Thursday, January 16, 2020

Wake Up Call

I have written a lot of Isabella posts.  This will be likely be the last one.  What started with a phone call 16 years ago is ending today with a story about a very different phone call.  More on that to come.

It really is amazing how a phone call can alter the direction and perspective of your life.  On July 31, 2003 a phone call from my wife not only disrupted our 4th wedding anniversary but changed my life forever.  We were two days away from the expected birth of our daughter Isabella Soleil when God decided he needed an Angel more than we needed a daughter.  To date, and hopefully until the day I leave this Earth, that is the worst day of my life.  You all know the rest of the story.  Approximately 6 months later my father passed away from leukemia (specifically AML) and shortly thereafter my wife, Crea, was diagnosed with cancer while pregnant with our son Jaden.  Five years later my wife’s cancer would return and years after that my older step daughter Tiana would be diagnosed with the very same type of cancer.

Life can change paths in an instant and doesn’t always seem fair and this short time frame certainly ingrained the lesson on my being such that I will never forget it.  I have shared my story a lot.  Some would accuse me of being too open with the personal accounts of my life but my hope has always been that my story would find its way to those that needed to hear it.  I firmly believe that Blessings come from the worst of times.  I firmly believe that if we are breathing, our purpose here is not yet fulfilled.  Even if we are taking those breaths at a dark time in our lives……..there is more left for us……….more things to accomplish………more lives to impact………more blessings to receive.  Even if you are curled up in a ball, you can battle back, you can stand up and fight.  Some unbelievable things came from my difficult moments.  I met amazing people I otherwise would not have.  I accomplished things I certainly never thought possible.  Five Ironman finishes.  Countless marathons.  A few century rides.  An ultra marathon and over $400,000 raised to fight cancer.  Along the way I like to think I impacted a lot of lives as I shared my story and coached others to train for half and full marathons while also raising money to fight cancer.

While I can put positive words to a tough series of events, I have never found a path around the sadness that resulted from the loss of Isabella.  If you have ever witnessed me share my story…………..whether it was at Isabella’s memorial service or 16 years later…………I cannot speak of this loss without getting emotional.  I just cannot get through the words that speak of the night we lost her without crying.  It took a long time to do so but this past year I decided to accept it is okay not to be okay.  I came to the understanding I will never fully recover because Isabella took part of me with her to Heaven.  How can you get back to 100% if only 90% remains?  While this realization provided some comfort and helped me feel less ashamed at the unwavering sadness, it didn’t do much to ease the actual sadness.  I know it probably doesn’t make sense that I accepted I would never be whole yet still try to find that path around sadness but losing a child is a whirlwind of emotions and I just want to find a more stable emotional mindset about all of it.  I have faith………..complete faith………that I will see Isabella again.  I have faith God had a greater need for Isabella………..truth be told both of these thoughts are the only way I made it through all of this but this understanding and faith does zero for the emptiness I feel when I miss my little girl.
What does all of this have to do with Light the Night?  Good question my friends.  Light the Night is another fundraising arm for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.  Most of my time with LLS has been as a coach and participant for Team in Training.  Of the $400,000 I have raised, approximately $275,000 was with Team in Training.  Beyond the funds I raised, as a coach for Team in Training, my amazing Westside teams raised millions of dollars.  I also participated in the Man and Woman of the Year campaign in 2014 where We Will Find a Cure (WWFAC) and I raised $126,000 in ten weeks.  Every time I ever raised money for LLS, I was doing something I was afraid of.  I was petrified to run 26.2 miles, I was afraid of riding 100 miles, I was afraid of completing an Ironman, I cried at the start line of my 50 mile ultra from fear of not being able to see it through and I was very afraid of failure for the Man of the Year competition.  My pushing past fear comes from and is for my Dad.  He could stare fear in the face and push forward.  It seemed to come natural for him.  For me it is a bit forced but I try to conquer fear to honor who my Dad was and what he meant to my life.  It is my way of letting him know in Heaven that I was watching his life and learning from his actions.

You might think fear was not a factor for Light the Night but you would be very wrong.  True, there is no crazy endurance distance to cover and there is no lofty fundraising goal.  You walk about 2 miles and you can do so only raising $100. Easy stuff. That being said, I have steered clear of this event ever since I learned about it.  What it lacks in athletic intensity, it makes up for in emotional overload. At the event, everyone carries a lantern.  Survivors carry White lanterns.  Supporters carry Gold lanterns and those walking in memory of someone carry a Red lantern.  You relive your story.  You look it dead in the eye.

The Red lantern was my fear.  It was the dark cloud of sadness that is never too far away as it pertains to Isabella.  I can always find a way to keep that cloud out of reach but the Red lantern was the bridge to that cloud. For an entire evening I would stare sadness in the face and I was never ready to do that until 2019.  This year was different.  I reflected a lot about Isabella. I came to accept I would never be whole again and I came to accept that was okay.  Everyone handles things differently.  I know great people that have suffered great losses and they handle their pain much better than I do.  Don’t get me wrong, I think I stood tall in the face of these losses.  I fought back.  I raised money.  I honored promises and I will continue to do so.  I just cannot escape that cloud.  Light the Night was all about that cloud and that emptiness.  I hoped the evening would allow me to expel my sorrow and see things differently moving forward.
The funny thing is the night accomplished exactly what I hoped for but in a manner I never saw coming…..with a phone call. 

Thalia, Crea and I arrived very early to the event….it is my nature to always be early.   We checked in, got our lanterns, grabbed some food and took a seat.  I could feel the emotions starting to well up as the clock inched forward to the start time.  The Red lantern was staring me in the face as a reminder of what was to come.  I did my best to stay occupied and helping with this task came the opportunity to meet Rod Carew.  It really was unbelievable timing.  Thalia was only 2 days removed from learning who Rod Carew was when we found ourselves standing before him in conversation.  He was so genuine and kind.  He spent a lot of time talking with Thalia about softball which helped to motivate her.  Underlying this pleasant diversion was the fact Rod Carew was one of my Dad’s favorite players.  We talked about him all of the time.  We watched him play all the time.  So the distraction turned into a reminder my Dad was no longer with us which brought my thoughts back to Isabella.  I actually got choked up talking to Rod Carew just because of the history admiring such an awesome player.

The evening creeped on.  We ended up back at our seats.  I kept taking walks trying to hold it together.  I had built this event up in my head and heart for many years.  We eventually were minutes from the start of the event.  Minutes from my plan to purge my sadness and march into the future with a different perspective. 

Then the phone rang.

It was my son, Jaden, calling from North Carolina.  Without going into great detail, 5 weeks earlier I had dropped my 14-year-old son off 3,000 miles from home.  He was attending a school in North Carolina catered towards children with ADHD.  It had been a rough few years trying to help him be happy let alone successful.  There was a lot of tension in our home trying to figure things out.  I had not always been the best Dad.  My son is literally the smartest person I know.  He has tested above college level for a long long time.  That being said, ADHD made executive functioning a challenge for him so traditional schools were not a good fit.  He could ace the tests but the little things held him back.  As much as the public schools say they understand and will help, there is no way to completely adjust to his needs in a school of thousands.  Jaden and I flew into Atlanta.  We had some good food, caught a Braves game, toured around where I grew up and played a lot of Minecraft at his request.  More importantly we started to rebuild a friendship.  I tried to do a better job understanding his challenges and he tried his best to meet me half way.  Dropping him off at the end of the trip and driving away was gut wrenching.  Flying home alone was gut wrenching.  Not being able to talk to your son every day was gut wrenching.  I was praying he found friends and found himself but it was all a mystery as communication with Crea and I was infrequent at best.

The phone rang and I was ecstatic to hear from my son.  I was also petrified because the first month was sure to be a difficult time in a space so unfamiliar to him.  Everything about this new school would test his comfort zone and invade his safe space.  He went from being alone in his room most of the day to being bunked in one room with 8 people.  He went from avoiding people socially to having to interact all day with a lot of strangers.  I was so proud that he took on the adventure hoping it would be a path to improvement…….to finding a better way to work around his challenges……… friendships and interaction and confidence. 

The call was everything I feared.  Jaden was not in a good place.  He was hurting.  He was sad.  He was scared.  He missed home.  I know I keep playing on the distance from home but he was only 14 at the time (he is 15 now).  To hear such pain in your son’s voice without the ability to make a difference face to face was so distressing.  I wanted to give him a hug and dry his tears and tell him it would all be okay while looking him in the eye.  That would not happen today.  Only a phone call.

As difficult as the call was for Crea and I, it was the first of two enlightening moments as it pertains to Isabella.  For the entire call, I forgot about my sadness and the Red Lantern.  I let go of that pain because my son needed me.  God had given me this amazing gift.  As tough as ADHD can be, I would not change anything about my son.  God made him.  He has amazing talents that we will learn to tap into and ride to a successful future.  He is here.  Despite the fact his Mom had cancer during pregnancy and during his birth, Jaden was here.  My time with Isabella will come when my time here is finished but as I said above, if we are still breathing, there is more left to accomplish and my son needs me to be present and focused.

The second wake up call, albeit similar in nature, was when I paused the conversation with Jaden to hand the phone to my daughter, Thalia.  She immediately burst into tears.  Despite all of the fighting and animosity that Jaden and Thalia may show each other, she was hurting.  Her brother was far away for the first time in her life.  When she walks upstairs to her bedroom, he is no longer across the hall if needed.  I honestly had no idea of her suffering until her face showed so much pain.  My daughter needed me.  She is an amazing gift and one I speak of often when it comes to talking about Isabella.  Thalia would likely not be here had Isabella not passed away.  Crea and I were going to have two children.  Thalia would have been number 3.  If you know me, you are well aware I could not imagine a life without my princess.  I always appreciate her but seeing her pain took me away from my own pain.  It helped me see past the loss of Isabella and gain crystal clear focus on what I have versus what I lost. 

After the conversations with Jaden were over, I hung up the phone.  Light the Night began.  It was unbelievable and I highly recommend that you participate in the future.  It is a great way to fight back, honor and remember.  I did shed a tear or two but not for Isabella.  When Crea held her White Lantern and stood in the Survivors Circle, I shed a tear of gratitude that God spared my soulmate, gave me two amazing kids and provides me the opportunity to see my Angel in Heaven when my time here is through.

Thanks for reading.

Christopher D. Wilno

PS           To my dearest Tiana, if you are reading this, in my eyes you are my daughter.  I view you as my own but reference ‘step’ in writing only because I often refer to Isabella as the first child for Crea and I.  ‘Step’ is just a way to avoid confusion to people reading that do not know our family.

PPS        We raised over $8,000 for Light the Night all in Thalia’s name.  She was a top 10 fundraiser and we are grateful for the support.  In a few years she will be in high school and will participate in the Student of the Year Campaign for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society where we hope to raise more than $50,000.   We hope you will join us in that battle when the time comes. 

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