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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. 

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3 Comments

  1. Awesome. Thank you for sharing. You are an inpsiring guy. Love, -e

    Date: Tue, 6 May 2014 20:56:16 +0000 To: elachter@hotmail.com

  2. So much love in this post. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  3. Words can’t express how much this post means to me……so I’ll just say THANK YOU, SCOTT.


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