It was November 26, 1996, two days before Thanksgiving. I came home early from work to see if I could help Kameo. We had spoken on the phone a couple hours earlier and she mentioned that she was feeling a little better, though it would quickly become apparent that was just her wishful thinking. I came home and saw all the symptoms I had seen many times before: very high fever, joint pain, and weakness. This was a serious lupus flare. I knew the plan of action. It was one we had taken many times before during our ten-year marriage. We would go to the hospital, get fluids into her, break her fever, spend a few days recovering, and then come home. She would really hate spending Thanksgiving in the hospital, I thought.
I asked Kameo’s Mother to take her to the hospital while I dropped our girls off at my parent’s home. As I helped her into her Mother’s car, she whispered into my ear, “Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday.” Little did I know those would be the last words spoken to me by my wife, and Thanksgiving would never be the same.
The doctor asked to sit with me privately for a moment. “We have tried but it is now time to make a decision. We can continue to keep her alive but it is only a matter of time before she passes.” How could this be happening, I asked myself? Her health had been the best it had been in years. She is only thirty-five, we have three young daughters! There were all kinds of reasons why she shouldn’t die.
None of those reasons mattered.
I hugged her, whispered through my tears the love I felt for her…and said good-bye. The breathing tube was removed and she slowly slipped away.
The confusion of this moment will forever haunt me. What do I do now? I mean, right now! Do I stay with the body of my loving wife, or do I hurry home to see my children. You never think of such things. It was 11:20 at night, I had spent many late nights at the hospital, helping my wife recover from Lupus flares. This night was different. She wasn’t coming home. How do I tell the children? They won’t understand, they are only eight, six and two years old. Mom is their world. What about a funeral, am I supposed to plan that? I don’t have a burial plot, a tombstone…Now what? So many questions, most of which were simply my way of not feeling the unbearable pain of losing my sweet wife.
I only remember walking down a long hall of the hospital. It had off-white, cream-colored walls with little regard to décor or style. It was unmemorable and sterile. As I drove home, I wondered how to tell the girls that Mom wasn’t coming home. Eight-year old Allie will understand death. She had been born in a whirlwind of sick days and hospital stays. She knew Mom’s body never quite worked right. We had spoken of heaven and the love of a Heavenly Father her entire life, but we never had done this. We had never talked about her Mother not coming home. Jackie at six years old would struggle to make sense of all of this. While she had sang songs of heaven and God in church classes, the ambiguity of it all would certainly not help her find comfort. Jamie at two years old would only know that the person she relied on for nearly everything in her world would not be there anymore. She didn’t know why, she just would know she was gone.
I drove into my parent’s driveway. They had always quickly stepped in to take the girls when we rushed to the hospital. I knew there was peace in their home at that moment because they were unaware of Kameo’s death. Peace that would be shattered very soon. I walked into their home and was greeted with the concerned faces of my parents. “She is gone,” I blurted out harshly. Tears and stunned silenced enveloped the room.
It was only a few minutes until eight year old Allie stumbled into to the room, wiping the sleep from her eyes, having just awakened. “Hi Daddy,” she said. “Hi, Angel,” I said, my heart filled with pain. “Come here.” She climbed up on my lap and wrapped her soft, delicate arms around me. We hugged for a moment. “Angel, Mommy was really sick and her body just couldn’t get better.” Following that moment were the tears and sorrow of a newly widowed husband and motherless child.
Over the next seven months in addition to my wife, my grandfather, biological father, aunt, who was my second mother, all died. The challenge of a lifetime had begun. As I look back, it was that year that derailed my life. I remember being so shut down emotionally that during my aunt’s funeral I was reading a book on being a private pilot. I felt no sadness, only inconvenience. This woman had been one of the most powerful influences in my life. She showered me with love every moment that I was with her, and at her funeral I was reading about piloting a Cessna 172. I truly had stopped feeling…and it took me the next fifteen years to recover.
As a single father I poured myself into my children’s lives. They were all that mattered to me. As the youngest child in a family of four boys, I really didn’t know much about girls. It was time to learn. I quit my job at a local radio station selling advertising so that I could be home with the girls. My wife had been able to be a stay-at-home mother and I wanted to be there for them during the difficult days that laid ahead. I decided to start a small media buying firm and work from the spare bedroom in my house.
Did you know there is a book out there called Braids and Bows? It became my new best friend. Every morning I would slowly and methodically pull out The Book, as it became known, and step-by-step do the girl’s hair according to the directions and pictures outlined. I was a French curling genius by the time Allie, my oldest, started to take over the hair duties.
Allie was starting to mature. It was time for her first bra. I could handle this. It is not like I hadn’t seen a bra before. After all I was married for ten years. So off I went to the local Target on my quest to find the perfect ten year olds’ bra. I slowly meandered into the girls’ underwear department. On a free-standing wall they had display after display of adolescent under garments. As I stood there peering at the bras in clearly a state of confusion, I became very aware of my male-ness. There were three mothers, approximately the same age as I was, shopping for their little budding flowers. Their gazes went from the wall of underwear to glimpses of me. More and more they were staring at me than looking at the wall of underwear. Their piercing looks started to make me feel like I was some predatory pervert, on a sick prowl. I had wandered into a forbidden area in a department store that male adults simply aren’t allowed. I had a choice at that moment. I could ask a question. “Excuse me Miss, what should I be looking for in a first bra?” Or perhaps I could say something intelligent, “My goodness, this one looks like it will be very comfortable and supportive.”
There was a third option. Grab the entire rack of bras, throw them in the cart, and get the hell out of there. I opted for that option. Essentially, I spent two hundred bucks on my daughter’s first bra.
I loved my experiences as a Father. Even the awkward difficult tasks helped me develop a closeness to my girls that perhaps under different circumstances I would not have enjoyed. However, an unfortunate thing happened during those next years. Being both a great father and mother never allowed me to focus on myself. I never found time for feeling the sadness of the events. I never found time to feel the passion for my own life. The trap for me was that there seemed to be an unspoken heroism in completely sacrificing one’s self for their children. Everywhere I went I had children in tow. It seemed that someone would praise me for my efforts wherever I turned. It felt like a noble effort. Single mothers do it all the time and often don’t get the recognition that I did. That simply deepened my commitment to the role as a parent, and fostered an increased neglect of myself and personal ambitions. Simply, nothing else mattered. Now, as I write this some fifteen years later, I realize that it wasn’t necessary to forget myself. The sweet relationship I have with my daughters, now all adults, would have been nurtured because of my love for them. Not because I forgot my own pain, passions, and ambitions.
I also am aware that I am not alone in these mistakes, many people make this error. Regardless of the road we have traveled in our life, divorce, death, addiction, etc. we often suppress ourselves. We suppress pain, we are unwilling to accept risk, and fear can dominate our existence. All the while, each day passes and we are no closer to living a fulfilling life today, than we were yesterday. Day after day it continues until we realize we are on a road to no where.
When I was only four years old my family, including aunts, uncles, and cousins, went on a vacation to Mesa Verde National Park. We found a short trail that took us to a picnic area surrounded by the beautiful trees of the forest. It was a perfect place. It was isolated and no other people were around. After enjoying each others company for an hour it was time to clean up, walk down to the car, and get to the next adventure. My cousin Bruce was several years older than I was. As everyone was packing he decided to run to the restroom adjacent to the picnic area. I followed him as young boys do with older boys. I quietly sat outside the restroom waiting for him to come back out. I waited…and waited. Everyone had started down the trail, and there I sat alone. Somehow Bruce had left the restroom without me seeing him and I had been forgotten.
I started down the trail to find my family and it quickly ended. I had taken the wrong path. I retraced my steps back to the picnic area and still there was no one there, and now I couldn’t find the trail I needed to follow to find my family. At the age of four one is not well-trained in the appropriate response to being lost. Rather than just sit there and wait until someone finally realized I was gone. I panicked and started running into the forest, trying to find the trail. I ran and I ran for what eventually became hours. I was lost in a National Park and now was nowhere near where I originally was lost.
So now it became story of the day. A little boy was lost in the forest and the search was on, complete with forest rangers, volunteers, and distraught family members. One thing to note is how my family must have felt. Just three years earlier my cousin was on a camping trip with his boy scout troop in Zion’s National Park in southern Utah and was killed in a flash flood. They never found his body. Now I was lost in a national park.
To this day I can still see the trees in my mind and feel my heart race with fear as if it happened just yesterday. After running for what seemed like hours I stumbled on to a pavement road. At least I had the good sense to start walking on that road rather than continue in the trees. I was crying and had been crying for some time, when I heard a car coming. I remember specifically thinking, “should I keep crying and hopefully the car will stop? But I’m a big boy, and big boys don’t cry.” It was 1966 and apparently boys of that era got the message that they aren’t supposed to cry at a very young age. I got over that in a hurry and I decided to cry and cry hard! The car stopped.
I was rescued.
There are times in our life when we feel lost and forgotten. It happens to us all. The key will depend on how we respond to the forest of life. We can feel sorry for ourselves and stay in the trees, or we can take steps to help ourselves and get rescued.
It took me fifteen years to recognize I was in the trees and what it took to be rescued; what it takes to live a life filled with passion and fulfillment. This journey has led me to you.