Going to Hawaii

On March 30th, 2016 my cellphone rang. This may not seem suspicious in itself, but considering the fact that most of my communication through my cell phone takes place in the form of text or email, the fact that it rang was an occasion. The fact that it rang, combined with the fact that it rang at the unusually late hour of 9:30pm made it a concerning occasion. Immediately my heart dropped, and my stomach twisted into a knot. Everyone knows that no good news comes late at night in the form of a phone call. I answered the phone to hear the polite voice of a female nurse at the Maui Memorial Center hospital inform me that she had my mother there to speak to me. She put my mom on the phone, and immediately I could hear the distress in her voice. She had been crying – was crying is more accurate. She said “I don’t know how to tell you this, but your dad had an accident. He’s okay, but it’s serious”. And then the line went dead. I stood in the sudden deafening quiet of my home staring at my phone incredulously and praying for it to ring again. Thankfully, it did, and again the friendly sounding nurse put my mom on the phone. Through tears she explained that while vacationing in Maui with her, my dad was struck by a wave while swimming and was currently paralyzed and in the ICU in hospital. I did my best to console her and get more information out of her, but she gave precious few details. After a few minutes, she ended the call and left me standing in the silence of my home, dumbstruck.

                The next morning after a fitful sleep, I went into work and informed my boss of the phone call. I am currently training in the Air Force to become a pilot, and my boss informed me that I was being removed from the flying list for a few days until the situation stabilized, and I was in a mentally safe place to fly. I went home, and texted my mom asking if I could do anything. She provided me with a long list of family members and friends to call and relay the news.  For the next few hours I called family and friends and tried to explain the unexplainable. Everyone wanted to know more, and everyone wanted to help. All I could do was explain what I knew, that I didn’t know what the plan was, or how serious the injury was. Making these phone calls was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do. Let me assure you that if you think receiving an unexpected phone call bearing bad news is difficult, making an unexpected phone call delivering bad news is harder. At 11am, after countless phone calls and blotted Kleenex, I texted my mom and asked her if she needed me to go to Hawaii to be with them. She told me that she would speak to my dad and ask. During our late night phone call the night before she had said “If dad could speak, he would tell you that he loves you very much, and to stay where you are and keep focused and work hard”. This was his message to me and my three other siblings. He had spent his life trying to give us everything we needed to succeed, and he didn’t want to be the thing that halted our successes. He wanted us to stay the course, and finish what we were doing before rushing to his side. Although he probably would never admit that his death was a possibility, to my mother, and certainly to me an ocean away, this seemed all too real a possibility. I made my case that since I wasn’t flying, there wasn’t much reason for me to stay put. I could go and help and my other siblings could remain focused knowing that at least one of us had made it out to help in Hawaii. My three other siblings were just entering exam season at their respective universities across the country, and there was no easy way to leave without postponing or abandoning exams. My dad agreed, and at noon I called my boss and informed him I needed to leave for Hawaii. Thanks to my boss’ compassion, I got the appropriate paperwork filed and had a plane booked within an hour.

                As an aside, I talk more directly about this level of compassion and support from the military and its significance in my other blog www.fledglingflyer.com. You can read about that here.

Two days after the accident I finally landed in Hawaii to help my mom any way I could. I had barely slept in the past 48 hours and every waking moment was spent feeling sick to my stomach with worry over my mom and dad alone in Hawaii. The lack of sleep and constant stress had made me anxious and irritable to anyone who I perceived to be too cheerful for the amount of sadness I was experiencing. I distinctly remember passing through security at the airport and handing my boarding pass to the security agent who upon seeing the words “MAUI, HI” listed under the title “Destination:” remarked, “Hawaii, nice!” . To which I simply replied “Not really. I’m traveling under poor circumstances” my words laden with frustration and irritation. He suddenly seemed to take in the reality of my appearance, the bags under my eyes, my slumped shoulders and realized I was not the stereotypical Hawaiian traveler looking forward to white sand beaches under the sun. He returned my boarding pass and mumbled “sorry” as I proceeded through the metal detector.

Having landed safely in Maui, I rushed off the jetway, hurried through customs and raced through long corridors filled with the warm humid air, trying to get to the exit as quickly as possible and find my mom. Finally, I come out a doorway onto a platform with escalators and stairs leading down to the main floor and see my mom standing there. I rush down the stairs and give her a hug as she practically collapses into my arms. At that moment I realized the 48 hours of stress, anxiety, and worry I had been experiencing was only a fraction of what she had been going through. We stood there for a solid minute, my mom crying and me trying to keep it all together as strangers looked on. A minute later, my mom wipes her tears and says “Okay, lets get your bags and get to the hospital”. She immediately became her collected, organized, and determined self again, leaving no trace of the crying woman I had been holding moments before.

                I ended up taking a month off from my training to be with my mom and dad. There are a lot of stories to tell during this time. How we developed a communication system for my dad to speak through blinking and nodding. How he was boarded onto a private jet on a stretcher to be medevac’d to Vancouver General. How he decided to share his story, and even wrote a two page letter (literally letter by letter) explaining what had happened to post on Facebook. How over 2’000 people have now liked and shared his story, and provide endless messages of love and support. How after two weeks of being paralyzed from the neck down he discovered he could wiggle his big toe on his right foot. There are so many stories to tell, and the month was filled with successes, and failures. There are lots of stories to tell, but the one I want to talk about is the day I had to leave.

                After what seemed like only a week but was in fact a month, it was time for me to leave. I had to return to Saskatchewan to resume my training. The day of my departure seemed to sneak up on me. Although I had known what day I was leaving weeks in advance, it seemed so far away until suddenly it was time for me to get on an airplane and leave. Suddenly I felt like I had squandered my month with my dad. That I had so much I wanted to tell him but had been waiting for the right moment, and now those moments were running out. In the few hours before I had to leave I got a precious half hour alone with my dad. During this time I said the things that were closest to my heart, but had been saving for later. Through tears I told him that I loved him, and that he amazed me with his strength. He told me he loved me, and to be strong. More than once we had to re-spell words using our communication system because we both had tears in our eyes and couldn’t count or blink accurately. This frustrating miscommunication resulted in both of us laughing through tears and trying to guess what the other was saying. Through the laughter and tears my dad said “Go fly, have fun”. That was all he needed to say. I knew he wasn’t about to go anywhere, and the best thing I could do for his recovery was go and achieve the thing I had been working towards my entire life.

                I’m happy to say that nearly eight months after his accident I was able to achieve my military wings in the Air Force, and despite still being in intensive rehab therapy my dad made the incredible journey to Moose Jaw to present me with my wings. This moment was equally important to him as it was to me and had been a goal actively worked towards throughout his therapy. Throughout his entire recovery, my dad has retained his quirky sense of humor, a contagious smile, and a steely determination to overcome the odds. He remains an inspiration to the thousands that follow his updates on his Facebook page, and he remains an inspiration to me, and his strength drove me to achieve my dream.