It has been a little over two weeks since the accident and just under that since we said goodbye to Dad. I'm sure that a lot of people are wondering exactly what happened. The short answer: he fell off his bike. That's it, really. He somehow managed to fall off his bike in exactly the right way to fatally injure him. An epic stroke of bad luck for a man who has had mostly good luck throughout his life... although he'd probably argue that it wasn't so much luck as just making good things happen for himself.
Sunday afternoon, September 5th. It was the last Sunday afternoon for months in which Dad wouldn't be parked on the couch in front of the TV watching hours and hours of football. After another especially hot week, the weather had cooled and it felt like fall. My sister had brought my niece and nephew, Conor and Moira, up for the previous night and were just saying goodbye. Dad made a big show of how heavy 4-year old Conor was when he picked him up to say goodbye and they went on their way.
Not long after that Dad decided to head out on a short ride before we would go to have dinner at the Woodshed, his favorite restaurant. It is exceedingly rare for Dad to go out for a bike ride in the afternoon, but he had spent the morning watching me race in a sprint triathlon down the road. He is so entrenched in his routines that a shake-up like that might have prompted him to skip it all together, so he could instead enjoy his more normal afternoon routine of taking out the boat or napping on it while it was docked. But it was sweatshirt weather, not bathing suit weather, and he had spent much of the week talking about how good he'd felt when he was riding, so he didn't want to miss the opportunity for another ride.
I headed upstairs to put my feet up and recover from my race while doing some work. Mom stayed downstairs and watched some TV while Dad headed off. The caller ID said it was 3:12pm when the phone rang. It was Speare Hospital in Plymouth, only it wasn't Dad who was calling. I never looked at the phone, it was a few minutes later when I saw my mother come into the room and she said to me, "You have to come with me." I looked up and saw that she was crying. My immediate thought was that my 89-year old grandmother had just died. I have seen my mother cry only a handful of times in my entire life and unless she is watching a movie it is never over nothing. She wasn't crying over Nana. She just said, "Dad's been in an accident."
I sat up and went to throw on some sandals and offered to do the driving since Mom appeared to be in no condition. She told me that he wasn't at Speare, which was a mere 15 minute drive, but rather had been air lifted to Dartmouth Hitchcock in Lebanon, about an hour away. This was only the first example of my naive optimism throughout this entire ordeal. I refused to cry about this at that moment. I figured we'd drive over there, maybe find out Dad had a concussion, a broken collar bone, something like that. It didn't occur to me that they don't just airlift people to one of the best hospitals in the country from a perfectly adequate one, one Dad's own company had done extensive construction work on, for some broken bones.
I spent the drive trying to distract my mother from thinking about the worst possible outcome. However, it didn't escape me that my mother was the exact same age my grandmother, her mother was when her husband, Mom's father died suddenly of a heart attack. I tucked that thought away and tried instead to think of a way to get Mom to let Dad have his bike back when he got better. Over the phone they had simply told her that he was found by the side of the road and brought in, obviously unconscious. Dad had a fairly nasty bike accident when I was in high school. He somehow managed to fall in the driveway, knocked himself out a bit but only came away with a separated shoulder, bruised ribs and some road rash. I think it might've been the only time he missed work in his life and when Mom drove him to the emergency room he wouldn't get out of the car and insisted he was fine. Then they drove home and he couldn't get out of the car, so she brought him back. Aside from the tendon sticking out of his shoulder ever since, you wouldn't even know it had happened. I expected something more like that.
After an hour of driving down back roads through nowhere, NH, we made it to the hospital and fortunately picked the right building to go in. On the drive over Mom asked if we should call anyone, and I told her that I figured we shouldn't call anyone if we didn't know anything. I thought maybe we'd get there and it would be no big deal. They brought us into our own little waiting room and after a few more minutes a nurse came in and told us what was going on. She said she could only tell us what she had heard, but that he had been found not breathing and without a heartbeat. Someone came along and did CPR and brought him back but nobody had any idea how long he had been down.
This wasn't the news I was expecting. Mom seemed to know this was going to be bad, but she wasn't taking it well. The nurse left us alone for a few minutes before someone else came in to get his medical information because he had been brought in as an unknown patient since nobody was there to identify him, even though he had his wallet in his back pocket. I offered to make some phone calls because she didn't seem up for it. I couldn't get in touch with my sister but managed to find my brother. At that point we weren't sure if he needed to come up or not, so we'd wait for the doctor to come talk to us, someone who had actually seen him.
So far, each bit of news had gotten progressively worse. The trend continued when the doctor came in. His neck was broken. He was likely quadriplegic. Nobody knew how long his brain had been without oxygen. My mother kept asking terrible questions like, is he just going to be a vegetable? To which the doctor answered: potentially. Mom was of course in bad shape and I went to call my brother and have never had such a hard time getting words out. We still couldn't find my sister but I left him to find her. My mother had managed to tell my aunt, and I talked to her and she decided to drive up. Another aunt and uncle had just heard when they returned from a trip and they decided to drive up. While we waited for them we were also waiting for them to take Dad in to do a CAT scan and an MRI to see if they could discover the extent of the damage.
My watch seemed not to move while we sat in our little room and drank copious amounts of water. From the moment we got the call my mouth had gone dry and no amount of fluid seemed to help. After my fifth trip to the bathroom I gave up. My aunt Tricia arrived first, and not long after my brother and sister had driven up together once he'd found her at a friend's Labor Day cookout. Then my aunt and uncle, Kathleen and David, and not long after that, my uncle Mike. These are my mother's side of the family, the ones who live closer. Finally my brother-in-law arrived. He called my father's twin brother in Pennsylvania and he and his wife decided to get in the car and drive through the night to get there.
A few hours had passed since they last talked to us, but finally they came out and told my mother she could see him. Someone came out to get me and my siblings a few minutes later and took us to this little room where Dad was laid out on a stretcher with some tubes in his mouth and nose, making sure he was still breathing. There was fluid around his mouth and nose which they had to clear occasionally, due to some lung issue that I'm still not clear on because whatever it was, it had gone away a few hours later. There was some blood on the sheet but I didn't know where it was coming from because there wasn't a scatch on him. Usually when you fall off your bike you are guaranteed to lose some skin, but for some reason that did not seem to be the case.
I really don't remember much about what was said in that room when another doctor came in. I only vividly remember that my mother asked another awful question, if this was the kind of thing where in a couple of days she'd be asked if they should pull the plug. The doctor's answer: probably. You can imagine this was not a good moment for the remainder of our little family. Once we could speak again, we had to go out and pass the news on to the rest of the family sitting in the waiting room. Dad was going to be moved up to the ICU. The aunts and uncles headed home since there was nothing they could do, and the rest of us went up to the ICU waiting room.
My brother decided to drive the hour back to Manchester to get some things for himself and I decided to drive the hour back to the lake house to get some stuff for me and Mom since it appeared we would be there for a while and I was already sick of sitting around and waiting. Once I got to the house my sister had sent a message that he was stable there and they were going to try cooling his body down for 24 hours to make the swelling go down and that probably nothing was going to happen between now and then. I considered staying at the house since it was already 10:30 but knew right away I wouldn't be able to sleep anyway and although I'd done it before, at that moment being alone in that big house didn't seem appealing to me. So I gathered our things and headed back.
Mom went in to see him one more time once he was settled in ICU and we decided to go down the road and get a couple of hotel rooms just after midnight. We were in bed for probably close to five hours but I don't think I ever fell asleep. We arrived back at the hospital just after five on Labor Day. I didn't like the idea of spending so much time just waiting but based on what we'd been told, I also knew that things weren't going to change that day and therefore at least couldn't get any worse. I went in to see him and he looked better in that aside from the tubes in his mouth, he really just looked like he was sleeping. Plus, after a summer of sun he had a great tan and certainly didn't look like a sick old man. He was under heavy sedation and even if he wasn't paralyzed anyway, they kept him that way so that he couldn't move and hurt himself.
My brother asked me that day if I had been telling people what happened. I said that I had told a few people but I wasn't exactly ready to make it my facebook status update. Nothing remotely close to this had ever happened to me before and I wasn't necessarily ready to start talking to a whole lot of people about it. And for the people I did tell, I also told them to feel free to talk to me about ANYTHING else because I was enjoying any and all distractions. That afternoon since we were waiting for nothing our cousins Hannah and Brendan and Brenda's girlfriend Allison came up and took me and my brother out to lunch. Being Labor Day at about 2:00 in the afternoon we were just about the only ones in there for a few hours of much appreciated fun distractions.
After that, since we hadn't slept in something like 36 hours, we went back to the hotel to lie down at about 5 while the cousins headed back home. My sister and brother-in-law had gone home for the day to be with their kids and Mom was still over in the hospital. For some reason, sitting in that hotel room brought me back to when Johnny and I were little and used to watch TV in Mom and Dad's bed on Saturday nights. I certainly wished at that moment that I could go back to that right then. Although I still can't figure out how we related to "Golden Girls" when we were like 8 and 5.
We stayed in the hotel room all night with the TV on. Mom came back eventually, and everyone tried to sleep and I think I might have gotten an hour or so. I heard Mom in the shower at about 4am before she told me she was going back over. Normally at 4am I'd have no trouble going back to sleep, but not this time. I suddenly felt infinitely worse than I'd felt throughout the entire ordeal. I'd slept for an hour or so, which also meant that for the first time sicnce it had happened, I'd woken up and come to the painful realization that it wasn't all just a nightmare. Also, that day the whole cooling him down and warming him up thing would come to an end, which meant that we might finally get some news on his condition. While there was the possibility that we'd hear something good, there was also the very real possibility that we'd hear something bad. It was like we weren't safe anymore.
I almost never cry, but I had a very difficult time holding back tears that morning. Almost immediately after Mom left I felt like I had to do something. I couldn't go back over there yet because my brother and I were sharing a car and I didn't want to make him get up yet. I picked up my computer and started writing a note that I put up on facebook. I knew I had to write something because it's a good outlet for me. I didn't want to write what I'm writing now, just a rehash of what had been happening at the hospital. I didn't want to go too far back about what a great Dad he was growing up, although I'm sure I'll get to that eventually. I had been thinking a lot about the last week and how perfect it was and hated that I had to think that it might have been his last week on Earth, but I also wanted everyone to know that if it was, it couldn't have been better. And of course that up to the moment of the accident he really never wasted a moment.
So I started writing, and when I went back to proof read it I realized that I had written the entire first paragraph in past tense, so I changed it in the hope that he wouldn't really be gone. We had heard that they had stopped the cooling process about four hours early because his heart rate had gotten too low. They never told us if that was a good thing or a bad thing, just that it meant they'd need to warm him up early, which would take 12 hours so as not to shock his body. They checked out his heart to see if maybe he had had a heart attack that had caused him to fall but found it to be in great shape even at 64.
This was where we actually started to get some good news. First, that morning we had gone in to see him and he had been starting to wake up a bit. I went in first with just my mother and she started talking to him a bit and I said fairly loudly, "Dad" and his eyes immediately opened. He wasn't really looking at anything and we could only see the lower part of his dark blue irises, but to me this seemed like a good thing. Since he was no longer sedated or forcibly paralyzed they discovered that he would actually kick his foot if you pinched his toes. After hearing nothing but the worst possible things that can happen to a person over the past two days, discovering that he wasn't paralyzed seemed incredible. Although apparently depending on where the spinal damage happens it can actually affect the arms but not the legs. I always thought it moved bottom up, and if the legs worked, so would everything else. Either way, this seemed to be enough good news for me. His spinal damage had been downgraded from "complete" to "incomplete." These were not terms I fully understood but I also refused to torture myself by looking up things on the internet, so I simply took it as a good sign.
Two very large problems remained: he still couldn't breathe on his own and hadn't attempted to take a breath, and still nobody knew how long his brain had been without oxygen and whether or not it had been affected. This would be determined by an MRI. But they don't do MRIs for ICU patients during the day usually, only in the middle of the night when there are no everyday patients scheduled. Which meant yet another long day of waiting and probably nothing changing. When I'd go in to see him he really did just look asleep, but his heart rate kept dropping I think because he was cutting off his own air by chewing on his breathing tube, so the nurse kept having to wake him up. His eyes would remain half-open until he'd drift off again and inevitably after a minute or so I'd see his heart rate drift down into the 30's. Saying his name didn't seem to wake him up anymore.
Everyone else had gone home that night except for me and Mom. My friends Leslie, Kevin and Trent came up and took me and Mom out to dinner, another nice distraction. I think I managed to actually sleep for two or three hours that night and we were back at the hospital just after 5am on Wednesday morning. We knew that day at some point we'd be having what they call a family meeting with all of the doctors and everyone who had been working with him and would finally find out what had happened with the MRI and get the last of the answers we needed.
When we saw him that morning he looked the same We had had lots of visitors over the past couple of days and each was appreciated. Really, throughout the whole thing it was amazing the amount of support we'd received. That, and how quickly the news had spread. Even just the first night my brother was receiving text messages and e-mails from people he had no idea how they'd found out because at that point only certain family members knew. Bad news travels fast.
My mother, brother and I were sitting in the ICU waiting room that morning at about 11:30 or so when a nurse came in to find us. We knew our official meeting wouldn't be until about 3:00 that afternoon but she said she wanted to give us some news since it wasn't fair to make us just sit around when they actually knew something. She probably told us the news in the nicest possible way but when you see that cringing look on a person's face and the way they sort of tilt their head and get a little quiet when they say the words, "diffuse brain damage" that it can't possibly mean anything good. After she left my brother-in-law came back from a coffee run and my mom told him to go back to the hotel where my sister was napping and bring her back so we could tell her. We didn't want to tell anyone over the phone.
I didn't know what to do at that point. Again, I know I probably had all the information I needed to come to the inevitable conclusion but I refused to. There still had to be something they could do. Two days ago he was paralyzed and that wasn't the case anymore, maybe this could change, too. I went to the food court and watched other people eat and decided I couldn't really handle it myself.
3:00 showed up quicker than I would've liked. It seemed there was no way this would end well and any shred of hope I still clung to was probably about to be taken away. Mom, Johnny, Katy and I were taken into a small conference room in the ICU where there were a few doctors, nurses, a social worker, a recovery specialist and a neurologist. One of the nurses had told my mother earlier that if the neurologist doesn't sound very hopeful, then things are surely not good because those people apparently love to work miracles. We learned pretty quick that even a miracle wasn't going to save Dad.
The brain damage was extensive. Throughout the entire ordeal my mother and sister had been asking a fair amount of questions. I never had any. To me, there were only two possible outcomes in this whole scenario: he was either going to be ok, or he wasn't. Anything else didn't matter to me. The people in the room took turns sharing various facts about his condition, never ever pushing us in any direction but allowing us to draw our own conclusions. Aside from the brain damage there was still the fact that he hadn't tried to breathe on his own yet, and one of the doctors said that since he had been under the heavy sedation it was still possible that he'd be able to breathe on his own and we would see that if we waited another 72 hours. I hated the idea of waiting anymore, but I also hated the idea of missing opportunities.
Nobody else seemed to like this option. Everyone, it seemed, had realized the truth of the matter except me. Mom asked me if I wanted to wait the 72 hours. I nodded my head. Then she asked the doctors probably exactly what I needed to hear. She said, "Here's what I'm afraid of: what if we wait the 72 hours, and he does start breathing on his own?" The doctors all nodded, but not in a very positive way. I knew then what it all really meant. At that moment we had an easy way to just let him go, but if we waited, he might be breathing, but it wouldn't really be Dad. He'd be some empty, Dad-shaped vessel lying in a bed in some nursing home somewhere. Apparently this was something he and Mom had talked about sometime in the past few years, and both had decided that they would never want to live like that. She asked me again, and I told her it was ok.
The terrible decision had to be made, and they asked us when we'd want to do it. We all agreed that we should do it as soon as possible. We'd all had enough waiting and just wanted it to end. Most of the doctors exited the room but the neurologist offered to show us the MRI of his brain. It goes down level by level and she told us that the white sections indicated where there was damage. As she moved through the images his entire brain was nearly a sea of white. There was nothing left. He had been wearing his helmet during the accident and it actually protected his head from physical trauma of the impact, but obviously he had been without a heartbeat for too long. I'm glad she showed us those images. It doesn't make the decision any less painful, but it did help to remove all doubt.
My sister went out to get my brother-in-law and Dad's twin brother, Bob and his wife, Sandy. Not long after that someone came in and reminded us that Dad was an organ donor, and at his age he was still eligeble to donate his kidneys. Unfortunately he was way over the age limit for most other organs, including his heart. Someone probably could've benefited from that, for sure. Mom had the option of saying no, but we all felt that it would be good if someone or probably two people in this case could benefit from this. Later, we heard that apparently his name had been on the organ bank list as a potential donor since the night the accident happened. Seemed there was never much hope anyway.
The bad news about all of this was that it entailed more waiting. We were told it would take 3 or 4 hours to assemble the teams necessary to prepare for the surgery and transport. It hadn't taken us much time in that hospital to learn that everything always takes longer than they say it will. We agreed to wait anyway. One of the nurses brought us in a tray of cookies and coffee. It seemed sort of funny to me, like, hey, sorry your loved one is about to die, but maybe this will help. Even the thought of a chocolate chip cookie churned my stomach at that point. This did provide some much needed comedy as eventually someone finally opened the little envelope on the tray. It read: To the family of: Unknown. And Unknown was hand written. My sister works in health insurance and apparently when a patient comes in as an unknown, they cannot change them in the system even once you know who they are. We really couldn't do anything but laugh. At that point it had become fairly obvious that Dad was anything but unknown. Mom even went out to show the doctor, not to rub it in his face and tell him how awful that was, but so he could laugh at it too, and he did. He also told my mother that she'd made the right decision regarding Dad's condition.
Somehow, humor was the theme of the following hours. I think we all knew we could either spend the next 4 hours sitting around crying or just trying to be ourselves and we opted for the second one. Mom had to answer a bunch of questions for the lady from the organ bank and I think she appreciated our humor. It was something I needed as well because any time we got quiet I felt the tears welling up. I needed to be distracted. I thought about telling some of my friends, either e-mailing or calling or texting, but I didn't want any responses yet. I knew there was plenty of time for that later.
We got downgraded to a smaller room to continue the waiting. Eventually a social worker came in to explain to us what was going to happen. She was a nice enough person, but we really didn't need that at the moment. I mean, I guess we needed to know how it would work, but she was there for much longer than we needed her. However, that at least made me realize how lucky I was to be in a room with seven people going through this as I'm sure there are many times when that whole ordeal is handled by one, lone survivor. She asked us how we were doing and my brother told her that we were basically in anticipation of the worst moment of our lives. That about summed it up. It was probably 7:30, and we thought we'd be through it all by then but of course that wasn't the case. She asked if she could get us anything to eat because sometimes people got woozy in that situation if they hadn't eaten. I hadn't had anything since about 11 that morning and wasn't really in the mood then either, but decided to at least drink some orange juice.
I really don't know how the rest of the time passed. We went back and forth from being quiet to joking or talking about just about anything, I really can't remember what. My aunt Sandy offered to stay back with me when they went in the room for the last time since she could tell it wouldn't be easy for me. I knew it wouldn't be easy either, and of course it wasn't something I was looking forward to but I also knew I couldn't not be there.
As the time passed my stomach clenched every time I heard footsteps coming down the hall, and eventually, they were for us at about 9:00. Mom, Bob, Sandy, Katy, my brother-in-law Jeff, Johnny and I walked down to the ICU one last time. Never in a million years did I think this was something I'd have to experience in my life. Well, maybe when Dad was like 95, but definitely not now. The curtain was closed over his little cubicle. We were informed that due to the organ donation procedure, what would happen is they'd take out the tubes and wait for him to go into cardiac arrest. We'd have a minute or so to be with him after it happened and then he'd have to be taken very quickly down to surgery to get his kidneys while they were still good enough to be taken for someone else. They kept the curtain closed while they removed his breathing tubes and then let us go in.
I held his left hand, which had never moved throughout this whole thing and noticed how warm it still was. We each said the sorts of things you might expect in that situation, or at least as much as we could get out. My eyes darted between his increasingly lifeless face and the monitor to my right that showed his heart rate slowing more and more. 30, 22, 17...
"We have to go," we heard and the surgical team moved us out of the room and very quickly wheeled him away for the last time. Dad was gone.
In reality, he'd been gone since Sunday, but we'd been given a few days to sort of talk to him and come to grips with what was happening. They let us back into the room to have a few moments, but most of the alarms were still going off and we very quickly decided to get out of there. It was the worst night of all of our lives and we'd had enough of that hospital. Katy and Jeff went home and I drove Mom with Johnny following behind and Bob and Sandy behind him. We almost had a three-car pile-up with a moose on the way home, but eventually we made it to the lake house and went home the next day.
The next few days were a blur of e-mails, cards, flowers, visits and funeral arrangements. It's not the kind of thing you probably ever think about until you're in your 80's or so, but as Mom said, it was like trying to plan a wedding in an hour. I had never considered it before, but it became pretty obvious that this was going to be a BIG funeral. Dad was always just my dad, but he had also been prominent in the construction industry and among several boards for various organizations. In short, he knew lots of people and we knew lots of people. And he hadn't planned out any of the specifics of his funeral. We didn't even know if he wanted to be buried or cremated. He and Mom had casually mentioned wanting their ashes spread over Squam Lake, so that's what we decided we'd do.
I feel as though we handled things pretty well in those first few days. It was't really until I was participating in picking out a coffin and an urn for the ashes that I had a really hard time. But then all I had to do was look at some of the interesting things you can do with your loved one's remains when they're gone, like send them into space, and I could laugh a little again. Dad will remain on Earth. Or at least what's left of him will.
Sunday was the wake. So we had to see him again. I knew that I didn't want the last image of him I had in my head to be at the hospital just before they wheeled him away (it was not like it is in the movies, where they look exactly the same and you just hear the machine telling you their heart has stopped... I wish it was) but the man in the casket looked more like my grandfather than my father. I wasn't even born until my grandfather was like 71, so this was not a good change. But again, I never really considered how I'd react to such things, but I do think I handled it better than I might have expected.
We knew we were in for a long afternoon, and we were right. The joke was that if my mother ever told my father that he had to go to a wake on opening day for football season, he probably would've refused. So thanks to anyone who came out, and I know there were plenty of you. I think I just quadrupled my lifetime hug total in one afternoon. Apparently some people were in line for 90 minutes or so. There was a four hour window for people to come, and we started letting them in early because they were already lined up in the parking lot and we stayed probably an extra 40 minutes to let the rest of the line come through. I suppose that is some small comfort to see so many people come out for him and to support us. If anything, in spite of the bad luck of the accident itself, it did show how lucky we are to have the support that we have. Even my grandmother, 89 years old, was there the entire time. She has a lot of trouble remembering new things these days, but this seems to have sunken in.
It was a long afternoon, but it actually went by pretty fast. And after the first bunch of people came through I at least became sort of immune to the automatic crying response to seeing other people crying for us. I almost felt bad later on, like people might think I was void of emotion or something since I wasn't crying at the wake. We'd just already done that part by then.
Then there was only one thing left: the funeral. Monday morning we were picked up by the limo and brought to the funeral home one last time to say goodbye to Dad since it would be a closed casket at the church. The running joke among my family during this whole thing was to "Kennedy up" and not act all weepy in front of everyone. My brother came up to my mother when we were just about ready to head to the church, "Come on, Jackie."
To further show you the level of our inappropriate humor, once in the limo we were joking about all still being in the denial phase, and my brother and I realized that there was a Simpsons episode where Homer goes through those phases in about 30 seconds. This being the 21st century, instantly the clip was brought up on my brother-in-law's phone and that was how we passed the time from the funeral home to the church: watching the Simpsons. It beats crying any day, I can tell you. But the limo driver may have been suspect of our sanity. But so you know what I'm talking about: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s6mh8SX_sXs
The parking lot at the church looked like mass on Christmas eve. Mom said she and Dad used to joke that they didn't want anyone at their funeral, if only because they wanted to be so old that nobody would be left to attend. I guess that's one good thing about dying much sooner than expected. Apparently there were about 700 people in attendance. This was only the second funeral I've been to in my entire life, the other one having been in 1994 when my aunt died, so I don't have much of a basis for comparison but I'm told that is an exceptional amount.
I walked down the aisle holding my mother's hand and although I sort of wanted to see who was there, I also wasn't much in the mood for making eye contact with anyone at the moment. And again, I have no basis for comparison, but the funeral itself was really quite nicely done. My brother held it together to give an amazing eulegy, (or eugoogly, as Mom liked to refer to it all week in reference to "Zoolander") they played his favorite song "On Golden Pond" and they honored his service in Vietnam and Antarctica with Taps and two Naval officers. Mom was given the US flag and offered condolensces on behalf of the President of the United States and the US Navy.
Then it was over. We were advised not to greet people outside the church because we'd be there for probably over an hour, so we headed over to the country club for our reception. There were people there from all over the place, and for that I am incredibly grateful. I did realize from being on the other side of this for the first time that although I had never known what to do or say, just showing up or saying almost anything at all is enough. It never felt like anyone was intruding, it really was nice to see or hear from anyone and everyone. And there certainly were a lot of them.
It was a great way to honor Dad's life, even if it was too short of one. One of the good things is that I don't feel like I ever took him for granted or didn't realize how great he was when he was alive. I didn't need his death to show me that. I don't feel guilty about anything I said or did in the end, anything I wish I could've taken back or changed. I mean, I suppose I could torture myself with a thousand what ifs about going with him on his bike ride or not having that race that morning so he would've ridden earlier, but that's not going to change anything. I don't know the last time I told him I loved him and I don't know the last time he told me either, but we didn't need to say it to know. We were never a family of throwing around words like that, we speak mostly through our actions.
The funeral was only a week ago and yet already it feels like months. I know I'm going to miss Dad, but at the moment, I feel like I'm trying not to think about it too much. It's like I'm saying to myself, well, Dad wouldn't be here with me right now anyway even if he was still here, so I don't have to be sad about it. I'm sure it will hit me in a thousand small, unexpected ways in the coming months and probably years, but for now, we are doing ok.
Mom and I went and picked up his bike and stuff from the police station a few days ago. The police do not believe there was a car involved and if you saw the bike, you'd probably have to agree. The front wheel is barely bent and the left brake is bent in from where it hit the ground, but that's it. The helmet is cracked in from where he hit on the very top of his head. There is blood on the inside. We'd always known what road it was on but hadn't been told exactly where. Dad rides this road on every single ride he does. This was probably his 10th day in a row riding down it. Until a couple of years ago when they started doing bridge work on his usual route, he didn't even know it existed until I showed him the detour. Even once the bridge was fixed he never went the other way again since he liked this new route so much.
I know the road pretty well myself, and there was only one spot that made any sense to me that he could've fallen like he did without a car hitting him. It was right where I expected. There is a sharp downhill that levels off a bit after you gain speed, then the road curves to the left. Probably a hundred different things could've happened to make him fall the way he did, but we'll probably never know exactly what. Could've been an animal, as simple as a squirrel or a dog. But on that very road I've come across deer, moose and even bears while riding my bike. He could've hit a rock or a stick or an acorn in just the wrong way. He could've been hit by a golf ball since there is a country club right there. Heck, he could've sneezed for all we know.
All we know is that whatever happened, he fell in absolutely the worst possible way. Sometimes you get lucky, and other times you don't. I've flipped over my handlebars at mile 56 of an Ironman and still finished the race with only a few scratches and some mildly bruised ribs. I've actually been hit by a car and somehow managed to remain upright on my bike. I've had many other close calls that could've ended badly but didn't. For every thousand close calls, there's just bound to be one or two that wind up catastrophic. You never expect the worst of the luck to land on you, but the truth is, plenty of terrible things happen to all kinds of people on any given day. Even though most of the other obituaries in the paper the same day as Dad's were 80-somethings and 90-somethings, there are always plenty of young kids who have terrible things happen to them. This was bad for sure, but there are almost always worse things.
Sometime soon we are going to meet with the guy who did CPR and kept Dad alive long enough for us to say goodbye and long enough so that his kidneys could be of some use to other people. Nobody heard or saw a thing but he was found by a father and son who saw him down when they were putting their golf clubs in the car and the man who performed CPR was a golf pro working in the shop at the course. It still seems crazy to me that he could've fallen in such a perfect way to do the damage he did, and I still sort of expect to see him walk in the door with his arm in a sling or something so we can make fun of him for not being able to pedal a two-wheeler. But I know we won't get that chance. I finally had a dream about him last night. For some reason we were all sitting in a train station, and he looked perfectly normal. Younger, actually.
I am sure there will be more Dad-related posts to come, and I realize that this was an awfully long post, but I wanted to write down everything that has gone on and how this all progresed. I hope that nobody else out there has to live through that sort of thing or make those kinds of decisions. And I'd also like to thank the many of you who have sent notes, cards, flowers, food, texts, phone calls, visits, whatever. If nothing else this kind of thing can at least show people what amazing friends and family they have. I guess I never really had a good chance to see it all at once or truly appreciate it before.
It has certainly made me realize that bad luck can strike anyone at any time. But it doesn't mean that you should live in fear of it every second of every day or really ANY second of any day. Except for leaving this life earlier than he probably meant to, I don't think my father had any regrets. He always did what he wanted to do and tried to make himself and his family happy. As a result, we all were. And mostly still are. Don't waste time on things you don't want to be doing, because you never know how much time you're really going to have.
Thursday, September 9, 2010
My dad is the happiest guy you’d ever want to meet. I’ve never met anyone else who seemed to truly have everything he ever wanted. Except maybe for my mother. The only thing I can think of him complaining about anytime recently was the saddle that came with his new road bike a few weeks ago. Aside from the obvious of loving his family, he loves his job and the people he works with, he loves the lake house he had built two years ago that was beyond any dream I think he ever had, he loves his boat and driving around the lake in it while playing the soundtrack to “On Golden Pond.” He loves going around the lake in his kayak, good restaurants, good wine, and he absolutely loves riding his bike.
Dad spent this past week having probably the best week he’s ever had at the lake house. It was a somewhat unplanned vacation as originally he was going to be off the week after Labor Day. Things had come up for that week and he wouldn’t be able to stay every day, and this past week, each day became more gorgeous than the last. 90 degrees and sunny, 93 degrees and sunny, 94 and sunny…. sunny, sunny, hot and sunny. Taking Monday off became Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and while we’re at it, let’s just take make a week of it. It was a week of the best summer weather we’ve probably ever had.
Dad is a creature of habit. He gets up early every morning, makes his coffee, proceeds to immediately put it in the microwave to heat it to epic-high temperatures that nobody else could ever drink it, pours it in a travel mug and takes his Boston Whaler down to the country store to pick up the morning papers. Once he comes home and has breakfast, usually next he gets on his bike and rides anywhere from 35-50 miles, sometimes less if he doesn’t have time, depending on how he’s feeling. He does this every single morning he has the opportunity if he’s not working. Sometimes lately he’d come back from work early enough to get in a quick ride, which he never used to do. But he seems to have grown to love it even more lately so he seizes all opportunities. Earlier this week Dad had finished a bike ride up, smiled at me and told me that the more he got to ride, the more he loved it. Dad and I used to ride together all the time until I started training a little too seriously and he started using the excuse that he was getting older. I never bought that. My Dad doesn’t get old.
Post-ride he will often jump right into the lake in his bike shorts, but either way he will be in his bathing suit soon after and ready for whatever he feels like doing that day. If the water is calm he might take out the kayak, the plants might need watering because it hasn’t rained much in who knows how long, or maybe it’s straight to the back of the boat to lie down and take a little nap while floating on the waves. But again, no matter what he fills the late morning with, lunch is at precisely 12 noon, no matter what. Sometime probably two years ago at about 11:15 he had wound down from a long bike ride and looked at me and said, “I’m so hungry, I wish I could have my lunch now.” I informed him that it was perfectly acceptable to eat lunch earlier than noon if you were hungry and just that once he made an exception.
Most afternoons he takes his Chris Craft boat out. He’s had this boat for a few years now and I don’t think he’s ever happier than when he’s driving that boat around Squam Lake. Usually Mom is sitting up front, reading a book. And if I’m around I’ll be up there, too. Or of course if my brother or sister and her family are up, we might all go out. Sometimes they stop somewhere to swim for a bit or pick blueberries, Dad’s favorite. Sometimes they just drive around at low speeds. It really doesn’t matter to Dad, as long as he’s on the lake. But almost without fail when the boat slows to the no-wake zone between these two islands, he will play the “On Golden Pond” theme song, which is the only music he allows to be played on his boat’s great sound system. The song lasts precisely the amount of time it takes to get from one end of the channel to the other, and when Dad gets to drive people around the lake, it is obviously his favorite part of the tour.
The rest of the afternoon could be spent just lying in the sun some more or sitting on the dock talking to mom or just looking at the lake. He says all the time how much he just loves looking at the lake, and I can’t say I blame him. It’s one of the reasons why he wants to spend every moment possible at that house, even if it makes his commute an hour instead of ten minutes and he might not even be back long enough to enjoy the daylight. Often his lake-watching is done with a fresh pour from his kegerator, another favorite addition to his favorite house.
He and Mom will have their pre-dinner cocktails on the porch, and in the summer he always has a Beefeater gin and tonic. Although he does love going out to dinner, he also loves eating dinner on the porch at the house, which is where most dinners occurred this week. Except for one night when he and Mom took some food out on the boat and ate on the water. This past Monday I actually had dinner with them out at Walter’s Basin and we took the boat over to their dock.
I spent the entire week at the house with my parents. Fell asleep in the lounge chair next to his while he napped one morning in the sun, went out on the boat, watched him come and go from his bike rides on his new bikes. He has two right now because he somehow managed to crack the titanium frame of the other one he had for 8 years but was too impatient to wait for the lifetime warrantee replacement, so he bought a new one right away so he wouldn’t have to be without riding for too long. Aside from plenty of great bike rides this week, Dad also spent a few hours out on the kayak, which isn’t something he does often unless he is acting as my Sherpa for a long training swim. My aunts and uncle came up at the end of the week and had a nice dinner on the porch which they followed up with incredible stargazing. And on Saturday night my sister came to the house with my niece and nephew and she had a nice dinner with my parents. I had eaten a bit earlier because I was doing a sprint race in the morning.
Sunday morning I awoke fairly early to eat my pre-race breakfast in the comfort of the house because the race start was at 8am and 3 miles down the road—biking distance. As I choked down the applesauce Dad emerged to start the coffee and gave me his usual enthusiastic pre-race vibe. Dad comes to watch lots of my races. And fortunately he is a creature of habit at those, too, so in years of doing certain races multiple times, always know exactly where I’ll see him. In Lake Placid: I find him and mom in the same spot by the water every year, which is always comforting pre-race to be able to talk to them and hug them before the race and get one final “Good luck” before I brave the treacherous Ironman mass start. After the swim he’s on the hill by transition (extra fortunate this year because my mom prevented me from running down the wrong row to get my bike). After the first loop of the bike they’re at the top of the hill just before I turn back to start loop two past the Olympic Training Center. When I finish the bike he is always right there at the bike dismount and I’ll never forget him yelling for me almost like an excited little kid when I came off and was about to take the lead. Dad never gets like that, really…. Unless the Patriots win the Superbowl.
Then there are their standard spots on the run course, this year he told me on loop #1 to straighten out my hat (usually more of a Mom-thing, but that’s ok) and he is always right there after I finish, whether it’s earlier than anticipated, or much later.
So in his travels to see me on Lake Winnipesaukee or Lake Placid or even all the way in Hawaii, it was no surprise that he’d take the short drive down the road to watch me race that morning. By the time I left the house he had already gone on his newspaper run, and as I crossed the bridge over the channel on my bike, I saw him in the boat headed back to the house.
This particular race is small and extremely low-key, so it didn’t take long to set up my transition area and head towards the water where of course I saw Dad waiting for me. Thankfully he was there to help me zip up my wetsuit before I went to the water. I heard him yelling when I was coming out of the water, heading out on the bike, finishing the bike and of course and of course finishing the race. Due to the slack nature of transition area security, I had barely thrown my jacket on when he came in to find me and tell me good job even though I didn’t really do a good job, but that’s what he does.
So that’s one reason why that day he didn’t go out on his bike ride first thing in the morning like he usually does. Once I got home he was doing some things around the house and later had lunch. My sister and the kids said goodbye and headed home. Sometime after that, Dad went on his bike and Mom got a phone call from the hospital and was told he had been in an accident and was airlifted to Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center, where we spent three agonizing days wondering what was going to happen to him. We were told right away that he was probably quadriplegic, had broken his neck and nobody knew how long he was without oxygen to his brain because he was found not breathing and without a heartbeat. After a brief glimmer of hope when he had started moving his legs a bit, we had to meet with the neurologist who showed us the MRI and told us that he had suffered extensive brain damage. Also being without the ability to breathe on his own, we had to make the decision to terminate life support. There were several more hours of agonizing waiting while they got him ready for organ donation, so at least someone, or likely two people, will be benefiting from Dad's kidneys. His heart was in great shape as well, but he was over the age limit for donation on that end. And at about 9:20 on September 8th, 2010, we were with him when he left us.
Whatever winds up happening, at the moment it is a huge comfort knowing that the entire summer but specifically the past week has been about as close to perfect as it gets for Dad. Almost as if you asked him to design the perfect week at the lake, that would’ve been it. The only thing he didn’t get was one more dinner at the Woodshed, his favorite lakes region restaurant, where we were supposed to go on Sunday night. Everything else couldn’t have been better and I’m sure that’s how he would’ve wanted it.
Dad, we love you and will miss you terribly. You touched the lives of so many people over the years, and I don't think I truly realized how many until we had this outpouring of support over the past few days. But we will be ok only because you made us that way.