In retrospect, it is ironic that I now live in Mississippi. Mississippi is coming up on the 5 year anniversary of hurricane Katrina. I have no recollection of Katrina. I did not even know it was going on – I was oblivious to worldly events. Let me explain.
August 21, 2005 was the best day of my life. It was a Sunday morning and the Indiana summer was coming to an end. The whole day was in front of us. We were full of life and loving it. There were not many weekends spent at home. We willingly traded the day to day tasks for adventure. The house was a mess. The chores were not done. And we did not care.
Sharla (she went by Charlie to her friends) was the ring leader - the instigator. She was always the life of the party. All rooms brighten with her presence. For 15 years I had enjoyed being caught in her wake. She pulled me along. She made fun easy.
We were outdoorsy people. As I stated, the chores could wait another day. We loaded up the ‘war hammer’ which was our camping vehicle. It was an old beat up 4x4. You could remove the top and have some fun in the sun. The truck was loaded up with snacks and lunch and the dog and all of the stuff need for some fun in the Indiana back woods. We left early Sunday morning to the ‘largest waterfalls’ in Indiana. We hiked and swam and climbed trees all day long. Everything was done right. I know this seems farfetched but it was a perfect day. I knew at the time. I still know it today. There were no worries or the trials of everyday life. Believe me when I tell you – none of that stuff happened on this day.
I had a fairly new camera that still had my attention. I literally took hundreds of photographs that day. What a gift. (You cannot understand the value of this. I have backed up these digital memories so many times and mailed them to so many people for safe keeping. I have extra DVD’s and hard drives all over the place. I have them in fire safes. I have them backed up with on-line storage. I don’t think I can convey how important these are to me.) These are my most valuable possessions yet I do not share them.
I still lived a healthy life style back then. That was not always easy with a teenager in the house. We tried to instill good practices. On the drive home from the adventure Lainie said that she was hungry. Once again, we do not eat fast food. However, for the first time probably in years I decided to stop. Lainie ordered whatever it is kids order from those places – a hamburger or chicken nuggets – whatever. Sharla and I would eat later at the house. Lainie was so happy for the treat. It only took a minute but what a gift. I am so fortunate that I don’t have one of those ‘come on dad – please’ memories. I only have the joy. That was gift.
The hat says "boys = losers" - just too funny.
Later that night Lainie was in bed and I was bed. Sharla was working on something for work the next day. For as long as I can remember Lainie had always wanted to sleep in our room. We had perpetuated the ‘family bed.’ We were close that way. Lainie was a snuggle muffin and a hot potato. When she was younger it was much more often. She would be so embarrassed right now but even as she had gotten older she still wanted to sleep with us. We were starting to discourage this as she became a teenager. However, this night, she came into our bedroom and asked if you could cuddle for a little while and sleep in our room. I thought about it. I just did not want the day to end. I whispered to her that if mom asked she would have to say that I was already asleep. I did not want to get in trouble. I went to sleep with my daughters head on my shoulder. That was gift.
A few quick pictures and then I jumpd in.
Sharla and I woke up early the next morning and did our normal five mile run together. I have always been able to run just about anyone’s pace. I always used this time to just talk and reflect on the previous day or sometimes we would talk about the coming events. This was ‘our’ time together. We ran through the park and through the university and hit some of downtown. We were always amazed how small the town got when you started running. When you get in the car you get removed from the actual distance.
I had to work a little late that night. Working in computer you sometimes have to do maintenance in off peak hours. It was not often. In fact this was the first time that I had to work late in at least a year. No big deal. Since I had to work late I was not going into work until after lunch.
I did not always take my daughter to school in the mornings. Many times that was Sharla’s task. However I had some time this morning. Lainie went to school across town. This gave us the opportunity to talk about being an 8th grader and all of the new and exciting times at school. I don’t remember much of the conversation but when we arrived at school Lainie reached across and kiss me goodbye. She said, “Yesterday was the best day ever! I love you dad.” Let me tell you. Kisses from a teenage daughter and words like that were special. Yes, they are just as special when your kids are younger but they are just so much more common. All strife that can come with being a teenager – well, you start to cherish these moments. That was a gift.
I got home from taking Lainie to school and needed to do some of the chores that were missed over the weekend. We had an old house with a little yard. I don’t remember the reasons anymore but I had gotten rid of the gas powered mower and had bought a reel mower the year before. I guess I bought it because of some thought about functional strength. Why exercise and workout if you are not going to use your strength. Anyway, what used to take me 30 minutes now took about an hour and I had to cut the grass twice as often. I had my shirt off and was hot and sweaty when I finished the front yard. This was work but I did not smell like petrol fumes. I walked into the house and Sharla was in the kitchen making some lunch. We almost never saw each other during the day. I came home almost every day for lunch and worked out but she was always with clients or on location – that is what you get when you are a radio DJ – always selling ads and stuff. This lunch was a treat. It was something unexpected. I don’t remember the details. She told me about her day. She and Lainie were talking one of the radio interns out for dinner and then going to Sharla’s sister’s house. She knew I was working late but asked if I could join them. I told her I would try.
I went to work and did my thing. I got a call from Sharla around 7 o’clock asking if I was able to get away for dinner. I told her that I was just wrapping up but I probably would not be able to make. I could have wrapped it up but I was tired. I was ready to get home. I got home at about 8:30. I had a quick bit to eat and then went to bed. I was beat. Even back then I went to bed early. I was out like a light by 9.
My cell phone rang at 9:17PM. I hate cell phones. My cell phone was for work and only rang when bad things happened. The chime of the damn thing would always startle me. It was Suzie, Sharla’s sister on the phone. I was confused. Why was she calling me? She said I needed to get to the hospital. I asked her what happened but she did not have details.
I got dressed. I was grumpy. I was thinking about money. Was the car torn up? What went wrong?
The hospital was only a short drive for the house. We had run by it that morning. After college I had worked at a hospital as a physical therapy tech. I hate hospitals! You would work with an older patient for weeks and then they were gone. You could always tell the turning point. The patient would have the best session ever and then. And then they would either turn the corner and get better or be gone the next day. The emotional cost was too high for me. I hate hospitals!
I got to the hospital and checked in at the emergency room. They shuffled papers and typed on their computer and told me to take seat while they looked into it. Someone came out and took me to a small room. They told me to wait for the doctor. A minute later a young doctor with a thick accent came in with an older nurse. He started telling me that it was very bad and started to list things that were broken on Sharla. Swollen this and punctured that. I told him to stop. I was not processing his words. I did not want to hear him. He kept telling me of Sharla’s condition. I told him to stop. Finally the nurse shut him up. I asked about my daughter. They looked at me like I was on another planet. This time they did not understand. I told them that Lainie was with my wife. They did not know what I was talking about but kept pressing that Sharla need to be flown to another hospital and that I could see her before the chopper left. I agreed to this. Sharla was still beautiful but she was terribly damaged. Her body was black and blue. I wanted to hold her but at the same time I did not want to hurt her further. I lightly put my arms around her and gave her a kiss on her swollen cheek. They prompt me to let her go so that they could fly her away. They told me I needed to find transportation to Indianapolis. I asked, “How can leave without my daughter?” They said they would call the other hospital again. I walked back into the lobby and Suzie was there. The radio crew that Sharla worked with was there – they are always monitoring the news.
So, here I needed to get to Indianapolis for my wife but I did not know where my daughter was. I was shutting down. My mind was full of worms. It was surreal. Suzie was hysterical. The radio people were trying to be helpful. They were asking me what they could do. How should I know? My phone rang again. I was not startled. The phone indicated that Sharla was calling me. A million impossibilities entered my mind. How? What? I answered the phone. It was not Sharla of course. It was a lady that said she had witnessed the accident. She just so happened to be the coroner’s wife in small town Illinois (where the accident took place). She said she had some stuff from the scene for me. She was very nice and consoling but I was not understanding what she was saying. I asked about Lainie. She said that Lainie was with them. That she did not make it. That she had died on the scene. She said that she was beautiful and she did not think that she had suffered.
I knew, deep in my core – with every fiber of me that Sharla would not make it. She would not be able to live without Lainie. I would not want to see Sharla suffer without her baby. I could not bear the thought of this destroying Sharla.
I would end up calling this coroner lady many times, sometimes in the middle of the night to ask about Lainie’s eyes. I used to have nightmares all the time about the accident. I would reconstruct it in my mind. I always would ask this lady if Lainie’s eyes were open. I would ask her if my baby was scared. I wish she would have lied to me. She just said that she did not know. She thought that she closed Lainie’s eyes.
Well, now I knew that I just needed to get to the other hospital. One of the radio crew offered to drive us to Indianapolis in their suburban. It was late now – maybe 11 o’clock. I sat in the back of the SUV and called my sister in Texas. I woke her up and said that there had been an accident. I remember crying into the phone watching the street lights intermitly light of the vehicle. She asked what was going on. I said that I was going to the hospital, that Sharla was in a helicopter and that Lainie was dead. She burst into tears.
We arrived in Indianapolis but Sharla did not. She had died in flight. Soon all of Sharla’s family would start to arrive. They had a much further drive than I had. I remember talking to a priest and – well, whatever priests talk about. About not understanding and all of that stuff. He asked if I wanted to see Sharla one last time. I went and held Sharla some more. I did not want to talk with anyone. I walked out of the hospital and bummed a cigarette from one of Sharla’s relatives. I had not smoked in years. He gave me a lighter and the pack. I sat down next to the building and chain smoked until they were gone. There were worms in my mind. I could not think.
One of the radio people drove me home. She told me how special Sharla and Lainie had been. She told me of all of the times Lainie had been at the radio station with Sharla and lots of fun stories. I was not listening. She apologize that she had to stop for gas. I bought a pack of cigarettes and gave her $20.
I got home at about 6AM. I sat on my front porch and looked out at the world. It looked the same but everything had changed. I walked across the street to a close friend’s house. I called Lainie’s best friends dad. I called the emergency insurance hotline number and set up an appointment with a psychologist. I knew that I would need help getting through this – I knew that choices that I made right now would determine my path. I accepted the cigarettes as a temporary necessity but I did not want to look back 5 years from now and see the husk of a man. I did not want to see an alcoholic. I did not want to see someone who took the easy way out.
For a long time I thought that I had woken up in a nightmare. I mean, it seemed like everything was wonderful and then it disappeared. The greatest gift is the gift of a child. But the greatest heartbreak is losing a child. It took a long time but now I realize that I am not living a nightmare. What I had was the dream. It was wonderful. Nothing is wrong in my life –it is not a nightmare. I am happy. I just woke up to everyday life. I am at the point that I can honestly say that I cherish the memories. Even knowing the tragedy I would not trade it. The joy and happiness that I had with Sharla and Lainie are a gift.
Make sure you tell your loved ones that you care about them. Tell them every day. The last time I saw both my wife and daughter we told each other how much how special we were. That is the greatest gift I have ever received.
5-years-feels-like-blink-of-eye - part 1
5-years-continued - part 2
5-years-continued-thank-you-all-so-much - part 4