We drove home from school, rock music blaring way too loudly from the speakers of my boyfriend’s car, carefree and easy…just the way life as a 17 year old should be. He dropped me off at home with a promise to call me later and I made my way inside.
“Dad, I’m home!” I called out as I dropped my bookbag on the bench in the hall and swung around the banister to head upstairs to my room.
I came to the top of the stairs, rounded the corner, and saw legs. On the ground. Where there shouldn’t be legs.
Fury raged in me. “Are you kidding me?!” I shouted. “You’re drunk already!” As quickly as I had arrived at the top of the stairs I was on my way back down to the bottom. I spent the next three hours sitting downstairs in a world of rage…hating that I was born into a family with an alcoholic parent…hating that I felt like the only responsible one in this house…hating, well, everyone and everything.
‘Just wait till Mom gets home, she can deal with this’, I thought. I’d spent my entire life dealing with it. ‘It’ – a drunk father, a person who couldn’t escape the demons of his past in Vietnam, a guy who tried for a bit but simply couldn’t not drink.
6pm. Mom got home. I sent her straight upstairs to “look for yourself at how drunk Dad is, he’s passed out in the hallway.” She hurried up the stairs calling out my dad’s name as she did, and then,
“Kate! Call 911! Call 911! I think he’s had a stroke!”
My blood froze. My skin lifted off my body. My muscles started shaking uncontrollably. I heard my voice tell the 911 operator, “yes we have an emergency, my dad has had a stroke, how do I know? My mom said that, I don’t know, please hurry.”
I stayed downstairs waiting for the ambulance to arrive, reeling from so many realizations at once…my dad had a stroke…this is bad…I’d left him there…for three hours…that’s even worse…
Oh man, I’ve fucked up so bad.
Out Of Body
The hallways of our house were too narrow for an ambulance stretcher plus lots of people to be in them, so I stayed downstairs while they gathered up my father.
Strapped in and wheeled out, they stopped in the mud room, the last room before heading out of our farmhouse in the middle of nowhere, “What’s that? He’s trying to say something…Kate! Where is Kate? He’s calling for you.”
I can remember coming into the mud room, looking at him all wrapped up in blankets on the stretcher, and not being able to understand what he was saying. But I was there. Or my body was, at least.
He was taken to the hospital and the only thing I can remember from the next twenty-four hours is that I went to school the next day, and told my boyfriend and my friend who did the athletic trainer job with me what was going on.
This was bad, that we understood. But none of us knew what to do about any of it. We were just teenagers, all we knew how to do was be carefree and easy…
It wouldn’t be long before I would experience my blood freezing and my skin lifting off my body again. Sitting in Geography class, there was a knock on our classroom door and we all turned to look to see what was the wonderful disruption to this intensely boring discussion our teacher was hosting. It was the sweet receptionist, and she was here asking to see me.
“I need to see Kate”, she said.
‘Excellent! No more boring Geography class for me today,’ I thought as I stood up and turned towards the door.
“…and bring your books.” Blood, frozen. Skin, lifted.
I looked at my athletic trainer friend who was sitting behind me in class and who knew what was going. It is never good if you’re asked to bring your books with you when you’re called out of the classroom. We locked eyes and matched each other’s wide-eyed, “oh no”, expressions.
The longest walk of my life began, as the receptionist tried to make chit chat while we walked the thirty feet from Geography class to the Dean’s office. Something was very, very, wrong. ‘Why is she talking to me? Why are we walking so slowly? What the hell is happening?’
Finally, we got to the office and she opened the door. Standing in the office was my mother.
‘Oh. No. This is so, so, wrong. My mom is not supposed to be at school,’ I thought.
“Kate, we have to go, it’s Dad.” Confused, frightened, out of my body, I said, “oh, um, ok I need to get my books out of my locker.”
“We don’t have time”, she said.
Out the door, into the car, speeding like a mad woman, my mom drove us to the hospital. Running in the doors with me following her, we ran to the hallway where my dad’s room was. Rounding the corner we were met by three nurses who ran out in front of us to catch us, stop us, tell us…
“It’s too late.”
He was gone.
Shrieks, cries, hugs, words. Me, my mom, the nurses, we were a mess of humans all experiencing the worst together.
A nurse moved us to the room you go to when someone has died. Did you know hospitals have these? I didn’t, until that day. It was a tiny closet of a room, or at least it felt that way to me. Lit only by lamps, it was dim in there, with chairs, tissues, and a phone.
“Kate do you want to go see him?”, they asked. No, of course I didn’t want to. I don’t want to see dead people, let alone my dead father. “Are you sure you don’t want to?” I wasn’t, but I couldn’t.
“Ok, do you want to call someone while your mom goes in?” they asked.
“Yes, I’ll call my boyfriend at school,” I said. He’ll know what to do, I thought. As if a fellow supposed-to-be carefree teenager would know…
I sat there, in that dim room, in the chair with the kind of itchy material you should never put on a chair someone is supposed to sit comfortably in, and called my high school. I made the ludicrous request of the receptionist at school to go find my boyfriend in gym class and put him on the phone. I suppose the only reason they obliged was because an hour earlier they’d seen the beginning of this whole disaster unfold as my mother walked into their office.
My boyfriend picked up the phone and nervously said, “Hello? Kate?”
And that was all it took. Sobs. Horrific, deep, distraught, sobs. I couldn’t speak. He tried to ask what was wrong, tried to get me to talk. I couldn’t. He tried again. I got a few words out, “I’m at the hospital, it’s my dad.” But mostly I just sobbed into the phone to him.
They made us get off the phone at that point, understandably, it was still a school day after all and I wasn’t doing anything other than crying into the phone. That sweet carefree teenager boyfriend of mine later told me that he hung up the phone not really knowing what had happened but understanding that it was bad.
And then, at the end of the day, when the head priest at our Catholic high school got on the PA system, he really knew. You see, the priest doesn’t get on the PA for end of the day announcements unless someone was dead. The priest announced my father’s death to the school, and led a prayer for him and my family.
Meanwhile, I was doing the things you do when you realize your parent is dead…black out on life except to remember how stupidly ugly and expensive the funeral flowers you have to choose from are, and to discuss what to do about a funeral and service since it was Thanksgiving week and people tend to have, ya know, ”plans” for Thanksgiving.
And to realize I had been too late. In so many ways.
I was too late in realizing what was really happening that day I had gotten home from school. I was too late in arriving to the hospital the day he died. I was too late to have helped my dad have a better life.
Being ‘too late’ is the worst feeling of all time.
There are so many options available to you, provided it’s not ‘too late’. Once it’s too late, you really only have one option left. Abandon ship.
I chose to spend the next several years abandoning ship by throwing myself intensely into two wonderful distractions: work, and partying. I found a crowd that supported this lifestyle, “executive partiers”, we called ourselves. Go hard, make good money, earn a promotion every year. Then bring that intensity to partying and go hard, every week, having the time of your life (but destroying your health in the process).
Eventually, I stopped having as much fun with my distractions and started realizing that I was absolutely driving myself straight towards my own “too late”. My health just wasn’t going to hold up to that much intensity, lack of sleep, stress, or binges.
I’d already made a pretty solid mess of things by the time I found myself in the office of the man who would help me stop, change course, and avoid my own “too late”.
Only then did I start to realize…
As I started getting my head clear, started processing what happened to that 17 year old that life-altering week in November, started addressing the dis-ease I’d created in my own body by abandoning ship on it for a few years…
I started realizing that was why it bothered me so much that clients would show up on my doorstep with major aches, pains, and injuries – having thought that it had to get bad before there was anything they could do about it.
I knew so much about how to help people fix their aches and pains, how to get strong, how to be in charge of their body so they could decide what happened to it, instead of feeling stuck in a “too late” moment or like they need to abandon ship on their body.
It was then that I realized that it’s really important to me to help others never have to hit their own “too late” moment…
To catch things before it got that far, to build up the capacity to avoid those things ever occurring in the first place, and to never feel like they need to abandon ship on themselves.
“Too late” moments with your body don’t always mean an ambulance is coming to gather you up. “Too late” moments often look like ‘the damage is done’, surgery is a must, you’ll never do the activity you love again, your body is just this way now.
“Too late” moments are a terrible place to find yourself in.
And if something I excel at teaching to others could help more people avoid ever having to discover they’re in a “too late” moment with their bodies, then damn it, that’s what I was going to do.
But Why Do You Care?
Having experienced my own “too late” moments with my father is why I am intolerant of anyone who tries to spread the lie that “it’s normal to feel crummy as you get older”.
It’s why I still feel prickly when I see someone promoting aesthetics over all else (because aesthetics don’t do anything for helping you avoid a “too late” moment with your body).
It’s why I care so much about ‘making your stuff work nice’.
Because there will possibly be a “too late” moment in your life that you can’t avoid.
But there are so many “too late” moments out there that you absolutely can avoid with your body by taking care of it…
The surgery because your hip has been dysfunctional for so long that it has degenerated.
The sad goodbye to running because of the heel spurs that have grown on your foot because you didn’t know to build function and strength in your feet.
The slow shrinking of your capabilities and confidence with your body as you wake up for thousandth day in a row with pain.
Avoid what’s avoidable. Be ready for what’s not. That pretty much sums up why I do what I do as a coach of movement and fitness.
That day in November was a life-altering moment for me, as ‘too late’ moments tend to be… But it brought me here, now, doing the work I do, being the person I am – helping others build their bodies to avoid what’s avoidable and be ready for what’s not.
And I can’t end this story without mentioning that despite what it may seem, my dad was a rad dude. Who just happened to be very sick with a disease that was the only outlet he had for dealing with untreated PTSD from his time as a Captain in Vietnam. Which is why I support efforts like the Sierra Club’s Military Outdoors and MAPS, both of whom help veterans do healing work in natural ways.