How the WORST day of my life SAVED ME
You know, as young people we grow up in this culture. We are taught from such a young age, the key to a happy and successful life is to work hard, go to school, get good grades, get involved in as much as possible because that is going to look good on a college application. Then, after high school, if you’ve been successful thus far, hopefully you’ve made your way into college, and the big reward for that… Taking on on average, $37,000 of student loan debt by graduation. Oh… and of course, you’ll graduate with your degree, the degree you picked more out of necessity than passion. I mean, if you’re graduating with all this debt, you’ve gotta have a way to pay it all back, right?
Then, if you’re one of the lucky ones, you are going to go get a job. According to recent studies, the average college graduate makes roughly $50,000 a year coming out of college. So, lets just say you’re above average, and you make $70,000. Man, life is probably feeling pretty good for awhile. You worked hard, and now you’re achieving the American Dream. And days turn into months, and months turn into years. And you come home each night, turn on the tv or play some video games just to escape your reality for a little bit. And each day, as this routine plays out, you die a little inside. But the thing is you don’t even realize it because you watch the ads on the tv, and you think, “ Aw man… Thats what I need right there. When I get that new car I’m going to be so happy!”
“When I get a girl or guy like that… I’m going to be so crazy in love. Then I’ll be happy.”
“When I can finally afford that big house in the suburbs. Then I’ll be happy.”
So, you work and save, and keep going to the job you hate. And you die a little each day, just waiting for that illusive moment, the moment when you’re finally happy.
But, you see, that moment doesn’t last very long. That moment becomes just another segway into the next achievement because the happiness you get from that one thing sure as hell doesn’t equate to all the blood, sweat, and tears you know it took you to get to that place. And since we’ve been conditioned to believe that MORE stuff, BETTER stuff, will be that one thing that finally makes us happy, we keep seeking, we keep working - climbing, grinding, achieving.
Then, we get that call. That one call that changes everything. The one that puts it all into perspective. And you never think that call is going to come for you, but one day it does.
“Hi, I’m so sorry, but your father passed away last night,” or “I’m so sorry, but the cancer spread.”
And just like that, all that stuff that you spent your whole life acquiring doesn’t mean shit.
Fortunately, that call came for me a month after my 22nd birthday. It’s only in hindsight that I can see the benefit of going through such a catastrophic event, but what was the single most painful moment of my life thus far, has woken me up to the truth of what’s really important in my life, and for that I am grateful.
October 27, 2007 was an ordinary day. The day before I had spent time taking my dad to go see a chiropractor for his back. He’d been experiencing some pretty significant back pain, so he needed an adjustment. That morning my mom had called and asked if I could come have lunch with her a my brother. My brother, who was a senior at the time, had tried to commit suicide a month prior. He attempted suicide the night before the culmination of everything that I thought was my life ceasing to exist. It was the climax to a horrible nightmare that had taken over my reality. How could a life that seemed so perfect go so terribly wrong?
And life had been pretty perfect. It had been the type of perfect that you really don’t consider any alternative reality. I was the oldest of five children. I was born to two very loving and devoted parents, parents who did everything they could to provide us every opportunity for success. To an outsider, I’m pretty sure our family looked like the Cleavers. Well, maybe more like the Cleavers mixed with a touch of Gene Simmons.
I used to watch that show, Gene Simmons Family Jewels, every once in awhile, and I always thought of Gene Simmons as someone who reminded me a lot of my dad. He was someone you could tell had a deep love for his family, he was intelligent, but he also had charisma and loved living life on the wild side. He is kind of one of those “larger than life” personalities - too hard to explain, too hard to understand.
So, that was my family, a little Cleaver meets a little Simmons. Still, it was pretty close to my idea of perfect. Gradually though, by my senior year of high school things began to shift. I’m still not sure what that shift was, but my dad had been making significantly more money than he had ever made, and with money came options, opportunities (both good and bad) and ego. Our life slowly started resembling, as my good friend put it, “A high class Jerry Springer show”.
I’m not going to lie. I loved it at first. We’d take trips to Vegas, and as an 18 year old who rarely got carded, it was AMAZING! We’d stay in pent houses, sun bathe, shop, drink, gamble, and then do it all again the next day. What’s not to love? To put it mildly, I think if we would have had a camera rolling for a few years, the Kardashians would have had nothing on us.
Well, just as it seems to have for them, it came at an expensive price. I didn’t know it at the time, but my dad began an affair with a stripper who he’d often put up in the next hotel over. He was dealing with drug money. He was dealing with investors who had no clue what he was doing with their money. To any outsider it looked as if he’d found an amazing way to make money day trading, but his world was about to come crashing down around him.
Unfortunately for us kids, we’d get to experience the fall out. My parents divorce was final 6 months prior to what would have been their 20th wedding anniversary. My dad was indicted for money laundering and mail fraud around the same time. The life I knew and Ioved was forever gone.
It took about two years from the time my dad was indicted to the time of his sentencing. It was a stressful time to say the least. Beyond dealing with having to talk to federal prosecutors about my dad’s case, I was also dealing with a failing marriage I hurried into at 19, and the birth of my two beautiful, but very busy boys. I could hardly cope. Every day I felt like I was waking up to continue living this nightmarish hell that had become my life.
My dad continually assured us kids that the most he’d get was a year in Federal prison, but that was on the bleak end of things. He was certain he’d end up doing far less or possibly even house arrest.
In the early morning on the day of my dad’s sentencing, I received a phone call from my mom. She was on her way to the hospital where my brother was being taken in an ambulance. She had no idea what had happened yet, but my brother, a seventeen year old child, had tried to commit suicide. When his body started shutting down he thankfully got scared, and called 911. To say it put all the other hardships into perspective would be a massive understatement.
That’s how I ended up at lunch the day before the hardest day of my life. My mom called me and asked me to come have lunch with her and my brother. I ended up bringing my dad along because, despite his reassurance that he’d have a short sentence, he had been sentenced to five years in Federal prison, and he was scheduled to surrender the following week. He had come to live with me until his surrender date, so I didn’t feel like I could just leave him there.
Lunch was good. After my brother’s suicide attempt we all put a lot of effort into healing. We all went to the beach together. We had some great conversations, and my parents really did everything they could to help us kids heal. We had a great time at lunch, and made plans for the next day. My dad hadn’t seen the younger kids for a few days, so we had planned to go see my youngest brother’s football game, go to my sisters volleyball tournament, and then they’d all stay the night. It was the last weekend he had to spend with us before his surrender date.
After lunch my dad and I ran a few more errands. We ended up taking my boys to McDonald’s for dinner and then went to rent a movie. We had a lot of time in the car that day, and somewhere along the drive I expressed to my dad that I knew we’d get through this stuff together. I was finally feeling a little twinge of hope again, like there was an end in sight. I remember specifically telling him, “I’m just glad it’s just jail. We can still visit you. We can still talk. At least it’s not permanent.”
I was mainly referring to the fact that, just a month prior, I watched my little brother lay lifeless in a hospital bed, so in comparison, this jail stuff seemed like pretty easy stuff now.
I still remember his response, “Sweetie, you are so much stronger than you give yourself credit for. Even if it was more than jail, even if it was death, you’d be just fine.”
I remember thinking, “Are you freaking kidding me? There’s not a chance in hell I’d be fine. I’d be a train wreck.”
He had a lot more faith in me than I had in myself. We had a really great evening together that night. We’d spent the past two years arguing, fighting, and finally healing, and now I was so happy to be having this time with my dad before he surrendered.
When my then husband came home from work that night, my dad and I finished our movie, he kissed me on the forehead and told me he loved me, and then retired to the area we’d set up for him in our basement. I fell asleep shortly thereafter, not knowing the next day would change my life forever.
When I woke up on the morning of October 27th, my day started pretty ordinary. My now ex-husband yelled something about telling my dad to turn off the tv before he goes to bed as he left for work. I got up and started getting the boys ready for all the activities of the day. Once my two year old son, Landon, was ready to go I told him to go downstairs and wake up Grandpa. After awhile he came back up, telling me grandpa wouldn’t wake up.
I didn’t think much of it, but went to the bottom of the stairs and yelled for him to wake up. NOTHING.
“Dad, wake up! Dad… DAD!”
I had been on the phone with my mom, going over the days events. I began to worry.
“Mom, dad won’t wake up. I think something’s wrong!”
“Well, if you’re really worried, call 911. I’m sure he’s fine. He probably took a pain killer for his back, and is slow to wake up,” she says.
“I don’t think so. I’m going to call.”
I hang up the phone and for the first time in my life I dial the numbers, 9-1-1. Even as I’m doing it I feel completely silly. I’ve always been a worrier. I keep thinking, “He’s going to wake up and be so pissed that I’m freaking out like this.” My worries are interrupted by the voice on the other end of the line.
“9-1-1. What’s your emergency?”
I can barely speak, and when I do I start to lose it. I touch my dad’s arm. It’s stiff and cold. I’m losing it. I’m holding my son in one arm, the phone in the other, and the operator tells me to move any objects that could be blocking his airway, and that she’ll walk me through CPR until medical services arrive.
This can’t be happening. This has to be a nightmare. I can’t handle anymore. My son is upset and crying, and I’m trying to simultaneously listen to the operator on the other end of the line, while moving a pillow propped behind my dad’s head.
I touch his face. It’s cold and stiff. Just like his arm, but this time, my worst fears are setting in. I start to cry. The operator is telling me to remain calm and begin CPR, and I can’t do it. Then she asks that God awful question that no one ever wants to be asked, “Do you think he is dead?”
As I sob on the phone, I can’t bring myself to admit the worst. I just cry. Finally she says, “Maam, why don’t you head outside to meet the EMTs.”
I grab the boys and head outside where medical services are now arriving. They rush past me, asking where the subject is located. As I follow them in and head back down the stairs, I catch a glimpse of the EMT’s face. It’s that knowing face. The face that only happens when you know there’s nothing good coming next. And then I see him mouth, “He’s gone.”
“Nooooooo!” My knees hit the floor, I drop my son. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe, I can’t fucking breathe.
From there, I start the task of calling family, and dealing with the daunting reality that my little brothers and sister no longer have a father - dealing with the fact that God must really think I’m a bad ass because this is about my breaking point.
The next few weeks were a whirlwind of emotion. Finding my dad lying lifeless on my couch was horrible, telling my younger siblings - that was almost unbearable.
But, you know what, my dad was right. Time has passed, and while I would give anything to see him again, I’m doing ok. I wouldn’t trade my life for anything. As hard as it has been, I feel so incredibly blessed to learn at such a young age, just how precious life is. I’ve learned not to leave things unsaid. I’ve learned to appreciate even the simplest of moments with the people I love. I’ve learned I have incredible strength. I’ve learned that I am happiest when I am giving of myself and using my unique talents and gifts to help make the world a better place. I’ve learned to go within myself to feel connected to the infinite source of love - The Universe, God, whatever you want to call it. I’ve learned to continue to come back to a positive outlook on life because it just feels better. I’ve learned that I can be a source of inspiration for others who experience pain and loss. I've learned that I can have bad days, TERRIBLE days, and still have a GREAT life. And I’ve learned that despite hardships, I can choose to live my very BEST LIFE, despite any circumstances that happen in my life.