An undeniable truism of our existence is that life is unfair. People don’t always get what they deserve. Often, we experience life through a lens of disappointment, unfulfilled dreams and reflections of things gone wrong. We adjust, we move forward.
But nothing could have prepared me for that summer day 25 years ago when my world changed with a phone call late on a sultry August evening. In the blink of an eye, the unforgiving and inescapable laws of physics, mixed with youthful exuberance, speed and alcohol, changed my world forever. Traumatic brain injury, vegetative state, coma stimulation, rehabilitation, case management — all became part of a strange and unfamiliar vocabulary and an unwanted reality.
In an instant, my son Scott’s college plans, family trips, sports dialogue and discussions about career choices and summer concerts gave way to a silence that would not yield for what seemed like an eternity. All that was left was to deal with this new reality of hopes, fears and feelings of betrayal. Why our family?
Earlier that summer I had worked up to an aggressive series of long runs, cross-training routines, strengthening programs and the like, all targeted to prepare myself for my goal — running the Boston Marathon that following April. I had run my first marathon back in October, finishing the race in a respectable time of 4 hours and 9 minutes. I would have to shave about 35 minutes off that time if I wanted to qualify for Boston. I had trained hard and run 20 miles and more in practice at a qualifying pace, so I was optimistic about reaching my goal.
But now, a new reality. Upon opening the door to the ICU, I am bombarded with the chirps, clicks, beeps and pings of the devices tethering my boy to this side of forever. A quick glance from the ICU nurse, careful not to make direct eye contact with me; a passing whisper of “he’s holding his own.” I sit by his bed, careful not to tangle the plumbing that keeps him breathing, and I wait, and pray.
The day passes like an encroaching fog as I see the lights go on in the parking lot below. It’s time to leave. I head home and break open a couple of light beers, sit on the sofa in the family room and turn on the TV, with no care about what program is on, but eager for the bright light and background sound as I sit quietly in the eerie shadows cast by the muted TV. My thoughts bounce between the issues from that day, about my younger son starting his freshman year in high school and not having the full attention of both parents at such an important time in his life, and of what life will be like going forward for me.
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I was always conscious that at any moment the phone could ring with an ominous update or worse. I needed to keep my wits about me, I needed to be responsible. I needed to be a father and advocate. I would hold the phone on my chest and try to fall asleep, even if just for an hour or so. Each time I awoke I would check the phone to make sure it was working properly and that I hadn’t missed a call.
The days turned into weeks and the weeks into months. Things had stabilized at the hospital but were still far from normal. Decisions needed to be made about the next steps. It was clear that I needed to turn my attention toward rehabilitation, but there were so many questions, issues and alternatives to consider. I had been at the hospital every day for months on end. Now I had to face the prospect of moving my son to a new facility nearly two hours away, with new caretakers, new surroundings, less access for my visits and more opportunity for the demons to haunt me.
But as it is with all change, once you accept it, you find a way to use it to your advantage. The move to a more distant rehabilitation facility provided me with an opportunity to take back a little bit of my life. I started back to my work again and began to socialize. In that socialization, I began to talk about what I had experienced over the previous months. It felt good; although it may not have always been comfortable for those upon whose ears my story would fall.
I started to get back into some of my old routines — dinner with a friend, a movie and even a holiday party if I dared. Along with socializing, I began to think again about running and my hard work trying to qualify for the Boston Marathon, all of which came to an unexpected and debilitating halt with the August phone call. So I set my sights on trying to recapture the fitness and preparedness which I had attained prior to my life taking such an unexpected flip.
The weather was turning colder now. The warm days started giving way to gray skies, leafless trees and windy days, fair warning of what was to follow. While I found myself fighting off the occasional demons as the evenings lengthened, I was also beginning to feel the need to fully right myself by lacing up my running shoes and stepping back onto the familiar streets.
When I could no longer hold back the desire to capture some of what I had come to know and love in my morning runs, I prepared once again in a familiar ritual of dressing, lacing, adjusting and stretching. Out the door I went into the street. It was a windy November day and a light rain was falling. I could see my breath in the air even before I began my run. It was morning, it was quiet, and I began to experience a familiar peace which I had sorely missed.
I flipped down my hood and started putting one foot down and then another, picking up pace as I turned onto a quiet Main Street. As my breathing became more pronounced and filled the air in front of me, I could feel the rhythm of my pace becoming more regular. Finally, I was experiencing a savored moment in a familiar environment. It felt wonderful.
As I came to a familiar turn on my route, I could sense the wind turning as well, shifting now behind me. Making the turn, the rain began to intensify. I could feel the rain landing hard on my face and the wind behind me like a hand in the middle of my back. Without any warning, the weight of the past several months came upon me with such gravity and suddenness that I was caught completely off guard.
My breath became irregular, my hands and legs began to tremble, and my face contorted. My mouth opened wide and I cried out in some odd utterance of both pain and joy, my tears mixing with the cold rain. No longer did I feel the need to hide my tears or to pretend. All that was left was pure release and acknowledgment of the new reality — one life had been spared, many other lives would be forever changed. It was time to welcome the new person among us and to move forward with the possibilities for him and for all of us.
I finished my run that day knowing that there would be other days for me to be responsible, for me to be a father and to manage the madness. Although uncertain days lay ahead, there would be other races and challenges to focus on, and other opportunities to feel the wind at my back and to cry in the rain.
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Aug. 3, 2021, is the 25th anniversary of my eldest son Scott’s auto accident. Over these 25 years, we have been fortunate to have Scott with us, sharing his humor, his devilish smile and his undeniable personality. He is enjoying a life that few thought possible early on in his treatment and recovery. During this time, we have all experienced the compassion and dedication of the health care and assisted-living professionals who have helped Scott stay healthy these past 25 years, even surviving a COVID-19 hospitalization last year.
Now, sipping my morning coffee in my Ellington home, I often reflect on all that has happened since that August evening many years ago and I am filled with a great sense of thanksgiving and insight for the miracle that sustained faith has provided us. It has opened our eyes and hearts to a feeling of brotherhood, connection and love one for another, that whatever each of us does or experiences inevitably tugs and influences the rest of us. Though I never did end up running the Boston Marathon, I ran the Aetna Hartford Marathon the following October, again finishing in 4 hours and 9 minutes.