Eighteen

July 7, 1995 – eighteen years ago today – was the worst day of my life. The tragedy of that day is something that I have carried around silently for years. Many of my closest friends have never known this story before today. I don’t really know how long this will ramble on, or if it will even remain coherent. I’m not looking for anything by sharing this – it’s mostly for my own benefit, and on this milestone, it’s time that I told the story.

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The mid-1990s were a transitional time for me. Though I had technically been an adult for several years, it was during that time when I finally started to feel less like a kid and more like a grown-up. In late 1994, I left a job that I had held for almost 6 years to take a management position in the car rental business. I went from having a job with little room for creativity to a position where I was responsible for setting and meeting sales goals, personnel management, maintaining expense accounts, etc. There was much more responsibility, and it was a big move for me – I had moved from just having a job to focusing on a real career. I was making real money (at least in 1994 dollars) and finally felt like I was going somewhere as an adult.

At the same time, I was working as a reserve police officer in the town where I lived. Becoming a police officer had long been a goal of mine; my father was (and still is) in law enforcement, and as many boys do, I wanted to carry on the family tradition and wear the badge. I busted my tail throughout high school and college preparing to go into police work, and I did just that, albeit in a volunteer capacity. Although I wanted to work full time as a law enforcement officer, the job market was quite different in Texas in the 90s, and it seemed that everyone was trying for police jobs. I applied to several departments and even went through the testing for a few, but for the larger departments, they sometimes had 50 people or more testing for each opening. With no military experience and no college degree (I had dropped out before completing my degree), I was lost in the crowd of also-rans. But even though I never worked full time in law enforcement, being able to put on the badge and do the work was fulfillment of a dream in itself. As a reserve officer, I still felt a bit like a kid at first – it took me about a year or so to feel like I actually belonged.

With several positive things converging in my life – I’d fulfilled a dream in becoming a law enforcement officer, I was working in a career that had some real traction – I felt like I was really on track. I got bold – even cocky at times. I regularly bragged to my friends about how well things were going. I snubbed my nose at those lesser than me (the definition of which would vary depending on my mood). I was still a good guy, but maybe a little too proud of what I had accomplished at a young age.

Little did I know that my world was about to be rocked.

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As young and single guys will do, I dated. Up to that point, I hadn’t had any serious long term relationships – I suppose you could say that I was enjoying my freedom. I distinctly remember, though, meeting a young cashier who worked at the same store I did early in the summer of 1994. We saw each other frequently at work, and since we had a mutual friend that we both considered close, we ended up spending a lot of time together. We started dating sometime that summer, and though it was mostly a casual relationship, it stretched into the early fall. I don’t think either one of us was thinking about a long term thing.

That changed in late 1994. I still remember the conversation. Scratch that – all I remember is the phrase that has changed so many young lives: “I’m pregnant.” My emotions were all over the place. I was scared as hell. Remember what I wrote about feeling like an adult? That went out the window in that conversation, as I remember thinking that I’m too young for this. At the same time, I was excited. I’m going to be a dad! I’m going to give my dad his first grandchild! In the end, I remember regaining some of my confidence. I’m smart – I’ll figure this thing out. And I really believed that. We’re going to have a baby. I guess we’ll get married. We’ll raise this little one and live happily ever after.

Life doesn’t always hand out happily ever afters.

Through the spring and into summer, the pregnancy progressed along well. Though I didn’t get to go along to everything, I got a front row seat to ultrasounds, physician conferences, and many of the other periphery of having a baby. It really started to feel real toward the end – we’re really going to have a baby! Somewhere along the way, one of the ultrasounds revealed that the child was a boy. A boy. A son. I’m going to have a son. We decided to pick out a name ahead of time: Tyler.

After a great deal of deliberation, we chose not to get married before the baby arrived. Despite intense pressure from her parents, we didn’t want to force a relationship into a marriage if it didn’t fit. After all, we’d not even approached that conversation before news of the pregnancy, and even in our youth we were thinking to the future and what would be best for all of us in the long run.

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I remember getting the call: It’s time. I threw a couple of changes of my clothes in a duffel (why I hadn’t packed ahead of time, I’ll never know) and headed for the hospital, which was about 30 minutes away. When I arrived, the reality of what was happening really descended on me. Next time I walk out of this hospital, I’m going to have a son. When I arrived, they already had her hooked up and anesthetized, and it was just a waiting game. As it was my first experience in a delivery room (well, technically my second, but I don’t recall the first one), I was surprised at how calm everything was. The hospital staff fully worked up her and the baby, and with no abnormalities found, it simply became a waiting game.

I don’t remember how long we were there before the big event. I remember a lot waiting, followed by pushing, a lot of hand squeezing, some screaming, and after all that, just before 7:30pm on July 6, 1995, Tyler was born. He was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen – ten finger, ten toes, and all of the necessary parts. I loved him the moment I saw him.

The hospital staff in the room were great at maintaining calm through the whole process. However, within a minute of Tyler’s birth, it was obvious from their behavior that something was wrong. They did their best to calm and reassure us, but the rapid change in their collective demeanor was a clear signal that Tyler wasn’t well. They whisked him out of the room and off to the small NICU, as I chased close behind. We had discussed ahead of time that I would stay with the baby at all times while we were at the hospital, but this wasn’t exactly how we’d planned it.

This was a whole new experience for me, so I really didn’t know what to expect. I assumed that maybe he needed some oxygen or fluids to help him along – after all, newborn babies are usually healthy, right? When I saw them hooking him up to an IV, an intubation tube, and a dozen other contraptions, I really began to worry. I really knew we were in trouble, though, when the nursing staff asked me to step out of the room for a bit. During that time, I overheard a conversation between a doctor and another caregiver who didn’t realize I was in earshot, and I’ll never forget those words he said: “He’s a very sick little boy.” Oh my god.

Things happened very quickly after that. The doctor gathered us all back in the delivery room and told us that Tyler was in distress. It wasn’t clear what was wrong, but he was having trouble getting enough oxygen, and the local hospital wasn’t equipped to deal with a situation this critical. We learned that a helicopter was already en route from Oklahoma City to take him to the children’s hospital there, where they had a fully equipped NICU. We agreed to send him, and quickly planned that Tyler’s mom would stay in the hospital to stabilize while I went to Oklahoma City to be with him. Since the helicopter was not configured for non-caregiver passengers, I was left to find my own way to Oklahoma City, which I did in record time.

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By the time I reached OKC, Tyler had been there for over an hour. He’d already been evaluated by the staff in the NICU, and the prognosis wasn’t good. During the conversation with the doctor, I heard a phrase I’d never heard before: polycystic kidney disease. I don’t recall how much of it they explained that day – I’ve done quite a bit of research on it on my own since then – but essentially, PKD is a condition in which the kidneys are full of large cysts, which results in massive enlargement of the kidneys. PKD is often fatal in itself, but a side effect is that other organs can be affected by the enlargement of the kidneys. In Tyler’s case, we learned that his kidneys had grown so large that they actually inhibited the growth of his heart and lungs, rendering them insufficient to sustain his little body.

At some point in that conversation with the doctor, I became lost in emotion and medical jargon. Through the haze, I remember him telling me that there was little they could do but make Tyler comfortable and allow us to spend as much time with him as possible. It was just a matter of hours, days at most.

I didn’t know how to process that. I looked around at this state of the art hospital, with millions of dollars in expensive equipment and highly trained professionals, in a country that had sent men to the moon and back, and couldn’t conceive that there was nothing that could be done to save Tyler. I offered to donate one of my kidneys. No, they said – even with functioning kidneys, his heart and lungs are too damaged. I prayed – at the time I was somewhat religious, and I sincerely prayed that if there was a god, that he would take my life instead of this one that had not even lived.

But in the end, I knew what was coming, so I did the only thing I could do – I held him. I knew it wouldn’t last, but for just a while I would get the opportunity to hold my son in my arms, to feel his warmth, to feel his little heart beat. So together we sat, father and son, for just a little while.

Late the next day, Tyler’s mom arrived from the hospital, having received an expedited release due to Tyler’s deteriorating condition. As we all gathered around him, the staff gently reminded us that his stats – pulse and oxygen saturation – would slowly decrease until both reached zero. We took turns holding him, the monitor constantly reminding us that he was slowly slipping away. At 7:35pm, just 24 hours and 7 minutes after he was born, Tyler died in our arms.

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The next days were a blur, though a few memories stand out. I remember walking into the funeral parlor to pick out a casket. If you’ve never seen a baby-sized casket, it can be a little saddening in itself, but knowing that you are buying one for your own child is almost paralyzing. I remember the funeral – they brought us in after everyone else was already seated, walking us down the main aisle as if we were on display. I remember that we had requested an open casket, but when we saw him, we were so unhappy with the postmortem prep work done by the funeral home that we simply closed the lid. I remember watching the top of that tiny little casket as it disappeared into the grave. Tragically, the sad memories far outweigh the happy ones.

But life goes on.  Eventually I was able to right my ship and set sail again.  Tyler’s mom and I supported each other through our grief but eventually went our separate ways, and haven’t seen each other in many years.  I’ve since married and had 3 great kids.  Sometimes the happily ever after comes later.

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Everything that happens to us shapes us in one way or another.  I believe that the terrible things we go through often have more of an impact than the rest of it.  I knew the moment Tyler was born that he would change me forever, but I didn’t realize just how.  I knew when we buried him that I’d always have a part of him with me.   His death certainly humbled me in a time when I probably needed a little humility.  And now, knowing that he would have turned 18 yesterday, that he would have graduated from high school a few months ago, that he’d officially be a man now, somehow makes me smile and cry at the same time.  But I try to use that for good – when I get frustrated with my 3 kids these days, I try to remind myself that I never got to know Tyler like I know them, and that we should enjoy each other for whatever time we have together.

I believe my memory of Tyler still contributes to my personality, including changes in my world view in the last few years.  He is the namesake of my consulting company.  And as corny as it may sound, I believe it would dishonor his memory for me to live anything but an honorable life.  I hope that I don’t let him down.

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