I can see it in my “mind’s eye” as if it were yesterday. The year was 1972. My family was about to wrap up the biggest event of the year during our lives in a little town in Western Kansas. It was late June and my father was on a Massey Ferguson combine, slowly working his way around the last field of wheat during harvest that year. For those of you who aren’t familiar with that part of the country, let’s just say it’s like Christmas in late June. Wheat harvest was the culmination of 10 long months of waiting after the first seeds were placed into the ground the previous fall; waiting for the crop to emerge, praying for rain for the next 10 months, hoping insects wouldn’t take our crop, or the worst thing that nature could throw at her at the last minute with damaging hail just as the crop ripened. It was, and is, always an exciting time, filled with anticipation, especially if the crop was good. That year was no different. As you read, imagine you’re with me….
It’s late afternoon. The sun is beginning to work its way to setting an end to another day. I can “see” my father on the open combine on the north side of the 80 acre field, about a half-mile away. There’s hardly a breath of wind. I’m lying on the hood of our 1963 GMC pickup with my back to the windshield, admiring the view and soaking in the sounds of the gentle hum of the combine far away as it pulls in the precious crop, grinding the chaff and stalks away, placing the precious kernels of wheat into the combine’s grain bin. The temperature has fallen from a high of near 100 to probably the upper 80’s or low 90’s. A beautiful moment that I’ll always remember.
And then she appears. My mother has taken in the previous load of wheat to our local elevator with one of our farm trucks, has filled it with gas, checked the oil, and is returning the truck to the field to await loading of the precious cargo from Dad’s combine. In that part of the country, the geography of the land is very flat and sometimes it seems you can see forever, much like gazing at a vast expanse of ocean seas. She’s driving the truck on a paved highway a mile away, coming south, just behind and to the left of the combine I can see in the foreground. Behind her is a good friend in her car, waiting to pick Mom up and take her back to our farm after she leaves the truck at the field. She never makes it.
As the truck rolls slowly south, a slight hill in front of me obscures my view as the truck disappears behind it. If it had been any one of our other fields of wheat, that hill wouldn’t have been there. As I said, Kansas is very flat, especially the western part. Thank God for that hill.
I could see all of these events unfolding before my very eyes. I was 13 years old. The only boy among a family of eight; my Dad, Mom, and five sisters. Now the ears take over. Moments after the truck disappears behind the hill, I hear one of the most horrific noises I’ve ever heard in my life. No screeching of tires, nothing. Just the God-awful crash. And now the eyes take over again. A vast plume of dust rising slowly straight up, right where Mom was making a left turn off the two-lane highway onto a gravel road. The pickup she met and its occupant, a man who later died that night from massive internal injuries, was frantically trying to make his way to our little town of Tribune for repairs on HIS combine. He was coming from one of his own fields further south, travelling north, in the opposite direction, and it was estimated later he may have been driving at a high rate of speed, though within legal limits, and certainly not unusual for that part of the country. All anyone could guess is that Mom misjudged his speed. Perhaps she thought she could make the left turn before he met her. We’ll never know. It was nearly a head-on collision.
That moment changed my life forever. Instincts took over. I jumped into the pickup, started the engine, shoved it into gear, and floored it on the gravel road over the hill. I was the first person on the scene. And that’s not the worst part. In the early 70’s, there wasn’t anything remotely resembling an “ambulance” in our little town, let alone the term “paramedic.” I was COMPLETELY alone at the site of the accident for what seemed like forever. I remember getting out as I arrived, looked to my right, and saw the man who was in the pickup, propped up with his back against the side, the top of the pickup peeled away neatly from the violent collision. He was covered from head to toe in blood. I ran over to where Mom’s truck was on the other side of the ditch next to the highway. The force of the collision had slammed her body out of the PASSENGER side door and she was laying face-down by the side of the truck. Hardly any blood. Just this strange breathing noise. Imagine you’re trying to catch your breath. You do it once, maybe twice. Then you breathe normal again. Mom wasn’t breathing normal. It was as if her body was trying to catch its breath, very quietly… again, and again. And again. I mentioned earlier the lack of what one would call an ambulance in those days. I remember clearly how Mom was “transported” to the hospital in Tribune 6 miles away. Once people started arriving on the scene, they concocted a “stretcher” out of a large piece of plywood my father and I had nailed to the wood bottom floor bed of the truck my Mom had been driving. The plywood was there to cover up a hole in the floor bed so grain wouldn’t pour through. I watched as a couple men jumped into the back of the truck, grabbed crowbars, yanked the plywood from the floor, then handed it to two more men waiting below, who then placed Mom on it, before sliding that plywood “stretcher” into the back of a vehicle for the trip to the local hospital. She had numerous and severe injuries, most of them internal, was on a respirator, and never regained full consciousness. About two weeks later she died. The doctors told us if she lived she would have been in a permanent vegetative state from severe head trauma.
How did I deal with that grief? It will be 39 years since my mother’s passing this coming July 11th. I can’t give you a pat answer. Fact is, there are none. Certainly, time played a huge factor in the grief process. The old saying “time heals all wounds” is so true. But it goes much much deeper. Dealing with the death of someone you love is extremely PERSONAL. As we know, everyone is different. Each of us has our own unique ways of dealing with it. Still, I can offer you these perspectives.
First though, let me say this. I recall the first couple of years after her death as if I was in a constant state of shock, a fog where I don’t remember much of what happened during that time. I remember only the first few hours, days, and weeks, both shortly after the accident as well as after her death. Keep in mind, I was only 13 at the time and it was if a nuclear bomb had exploded our lives as a family into little pieces. Imagine, if you will, a car engine. It has many working pieces, one of which is the main crankshaft that has a flywheel attached to it that turns your engine over. If that flywheel is damaged in any manner, it doesn’t matter HOW well the rest of the parts are working in the engine, the car simply won’t start. Mom was our family’s flywheel. Losing her was as if our life ended. It took TWENTY-FIVE years before I could place a picture of her on a shelf in my office without bursting into tears.
What then, besides time, has it taken? For me, it took yet ANOTHER tragedy to occur in my life, this one self-inflicted. Rather than go into any detail on that, suffice it to say that once I “awakened” fully about three years ago, is when I began to realize the significance of her death. What I’m about to tell you may come as a shock, but if my Mom hadn’t of died, I am CONVINCED I wouldn’t be writing these words to you at this very moment. I wouldn’t have left Kansas at the age of 16, bound for San Diego County, where my Dad’s sister taught high school, and where I graduated in 1977. I wouldn’t have gone on to San Diego State University and got my Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration in 1982. I wouldn’t have RETURNED to Kansas in 1985, where I worked for the local bank for the next 23 years, where I married, fathered two children, and farmed once again with my father. I wouldn’t have succumbed to an insidious, cunning, baffling, and powerful disease, yet emerging from those ashes as a better man and a better person. I wouldn’t have returned once again to San Diego just last year in March 2010 to start a new life and a “new way of living.”
Was her death then a blessing? No. Certainly not. That’s not my point. Point is, I’ve taken her death and made it possibly something MUCH greater, something I can share in LIVING, something I can share with YOU, that anything is possible, that we can look at death not as the end of life, but as a new beginning. That “new” beginning will be rough. You will stumble and fall. You’ll feel as if you have control over…nothing. Think of it this way. It’s as if you are born anew. Remember what it was like when you were a child or even watched YOUR child grow? Making mistakes, crying, falling down, picking themselves up and wiping the dust off. But eventually, you’ll learn. You’ll learn how to think, how to act, how to TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF. In other words, “Trust the process.” It WILL happen. That’s a guarantee. There’s not a doubt in my mind that she is with me right now, AT THIS VERY MOMENT, helping me to type these words. Helping me to inspire, uplift, and HELP others, including YOU.
Death of someone you love doesn’t mean YOUR life has to end. We have to look at making something positive out of what seems the WORST possible thing that can happen to us. We turn a weakness into possibly the greatest asset and strength we’ve ever had; for ourselves, for our families, and for each other. This includes all of you. If you’re presently still in shock like I once was, if you’re still in that fog of despair, if you feel you’re at the end of your rope, let my story and my words give you HOPE that there WILL be new and brighter days ahead, filled with love, laughter, and utter peace in your life. May God Bless you all.