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Monthly Archives: May 2014

Friday

“Can you call me?”

It was the text that I had anticipated, dreaded, for about a week. It came from Warren’s wife, Elizabeth.

It was early evening in Philadelphia. We were fighting traffic in an unfamiliar city. I didn’t want to return the call until we were able to stop so that I could concentrate. But by the time we had arrived at our hotel, Elizabeth had texted me that perhaps we could talk later.

Margy and I were in town for the Dad Vail Regatta, the largest collegiate rowing regatta in the United States. Approximately 125 colleges competed in over 175 races held on Friday and Saturday on a six-lane, 2,000 meter course on the Schuylkill River just northwest of downtown Philadelphia. It was the last domestic regatta of Katie’s college career. We had wanted the weekend to be special for her.

I sent texts to Elizabeth to let her know that I was available. Finally, a little after ten, Warren’s brother Bob texted me to let me know that Warren was gone. I talked to Bob and Elizabeth briefly, then called a few people close to Warren, people who I thought should receive the news by phone from a friend rather than through email or text.

Warren had become so sick that I wasn’t entirely sorry he had died; no more suffering. Even so, I felt sadder than I anticipated. It was the finality. I kept thinking that there would be no more conversations, no laughs, no trips to Wildflower, no more shared favorite music. He was just gone forever.

I didn’t sleep much.

Saturday

Katie and her boat had made a decision that I questioned. Instead of entering the Division II/III category for four-rower boats with coxswains, they had decided to row in the “Open” or Division I category. So, instead of rowing against other small colleges like Bowdoin (enrollment approximately 1,839), they took on Division I schools, schools that national media have cited as football “powerhouses.” They did this for at least two reasons. The girls wanted to race tough competition to prepare for the summer’s upcoming trip to England where they would row in the Women’s Henley Regatta. More importantly, the girls believed that they could win.

In their first heat, Bowdoin had taken on Florida (enrollment approximately 50,000), Virginia Commonwealth University (enrollment approximately 31,000), Clemson (enrollment approximately 21,000), and Penn State (enrollment approximately 98,000). Katie’s boat had rowed the course in 7:06 and the nearest competitors came in at 7:20. There were five additional heats featuring schools like Army, Drexel, Temple, UConn, Northwestern, MIT, Villanova, Purdue, NC State…the list went on but no boats got any closer; Bowdoin’s was the fastest of 35 boats in the first heats.

Note that rowing is a club sport at Bowdoin; Katie will never win a varsity letter for her four years of rowing. There is no recruiting. There are no rowing scholarships. The team sells hats, tee shirts and sweatshirts to raise money. They stay in people’s homes when away for regattas whenever they can. Even in the relatively low-budget world of Division III sports, club rowing operates on a shoestring budget.

Saturday’s weather forecast had looked iffy, so Katie and her boat had rowed hard to attain the best qualifying time in Friday’s first heat. If the weather prevented semi-final and final races on Saturday, the fastest time would win. Even so, Katie felt that they had rowed hard in their Friday heat but not all out. “About 90 percent,” she estimated.

Early on Saturday morning, Margy and I talked before leaving our hotel and heading to the regatta. We wondered when we should tell Katie that Warren had died. We decided that she would not have time to absorb the news before her first race of the day, the semi-finals held in the early morning, and that we should wait until after that race finished. Should she be fortunate enough to move on to the finals, we could tell her and she would have time to regroup before the 3:23 pm race.

We arrived at the venue and listened as Katie and her boat’s crew talked. The girls exuded a quiet confidence. It wasn’t a swagger or an attitude disposing the girls to boast. Their confidence, their belief in themselves, showed up in their discussion of strategy. The girls carefully considered how they wanted to race. But they only talked about the amount by which they wanted to win. Did they want to “let the dogs off the leash” and go all out and win by a lot, thus risking that they might be fatigued when racing in the final? Or did they want to go out, get ahead and stay ahead only by a boat length or two, thus saving energy for an all-out push in the final? They never seemed to consider what to do if they fell behind. It never seemed to occur to them.

Bowdoin’s head rowing coach, Gil Birney, gathered the girls before they were to launch for the semi-finals. Gil provided a mix of strategy and inspiration. When I had talked to Gil earlier about Katie’s boat and crew, Gil said that they were so good that he just tried to stay out of their way. This deflection was predictably modest and completely untrue; Gil was a master of his craft. After Gil’s briefing, the team put all hands into the middle and shouted, “Go Black!”

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Then the girls went through their own routines. They stayed in a tight huddle and sang a song softly, dancing to the rhythm.

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Then they turned more rambunctious and gave one another painful hand slaps.

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The girls hoisted the 42 foot boat onto their shoulders and walked slowly toward the dock to launch.

Courtney Payne, left, and Katie.

Courtney Payne, left, and Katie.

Then, just as she was about to get onto the dock, I told her, “Concede nothing – to anyone.” She smiled and waved, set up her boat, received some last-minute coaching from Gil, and headed out onto the river. The boat pointed downstream, the girls rowed lazily, then turned back up river toward the start.

Katie and I have a set of hand gestures that dates back to “The Princess Diaries” when she was in second or third grade.

 

Pinky squared.

Pinkie squared.

I told Gil about Warren’s death and said that Margy and I had decided to talk to Katie after she finished her morning semi-final race. We did not think that it was right to keep the news from her – and we believed that she would learn sooner rather than later, probably the next time she got on Facebook, something all college kids seem to do several times an hour. Gil agreed and offered his condolences. He said that he thought that Katie could rally in time for the finals.

The semi-finals, featured 18 boats out of the 35 that had entered the Open division. Katie’s heat proved to be yet another coast. This time, the Bowdoin boat went into the lead, then held their ground without overexerting. I stood by Gil as the boats came into the finish line.

“Look at how much harder the other boats are rowing,” he said. “We’re at a 31 or 32 and they’re going all out.”

Gil was referring to stroke rate. A racing pace would have been 35 or 36 strokes per minute while a merely strong and steady rate would be more like the 31 or 32 that Katie’s boat held.

Watching the Bowdoin women's varsity one boat at the Dad Vail Regatta in Philadelphia

Watching the Bowdoin women’s varsity one boat at the Dad Vail Regatta in Philadelphia with Gil Birney.

In a subsequent heat, the University of Massachusetts turned in a faster time than Bowdoin. Now Bowdoin had to hope that the weather held and that there would be a final that afternoon. I looked at my iPhone and the chances of rain at 4:00 pm were 80%. The little symbol on the phone showed a dark cloud with a lightning bolt. A thunderstorm would bring racing to a halt – and maybe cancel the rest of the regatta. A cancellation before the final would leave Bowdoin in second place.

Katie was all smiles as she got off the water and began to change into more comfortable clothes. I hung around the tent to offer rowers and their parents sandwiches and drinks while Katie changed. Then I looked over my right shoulder and saw Margy hugging Katie. Katie was crying. She had intended to post on Facebook so that her friends would know the results of the semi-finals but had been greeted with news of Warren’s death. She dissolved. It wasn’t the way that she wanted to find out. It wasn’t the way we wanted her to find out.

Katie had known Warren for her entire life and his illness and impending death had been difficult for her. She couldn’t hear about Warren’s situation without crying. Now, here she was on a day that should have been thoroughly happy. Eventually, Katie’s teammates surrounded her, giving her hugs, offering support, sharing her sadness. The girls decided to return to their hotel rooms to rest and prepare for finals – the rowing final coming up at 3:23 that day and their college finals to begin on Monday following the regatta.

Once the girls had returned to the rowing venue after a couple of hours away, it appeared that Katie had rallied. Before the crew began their customary routine, Katie’s teammate Courtney asked if it was OK if they did “that thing.” Katie nodded yes.

Courtney went around to each member of the boat’s crew and inscribed a small “WT” on the inside of each girl’s right wrist in honor of Warren. The girls placed a “WT” on my wrist, too, and I put one on Margy’s wrist.

My right wrist.

My right wrist.

The skies had darkened and clouds hovered over the western horizon but the weather was holding when Katie’s boat set out. The girls rowed slowly downstream in the direction of downtown Philadelphia. The air was thick with humidity. The trees were a light spring green with leaves not yet fully out. The sun felt warm, even through the sky was cloudy. A haze clung to the river valley.

Before coming to an old arch bridge, the girls turned the low, long, narrow boat around, then headed back up the river for one last race. Margy and I began our walk to the grandstand after offering the girls cheers that the girls may not have heard over the traffic on Interstate 76 near the river’s opposite bank.

We found seats in the grandstand near other Bowdoin parents and crew alumni who had been Katie’s former teammates. The skies continued to darken. The last race before Katie’s featured Bowdoin’s second varsity women’s boat. Before that second varsity race started, it began to rain. It was a shower at first but became a strong, steady rain. The announcer let us know that racing had been halted temporarily after the second varsity boat finished.

Then the rain eased. The announcer said that Katie’s race was underway. I stood up and went to the railing near the water. Looking up the race course offered a view of the Schuylkill River laying at the bottom of a steep valley covered with hardwood trees. 1,000 meters up the course was a very tall steel bridge where the boats turned slightly to starboard, then came straight into the finish just beyond the grandstands. I stood and strained to see the boats coming toward the bridge. Then, suddenly, the rain came pounding down. The wind picked up – from a slight breeze to a 40 mph gale, gusting and swirling. Rain squalls lashed the river surface suddenly foaming with white caps. Cardboard, paper, bags, leaves and branches flew through the air. The crowd outside the covered grandstand surged in to get under cover. The bridge upstream disappeared, then the opposite shore disappeared, both behind the thick curtain of rain and wind. I could see only 100 to 200 meters. Katie’s former teammates said that there was no way to race under those conditions. They said that the race had probably been canceled. I worried that one or more of the boats would capsize or swamp with waves crashing over the bow. I thought of Katie and wondered how she would get her feet out of the shoes attached tightly to the bottom of the boat if the boat sank.

After what seemed like a very, very long time, one boat emerged from the sheets of rain 400 to 500 meters up the course. Another boat came into view, then another. Finally, all six boats appeared to be upright and still rowing. The wind continued to push against them. With each stroke, when oars went into the water, huge plumes of spray exploded and sailed over and into the boats and rowers. But the girls kept rowing.

As the boats approached the grandstands, I strained to see. Which boat was in the lead? Was it a close race? Who was in second? Finally, I could make out the white hull, white oar blades, black uniforms and white hats. I saw the “6” on Mary Bryan Barksdale’s back. Bowdoin. The girls, our girls, were in the lead, struggling against the wind.

Copyright 1997 - 2014, row2k.com

As the boats passed the grandstands, it was a clear that Bowdoin was well ahead, ultimately finishing seven seconds before the University of Massachusetts. I still couldn’t see much. Pictures that I saw later showed that Katie and Courtney had broken into tears immediately upon finishing. The girls reached back and forward to hug the rower in front or in back of them. Race officials instructed the girls to row their boats to their docks as quickly as possible and to get off the water to avoid the dangerous weather. Ordinarily, the girls would have rowed back to the grandstands, gotten out of their boat, received medals and jackets and posed with a trophy. Before they rowed away, the girls all looked at us in the stands, held up their right wrists and pointed to the “WT” written there.

It took time for Margy and me to walk down to meet Katie. Debris was strewn across the regatta grounds now puddled with muddy water. Rowers, coaches, parents and spectators were soaked and spattered with mud. Margy and I walked quickly but took care not to fall or get hit by boats that the crews hauled back to racks and trailers. When we approached the Bowdoin Rowing tent, Katie ran toward us. She was crying.

She told us her story. After leaving the dock, it had rained on their way up to the start area but it wasn’t bad. Then, while waiting to line up, the rain intensified. Katie said that all at once it occurred to her: The lake at Wildflower had been dry, empty. Now she was in Philadelphia near where Warren had gone to school and the rain…it was Warren! The boats lined up to race but the officials held the start because of the bad weather. Then a small patch of sunlight opened up in the sky over the start area. (No such sunshine had been visible to Margy and me near the finish.) Katie thought it was Warren again, now with sunshine for her and her boat. The officials said “go.”

Katie said that it began to rain hard shortly after they had begun the race but that the wind had come up strongly, suddenly and without warning. At one point on the course, the wind had actually blown the boats backward. She said that the only good thing was that the wind had blown her boat backward less quickly than the other boats in her race. Sophie, Katie’s boat’s coxswain couldn’t see in the driving rain. She wasn’t sure that the girls could hear her directions in the wind. She ended up bailing water out of the boat believing that there was little else she could do. Meanwhile, the Bowdoin boat slowly pulled ahead and approached the finish. In the end, it took more than two minutes longer to finish the final than it had to finish the first heat (7:06 versus 9:09). Katie commented that it might have been the slowest winning time of any Dad Vail race in history.

Copyright 1997 - 2014, row2k.com

 

Copyright 1997 - 2014, row2k.com

Copyright 1997 - 2014, row2k.com

 

Belief

Belief is the sincere conviction that something is true, even if you can’t prove it. Many times, whether what you believe is actually true doesn’t much matter. It’s what believing makes you do that counts.

Proving supernatural intervention is not so easy. That it was Warren who brought the rain missing from California back to Philadelphia seems unlikely. After all, I spent a lot of hours with Warren looking for things around his house that he wanted to pack for the trip to Wildflower but had forgotten exactly where they were. Giving him credit for a rainstorm and a brief view straight up through the clouds to the sun and heavens beyond seems like a bit of a stretch. But whether it’s true or not is entirely beside the point. Katie believed it was true.

In reaction to Warren’s death, Katie’s teammates rallied to her side. They offered her love and support. Suffering became a shared burden, ultimately more bearable together than if borne alone. That sadness brought the girls together; sadness transformed to strength.

Is there an afterlife? I don’t know how anyone could possibly prove it one way or another. What I do know, though, is that Warren’s influence extended beyond his lifetime and affected people he never met. Who would have ever guessed that Warren’s life and death would provide sadness, strength, inspiration and, ultimately, belief to a girls rowing team from a small college in Maine?

Last Thursday, the day before the Dad Vail Regatta, had someone asked all 1,839 of Bowdoin’s students whether they thought that their school’s women’s rowing team could defeat the likes of Penn State, UConn, Massachusetts, North Carolina State, Clemson, Northwestern, Villanova and 27 other schools, I bet that 1,834 would have said “no.” Of the five students who would have said “yes,” four of them grabbed oars and one sat in the coxswain’s seat. They were the five right girls in the right place at the right time. All five believed. And maybe they had more than a little help from a sixth person that four of them never met.

Happy Mother's Day, one day early.

Happy Mother’s Day, one day early.

After the race; still raining.

After the race; still raining. Left to right: Mary Bryan Barksdale, ’15, Courtney Payne, ’15, Sophie Berube, ’16, Emily Martin ’15, Katie Ross, ’14.

Aberdeen Dad Vail Regatta 2014 Champions

Aberdeen Dad Vail Regatta 2014 Champions

I don’t know if Elizabeth plans to have a funeral or memorial service for Warren. For me, looking out onto a windswept Schuylkill River and seeing five college girls absolutely overwhelmed with joy point to their wrists marked with “WT” is an awfully nice way to remember Warren. He was loved. He’ll be missed. He inspired.

 

Note: The photos above from Row2K.com are used without permission; provided, however, that I have ordered and paid for two sets of each print. 

 

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Limits

For many, endurance athletics represent an opportunity to test personal limits, to push beyond a point previously unexperienced. Since this was to be my twelfth trip to Wildflower, I did not think that I would face much of a test. I was wrong.

Saturday, April 26, 2014: Room 4221

El Camino struck me as a hospital designed primarily to house patients, not someplace built to suit medical equipment. Sun poured in through large windows that looked out on trees and park land. Quiet, clean and modern. Margy and I boarded the elevator and pushed the button for the fourth floor. We exited the elevator, walked past the nurses’ station and tiptoed into Warren’s room. Warren’s wife, Elizabeth, his brother, Bob, and nephew, Martin, were gathered there.

“Look, honey, here are Scott and Margy,” Elizabeth said to Warren.

Warren looked pale, his neck goitered from the Dexamethasone used to control the swelling around his brain tumor. Warren was bald. He laid in his hospital bed covered with an old quilt. His head turned to the right. His left side was now limp and practically useless from his face down through his arm, hand and leg. Warren opened his eyes narrowly, his right eye more than his left. He looked at Margy and said hello.

Without smiling or offering a hint of irony, Warren asked, “Where’s Scott?”

“Scott’s right there, sweetie,” Elizabeth said. I had been careful to stand to Warren’s right so that he could see me. I knew that he had a hard time seeing anything on his left. The brain tumor had created neurological deficits, mostly on his left side. It was unclear whether he had been unable to see me, did not recognize me or was just kidding.

Elizabeth and I went to a lounge to get another chair. We sat to talk. Elizabeth began to cry. She said how hard it had been for her to go from fighting the tumor to “this.” Since late March 2013, Warren and Elizabeth had done all in their power to battle Warren’s glioblastoma – radiation, a vaccine treatment developed in the U.K., Avastin, CCNU, Temodar – I had lost track of all of the drugs. Now “this” meant ceasing the fight against the tumor, conceding defeat and starting to emphasize “comfort.” We returned to Warren’s room with the chair.

Warren took part in conversation but only occasionally and, when he did, he spoke slowly and very softly. I usually needed to lean toward Warren to hear his voice, even if the room was otherwise quiet. His participation in conversations lasted a minute, maybe two, then he rested. Much of the time, he slept, while other times he just closed his eyes.

Sunday

Warren felt pressure behind his right ear, possibly because his head was cocked to the right and his ear was buried beneath pillows carefully arranged to try to support his head. A series of folded towels and sheets served as impromptu wedges used to prop up the pillow on Warren’s right. We tried to get him to look toward his left. When Elizabeth adjusted Warren’s head, he winced. More than once, he urged her to be careful but did not scold. So when the nurses arrived to bathe Warren, change the sheets and reposition him, it hurt him. The nurses were gentle but efficient. They moved quickly. They rolled Warren onto his right side. I saw him grab for the bed rail with his right hand as his left arm flopped uselessly onto the mattress. He looked scared.

“This is not doing a lot for my confidence,” he said softly.

I placed my hand firmly on his left shoulder and stood where he could see me.

“I’ve got you,” I said.

“I’m glad you’re here,” Warren said.

I laughed a little and said that I wasn’t sure that I could do much good.

“I’m not joking,” he said more forcefully, more clearly, “I’m glad you’re here.”

I looked straight ahead out the window. The sun shone brightly on the trees swaying gently outside the window. I took off my glasses and wiped each eye on the sleeves of my tee shirt and put my glasses back on. Once Warren had been placed on his back again, I walked to the foot of the bed and tucked in the sheets and blankets to avoid any breezy spots. This became something of an obsession and in the coming days, nary a stray breeze got underneath Warren’s covers, not if I could help it.

Our daughter, Katie, had known Warren since she was just a few weeks old. Warren took ski trips with our family. He visited our house when in Minneapolis for work. Warren and Katie had gone out to pick up pizza to bring to our hotel room the night after I finished my first Ironman in 2002 when Katie was ten. Katie had a very hard time with Warren’s illness.

“Please tell Warren thank you for being such a good friend to my parents. I have learned a lot about how to be a good friend by watching Warren.”

When we conveyed this message, Warren’s eyes opened very wide and he turned to look straight at me.

“Mark that one as a success!” he said with all of the emphasis he could push from his chest.

We said that we hoped that Warren felt pride in Katie and in his nephew Martin. Warren had been important to both of them and both seemed to be coming out well. Warren said that he did feel pride but that Margy, Bob, Bob’s wife Donna and I had done most of the work and should receive most of the credit.

“But it didn’t happen without you,” I noted.

Warren managed a slight smile and then his eyes narrowed. He rested again.

Monday

Elizabeth had left for a while to say goodbye to Martin. Warren felt nauseous. Margy and I scurried around to get a plastic pan to hold under Warren’s chin. He had thrown up the day before. It was largely blood.

“It sucks to be me right now,” Warren said. He paused briefly.

“That’s not entirely true. I have you two and Elizabeth and Bob and Martin,” Warren noted.

“The luck runs both ways,” I said, “but I think that we got the better end of the deal. I think that we are even luckier to count you as our friend.”

Warren smiled and rested again.

Tuesday

Margy taught a course in downtown San Francisco at the Hyatt Fisherman’s Wharf. I helped her set up the room, then registered the students. It was a perfect day outside, sunny and warm for San Francisco. Elizabeth had lined up three groups of visitors for Warren so that would be a full day for them. I decided to stay in the city. I put on shorts and a tee shirt, then headed out for a walk, not certain where I was going.

Starting at Fisherman’s Wharf, I strolled toward the Transamerica building. Walking along Columbus, I spotted Coit Tower on a hill to my left. I turned that direction in hopes of climbing to the top of the hill to take in the view of San Francisco Bay, the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, the Bay Bridge and downtown San Francisco. I had gone only a couple of blocks when the hill steepened. I looked to my left and saw a huge Catholic cathedral. A few people were coming in and out.

I don’t much believe in intercessory prayer. It comes down to a matter of fairness: I have never been able to understand why God would prioritize my requests over those of millions suffering from starvation, war, political and religious persecution…the list goes on. My concerns were usually pretty small potatoes but on that sunny day, I believed that my concerns had some substance.

I walked up and pulled the iron handle on a thick, dark wooden door. The air inside the cathedral was cool and smelled old but pleasant. The only light entered the cathedral through stained glass windows. The floor creaked under the footsteps of a couple of people walking, otherwise it was entirely quiet. I sat in a pew. It was hard and erect.

Of course, I thought about Warren. Nothing about his situation seemed fair. Since my objection to intercessory prayer was one of fairness, how was it that God would be fair when considering prayers but allow such unfairness on earth? It was hard for me to believe that fairness counted for nothing with God but I had no evidence that it carried much weight, either.

I recalled a program on the radio when Sir John Polkinghorne, a theoretical physicist and Anglican priest, talked about prayer. Polkinghorne said that prayer had application in “cloudy” matters. By that he meant that our world works systematically under a certain set of rules. Those rules, however, offered some variability, some randomness. While it was useless to pray for snow in the summer, it may, however, be useful to pray in certain circumstances where something could just as easily go one way as another. He even used the case of someone suffering from an illness. God may intercede in matters subject to reasonable uncertainty.

So, I took his word for it. Who am I to question a theoretical physicist and Anglican priest who has been knighted by the Queen of England? But I stuck to my notions of fairness; I didn’t ask for anything for myself. I also asked only for things that I believed were reasonably possible. I kept it simple. I asked for meaningful comforts and hoped that my requests would sway things in Warren’s direction. It was worth a shot.

Wednesday

Warren seemed to feel better. He wanted to drink water from a straw. I tried to help. Elizabeth had warned me that Warren easily got water “down the wrong pipe.” I tried my best; I tried to give Warren the opportunity to hold the water in his mouth and to swallow it deliberately. I tried to give him only a tiny bit of water. In each case, Warren choked and coughed. The water went down the wrong pipe. Instead of helping, it felt like I was hurting. Warren and Elizabeth reassured me. They said that they knew that I was doing my best, that it wasn’t my fault but I felt like I was torturing Warren when I so desperately wanted to help.

Thursday

Warren did not wake up when I got to the hospital and slept for the next two hours. I stayed in the room while Elizabeth took a short walk and when she went downstairs to the cafeteria. I was worried about her. She was getting little sleep, little exercise and little to eat. I wanted her to take a nap.

Elizabeth and I agreed that we would take turns going to lunch. When Elizabeth returned from her lunch, I headed toward the elevator. I had made it only about 50 feet when Elizabeth poked her head out into the hall.

“Scott, come back. Warren wants to say something to you.”

I turned around and came back into the room. I sat in the chair on Warren’s right side. Warren’s eyes were open wide, not like the half-shut position that they normally assumed.

“I just want to tell you how much I appreciate you being here and how much I appreciate you,” Warren said.

“I’m exactly where I want to be and I am with the people I want to be with,” I said.

Warren looked at Elizabeth and said, “Two, four, six, eight, who do we appreciate?”

It sounded funny. Warren was leading a cheer with a voice that was weak, his timing slow, halting and unsteady but they both said, “Scott, Scott, Scott” in unison.

Warren grew tired again. That was our last conversation.

At about 3:00, I encouraged Elizabeth to take her nap. Warren had just received a shot of pain medication. He was lying with mouth open, soundly, deeply asleep.

“You’ve got this?” Elizabeth asked.

“Got this?” I asked in a mocking tone. “Look at him. Of course I’ve got this.”

Elizabeth smiled and began to clear the fold out chair on which she had spent nights in the hospital.

Then Warren coughed softly. Elizabeth and I looked at him, then she went back toward the chair.

Warren coughed again, this time a little more vigorously. He remained fast asleep. He coughed a little more. Then Warren coughed harder. A little blood came out. I arranged a towel under his chin. He tried to clear his throat and coughed again. More blood. Elizabeth stood bedside while I walked quickly to the nurses’ station. Warren’s nurse, Irene, came right away.

Warren started to cough violently, trying to clear his throat between coughs. Irene turned on the suction and asked Warren to open his mouth. She stuck the hose in. I watched blood fill the tube and turn loops toward the wall and into a container mounted there. The container was clear and had markings on the side showing the volume of blood and saliva gathered. Warren was now fully exerting himself, coughing with all of his might, clearing his throat and biting the suction hose. It wasn’t clear that he was conscious. Irene gently instructed him to let go of the hose. He complied sometimes and sometimes not.

Irene asked me to get an absorbent pad from the dispenser on the wall. She called for more nurses. I spread the pad under Warren’s chin and across his chest. She asked me to get a wash cloth, wet it and then wring it out. I handed it to her and she placed it on Warren’s forehead which was now beet red from exertion. His eyes bulged but didn’t really open; they were rolled up into his head. Mostly, I just saw the whites of his apparently uncomprehending eyes.

The nurses arrived and Irene instructed all of us to grab the bottom sheet. Then on a three count, we lifted Warren and repositioned him in the bed, higher this time to put him more upright. Maybe that would make it easier for him to clear his throat.

With one very violent cough, I felt blood spatter my arm, leg, shorts and shirt. I stood beside Elizabeth and patted her on the back. She patted mine.

“Are you two OK?” Irene asked.

We both said “yes.”

I changed the pad after the first became too bloody. I threw the old pad away and replaced the towel under Warren’s chin.

After almost 15 minutes, a nurse from the respiratory therapy unit came. She did a “deep suction” on Warren’s throat and got lots of blood. Her hose was small in diameter but long so that she could stuff it deeply down Warren’s throat. A ribbon of blood raced down the clear pipe into the portable suction machine. That seemed to do the trick. Warren ceased to cough and his head went back, his mouth opened. He appeared completely spent and fell into a deep sleep.

Elizabeth and I looked at one another and each raised our eyebrows. There wasn’t much to say.

Then it occurred to me: My prayers had been answered. The answer was “no.”

I left for the airport without saying goodbye to Warren. I didn’t want to wake him and I didn’t feel that we had unfinished business. He knew how I felt about him.

Friday

California had suffered a terrible drought. As Steve Mayeron and I drove south of Gilroy on 101, the hills to the west towered over the flat lettuce fields soaking under irrigation sprinklers sweeping back and forth. A gauzy shroud of mist threw the hills into soft relief. It looked a little drier than usual but the hills were still green and lush.

Steve and I were the only two members of our Wildflower gang running the race in 2014. While I was sorry that other guys hadn’t joined us, I couldn’t imagine a better travel companion. He was as nice as Warren but prompt. Each previous year, Warren would wake up on Friday morning and inform me that he needed to start packing – at just about the time I had calculated that we needed to leave to pick up our race packets. It’s a wonder I didn’t kill him but he had a predictable charm that made it impossible to be mad at him. Instead, I’d scoot around gathering his bike, toting bags to the van, and complain in a teasing way until we hit the road.

With Steve, it was different in some ways but in others much the same as it had been with Warren. Steve and I talked about family, work, religion and a lot about music. I warned Steve that one of our friends, Dave Mason, hypothesized that these long car trips to Wildflower with me gave Warren his brain tumor. Steve laughed at that one. Then he shifted slightly in his seat toward the door.

As we neared Lake San Antonio, the site of the Wildflower triathlon, the California landscape turned parched and gray. Even so, Steve and I commented on the beauty of the surrounding hills. The wild mustard still thrived, painting yellow ribbons on the dusty brown fields. A few patches of lupine cast purple into areas of deep shade.

To enter the park, we needed to stop and get a day pass. Volunteers, mostly college kids from Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, worked the gate. A girl approached our car in a volunteer tee shirt and shorts under a tutu. All of the girls working the gate were wearing tutus and appeared to be having fun. (Since when is wearing a tutu not fun?) She asked if we wanted a race weekend program. I said yes. She handed me the 100 page magazine and I flipped to an article on page 44. I pointed to the picture on the page and held it out for her to see. The photo showed Warren and me in hospital gowns sharing a hospital bed.

“That’s you!” she exclaimed.

I started to cry.

“It’s kind of a sad story,” Steve offered.

I had been in contact with the Wildflower people last year to thank them for their help when our 2013 trip went wrong and Warren needed a ride to a hospital in an ambulance, first to Templeton, then to San Luis Obispo. The Wildflower organization had inquired about Warren and I had pointed them to my blog and said that it told about our experience. They asked me to write a short excerpt and I did, but I didn’t really know how it would be used. Now here we were, Warren and I pictured in the race program with the story of our 2013 Wildflower weekend.

I dried my eyes and we drove toward the parking lot and packet pick up. On our way, we crested a hill that offered a gorgeous view of Lake San Antonio and the hills stretching beyond the far shore. As we came to the point offering the prettiest vista, I prepared to stop and take it all in. But to my astonishment, I looked out and saw no lake, no water at all. None. This huge lake had simply disappeared, leaving in its place a desolately dry and dusty plain. We had known that the swim would take place in a different area than in years past but we had thought that the lake was merely low, not gone.

The view of Lake San Antonio in 2013. There was no water visible from this vantage point in 2014.

The view of Lake San Antonio in 2013. There was no water visible from this vantage point in 2014.

The athlete registration tent was pitched on an enormous parking lot. The temperature was 95 degrees but felt hotter over the asphalt. An older man in a volunteer tee shirt waved me over to his station. He asked my name. I told him.

“Scott Ross?” he said. “I remember you. You’re very fast.”

I handed him my photo ID and USA Triathlon card.

Though I was a bit taken aback to be remembered as fast by a stranger, I said something like, “Well, last year went pretty well for me….”

The volunteer tipped his head back so that he could read my ID through his bifocals.

“Scott Ross from Eden Prairie, Minnesota,” he said, considering each word. “I must have confused you with someone else.”

The race organizers have a stage on which they provide live music, weekend announcements, professional triathlete interviews and instructional lectures. The organizers asked if I would mind giving a brief interview about my Wildflower experiences and about Warren. I showed up at the appointed time. Julie Moss greeted me. For those of you who do not follow triathlon closely, Julie almost singlehandedly made triathlon famous. In 1982, Julie led the Hawaii Ironman to within 100 meters of the finish when she fell, completely exhausted. She tried to get up but kept falling back down. Finally, she decided to crawl to the finish line. ABC’s Wide World of Sports filmed the whole thing. It was agonizing. A crowd gathered around her, shouting encouragement. Medical personnel wondered whether they should pick her up and put her into an ambulance. She was so close…then in all of the commotion, Kathleen McCartney passed Julie. McCartney barely registered on camera as she skirted the crowd. Kathleen McCartney won after trailing Julie Moss up until the last few meters of the race. Few triathletes remember Kathleen McCartney’s name. Most know Julie Moss and without “The Crawl,” it’s not clear that triathlon would have become as popular as it is today.

Julie Moss in 1982

Julie Moss in 1982

When she greeted me, Julie couldn’t have been nicer. She said how happy she was that I had come and how sorry she was about Warren’s illness. She asked how he was doing.

“I’ve spent the last week or so at the hospital with him. I don’t really have a happy story to tell.”

It was hot on stage. Pepper Daniels, a local DJ at “The Crush 92.5” interviewed me. He didn’t want to push me too hard because Julie must have told him that Warren was not doing so well. A crowd sat in the shade and looked up at the stage. I told Pepper that for Warren and me, Wildflower wasn’t much about swimming, biking and running. It was about appreciation. Not many people run triathlons unless they have a lot going right for them. Warren and I used the trip to Wildflower every year as an opportunity to appreciate our good luck, the people around us, the beautiful natural setting, health enough to run a triathlon. This seemed to resonate with the crowd.

After it was over, Pepper and Julie were extremely gracious. Julie gave me a hug and a poster that she asked me to take back to Warren. The race owners had signed the poster and offered their best wishes to Warren. I felt like we had recruited a community to keep Warren in their thoughts.

Julie Moss and I fully hydrated.

Julie Moss and I while both fully hydrated.

Saturday

The race itself was anticlimax compared to what preceded it. A small, remote patch of Lake San Antonio still held water. We swam there and the course took practically every inch of water available; we swam pretty close to the shoreline surrounding the course. With each wave of swimmers starting, we kicked up deep, fine silt that turned the water inky black. I couldn’t see anything at all underwater until I was 200 yards out from the start.

Instead of proceeding from swim to bike, as is customary in triathlon, we needed to run 2.2 miles from the remote swim area to the usual transition area where we would mount our bikes for the same 56-mile course, then go out on a half marathon course shortened by 2.2 miles to give us credit for the run from swim to transition.

The short swim-to-bike run cut across the dry lake bed. It felt peculiar to run this year what I had swum each of the preceding eleven years. Dust fine as powdered sugar rose in puffy plumes with each footstep. My legs turned streaky gray with dust and water dripping from my triathlon suit.

I thought of little other than Warren while riding. At the top of Nasty Grade, a 1,000 vertical foot climb just after mile 40 of the bike leg lay a knife edge ridge. Each year, this was the place where I most deeply considered my good fortune. I watched the birds of prey riding the thermals off the rising breeze as they hovered apparently stationary over the tall grass fields below. On my left, I saw Lake Nacimiento, blue and calm below stretching south and west as far as I could see. But it was different this year. Usually, on my right, I could see Lake San Antonio also sparkling blue. This year, Lake San Antonio was gone, replaced with dry weeds and dust. It seemed symbolic.

I had intended to fully expend myself on the race to honor Warren and in that, I succeeded. I ran my hardest on trails deep with dust, arid and hot. The sun poured down. The breeze died in the valleys sliced in two by the trail. It occurred to me that the Boston Marathon only 12 days before had been tough but only about a third as tough as Wildflower. Then it occurred to me: Neither Wildflower, nor Boston, nor any Ironman were very tough. Not at all. I had seen tough and this was nothing.

When I finally crossed the finish line, I formed a “W” across my chest using extended thumbs and forefingers. I felt like I had taken every opportunity to appreciate Warren, to be with him and to honor him. I had given it my best. No regrets.

Epilogue

Ordinarily, we seek challenges to prove the limits of our capabilities and to expand those capabilities. Sometimes, challenges find us even when we are not looking. The challenges that I did not seek are those that I will remember. It was trying to figure out how to be the best friend possible when there was little that anyone could do. It was watching a dear friend truly suffer. It was standing in, refusing to turn away. It was confronting the relentlessness of time and appreciating how truly short, fleeting and precious it is. In the end, it’s an odd mix. I feel like I proved that I could do more than I had ever thought but now feel a profound, permanent sense of loss directly alongside an enormous sense of gratitude. I am so lucky to have had Warren as a friend for so many years.

For Warren, forever. 

A photo retrospective of our Wildflower weekends through the years

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A favorite photo of WT. From the 2005 Wildflower trip.

A favorite photo of WT. From the 2005 Wildflower trip.

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Overlooking Lake San Antonio in 2004.

Warren and Elizabeth at Wildflower in 2004

Warren and Elizabeth at Wildflower in 2004

At Wildflower in 2013

At Wildflower in 2013

Wildflower 2014: Thank you to Elizabeth Wright for sharing, standing in and demonstrating the true meaning of endurance to me, Margy for making everything she picks up better than it was before she puts it down, Martin Thornthwaite for becoming such a justifiable object of pride, Bob Thornthwaite for being there in thick and thin, now mostly thin, Steve Mayeron for understanding, Julie Moss and all of the Wildflower staff and volunteers for their generous spirit and support, the nurses at El Camino Hospital for their care and empathy, and Katie Ross for being everything to me.

At the time I published this post on May 6, 2014, at approximately 4:00 pm, Warren remained in El Camino Hospital in extremely serious condition.