Totally. Completely. Shattered.
Tuesday. February 20. A day just like any other. For the past few months I had been leaving my house around 4:15am to meet my dad at a pool about 30minutes away from my house to swim. This morning, I did not. I was hosting the “Fresh Freestyle” swim camp at my house the upcoming weekend, so I swam at home to make sure the pool was ready. I saw my dad at lunch - we had a work meeting with all the providers at the medical clinic where we work that he leads monthly. It was an absolutely beautiful day for Feb, and I was not the happiest to spend my lunch hour indoors, but it was a good meeting. On the way out, I stopped and told my dad - “Good meeting, Papa.” He gave his typical response, “Was it ok?”. "Yes, it was good", I replied. I finished up my afternoon seeing patients, and at one point I had a break and swung by his office - but his door was closed signaling he had left for the day. “Good” I thought. It was just beautiful, and I hoped he was out on his bike enjoying it.
My day ran later than expected, and I was trying to get out on the bike myself. I was literally in my kit opening my car to get out my bike when my phone rang. It was my husband, Jeff, which was unusual because he almost never calls unless something major is going on. “Your papa has had an accident, I am bringing him in, are you at work?” Not what I wanted to hear. This wasn’t the first call like this I have received. He had a nasty attack by a pit bull while cycling a few years ago, and Jeff had to bring him in - it tore his entire calf muscle. My standard response is to go alert my nurses, and then find his partner, Dr. Colotta, and warn him that I need him on standby. This time, however, it was not a simple fix. Jeff pulled up and my dad was in the back of the car - completely unresponsive. We rushed him next door to the ER, and within 20 minutes he was life flighted out to the Vanderbilt Trauma Center in Nashville.
What happened, still remains a mystery. My brother-in-law was at the end of my driveway collecting the trash bins, and saw something in the road about 100 meters away. Luckily he went to investigate, and found my dad in the road. He had been riding his elliptigo - which was barely scratched. His helmet was cracked. The front of both of his knees were scraped - but not much. His head had taken the brunt of the fall. Later investigations ruled out any type of hit and run. We simply do not know what happened.
My sister, two of my brothers, and I headed to Nashville. Upon arrival we sat down with the neurosurgeon - and the news was grim. He had sustained severe head trauma - a skull fracture, bleeding, and swelling of the brain. The next 72-96 hours would be critical. If he made it past that, we were looking at long term rehabilitation, and he would likely never practice medicine again.
The next few days were spent driving back and forth to Nashville, trying to continue seeing my patients, and praying like crazy for a miracle. We were very blessed to have a friend with an apartment about 15 minutes from Vanderbilt, and Roy graciously opened his doors to us so we had a place to stay in case we received a dreaded midnight phone call. One morning after staying there I finally had a chance to put on my running shoes and head out the door. And I stood on the sidewalk, in the rain, and I honestly did not know if I could run. For the first time in my life. Running has always been my therapy, my break, my chance to sort through every day life or leave it behind. But it has also always been my connection with my father. And, I didn’t know if I could do it. I weighed my options - go back and lie in bed, sleepless, with my mind filled with unbearable thoughts, or put one foot in front of the other and move. So - I started walking. And oh so slowly, started moving a little faster. I was able to run, maybe not run so much as move my legs and let my mind go. And- cry. Because I knew my father was fighting the hardest battle of his life. And, the outlook was not good any way you looked at it. But selfishly I so wanted him to fight and make it through. And, I cried.
Friday. The first day of the Fresh Freestyle Camp. I had so been looking forward to this weekend. My dad was supposed to be participating too. A short couple hours into the swim camp and I heard from my sister that all was stable with my dad. We were getting close to our 96 hour mark, still praying for a miracle. And then, just like that, things changed. Within fifteen minutes I got a call saying his condition had changed. I needed to get to the hospital. I let my brothers know, and we headed back to Nashville.
Back to the conference room. Back with a neurosurgeon. Where my father was at least responsive to painful stimulus up until this point, he was not any longer. More tests were being done. Some couldn’t be done until the next day. But, we already knew the odds were not in our favor. Back to Roy’s that night - where the dreaded midnight (actually it was around 11, but close) phone call finally came. Further changes, none of them good. Back to the hospital, a CT scan showed the swelling was getting worse. Only thing to do now was wait until another test could be done Saturday to show the extent of the damage.
I do 'wellness visits' at work, which include counseling people on completing a living will. Countless times I have explained the importance of having one, if not for yourself then for those you love and who have to make the decisions if something were to happen. Unbelievable, here I was now, in some surreal reality, thankful that my father had a living will, but absolutely hating that it was necessary. He very clearly and explicitly stated his wishes, and had already told us all numerous times. No life support. DNR if no chance of improvement. Let him go.
Saturday. Februarly 24. The final test was done. At 3:28 pm my father crossed that final finish line. And - my heart Shattered. My life Shattered. My world. Shattered.
This year will mark 20 years since I first toed the line at the Memphis in May triathlon. My father signed me up, and put me on his bike. And that started a wonderful adventure into the world of multisport and a new relationship with my father. He bought me a bike for my birthday that year - and we rode 40 miles together. We rode together all summer, and he used to say his favorite thing was seeing my shadow right behind him as we rode. I was still going to university at Western in London, Ontario, Canada - but spent my summers at home where we raced all over TN.
I did my first marathon with him - the Mardi Gras Marathon in New Orleans. He ran the whole thing with me - it took me almost 5 hours. And, he never complained once. When I finished school in Canada I moved to Salt Lake City, Utah - and kept doing triathlons, convincing several friends there to race with me too. I met my mom and dad in Las Vegas where my dad and I did the half marathon together. While I was in Utah he did his first Ironman - the Greater Floridian, and he sent me the bumper sticker from it - “Are you tough enough?” No way, I thought. That was 2000. In 2002 I moved home, and in 2003 we did Ironman Florida together.
We both loved to race so much. And back-to-back races. It was such a challenge. One year we did the MachTenn triathlon in Tullahoma on Saturday, then drove to Columbia Missouri to do the 1/2 Max (half ironman) the next day. One of our favorite races was the Max-O-Mania race weekend (also around Columbia) - 3 days and 5 races as a team. I remember on the bike I was feeling really good, and it was so fun I thought he might like to pull, when I asked him he was like, “That was NOT part of the plan”. So I laughed - and kept pulling. In the evenings there was a big dinner with all the racers, and “yellow jerseys” were given to the race leaders - and we were very proud to get a few of those. The last event was an olympic distance triathlon, and it was so fun to cross that finish line together.
A few years ago one of our friends wanted to go do the Disney marathon. Sure, that would be fun - and a good destination for the kids. Well, then I discovered you could do a “Dopey” challenge - start on Thursday with a 5k, then Friday 10k, Saturday 1/2 marathon, and Sunday full marathon. No takers - except my dad (although a couple did the Goofey Challenge - which was the 1/2 marathon Saturday and the full on Sunday). So - we did the whole thing. However, while I ran, he took advantage of the fun aspect and took his picture with all kinds of characters.
During the marathon he even stopped and rode the roller coaster. And, my father does not like heights, and is not big on roller coasters. But, he had so much fun he rode it AGAIN! And then completed his marathon.
And so it goes - year after year filled with bike rides together, long runs, pool swims and open water swims. We did several Ironman races together - Florida, Wisconsin, NYC, Hawai’i and Florida again.
When Ironman races in North America filled up faster than the hottest concert tickets we traveled to destination races - and did Ironman Lanzarote and Nice, France (where there were more people still out from the night before than there were people headed to the race start). He always wanted to do Escape from Alcatraz - so one year a whole group of us entered the lottery and all got in.
We would sit down in January with our race calendars to plan our year - first putting in our favorite local races: always starting with the Steamboat Triathlon in Cape Girardeau,
then the Los Locos Duathlon, Memphis in May weekend,
Chattanooga Waterfront, and Music City Triathlons.
Then we would pick somewhere new - one year we did River Cities in Shreveport (just for the race swag), and one year it was the NYC triathlon.
We loved to find a fun end-of-the-year beach destination sprint (Panama City has a great one) so that we could race and then enjoy the beach for a few days.
We would ride our bikes to local 5ks, run, then continue on our ride. No matter where we went we generally found a race, or at least found a place to swim/bike/run together. When I qualified for Boston he came with me and cheered me on.
And - the highlight of my triathlon career - last year (2017) at the USAT National Championships, he was not able to race, but he was there and cheered me on as I by some absolute miracle won both the Olympic and Sprint distance races. And the best part? He was there. The.Best.Part.
When I first started racing, we did every race together. As the years passed I started racing more on my own - but I always, ALWAYS, had him with me. From finding a hotel close to the race. To setting up transition. To surveying the swim, watching the current, the sun, finding the best strategy for starting position. To the bike - how he would have loved the course, or where the tough parts were.
And the run, always picturing him there, seeing him smile, hearing him say, “Go Kirsten, you gotta dig deep now”. And when I crossed that finish line, he was always my first thought. The first person I contacted to let him know how things went. When I won Worlds in Chicago I messaged him, “Papa - I think I just won the whole freaking race - can you believe it!?!?!?!”, and his response - “I am smiling so big right now”. And no matter what, when we saw each other again our first question would always be - “How was your race?” Every detail, however insignificant others might find, was always of interest. When we asked each other what we had planned for the day/weekend - we knew it related more to swim/bike/run/race than anything else.
We worked together. Our houses were close enough that he paved a lane between the two so my children could ride their bikes to GrandPapa’s without having to go out on the road. Despite the chaos of life, work, and racing, my brothers and sister and I would make the time to have dinner together with him on Sunday nights. We celebrated every birthday and holiday together. He was so much more than just my father, my Papa - he was my coach, my training partner, my racing partner, my best friend, my rock. And now, I am adrift. Shattered.
I’m going to be honest, it is going to be so incredibly hard for me to race this year. Even though I have carried him with me for years, and will continue to do so, I catch myself thinking about what I want to tell him about. And, I can’t. That I will never again survey a swim with him and plot our strategy. That I won’t meet him out on the bike course somewhere and hear his “Go Kirsten”. That the run course will not have his smiling face on it - urging me on. That we won’t ever sit together afterwards, waiting on awards, rehashing all the details, excited about what went well and pondering on how to improve our weaker areas.
In some ways it is like when you fall off your bike and end up with a bad case of road rash. The first step is to scrub it out while things are still somewhat in shock. And when you wake up the next day, just for a split second you hope and pray it was just a bad dream - that it didn’t really happen. And then you move - and everything hurts. And it is tempting to just stay perfectly still, and keep pretending it isn’t real, even if it’s just for a few minutes longer. But then you realize that things won’t get better or disappear, and lying there isn’t going to solve anything. So you get up, and try not to let on how badly you are hurting. And at first everything is hypersensitive - the slightest touch makes the nerve endings scream, and you try to avoid any contact with the injured areas. But - that is easier said than done. You alternate between keeping things covered up, and letting them breathe - generally when no one else is around to see. And slowly things start to heal - often breaking open a few times in the process. The deeper the injury - the slower the healing, and even when things heal, the scar remains forever.
People keep asking how I am - and telling me I am strong. I am not. I can smile, say that I’m ok, taking things one day at a time, some days better than others - you know all the standard responses. But - I am absolutely, shattered. And I am holding on with everything I have to the sliver of light that I know is there, that the utter and complete darkness of despair threatens to eliminate. It will get better with time. I know. But it does not change what is. The light holds the memories, the good times, the races, the finish lines, the swims, the bikes, the runs, the trips, the Sunday night dinners, the list goes on - and I really did appreciate each and every one of them. And as utterly crushingly hard as it is to imagine racing without him - it is even more so to imagine NOT racing. He instilled in me a love of the sport, and to stop would disappoint him terribly - of that I have no doubt. So, slowly, I will try to pick up the pieces. I will try with everything I have to Keep Moving Forward. And, this year, I will race for him. And - while racing provided a bond with my father that I treasure beyond measure, it may just be what saves me in my loss of him. That is the light that I cling to.
However, I remain - Shattered. Totally. Completely. Shattered.