Day 250

Home.

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.

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Day 193

Greetings from Atlanta!

 

Finally made it down to see Dad, my first visit since Christmas. When last we met, he could not speak in full voice and was just starting to move his legs. Communication was brand new, and the “self” part of Dick had barely begun seeping back into that 6 foot 4 frame. His legs were skin and bones, his voice all but a whisper. His meals were a mushy gray paste, pumped directly into his body by feeding tube. Simple motions like rolling onto his side were seen as tremendous accomplishments.

Today is a much different story.

 

We are proud to announce that Dick graduated from brain school at 10am this morning. He and Mom moved into a lovely little apartment in downtown Atlanta for the next chapter of his recovery. Outpatient therapy begins this coming Monday, and we expect two more months before he is done. At that time he will finally move into his brand new residence in Wilmington, the dream home he and Mom are building for their retirement.

 

Excuse me, I just got interrupted by Dick, who devilishly wheeled himself behind my shoulder to see what I am typing.

 

“I’m writing about you,” I tell him. “Updating the blog so that everyone can follow your progress.”
“Tell them what good food we’re having,” he replies. “Got good eats!”

 

We sure do. Dad now feeds himself every meal, eating well and getting stronger each day. Good food. Real food. Today’s lunch was Brunswick stew and cabbage. Yesterday’s dinner, Sloppy Joe, boiled potatoes, and collards. He has lost quite a bit of weight in the past six months and is now busily putting it all back on. Today he told me that he weighs less than he weighed in high school. Time to get some meat on those bones!

 

We are watching the ACC basketball tournament, where his Wolfpack is hard at work in the semifinal bout versus Duke. College basketball is Dick’s favorite, especially ACC games. Unlike football, this is a sport I enjoy quite a bit, though I never seem to remember that until March. In the spirit of the day, Dick would like everyone to know that Dick Vitale is an idiot. “He’s like someone who gets up on stage and then has no idea why he’s up there.” Just wanted to get that on the public record. It has been far too long since I have seen this man, and much longer since I heard quips like this.

 

A few weeks ago, I ran out of things to tell you. After this visit, my cup floweth over. The man is really, truly back in ways we have scarcely dared to dream. Expect several updates to come out of this visit, which I will post over the next few days. Guess I need to be careful what I write, since Dad will read every word of it.

 

Dick Slack is back, and he’s here to stay. His road is less rocky, but still a very tough one to travel. I will delve more deeply into his current condition next time, but for now we give thanks to God for bringing him this far. We continue to pray for his progress and thank you all for the overwhelming support you have given us during this experience.
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Day 175

I spoke to my father on the phone.

It happened last Thursday, right at the start of Birthday Week. My wife was born on February 20th, and my own birthday is tomorrow. Our annual tradition is to celebrate the whole week. Birthday week is only 6 days long, so we occasionally throw in an extra weekend just for good measure. A pleasant proliferation of Pisces parties. If there’s one thing Pam and I know, it’s how to ignore responsibility in favor of entertaining ourselves. What can I say? It’s a gift.

We were all set for a fabulous week of fun and games. What we didn’t expect was a present from Dad. I’m not sure why I didn’t see it coming, Dad has always been the perfect gift-giver. When I was little, I got the Kenner Star Wars Death Star Playset from Santa Claus, the very first “best gift ever.” As an adult, I never thought I would get anything better than the gas grill Dad gave us when we moved into our new house. I even use that thing in the freezing Ohio winters, I love it that much. This year, though, Dad trumped himself yet again with the best present either of us has ever received: the gift of his words.

I didn’t quite know how to take it when Mom handed the phone over to him. The voice on the other end was not the voice of my father. Instead, the happy sounds that greeted my ears were rough and scratchy, differently pitched than I expected. Imagine the voice of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Now imagine that instead of Reece’s Pieces, young Elliot gave the alien a pack of cigarettes and a case strep throat. That begins to approximate the sounds I heard coming through the phone.

Dad informed me that the folks at Brain School have extended his stay by several weeks due to his remarkable rate of recovery. Most ‘students’ are released after 4 weeks, a mark Dad already passed quite some time ago. It seems he is responding so well they are making an exception in order to keep him on the current plan. Mid-March he will begin the next phase, which is outpatient care. I will delve a bit deeper into this in a later update; for now, suffice to say that Atlanta will remain Dick’s home away from home for quite a while.

Let me reiterate something in case you missed it: Dick was the one who told me all of this. I barely knew how to reply, this felt so like a “moment” that I got lost in the emotional impact of it all. I mumbled something like “Awesome, Dad! So great to hear your voice!” and then sat in silence like an idiot. Soon I was handed back to Mom, who supplied a more-complete recap of events. All the while I sat confused, composing words in my mind I wished I would have said. “Awesome” just didn’t quite cut it. Then Pam got the phone and was much more appropriately teary-eyed and bubbly about the whole thing.

It was a bizarre moment, balanced precariously between elation and anticlimax. Forgive me for saying this, but at first I felt as if I was speaking to a ghost. Most of my dumbfounded silence was due to this morbid realization, and I sat shocked and surprised at myself. I had finally given up a deep secret, one I didn’t realize I had been keeping from myself. I’ve been Head Cheerleader for Team Dick for so long… Well, let’s just say I never realized that somewhere inside I had prepared myself for never again hearing his voice. Without knowing, I had programmed a Plan-B fail-safe into my neural network. “In Case Of Parental Death, Behave This Way.” I thank God every day that we are back on Plan A. That other plan is for the birds.

As I tuned back in to what Mom was saying, I realized that she was now speaking directly to him. “Roll yourself through those doors and tell them you’re here for therapy,” she said. He did. I had no idea he could operate his own wheelchair, but there you have it. He is surprising us all these days.

I don’t write as much as I used to, back when emotions were explosive and urgency was fierce. Much of my own healing process right now is about putting last year aside and moving ahead and forward with life. I do hope these continued updates are sufficient for those keeping up with the Slacks to be a part of the process. Please feel free to reach out if there are specific questions or updates that you need, or if you simply wish to say hello. I look forward to sharing more of Dick’s Journey in the coming days as he continues to travel the road to wellness. Our prayers for Dick continue, and we hope yours do as well.

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Day 160

Dick & Maclyn (2010)

Mom reports that Dick is now very communicative and beginning to gain interest in his condition and surroundings. She has been right by his side every day since Sept 2nd. One of these days I’m going to do a write-up on just amazing she has been throughout this whole process. (Hint: VERY.) For now, though, I’d like to speak a bit on Dad’s growing awareness.

For so long he has existed both here and elsewhere in bizarre simultaneity. Later he started peeking in to say hello from time to time. Now we have reached the opposite: He is mostly here, present and cognizant of his surroundings, but he takes small breaks from reality from time to time. Doesn’t sound so bad that way, does it? I’m kind of like that, too.

A few weeks ago during the Atlanta Snow Debacle, he gazed out the window at the snow, then declared that he needed to “call transportation.” Mom tells me this has something to do with his job responsibilities. Please let the gang at A C Furniture know that Dick Slack is still hard on the job looking out for the rest of the team.

His words come more freely every day, mostly in the form of writing, but he also whispers full sentences and sometimes has a little voice behind it, too. The words don’t come easily, and aren’t always the right ones for the situation. The other day while out on a walk, he asked Mom, “How long until completed?” She searched high and low for how to answer this broad question. Was he asking about his healing process? His time in Atlanta? His new house under construction? No response. After several minutes she gave up and wheelchaired him back to his room. “Completed.” he wrote on his notepad. Seems he was just tired and ready for the end of his day.

Dad raised me to attack a problem by analyzing all the data at hand before rendering judgment. He believes in doing the hard work first, and to face adversity with a smile on your face. I am proud to discover that these oft-repeated axioms of my childhood are far from lip service, they are a part of him. Even in this reduced state, he wants to know what meds they are giving him, and specifically asks about their “Duration, Location, and Cost.” When he gets comprehension tests from his therapists, he gets frustrated if he only gets 7 out of 10 questions correct. We thought that was pretty good, but he says he wanted “80 or 90″ and asked Mom to “help him fix the questions.” She must have done a good job, he hasn’t scored that low since.

The smile is there, too, along with a corny sense of humor that I inherited straight from him. He still doesn’t quite get jokes per se, but he sure knows how to play one on you. He finds little ways to let you know he’s joking around, then he will flash you that Dick Slack grin we all know and love. He can even twist a joke into a poignant moment, as he demonstrated recently. After one of his tests, his therapist told him that he is getting really good with his numbers. He pointed right at Mom and said “She’s Number One.” 

Now that is a Dick Slack comment if I ever heard one. But you know what? He is exactly right.

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Day 157

Dad ate his first meal. Barbecue chicken and beans, like a proper son of the American South. This is the first solid food he has eaten since his breakfast on Sept 2, about an hour before his accident. From that day all the way until Jan 31, the only food he ate was pumped in through a tube.

A little over ten years ago, I was featured in an industrial film called “Pumps in Action.” This was a comic infomercial for a med-tech company promoting their new line of enteral feeding pumps. I was unaware of the term of “enteral feeding” before the gig. I soon learned it means “eating gray food-paste through a belly tube.” I can see why they needed a shorter word for that. As I recall, the script was pretty gray and pasty as well, I have this vague recollection of being dressed as a doctor and fleeing from a giant kangaroo. Not my proudest moment, but the “Pumps In Action” paycheck filled my pantry for quite some time.

Little did I know, more than a decade later, an enteral tube would fill my father’s stomach every day for six straight months. When you are in the moment, it is easy to resent having your loved one hooked up to a variety of beeping robotics. However, now that its function is beginning to become unnecessary, I feel that I can finally allow myself to be grateful for whoever invented this life-saving machine.

The feeding tube once went straight down his throat, then was moved to his nose. This was an uncomfortable stage, strange to look at, but essential. A thing you despise but cannot wish away, for what, exactly, is the alternative? Later they punched a hole in his side and ran the tube in that way. Unnatural, but covering it with a blanket now made its daily presence easier to bear. There is a fine line between hope and denial, and my family knows well that razor’s edge.

I never realized the deep, emotional relationship I had with the tubes. You hate the tubes, you love the tubes, the tubes keep him alive, the tubes keep him immobile, the tubes give him life, the tubes steal his humanity. So many paradoxical vibes surrounding the tubes. Now, though, perspective is beginning to return. Dad is eating again, and I have resolved my odd love/hate relationship with these miracle machines. They are the tools of angels. 

Thank you for continuing to pray for my father. The miracles you have asked for are coming true faster than ever. We ask that you continue to keep Dick in your thoughts as his Journey continues in the days and months ahead.

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