The Toughest Game
But life is a game and we are all athletes. He taught me this. Let me tell you about the toughest game I ever played.
I can trick myself often enough living in Colorado (he lived in West Virginia) to make myself feel like he is still here. But, he isn’t. At least not in the same way he was for the first 38 years of my life and for the entire 62 of his. As of this article, it has been 46 days since we lost him. I was there that day, that moment (more on that in a bit).
At least once a day I grab for my phone to call him. I don’t grab the phone in denial, which is one of the 5 “stages” of grief (more on that in a bit as well), but as a habit. I literally talked to the guy every day or at least pretty dang close. Athletes are habitual creatures and if if this one sticks, I am cool with it because it at the least gets me to stop and think about him.
I can write about the man but I wanted to share what the first month and a half has been like and a few things that I never knew would matter but really did in hindsight.
- I believe in God but I can understand why people don’t. To me, you either do or you don’t. I think my dad is in heaven. I think I will see him again, somehow. This may frame my grief a bit.
- I have a demented sense of humor and can provide more sources than most humans to this fact. Examples will ruin this heartfelt post immediately.
- I believe that everyone is an athlete. Different levels, yes. But all ages and through all stages of life, it is the founding principle of Athlete On Fire.
I had to come back up the page to add this sentence. I didn’t know where I would go with this but I think I just needed to write it all down. At least as much of the day as I could. My goal in starting was to share what grieving has been like so as to help others potentially. I didn’t have room for this story but I will write about it soon.
Before we can grieve in the case of losing someone, we have to lose them. Guarding and allowing negatives thoughts about the potential outcome is normal, just as it is for athletes competing. It’s doubt at an outcome. We can’t let those emotions control us. It is why I am blindly optimistic about everything because I believe that it ain’t over until it’s over. Something else my dad taught me.
I left my dad and mom’s side to head back to Colorado to see my family after a week of sitting in a hospital while my dad fought against the sepsis that overtook his body. I went home because he was getting better, I knew when I got back we would be able to talk, even if it was in the hospital for a long recovery. It was a Wednesday morning. By Thursday I was back on a plane, driving through the night, to say goodbye. Okay, the story of the toughest game of my life and then back to grieving.
At the gym…
I was home for a day. Dad was getting better. This dude could fight. He beat cancer, had heart surgery, and more ailments than you could imagine. He needed a kidney and my mom put him through dialysis every other day. He’s tough. The day after I got home I got news he was getting stronger and they would extubate him, or take the tube out so he could breath on his own. The day was full of texts and nothing negative. I decided I needed to go work with some of my clients. I am an entrepreneur and the stress of not working is a real thing. Cash was dwindling. Anyway, I was sitting at the office in the gym catching up on emails and other stuff with my online biz and my mom called.
“They were re-intubating him and when they did he went into cardiac arrest. They did CPR and revived him and we are waiting to hear how he is doing.” My mom told me.
I knew. Right then. My gut, whatever.
I knew but I couldn’t allow myself to know. I am sure my dad did this with his cancer that the doctor told him would take his life in 3 months. “I know what they are saying but I have bigger plans” thinking.
Also, when I was at the hospital only a few hours earlier the docs had said his heart was too weak for CPR and they would not administer. That was the rational part of my brain remembering important details. No matter, I broke down. In the gym. Five minutes before my client* was to walk in.
*my clients are referred to as clients but I have worked with most of them a minimum of 5 years. They are really good, really close friends.
So, on cue, she walks in. On time for once too, what the hell(this is exaggerated for effect). I was already frantically looking for flights for that night.
It was 5pm. No luck.
She asked what I needed and I just said I needed some fresh air so we were going to go for a walk. I had to text one more friend who could always find flights. I texted her. Then, we headed out the door. When we got outside the friend I wrote was standing there putting boxes in her car from the UPS store. She hadn’t seen the text yet. Wow. She hugged me after I told her what was up and she told me to keep my phone close. I walked for 25 minutes and then headed home. One stop, to grab a bottle of wine, it was Lauren and my ninth anniversary. The phone rang on the way home and my friend found a flight that left in 90 minutes. Wow. She(they) took care of the flight. Really? I don’t really deserve friends this good.
I got home and Lauren and I left the house quickly. I already had a bag packed to go as I was going to mentor at a trail running camp in Texas the next day. Weird. I was on the plane by 7:15 and the drive was 40 minutes. I’ll always feel indebted to my friends who found the flight.
I sat down and ordered a coke. Oh yeah, I bought a little Jack Daniels mini when I got the wine. I don’t really drink much more than beer but it was my dad’s favorite drink when he did drink. Seemed appropriate. I actually bought the TV service on the plane because I knew a distraction would be nice. The second I turned it on I saw someone wearing a “DEFWU” shirt. My dad’s college intramural team name and fantasy football name. I used it in my college intramural teams too. WEIRD. I even took a pic.
Didn’t sleep. Watched some goofy movie with a lil dude and a big dude. The Rock and Kevin Hart I think. It was just dumb enough to keep me entertained. I only lost it once for about 10 seconds. I wasn’t trying to hold back to be tough, I had lots of travel left and wanted to be focused. I am an athlete you know.
I got to Baltimore at 1:30, in rental car and on my way at 2:00, am. I’d be driving 3.5 hours to Morgantown, WV. The second I got in the car I knew silence was NOT my friend. I called a good friend who actually got me started in podcasting (he has a beast show). He lost his father at a really young age and I was pretty self aware that I didn’t want to make a deal of what I was going through. Just wanted to hang out. He was awesome. I am lucky. I have at least 15 friends I could have called and they all would have answered. Beyond lucky. My mom, sis, or uncle called in a few times to check on me. The stress I heard was palpable. I knew.
My friend talked to me for a good 2 hrs. Then I called the next. He answered. We talked for 25 and I found out later that when I clicked over to talk to my uncle again, he passed out…haha. It was 4:30 in the morning. On to the next friend. I was moving from friends that would answer because it was too late(west coast) to friends that would answer because it was too early(east coast). The conversations were great. My last buddy is a high school hoops coach so it was cool to hear about his upcoming team. His style of fundamentals and discipline mirror my dad’s coaching mantras. These three friends knew what I needed. They knew silence was rough and even though they were tired they kept it going. WOW.
So I am getting into the city limits and my uncle calls, one last time.
Uncle: “Are you close?”
Me: “Yep about 8 minutes.”
Uncle: “Okay be safe.”
Me: “I’m fine, wired. Hey, I have this theory… My mom and doll (sister) want me to be safe so they aren’t telling me everything. Just answer… Is he gone?”
My uncle(dad’s brother) was standing in the room with my mom, dad, sister, and mom’s brother at the time.
Uncle: heavy sigh “yeah”
Me: “Love you, see you in a few.”
I knew. Really knew.
I parked. I put my headphones in and listened like a player heading into an arena. That’s what it felt like. I was honest to God treating this like a big game. It’s all I knew/know. A Lumineers song played.
“It’s better to feel pain, than nothing at all
The opposite of love’s indifference.”
Well, they nailed that one for this moment.
Although it’s probably some love lost song. Appropriate.
I went to the restroom. Long night on the road. I took a picture of myself as the last of me with a living dad. A living best friend. I don’t know why I did that although I think it is probably somewhat normal which is a stretch for me in most anything.
I walked to the elevator I had used for a good week for his initial hospitalization. Then I took a video for the same reason. I hesitate to share this but what the hell.
Out the elevator….pause. Take the headphones out. Turn off phone and store them in coat. How in the heck am I still self conscious? My dad taught me this and I think it’s one of my better qualities.
Walk through the waiting room. People sleeping. People staring the ICU waiting room stare. , Sanitizer my hands and walk through the door and down the hall. Turn to see him in bed. My mom sitting by him on his left. My uncles, both Steves, standing. My sister behind my mom.
Now I am grateful for this game analogy. I haven’t had any problem writing until now. I’m shaking a bit either from this freezing new gym I am working with athletes out of or because of what I am writing. It doesn’t matter. Ok I’m good.
I had never seen my dad’s brother cry. They are tight as brothers go and I have more happy memories just with those two than you can imagine. They were both really good athletes. My mom’s brother had turned around and drove all the back a few hours when dad’s health declined.
My mom rushed to me and told me he was…..damn, I’m out of timeouts.
She told me he was waiting for me. That the drugs were keeping him alive. From that call in the gym until now was 8 hrs. My sister and mom and uncles waited 8 hrs for me to get there. Knowing. I love them for that. She told me I could talk to him. There were hugs and crying and all that before and after and during and my timeline won’t be exact. I put my hand through his hair like he did when I was a kid. Like I do with my boys. I talked to him and don’t remember for how long or mostly what about.
I know told him…
- he was my hero
- I loved him
- I would never see him as weak
- I was proud to be his son
- Thanks for showing me how to love
- I hoped I’d be half a man and dad as him
He looked fine. Really. He wasn’t bloated. No tube in his throat anymore. (I had done CPR on a man on a hike in Colorado who had passed on the mountain with one of my best friends and two others. He was bloated. That’s what death looked like.) My dad just looked like he was sleeping.
I backed away. Cried. I looked at my sister and asked if it was weird to take a picture holding his hand. She assured me that her and my mom had already and I should.
The last 100..
My mom asked if I was okay to let him go. I said yes against every fiber of myself. She told the nurses. They would take the drugs off and let it happen. My mom is a nurse. She knew the drill it seemed. So is my dad’s brother. We all knew the drill I guess at this point.
She kissed and held and hugged and talked some more. My sis and I held each other and her, and him. My uncles were around the foot of the bed I think.
My dad is obsessed with numbers, dates, times. He would have practice at 2:03 and would plan time to the second. The heart rate on the annoying beeping machine said 100 bpm. All the other vitals were turned off or I just didn’t notice.
I don’t remember what I was thinking
I was literally thinking about the basketball games we would play in the driveway. He would count down and I would shoot the game winner. Dang I wish I had a ball right now.
Thinking and praying for my mom’s pain. Holding her and my sis tighter. Sometimes too tight.
His heart is actually counting down the last seconds of his life. Are you effing serious?
I love this man. This family
Yeah it went up a couple times. He did NOT want to die. He would never concede. EVER. And this you have to know about him. He fought for his life every day. He loved us all too much. He loved life too much.
And I lost right? We lost.
That’s the funny thing. I mentioned in the first few sentences that I never knew being their to see him like this would be important. Here is what happened. I don’t know how to explain it.
His heart stopped.
I saw the second it happened.
His face lost it’s color.
But what I felt was LOVE. Overwhelmingly. I told my mom and sister a hundred times. “i feel so full of love”
And I did. He won. He filled as many people with love as anyone could. And that’s why it hurts so much. But, don’t be fooled. We won this game.
We headed to the holding room to sort out the details. Painstaking stuff like legal crap and all that. My brother in law, best man at my wedding and I at his, walks in with my nieces. I squeezed him as tight as I could because I could.
A little later we walked into a changed world out the doors of the hospital. The WVU football field was our first sight. It’s either cruel or beautiful. I choose to believe the latter.
We went back to friends to wait to see the funeral home.
They asked if my dad’s remains would fit in a box the size of a brick. We all laughed.
We left to drive home to my parents place. It’s a 2.5 hour drive. My uncles went on to their homes far away. The drive wasn’t real. Nothing really was.
My mom and I got there first. To their house. They rebuilt it and made the coolest little retirement home on the river in West Virginia you can imagine. Hot tub, big yard, fishing, lots of chilling at the fire pit. All of it hit me there. Ever thing I touched hurt. Every picture I saw hurt even more. I need to ask my mom about this but I felt like a freaking dog getting a smell of everything so he could relax.
Except, I was smelling love and it was tearing me up.
Jake, BIL, walks in. We all hug and he pours some Jack over ice with a lime. We all agree that is NOT supposed to go down anyones throat.
Football is on. Baseball is on. My sister sleeps with my mom. I sit in my dad’s recliner. I drank a big ol glass of JD but it did nothing. I couldn’t sleep because I didn’t want to wake up. I had lost enough big games to know what it would feel like. I wasn’t wrong.
Dang I love that guy. I woke up. Made everyone bacon and eggs like he would. Felt mature for the first time in my life and hated it. Felt real pain for the first time in my life and HATED it even more.
But I won, we all did. We just have to game plan a little different moving forward and I’ll be damned if I don’t play even harder for the rest of my life.
Until he’s counting down for me again. Up there.
This wasn’t easy to write but seemed important. Even if only for me. I started this to share what I’ve learned about the grieving process as an athlete. I’ll write that soon enough. It’s no accident I wrote this the day before Thanksgiving. I am a grateful dude. Thanks for reading. Today my uncle became a grandfather. Little boy came into this world as they often do for families in such timely ways. May we all love him! I love you dad.