I decided not to relay to Mom or Mary Beth the doctor’s news about hopelessness of the situation. It’s hard to explain why not, but, frankly, Mom wouldn’t have believed me, and even if she did, she would have denied that she did, counting on hope and prayer to prove me wrong. In this Mary Beth was her ally (as opposed to her atheist brother, who simply didn’t understand what miracles could be worked). I decided to let it all happen as it would happen, and in the meantime put the best possible on the face on it.

What I hadn’t counted on was Bob Whaley being Bob Whaley. As anyone who has been reading stories about him on this blog knows, he’d didn’t play by the same rules as other people, and he wasn’t about to start doing so on his deathbed. “Tell me the truth, Doug,” he said, a brave smile on his face, when he and I were alone in his room (the doctor had decreed that only one family member could visit at a time, so we were taking turns). “Am I dying?”

What to say? This man, who I adored so, deserved the truth and he was counting on me to tell it.

So I did.

Even with all I’ve been through (see the many blog entries on this point), I can’t imagine what it’s like to be told that you are going to die with no other possible outcome. Dad took it “like a man” (a favorite phrase of his), and thanked me. I hugged him, tears in my eyes but not crying, and he nodded his thanks. Dad did say, with a wry smile, “I’d always heard Whaleys lived to be 75, and then died suddenly—I guess that was wrong in my case.” I got out of there, unsure if I’d done the right thing. My mother was his next visitor, and when she returned to the waiting room she was very upset. “Oh, kids,” she said to Mary Beth and me, “he wasn’t like himself at all! He was depressed and I had trouble getting him to talk to me.” Mom’s hands were visibly shaking, and Mary Beth grabbed them and pulled her close, murmuring it would all be all right. I didn’t know what to say. Mom fled to the hospital’s chapel, and after about an hour she returned. I was alone in the waiting room (I suppose Mary Beth must have been in with Dad), and Mom was all aglow with hope. “It was amazing!” she told me. “I knelt down in the chapel room, which was sort of gloomy, and began to say a rosary, and all of a sudden the room filled with light.” She looked at me very seriously. “I knew, Doug, that God had answered my prayers, and that your father was going to be fine!” Then she remembered who she was talking to, and her expression turned sour. “Of course, you don’t believe me!” I scrambled to say something like “I’m glad that your prayers have been heard,” but she knew I was just mouthing words, and she scowled and picked up a magazine rather than face her apostate son. I felt crumby, at a complete loss how to help her.

Before I next went in to see Dad, I rehearsed my lines carefully, knowing him and how to reach him. “When Mom last was in here,” I began in the ‘listen-up’ voice I’d learned from him, “you scared her good, and she was beside herself with fear that you were giving up.” “Oh,” Dad said, feeling the guilt I meant to lay on him. “Now take some advice from your son,” I counseled him (by this time I’d been a law professor for over ten years and we talked as equals). “Robert Whaley has lived his life well, and now its time for him to die well. That woman is counting on you—as she has always counted on you—for protection from whatever comes along. Especially when you’re dying, your main job is still to make this as easy on her as possible. Do you agree?” He nodded firmly, filled with remorse for not thinking these same thoughts, and, on some level, pleased to have an important task to do. “Dump everything bad on me,” I offered. “We can talk it all out—I’ll be your sounding board.” And that’s what we did.

When Mom emerged from her next visit with Dad, she was all smiles. “He was in such a much better mood!” she announced happily. “Laughing and telling me we’ll be all right, and that he felt like he was going to beat this thing.”

I was proud of him, and told him so when we spoke later that day. Dad smiled. He’d obviously been thinking about the challenge of dying well, and he plunged into the task with enthusiasm. Over the next three days Dad and I, both dramatic people, played deathbed scene after deathbed scene, eventually running out of material. He reviewed his life with me, and I told him how I admired all he had done, and most particularly his starting over at age 49, going back to law school, and from there to a very successful career as a prosecutor. When I said this, he remarked, “You know, Doug, in ten years I put a number of people in jail who should be in jail.” On Monday morning when I entered the hospital, Dad’s doctor told me that his heart had stopped during the night, but they’d brought him back with electroshock treatment. When my turn came to go talk with Dad he complained that his chest hurt, and asked if I knew why. I told him about the electroshock, and his eyes widened. “Like on TV?” he asked, and we both laughed at his question. Gallows humor.

Facing his own death, Robert Whaley was incredibly brave, as, indeed, were my mother and sister. I had to leave that Wednesday because school was starting, and Mary Beth took charge of keeping Mom in as good a shape as possible, while controlling her own emotions around both her mother and the legion of Dad’s friends who came to call. Dad’s condition deteriorated, and the doctors told both Mary Beth and my mother that things looked bad, but then he improved enough that a final coronary bypass surgery was attempted on Friday, August 1, from which he never regained consciousness. He died that evening. Studies show that the greatest shock in life is death of longtime spouse, and my mother struggled hard with the concept of living without the man she had loved since they were teenagers. Again, Mary Beth contained her own sorrow to do things like stop people from crying in front of Mom (“Do that outside—she can’t handle seeing it now!”).

Dad’s funeral was held in southern Indiana, where he and my mother were from, on Monday, August 4th. In a prior post I’ve told how my mother, holding herself together bravely (see photo of her with her two grandchildren, Cindy and Clayton), once alone with his closed casket (a Whaley tradition—“Who wants to be remembered as a dead body?” Dad had always said), put her head down on it and (not meaning to be funny) muttered, “Bobby, I could just kill you for dying.” Robert Whaley was laid to rest that day in a graveyard filled with Whaleys.

LeNore Whaley would be buried beside him five years later, but that’s a story for another post.
Related Posts:
“My Competitive Parents,” January 20, 2010
“Bob Whaley, Boy Lawyer,” March 28, 2010
"My Mother's Sense of Humor," April 4, 2010
“The Sayings of Robert Whaley,” May 13, 2010
“Bob Whaley and the Best Evidence Rule,” June 26, 2010
“Bob and Kink Get Married,” June 2, 2010
“Dad and the Cop Killer,” July 19, 2010
“No Pennies In My Pocket,” July 30, 2010
“Doug, Please Get My Clubs From the Trunk,” August 20, 2010
"Bob Whaley Trapped in Panama," January 21, 2011
"My Missing Grandmother," December 26, 2010
"Bob Whaley Trapped in Panama," January 21, 2011
"The Death of My Mother," March 31, 2011
“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013


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