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Crawl or Die

Updated: Nov 18, 2020

I sat with the clipboard on my knee, pen poised over a nearly-completed sentence, trying to think of the right words to finish my thought. I heard a strange, faint sound from somewhere close by, a sound both foreign and vaguely familiar at the same time. My concentration broken, I focused on the sound as I heard it again. What was that? Where was it coming from? And why did I feel like I had heard that sound before? As I heard it for the third time in as many seconds, I was able to pinpoint the location of the sound and glanced down to see a water stain on the corner of the page, growing larger as each tear rolled off my cheek and made the short freefall to splash - kerplop – onto the paper below. The sound of each falling tear was like a metronome marking the tempo for my breaking heart.

I wiped away both the water stain from the page and the tears hanging from my face and glanced at my sisters sitting across the hall from me, each in their own space, coping in their own way – Debbie, ever the voracious reader, thumbing through a dog eared magazine whose words I knew she couldn’t see through wet eyes; Rachel, needles click-clacking as she knitted away mindlessly, stopping on occasion to sigh, wipe at tears of her own, undo a new-found dropped stitch, then resume. I picked up my pen and tried to focus on writing the eulogy I was praying would not need to be delivered.

Debbie had called me at the office earlier in the day, well, technically yesterday, since it was now nearly 1:00 am. The caller ID popping up on the screen had made my heart race no less than a bedside phone ringing in the middle of the night would have done. She never calls me at the office. Something bad has happened! was my only thought as my hand stabbed at the phone.

“What’s wrong?” were the only words I could find.

I heard Deb’s voice confirming my fear. “It’s Dad. He was hurt in the woods. It’s bad.The ambulance is on the way to Penobscot Valley. You need to come”

“I’ll be there in 40 minutes” and the conversation ended as I rushed from my office, shouting a hurried explanation to my office manager on my way out the door.

Of course, without meaning to, I had lied to my sister when I told her I would see her in forty minutes. I made the drive from my office on Hogan Road in Bangor to the emergency room at Penobscot Valley Hospital in twenty-eight minutes, speedometer vibrating against the peg as each milepost winked by in a little green blur. I jumped from the truck at about the same time they were backing the ambulance up to the sliding doors, and as I sprinted through the lobby, I saw the EMT’s rolling a gurney into the first examining room.

Rachel, living only a few miles from the hospital, was already there. Debbie, after calling me from her house in East Millinocket, had made a few other quick calls, then made her own frantic wide-eyed drive on I -95. By the time I got to Rachel, Debbie was scrambling down the hall to join us in a quick hug-huddle separated from our father by the curtain which had been hastily pulled by an ER nurse.

As we waited for any word from the other side of the curtain, Debbie told us what little she knew.

Dad had taken the tractor and chainsaw to the woodlot on the backside of the half acre

field to cut a twitch of pulp wood. For as long as I could remember, dad cut a few cord of pulp each year which he skidded log length to stage by the road for a local trucker to pick up on his way to the mill. The proceeds paid the taxes with maybe enough left over to fill the oil tank for the furnace. He’d worked alone in the woods for a lifetime without incident but today, something had gone wrong. Bev had seen him crawling across the back field heading toward the garage and quickly called 911. She went outside to find he had made it through the back door and was sprawled on the garage floor, a long bright smear trailing behind him where he had dragged his ruined leg before collapsing.

Having grown up in Lincoln, we knew most of the hospital staff and when the ambulance attendant left the examining room to head back to his rig, Rachel and I cornered him. He wouldn’t meet my eye, wouldn’t answer Rachel’s pleas, but when Rachel left to stand again with Debbie, I pushed him for info.

“Burt, this is my dad we are talking about, please, I need to know”.

He sighed, then told me what I didn’t want to hear. “It’s bad Dan. He’s got a serious leg wound, a near complete avulsion of his calf muscle from blunt trauma. He’s lost a lot of blood. We could barely find a pulse, couldn’t record a blood pressure when got to him. Doc is trying to stabilize him long enough for us to try and get him to Bangor”.

I mumbled a feeble thanks, then made my way to the girls not eager to share what I had learned. But they had found a familiar nurse on their own, and by the time we met back in the waiting room, we were able to compare notes. It only helped reaffirm our fears. He was in bad, bad shape. He might not survive this.

About an hour later, the ER doc came and found us, a grim look on his face. He had managed to stop the bleeding, though in reality most of it had pumped out on the ground so stopping what little was left from trickling out wasn’t all that tough. They had IVs running plasma and meds, trying to get his blood pressure up and hopeful that once it was, he would be stable enough for the ride to Bangor where the trauma surgeons were better equipped to save him, and if so, to address the injury.

Other family had gathered and stood talking in muted tones trying to piece together what had happened. I let them try to figure it out – I was more concerned with what would happen in the the next few hours than what had happened in the last. I saw Burt again, this time prepping his rig for Dad’s ride to Bangor. We found the doc and he confirmed that they felt it was now or never to make a run to Eastern Maine Medical. I only caught a glimpse of dad as they wheeled him across the hall, out the sliding door and into the back of the ambulance. I felt empty inside and didn’t have the heart to share with my sisters what I saw – he looked gray, frail, old and totally lifeless.

The ride back to Bangor, just four hours after I had left my office, was less frantic but just as somber. The girls rode with me as other family trailed behind, but even with the company we didn’t talk much. At this point, without more information, we didn’t know what to say. Or perhaps more accurately, knew what to say but didn’t want to say it out loud.

Eastern Maine Medical is a minor city of a hospital compared to Penboscot Valley and it took us a while to figure out where they had taken dad, but eventually found ourselves again camped out in a waiting room hoping for answers. Around midnight an ER doc gave us an update. Dad had survived the ride to Bangor without regressing and now his vitals, though improving, were improving very slowly. Whew, finally some good news, one of us said out loud. But the doctor didn’t echo that relief. The issue, he said, was that despite the plasma and meds, dad’s system wasn’t rebounding as quickly or as well as they expected. It was still touch and go, and it would be a long restless night until we would know the outcome.

The girls and I chatted for a bit. We made a few lists of people to contact, and split up to provide an update to everyone who we thought needed to know. Then we each settled in for a long night, hoping for the best, preparing for the worst. And that’s how I found myself at one in the morning sitting in a waiting room thinking of things about my dad I wanted to say - either to him in the morning when and if he woke up, or about him to his friends and family at a funeral we could unthinkable be having by the end of the week.

I had written a lot. I have always used lists and short bullet points to organize my thoughts, and that is what I had started with. Surprisingly, given the stress I was feeling, the words flowed from my heart to my mind to my pen, and I had filled several pages with memories I wanted to share, among them, these two stories:

As a younger man, dad had been a big, powerful man, easily 6’4”, strong as an ox, and a remarkable athlete. I had heard stories, even seen some of the grainy black and white photos, so I was aware of it, but I got a first-hand glimpse of what must have been very recently just two summers before the accident. He was sixty-eight that summer. My sisters and I, our spouses and children, had all spent July 6th and 7th tenting out in dad’s back yard. One morning after breakfast, we had started hitting softballs in the field beside the house. Dad had mowed it short and while it wasn’t quite Fenway, it was green and bright and spacious. My dad came out of the house with an old, battered glove – one he had used when he was still playing competitively.

He took the mound and pitched fat, looping underhand softballs to everyone, and adroitly snagged everything hit within arm’s length. My nephew Nick and I, always competitive when we were together on any kind of playing field, took turns seeing which of us could hit a longer fly ball, each trying to land one into the strip of tall grass that marked the end of field which ended a few yards from the neighbor’s black topped driveway. While both Nick and I were good ball players and each hit some long fly balls, neither of us got within twenty yards of the field’s edge and my dad started teasing us by throwing overhand knuckle balls that danced around the plate that we could barely hit out of the infield, and breaking curves that we couldn’t hit at all.

Amidst the laughing and teasing, someone challenged the “old man” to show the kids how to do it. He rubbed his back, flexed his shoulders and tossed a ball to my sister. As he grabbed the bat and stepped to the plate he said “put ‘em low and outside Deb”.

Since Dad hadn’t swung a bat in years and had undergone back surgery a few years before, Nick and I grabbed our gloves with a laugh and trotted to the outfield, stopping just past second base. Dad swung and missed the first pitch and winced a bit as old muscles began to remember what they were supposed to do, then he connected on the second pitch which landed in the grass a fair way behind us. Nick and I backed up. The next pitch went over our heads too. We backed up again, then again as his third and fourth hits also went beyond our reach. Nick and I realized we were now standing near the spot where each of our farthest hit balls had landed earlier and looked at each other in surprise. The real surprise came next.

Dad unleashed on Debbie’s next pitch and we watched in shock as the ball sailed well over our heads, over the strip of tall grass to land with a thunk in the middle of the neighbor’s driveway, rebounding back skyward, level with the eve of the roof. We watched the ball bounce and roll to a stop against the doorstep, then heard the crack of the bat. Turning, we watched as another, and another, and yet another ball launched from his bat landed in the neighbor’s driveway, each a little further than the last, to bounce and roll to a rest against the house. Dad tossed the bat aside, lit a cigarette and sat back in his lawn chair while Nick and I gathered up the balls then trotted in to sit with him.

“Why did you stop hitting Pop, did you hurt your back?” I asked.

He took a long last dragged on his cigarette, then let out a slow breath of smoke.“Naw”, he said. “I didn’t want to break any windows” and flicked the butt aside.

At UMaine Presque Isle, Nick had been an All-American Soccer Player. I was no slouch myself – I had been named captain of the track team at UMaine and had set a few fieldhouse and meet records. But I realized that sunny July morning that even if I had been twice as good, I still would have been half the athlete dad must have been when he was in his twenties.

The other memory I jotted down had occurred just a few months before the accident, reaffirming my belief in what a remarkably powerful man Dad must have been in his prime. I had bought an old Farmall tractor to work my woodlot and needed some wheel weights. Dad and I went to the tractor junk yard in Dover-Foxcroft and found what we needed. The junkyard is a u-pull setup so we backed the truck as close as we could get to the parts tractor and set to work.

Tractor wheel weights are nothing more than large cast iron discs, several inches thick and about thirty inches in diameter with a hole through the center where it slides onto the tractor axle. Each one weighs well over one hundred pounds and I needed four. Once we had them off the parts tractor, I wrestled one up, wrapped both hands through the center hole, and in a half-bent waddle-walk made my way back to the truck with the weight hanging between my knees. I got the weight swinging a bit, then with a grunt tossed the weight partway onto the tailgate where I could push and hip-check it further into the bed.

Impressed with myself and sure that dad would be equally impressed with the physical prowess needed to get such a large weight to the truck and loaded all by myself, I turned, chest full of pride in anticipation at the look of approval I would get from dad. Hey, even at 42, I was still my father’s son and wanted him to be proud of my ability. Instead, the air slid out of my chest and my mouth dropped open as dad, just a few months shy of his 70th birthday, walked the last few strides to the truck with a weight in each hand, and with the slightest shrug of his still broad shoulders, heaved first one, then the other, well into the bed of the truck with a loud clank. He leaned against the side of the truck and lit a cigarette. Through a puff of blue smoke, I saw his smiling face as he said, “You want help with that last one?”

On a separate piece of paper, I had started writing “Grampa’s Spruce”, a short story about the first time my father had taken me hunting when I was ten, the first fall after his father had passed away, and was trying to finish the last sentence when my thoughts had been interrupted by that strange yet somehow familiar sound of my tears striking the paper. And then it hit me, the sound WAS familiar! As I remembered when I had heard it before my tears came a bit faster and my heart broke a little more. I jotted down enough words to bring that long-ago memory to life now, many years after that long, awful night.

When I was a small boy still living in Lee with my dad, mother and sisters, each Saturday morning my dad would sit in his blue easy chair in the living room with the paper. I would find the funny pages and climb up next to him on the flat arm of his chair so he and I could read our papers together. One morning, in fact the last morning that I would ever sit and read the paper with my dad, I was trying to see what Beetle Bailey and Sarge were up to when I heard a strange, faint, noise from somewhere close by. I stopped reading and tried to figure out the sound. I heard it again, glanced down and realized I was crying and my tears were pooling on the paper in my lap. I was too young to really know what was happening around me, but my heart knew because tears rolled freely down my face and splashed noisily – kerplop – kerlop - kerplop onto the funny pages forgotten on my knees. My waiting room tears were marking perhaps the end of my life with my father, as he was weak and possibly dying in the room right behind my chair, while those living room tears, shed so many years ago, had marked the end of my life with our family, for that was the day my mother packed the car with her belongings, my sisters and me, and we left Crockertown for the last time.

As I finally started to wrap my head and heart around the possible, perhaps probable, outcome of the long afternoon and night, I resigned myself to the harsh truth that the sound of tears falling on paper could be the bookends to my time with my father and that in all likelihood, he too had left Crockertown for the last time. My breath caught in my chest and I tried to choke back a sob as it rolled from my heart to my throat to crawl noisily out of my mouth. Sure that my sisters had heard my pain, I glanced at them again; they had both somehow managed to fall asleep or at least appeared to be asleep.

I set aside the clipboard. I put down the pen and wiped away another streak of tears. I lay my head back against the wall, let the anguish of the new-found memories as a six-year-old mix and melt into the sorrow I felt from the long day of uncertainly, whispered a furtive, “please, not yet” and unashamed, cried myself to sleep.

The nurse gently shook me awake sometime after dawn. Another young woman was kneeling between my sisters, talking softly to each of them in turn. It took me a long, confused moment to reconnect before I could understand what the nurse in front of me was saying, “Your father is awake. He wants to talk to you before they take him into surgery”. We gathered ourselves, still not clear on the prognosis and followed her to dad.

He was weak and pale, but the deathly gray I had seen the night before was gone. He gave me a weak smile and said, “I figured you could use a day off from work”. As the staff busied themselves preparing everything needed to roll him into the surgical unit, he haltingly told us what happened. He had taken the tractor to the woodlot by the half acre field and stopped to cut a spruce tree beside the road that was about 14 inches in diameter. When the tree fell, it landed on a hummock and sprang back at him. He tried to scoot out of the way, but his foot lodged against an old tractor wheel that he had discarded there years ago. The butt of the tree jammed against his leg, just below the knee, pinching his calf muscle against the tractor wheel as effectively as a bear trap. He couldn’t get his saw running to cut himself free but was able to use the saw bar to get enough leverage to extricate himself. But the damage was already done.

He was bleeding profusely, his boot already filled and heavy with blood, and the tree had fallen across the road blocking him from using the tractor to get back to the house. He turned toward home and started to walk. It only took a few steps for him to realize how bad things were. He was getting lightheaded and unsteady, and when he fell down, he realized it was time to crawl or die. So, he crawled. A quarter mile. Four hundred yards. For a tall man like him, when walking upright it would have only taken five hundred steps. Five hundred steps ‘til home.

He survived the tree. He survived the crawl. He survived the night. He survived the surgery. Because of that, I was able to keep the promise I uttered to myself over and over during the frantic drive and restless hallway pacing and through the rest of that long night of waiting. If he wakes up, share these words with him. And I did. At least most of them. I reworked Grampa’s Spruce so that it was written with exactly five hundred words, to memorialize the strength of will to crawl and drag himself what should have been just five hundred steps ‘til home. I gave it to him for Father’s Day later that year.

And now, I’ve put the rest of the memories I had jotted down outside the emergency rooms of two different hospitals over the course of eighteen hours back together on clean copy without tear stains so that I can share them as a gift for dad’s 83rd birthday. I know he will read them and nod and smile, and maybe even wipe away a tear or two. When I call to wish him a happy birthday, we might talk about these words, but more likely we’ll talk about tractors and fishing and kids, and Patriots football. But I know he will appreciate these words, and because he is still here to read them, I need nothing more.

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