Last weekend, Dick finally left Atlanta and moved into his new house in Wilmington, North Carolina. Welcome to the Journey’s End. Congratulations, Dad. You made it!
I must admit, I have been dragging my feet on this update. I began this journal in his time of greatest need, but that time has come and gone. Now, Dad has been home a whole week, so the purpose for this journal has run its course. I intend this to be my final update, at least for quite a while. I took a little extra time, hoping to craft a tribute that lives up to the moment.
Dick still has healing left to do, but it is time to allow him the privacy to recover without a constant audience. Healthy people do not need this kind of vigilance. If you would like further updates on Dad’s progress, I suggest you call or email him directly. He will be delighted to hear from you. Someday, long in the future, I may return here to speak on what it is like to lose a father. I do not expect to address that subject for many years to come.
That said, I would like to begin today by taking you back a month or so to “Early Move-In Weekend”.
It was just before Easter, construction on their new house was finally complete. After living so long within the sterile confines of hospital rooms, Mom and Dad were both quite anxious to be home. Dad
had several weeks remaining in Atlanta, but the timing seemed right for a field trip. After some discussion, they decided to go ahead and move in so that the house would be ready when Dad’s outpatient care concluded. Mom arranged for a large crew of helping hands, set up the movers, and she and Dick headed to Wilmington for the weekend.
What should have been a long but easy drive soon became grueling, interminable. Dad is not yet acclimated to extended travel, so frequent stops were required. They arrived in Wilmington
close to 1:00am, exhausted but giddy with excitement. Dad grinned ear to ear, cracking jokes about his new wheelchair as I wheeled him up the front steps. Bump. Bump. Bump. The final obstacle clared,
he and Mom finally stood together inside their new house and gazed in wonder at a dream made real.
I can’t imagine what it must be like to plan something for decades, have it violently ripped away, then finally restored. They bought the land for this house in the 90’s, and the plans for their retirement began decades earlier. Dick was a mere four months away from retirement when he took a trip under an apple truck. The reward for a life well lived was right there in his grasp, but it proved an elusive, slippery thing, oozing right through his fingers.
Here now, gazing in wonder at the finished interior of their new home, I saw my parents as I never had before. Young again, vibrant, renewed. They laughed together at the little things that had changed from their original plan. While Dick was down for the count, Maclyn was left to make the final decisions on paint color, fixtures, all those little details that go into a home. Dad marveled at the workmanship, delighted with her choices and reveling in the moment. We explored the new digs, magic hanging in the air all around us as we filled each room with the appropriate Oohs and Aahs.
Nearly an hour passed, and 2am was right around the corner. This is when I learned that brain injuries and exhaustion do not mix. Dad suddenly decided he wanted to see the second floor. He quietly wheeled over to the stairwell, put his hand on the banister, and leaned forward like he was going to try to get up and walk upstairs.
Thus began a ‘showdown’ with Mom playing the role of town sheriff laying down the Long Arm Of The Law. I suppose that analogy makes Dad the villain, her strong-willed opponent, not quite right in the
head and fixated on a Really Bad Idea.
Maclyn explained that there is no handicap access to the second floor and that Dad was not allowed to go upstairs. This was not a very successful approach, because all Dad heard were the words “handicap” and “not allowed”. My father is a man who does not like to be told what he can and can’t do, especially when he is tired. Even when he should be listening to that wonderful woman who has kept him alive for so long.
“In the first place, Dick, you can’t walk. You have had an accident,” explained Maclyn, “but even if you could, you can’t climb the stairs with your seatbelt on.” We all got a chuckle out of that, as Dick realized the thing keeping him seated was a 35 pound wheelchair strapped to his butt. He must not have enjoyed our amusement, because he slapped “that look” on his face, unfastened the
buckle, and began anew.
Mom put his hand out to stop him. A few more seconds passed, a stare-down. I watched her change tactics, the way I do with my stubborn 5 year old, using “sweet talking” to get him to relinquish. He
didn’t budge an inch, still trying to move forward. They both laughed then, each aware that neither would ever give in. Dad was going to crawl up there on hands and knees if he had to, I could just tell. After a moment, Maclyn’s head sank into her hands as the late hour and the exhaustion of travel caught up with her. I could see her shoulders sink, as if the whole weight of the world pressed into her.
I’m not sure why, but something inside me decided we all needed a ‘moment.’ The truth is, I’m just as stubborn as either one of them, and that man deserved to see the rest of his home. The next thing I
knew, I was standing next to Dad, helping him rise. His left arm stretched over my shoulders, his right hand on the railing, and I felt the entire weight of his frame as we started up the stairs. For a moment, I think we both realized this was going to be harder than we thought. I wondered, was I calling his bluff or was this really about to happen?
Then we did it. I did the lifting, he moved the feet. One step, two steps, little by little, up the stairwell. We both were sweating from the start. Everyone else leapt into position, spotting us as we
climbed. Four steps, five. Bump. Bump. Bump. Before I knew it, we were at the top. Someone slammed the wheelchair underneath him, and not one moment too soon. We both sat, breathing heavily and trying not to admit just how hard that was. He got this happy little “told ya so” look on his face and proceeded to check out the rest of his new home. (Sitting a little taller in that new chair of his, if I recall.)
I will never forget that moment. I am so very proud I was able to give it to him. He has given me so many things in life. I could tell it had the proper effect, as he mentioned it several times over the course of the weekend. Watching him that night, looking around with love at the family he built, the home he planned for so long… it was an evening I will cherish forever.
They began the weekend exhausted, but left with spirits high, their tank refilled. Dick spent the weeks afterward working on daily skills with his therapists. Moving from chair to bed, standing, speaking louder than a whisper, all of these once routine skills which now required every ounce of his focus.Then, in the final week at Pathways, Dick used a walker for the very first time. Down a short hall and back, all by himself.
Now that they are home, he continues to improve. His speech is strengthening, his strength grows every day. Now that he’s home he will continue the work with brand new therapists in his home town. In a few weeks or months, he may lose that chair entirely. Enough time, maybe the walker, too.
“Are you gonna walk again, Dad?” I ask.
“I’m gonna run,” he says.
You know what? I believe him.
There you have it, folks. We have come full circle, and my father is home. Before I conclude, I would like to share with you some of the more powerful lessons I have taken from this experience.
I began this journal to connect friends and family during the tragedy, but also as a means of expressing my own grief and lament at losing a father. I am his Junior, our shared name only one of the many traits we have in common. Yet, I have spent much of my life in opposition to him, as if the only way to draw distinction between us was to reject his life’s path and forge one of my own. I know now how foolish that was, for he is and always shall be an inherent part of me. To deny the father is to reject an integral part of oneself.
Now, at age 40, with children and a life of my own, I have enjoyed finding ways to embrace my inner Dick. Standing witness to the Journey he has undertaken these past eight months has been the most emotional, inspiring experience of my life. He is Richard The Great, the Survivor, the one who made it against all odds. I can only hope to spend the next 40 years of my life emulating the examples he has set.
The thing I keep coming back to is the odds. “90% non-recovery rate.” This is what Dick was up against when I first saw him after the accident. Now here he is climbing stairwells at 2am. What is
it, then, that made him thrive while 9 out of 10 others in his situation do not?
I think I have found out the secret to Dad’s success. The question is: How do you survive a trip under an apple truck? I believe I can actually answer that. To make it to the other side of tragedy, you have to be ready before it ever happens. More specifically, you must prepare yourself in four distinct ways:
1) You will need Good Health. Get this going before you ever think you will need it.
2) You will need Strong Will. Learn to trust, respect, and believe in yourself.
3) You will need A Plan. Set up your health care and make retirement decisions early.
None of these were a surprise to me when it comes to Dad, but I do lament that I personally have some makeup work to do in these areas. I know for a fact I have let the first one slide. The second comes quite naturally, but the third? I’ve been a starving artist for so long, seems I have my work cut out for me. Feels like it’s time for a pivot.
However, it is in the final area that I have found the most enlightenment.
4) You must give Love and Respect to all others, and be open to receiving that Love in return.
My father has not been alone even once during this entire experience. This is the part that has struck me the most, the ‘X Factor’ which I believe spared Dad’s life. Where would Dad be without Maclyn right now? She has not left his side one single moment. Where would he be without my brother Chris, who handled the legal and insurance battles while he was unconscious? Where would he be without my brother Scott, who even now is putting his own life on hold to move in with Mom and Dad while he recovers? Death is not easily cheated, but the binding ties of the family Dick built have kept him here on this Earth.
It does not end there. At every moment, uncles, aunts, cousins, and neighbors have jumped in to help without being asked, without question. A man who is unloved cannot expect such treatment. Where would Dick be without the hundreds of voices that have lifted up prayers for him? Without the family friend who served as our lawyer? Without his childhood friends who oversaw the construction of his house? Or the ones who sent casseroles to feed his wife when she was too beside herself to cook?
Over the past eight months, I have seen shotgun victims in ICU’s lay still and alone, no family or friends to help him. I have witnessed the mummified results of motorcycle accidents, their only companions the beeping machines that kept them alive. Not so with Dad. At each and every moment of every day, someone has said a prayer for Dick. Never alone, always with a friend to lend a hand.
But why? What makes Dick Slack so special that this many people jump into action to help in his time of need?
“In the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.”
These are Beatles lyrics, a ‘feel good’ rhyming axiom, but they are also the God’s Honest Truth. My father is not and has never been afraid to give of himself. He has been a teacher and mentor to many, a fast and trusted friend to all. He is open and honest, with himself and with the world. He genuinely loves other people, gets interested in their lives.
If you work for Dick, or with him, he will learn your name and invite you into his life. He develops relationships wherever he goes. About a decade or so ago, Dick had a chance to travel to Pakistan for work and leapt at the chance. His coworkers thought he was crazy. Why would anyone in their right mind go help a bunch of foreigners improve their business efficiency? Much less in a “scary place” – one that American news agencies use to frighten us into tuning in. Dad’s stories of the people he met there are filled with love and respect. He ate their food, met their children, visited their homes. My father taught me that all life has meaning, all humans deserve respect. He is correct.
It is these interpersonal relationships that are the primary reason he is alive today. I can only hope to touch as many lives in my life as Dick has in his. I thank you all for showing me this aspect of my father. So many of you have spoken so frankly to me over the past months, sharing yourselves and your perspectives. I feel blessed to share a name with a man who inspires such love from others.
We are all so very proud and grateful for Dick’s continued success. We continue to pray for his recovery and hope that you will do so as well. I thank you all for sharing this time with my family, for you who read these words are as much a part of this tale as any of us. We are all one people here on this Earth, and I wish you all the very best in the challenges you will inevitably face in your own life. I pray you all find as much success as Dick.
God bless, live well, and may your lives be filled with joy.