Wednesday, July 20, 2011

I Believe In Angels

It is that time again. It is hard to believe that another year has gone by let alone 8 years since the day my little Isabella passed away. I have to say the month leading up to Isabella’s Day is always challenging for me but for some reason the 2011 countdown has been especially difficult. There is no reason to try and understand why. More things have taken me to her. More things have reminded me of that day. More things have made me wonder what she would be doing if still here. The way I look at it, though, more reminders of my little girl cannot be such a bad thing. I never want to forget. I never will forget. I just miss her.

At the end of this post, I will ask a favor of you. If you know my story, this will be the same request I have asked in the past. If you are new to my story, know this has been my tradition for the past 8 years. The favor is simple so do not be alarmed. It is important though and is just about remembering my little angel on her day.

For those not familiar with Isabella, she is a big part of my story. She is a big part of me. She is a big influence over the person I am today. On August 1, 2003, the day before she was due to arrive in this world, Isabella passed straight from the comfort of my wife, Crea, to the hands of God. If you want to know the long story of that day, I wrote a post last year you can read HERE (might need a tissue or two).

Another year has passed and while I will not always have a new post on Isabella’s Day, this year I have decided to share something very personal for me and perhaps a little ‘risky’. I guess most of what I share is very personal but this will be different and is something I have largely kept close to heart. Truthfully, I have shared this story with very few people and only then at times when I thought it might make a difference. There are several reasons why I consider this post to be a ‘Risky’ one. The first is that it involves sharing a story and I do not consider myself very skilled at that task. I am good….or at least I think I am….. at writing in a manner that evokes emotion and makes you feel something but that is because I am so open about how I feel. This particular story requires painting a picture and I am not sure that will come off so well. Storytelling is a weakness of mine. I have many thoughts of writing a book………a book about running combined with my story………..a novel it would never be.

The next reason this post will be ‘Risky’ is because of the subject matter. I have wrote many times of death and hardship and pushing beyond. Unfortunately, that has touched me. Death and hardship may be a tough read but everyone can relate. This post is about life after death. This post is about belief and angels and faith. You don’t have to believe in what I believe in. I am certainly not writing this post to preach to you or convert you. I am the Christian guy that probably needs to wash his mouth out at the end of each day tied to some not so appropriate language and dirty jokes. I am not a soap box Christian but I can tell you this: it is my belief and faith that helped me survive all that has happened to me. It is a trust that there is some reason things happen beyond what I can explain. It is the belief I always share that blessings come out of the darkest of times. I can go home tonight and share a laugh with my wife because doctors managed to catch the cancer growing inside of her. They found that cancer early because Isabella passed away.

Coincidence? Perhaps, but I choose to believe otherwise.

My father could have been afraid to die. His final months could have been filled with fear but were instead filled with the comfort of knowing he was going to be with his little girl.

Idle hope? Perhaps, but again, I choose to believe otherwise.

This story takes place on the day before my father passed away. It is not a long story……….truthfully it is very short which may also be challenging for a long winded guy like myself. I am sharing it after consulting with a few people in the hopes that Someone……….Someday……….Somewhere………. is comforted by what they read here. You can believe or not believe. It is certainly your choice but I promise on all things important to me that I believe what you will read here.

It was January 11th, 2004. I had basically been living in South Carolina since Thanksgiving of the prior year. When they told my father his leukemia was terminal, I made the decision to relocate and be with my parents for whatever time remained. It was tough on my wife, Crea, but she has always been supportive of everything that is important to me and clearly this was important. I am an only child. My Dad was the best man at my wedding and my best friend. I certainly was not going to learn about his passing via a phone call from my Mom. That is how I learned of my father’s diagnosis and it did not go so well as I crumbled to the floor in tears (the good news here is that I picked myself up and learned I was much stronger than I ever thought). It had been a rough 15 months. My Dad had fought hard. He had endured the chemo and begged for more. He had taken my phone call to learn he would not be holding his granddaughter Isabella……something he had been fighting to make happen. His voice was strong as I shared the news but I imagine his insides crumbled to the floor much like I had learning about his illness. The good news is that he picked himself up and decided to take strength from her passing. She took fear out of the equation for him. He would not hold Isabella in this lifetime but he certainly would hold her.

As a preface, my Dad was a stubborn stubborn man. I believe I have previously shared this but years before his fight with cancer my Dad had a mild stroke. When it happened, he initially refused to go to the doctor. Instead, he continued to hold business meetings with half of his face dropped as a side effect. He just told everyone he had come straight from the dentist’s office and that the Novocain had not yet worn off. His stubbornness made him (at times) a pain in the ass (somewhere my wife is whispering ‘so this is where you get it from’) but also made my father a fighter. I watched as he dug in and fought hard to recover from that stroke. He practiced his signature a million times until his amazing handwriting returned. He practiced his golf swing for hours and hours and hours never telling anyone at the club what had happened. I saw people make fun of him for his golf struggles because they didn’t know what had happened. My Dad wouldn’t let me say anything (or kick their ass). He would respond through his actions and hard work. In time, his golf game returned as a resounding rebuttal to the doubters. That same fight came out when diagnosed with blood cancer. I saw chemo beat my father down but he always got up and asked for more. When my Dad was informed he lost his battle and it was only a matter of time, he dug deep and refused to let cancer take his pride. At his weakest, he would still walk himself where he needed to go. He did not want help. He did not want to let cancer have that part of him. Towards the end, many people need help getting to the restroom. It was critical to my father that this never happen to him…….and it never did. Cancer could take his life. Cancer could not have his pride.

In those final months in South Carolina, whatever my Dad had the desire and strength to do, we would do. It might have been fishing or crabbing or as simple as mowing the lawn as my parents had never owned a house until South Carolina. On one occasion which happened to be one of his very last nights, my Dad (an amazing chef) decided he wanted to teach me how to make Penne Puttanesca…….translated Pasta of the Whores. My Dad shared my warped sense of humor so I somehow believe this meal was chosen more for humorous reasons than anything else. He was sick…….so very sick. I am including a picture of that night below. It will be tough for you to look at but will let you know just how close to the other side my father was. My Dad was an amazing athlete. Whatever he tried to do, he was good at. He had a great physique and was very good looking (which I hope is a sign of good things to come for me). You can see in this photo that cancer had taken all of that. You can see in this photo that we must find a cure for cancer. You can tell from this photo that the last 15 months had been one hell of a battle. What you cannot see in this photo is the determination and strength this man showed just to get to the kitchen to spend some time with his wife and his son. What you cannot see is the good time we all made out of a bad situation. This image is not how I choose to remember my father but I certainly choose to remember this moment.

Truthfully, this meal was the last moment I remember with my father. My Dad was very weak and the rest of this story very well may have taken place the next day. If it didn’t, I certainly do not remember the days in between but that is the most it could have been. My Dad had stopped being too mobile. He spent most of his time on the couch watching TV. It is on this same couch I thanked my father for fighting so hard and for teaching me so much. It is on this same couch I made sure my Dad knew he was my best friend. It was on this couch I told my Dad I would raise money to fight cancer on his behalf. I sometimes wonder if he knew at that moment I would go on to raise over $100,000, go on to complete an Ironman triathlon and go on to coach others to do the very same thing. He never said anything when I shared what I had learned about Team in Training. He just had a single tear running down his face and that let me know I had done a good thing.

On January 11, 2004, I went out to the living room once I awoke and my father was sound asleep breathing very heavy. It was not a difficult breathing but one of comfort and deep sleep. He seemed to be at peace for the first time in what was a long time. I was looking forward to him waking up so I could see how he felt or see if he needed anything……he sometimes would have me make a Starbucks run or go grab some food. That would never happen on this day. My Dad just kept sleeping and breathing in that same comfortable manner. The hours passed…….my father did not move an inch. Lunch went by…..nothing changed. Dinner with my mother and grandmother went by and finally it was time to go to bed. I knelt beside my Dad and for some reason I remembered something I had been told before. I couldn’t tell you who provided me this information or where I heard it but it screamed at me as I knelt in front of my Dad to say good night. What I been told is this: hearing is the last thing to go before someone passes so make sure you talk to the very end. This is what I did. I talked. I told my Dad that I Loved him. I thanked my Dad for fighting so hard. I told my Dad that we would miss him terribly but that we would be okay. I assured him I would take care of my Mom and Nannie (his Mom). I know my Dad fought well beyond when God wanted him because of his need to know my Mom had accepted he was moving on. I let me Dad know she would be okay and that it was okay to let go. I let him know I would see him again someday in a much better place and that he would have to teach me then how to be a better golfer.

Those turned out to be my final words to my Dad but I really did not know it at the time. You would think having shared all of this that I expected his breath to immediately fall shallow but I was just talking to my Dad so he knew how I felt…..so he could have some comfort if he truly could hear me. Off to bed I went and this is where my lack of storytelling will come to haunt me (if it hasn’t already). My parents lived in a gated community near Hilton Head Island. When the sun went down it was pitch black. Stephen King would have some amazing description for this darkness but for me it was a ‘walk straight into a mail box’ kind of darkness. You really could not see 2 feet in front of your face because there are no street lights and the houses are set back into the woods. Beyond the darkness, this is one of the quietest places I have ever been. You are well removed from the traffic noise of major roads and within the community, nobody is outside……..primarily tied to the darkness and the fact there are alligators in the area which you do not want to stumble across in the middle of the night. Lastly, the lots for each of the houses are big so you have a good distance between neighbors.

Got it? Dark. Quiet. Well removed from anyone and anything.

After talking to my Dad, I head off to bed. It is late evening perhaps around 10pm. I get in bed and try to sleep but am disturbed by the sound of women talking. I deal with it for a while but eventually get frustrated and decide to go tell my Mom and Nannie to be quiet or go to the other side of the house so I can sleep. I open my door but nobody is there. My grandmother is in her room and there is nothing but silence. A quick look into the kitchen reveals no one and the television in the living room is turned off. I write this off to a timing issue and head back to bed. No sooner does my head hit the pillow when the talking begins again. Ladies again but it sounds like many of them so I wonder if neighbors had come by in the middle of the night which would be quite an odd event. I open my door to nothing but silence again. I look out the windows……..nothing but darkness. Nobody is at the front door. Television is still off. Grandmother is still in her room. Off to bed I go and again the talking. Still only women but I notice a younger voice this time. I am thoroughly confused but decide I will take one more look. I go outside to silence again but decide to look for my Mom. All the lights are on in the house now but my Mom is nowhere to be found. I look in her room and she is not there. I check the attic……….she is not there. Again, no television, no grandmother, no-BODY. I lie back down, hear the voices but finally fall asleep.

The next voice I hear is my Mom.

“Your Dad has passed away” she says.

I knew those words were coming. They were expected and they made sense to me. I know that may sound odd but any other words would have seemed out of place to me at the moment. My Dad had let go. He had trusted that we were ready…….that we were prepared and he went to see his granddaughter.

Why is this story one of faith and belief? That part comes later the next morning over breakfast. We had all said our final goodbyes to my father. The funeral home had come to get him and had pronounced him dead at around 12:30am on January 12th. We went to bed and woke up later that same morning……….the first of many without my Dad. Over breakfast, I decided to talk to my Mom and share my story about the chatting ladies. At revealing my news, my mother had this look come over her face that gave me a Sixth Sense kind of moment. You see, my mother had heard those same voices and performed those same searches. Each time, my Mom had the same findings as I did………no television, no grandmother, no neighbors, no-Body. When I was looking for my Mom, she was looking for the ladies and the little girl……..that is why I could not find her. This is where you have to choose what you believe. What I believe………..actually, what I know is that while I never got to hear Isabella laugh or cry, I did get to hear her in joyous conversation as she came to get my father and take him Home. That was what he was waiting for and for whatever reason, I was able to be a part of and hear the pre-party. I believe in Angels. I believe Isabella and my Dad can check in on me. I believe they are with me when I put in the miles and are with me at the finish line of all my races. They are not looking at the clock. They don’t care about the time or if I set a PR. They just want to share that moment of completion with me. It is this belief that motivates me on a daily basis to try and live a life that makes them proud. It is this belief that keeps me running. I feel closest to them when I am out on the streets. We all have our reasons to run. For me, I run to remember.

Thanks for reading. I hope it was worth your time and that at some point in your life this story might help you have a little hope or cause you to exercise some faith. Now to the favor I ask every year on Isabella’s Day. It is simple but so very important to me. Isabella’s Day is August 1st. All I ask is that at some point during this day you raise a glass to my little Angel. It can be a fine red wine, a shot of tequila, a glass of water or a cup of coffee (no decaf allowed!). The drink does not matter to me. It is a gesture. It is a means to help me remember the little girl that lived a short life but had a great impact. Thank you so much.

To Isabella!