The morning my dad passed away, he got up to go to the bathroom and fell, lodging himself between the wall and the bathroom door. My mom couldn’t pry the door open and get to him because of his size. She had to call my cousins for help. There was panic and desperation. I was in my room. Asleep. In Waco, Texas.
Shawn got up and made coffee. He always makes coffee. He would get dressed in his ski gear and head to the slopes early, trying to beat any rush in an attempt to be the first on the mountain that day. The weather was a bit foggy and the mountain would have a fresh layer of snow from the night before. He took the lift up the mountain alone, and then took off on the run he had not previously run before. He must have lost track of where he was and where he was going. He fell off the edge of the mountain and laid motionless in the snow alone until other skiers would find him later that morning.
I was in my room. Asleep. In Norman, Oklahoma.
Guilt has a way of eating at you. It starts in hard, like a bear attack. Your adrenaline kicks in and you all of the sudden have the strength of a God and the anger of a devil. You want to punch things, you want to grab time and pull it backwards, and you hate that you are unable to just go back and do things differently. Then over time it slowly simmers to a slow boil, but it’s still there, cooking your thoughts. Skewing your memories. Hate for self is the intended dish.
Isn’t that funny, how we use hate in a time of loss of love?
I don’t know if I could have done anything to change the facts in either of the two cases. My dad probably would have still passed if I was there and could get to him. Sean may still have died too. The guilt isn’t in the result. The guilt is in the fact that I had a chance to be at those places and wasn’t.
I was foolish for so long thinking that if only I was at home, I could have pushed back the door and saved my dad. I was certain I could have skied for help after seeing Sean in the snow (unless I was laying there next to him myself).
I chose to stay in Waco that weekend to help a friend move. I also remember stopping by the roller rink to say hi at a kid’s birthday party. One of the small party goers fell and hurt his wrist. I examined his tiny wrist and told the mother I was afraid he had broken it and gave her the name of one of the doctors I worked with. I remember feeling useful. I remember thinking I was glad I was at the right place at the right time to help that kid out. I remember thinking timing was everything.
I chose to go to Haiti instead of Whistler. Sean would give me a hard time, but after all our conversations, he knew I wanted to go, but he wanted to give me some small sense of guilt about it. I think he just wanted me to pick up the bar tab that last meeting. Being in Haiti, the feeling of sheer helplessness was always around me. My French was horrible, and Creole was a language I had just tried learning a week prior. I remember trying to help a skeleton of man from one bed to the next to take him to surgery, his expression of pain so great and his plea for help was unrecognizable to my ear. The next day I would climb in the bed of a truck that had just arrived at the hospital, to put a man on a gurney who had just been hit by a car. He was bloodied and mangled. He was unconscious but alive. I asked where the cervical collar was, so we could stabilize his head before moving him. I remember the response was “we don’t have one”. I forgot we weren’t in the US anymore. I never felt so helpless in my life, until I got the call from Sean’s brother a few days later.
Have you ever been to a funeral and looked at the deceased and thought to yourself “I could have saved them, if only I was there”?
I have. Twice. And I lived with that guilt for the longest time. I was foolish for the longest time. I learned over time that we all make our own decisions in life and sometimes they don’t always work out. I remember telling my mom I was sorry for not being there that weekend, that I felt so selfish to have stayed back in Waco instead of coming to visit like I had planned. I remember looking at Sean’s grieving wife and saying I was sorry that I didn’t make the trip with him.
I remember the guilt.
My mother never blamed me nor did Sean’s wife. I was not the cause of their demise, but I sure thought I was. And to be honest, I was maybe a little egotistical to think I was the Superman in both of those cases. But isn’t that human nature?
I think of them both often. The guilt is not there anymore, it has been replaced with gratitude. I am happy to have been part of both of their lives. I am so happy to have been called son and best friend, and by their lives and my losses, I am now a better father and friend myself.
Guilt is a funny thing. It can make you or break you, and I have spent way too many sleepless nights wrestling with the woulda, coulda, shouldas. We all have. I have fought the bear, and won. I find solace in what I had, not what I lost. I find peace in the loving memories of two great men that I loved so dearly, and I am glad that the guilt of their loss is no longer there to replace their love with my hate.