Wednesday, October 19, 2011

A Story Of Getting To "Acceptance..."

On the day that Dr. Flitman told me...with 90% certainty, that I had Early Onset AD... I reacted... calmly.  I think I remember my wife breaking into tears and squeezing my hand. Her mother had died from AD and now she was facing yet another passage and another eventual... passing.

I just thought to myself...  "well, what a kick in the nuts."  Still, I was not shocked, but instead I found myself in a strange state of acceptance, grace, and peace... even when faced with such bad news.   Thinking about it later, I wondered how most of Dr. Flitman's patients reacted to such news.   I'll have to remember to ask him next time I see him.

A couple of Saturdays later, at her suggestion, I went with Mindy to see "Michael", a counselor we have used in the past to help us improve our "being married" skills...  well... mostly... MY "being married" skills.  After 18 years as a bachelor, marriage was pretty foreign to me, and I admit, even after more than four years in this second one, I am still learning how to be a better husband.    Anyway, I like Michael.  He brings a neutral, third party perspective.  And perhaps Michael can bring us both some perspective on this journey as well.

So Michael  asked me how I could be so "calm and accepting" of my dilemma.  I guess that perhaps other people might go through the well known Kubler-Ross five stage model of grief made popular in her book, On Death and Dying.  These include denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

But I seemed to have jumped immediately to ... acceptance... at least initially.

It was a lesson of personal strength I had learned many years previously.

My first career had been spent in the Army.  And, as most anyone who has spent a career in the military, you rarely go through all those years without a few close calls, especially if you spend a few years in the Combat Arms, or the Infantry, as I did.   And, in the very first of what turned out to be "several" helicopter incidents over my career, that first one was nearly my last one.  

We had been scheduled to fly a "recon" mission in a Bell OH-58 helicopter.  I wasn't even scheduled to fly, but at the last minute, the guy who was supposed lead the mission was late and the CO pointed at me, knowing I knew how to read a map and that I knew where we were supposed to go and the pilot did not.   So I jumped in the co-pilot's seat and two other guys jumped in back to snap some photos and away we went.

 The weather that day was lousy.  Light rain, a low ceiling with heavy cloud cover, but still enough visibility for the pilot to maintain VFR flight.   After a ten minute flight out to the target area, we made several low passes over the area we were supposed to operate in later that week.   Steep mountains, big rocks, a swamp, trees, but really no place you could land or crashland a helicopter.   When the guys in back said they had enough photos, we climbed back up to about 1800 feet, just under the overcast, and headed back to our landing zone.  During the flight, the pilot and I had been talking about flying.  I told him what flying floatplanes in the bush in Maine was like  and he explained a little about flying a helicopter.

"Wanna try it," he asked?   "Sure...",  I replied. Who wouldn't?  I had hardly had my hands on the stick and the collective and my feet on the rudder pedals more than ten seconds when I heard this  BEEP BEEP BEEP in my headset and noticed that the Master Caution Light had illuminated on the cockpit panel.   

"I have the aircraft!"  the pilot said forcefully as I quickly removed my hands and feet from the controls.

The pilot pushed the collective to the floor and pushed the nose over.  It occurred to me that we were going to ... CRASH!  I turned to the two guys in back and yelled... "Brace, we are going to crash!"   I can stil see the color drain from their faces in my mind's eye.  And then I turned back to face the impact.   The thing I remember most was how it all seemed to be happening in s-l-o-w motion even though the whole thing probably took less than 30 seconds.   As we were coming down, I suddenly a sense of peace and acceptance wash over me.   I was without fear as we all looked death in the face.    It was... calming.

But that day was not the day on our life's calendar to meet St. Peter.  Our pilot had had two combat tours in Vietnam and this was not his first autorotation... though he later admitted he was a little out of practice...

At first there seemed no place to land, but he had headed for two farmer's fields separated by a treeline.  As we rapidly descended toward the ground, he noticed a very large boulder on our intended landing spot.  So, at the last minute, we veered toward the second field and just barely cleared the treeline.  This caused the pilot's concentration and depth perception to be thrown off just a little and we flared a little too high... at about 20 feet altitude... and dropped in with some forward motion.  We hit on the rear of the skids and rolled forward...  I watched... again, in s-l-o-w motion... as the still rapidly rotating rotor blades came down ...down ...down... I knew that if it hit the ground we would likely be ripped apart... so in one motion I clicked the emergency release on the door and it fell off.  I then flipped the release on my seat belt harness... I was going to jump out... but then I noticed the rotor still furiously spinning out of the corner of my eye and hesitated... I decided I'd rather take my chances inside the helicopter than possibly be cut in half when the rotors broke apart...

But like a giant green flying grasshopper...when the rotors were only about two feet from impacting the ground, we rolled forward on the skids and jumped forward about ten feet... hit again... rolled back and forth a couple of times on the skids... and we were... down.

I looked at the pilot, he looked at me.  "You OK?" he asked... "You OK?"  I replied... ...and then we both laughed that laugh of two guys who had just dodged a very big bullet.

I forget about the two guys in back... but they were probably both sitting in wet spots.

I later heard the cause had been either fuel contamination or a vapor lock in the fuel lines.

But... it was on that day... many,  many years ago, that I learned about acceptance,  grace, and peace ...and a lack of fear in the face of a helpless situation...     I've  had occasion to apply those lesson several times more in my military career.   You learn to accept situations you cannot change.   

I also learned that every day after that first incident had been a gift.

And now...  I am faced with a new challenge I can resist, but I cannot change it's inevitable outcome.   So why waste the energy in trying change something I cannot?   We cannot stop the winds of this disease washing over us, but perhaps we can use our sails to adjust it's effect in some way.

Time will tell...


  1. I love this... brought tears to my eyes.

  2. Last month I was feeling short of breath, waited a couple of days, then went to the doctor. I found out after a ct scan that I had a giant blood clot in the pulmonary arteries near my lungs. I got my first helicopter ride to Sioux Falls to the heart hospital. I wasn't scared, I spent the trip (15 minutes) looking out the side window looking at the ground. I had wanted to ride in a helicopter for years. although I was worried that I might be afraid of heights in a helicopter. I loved it. I remember thinking this ride might be the only thing on my bucket list that I'll have time to do.

    I spent two days in ICU, they melted the clot and I was home three days later. I think that our loved ones fear, cry and worry about our demise, much more than we do. I wasn't scared, the only thing I worried about was my dogs getting a nice home if I died. And my daughter spent those 3 days sleeping on the chair in my room, a nervous wreck. I found your blog on "Watching the lights go out." I'm going to bookmark you too. You write very well. Interesting to read.

  3. I'm glad you have a good sense of humor. Very important tool. I admire and respect your grace and know it will serve you and Mindy well.

    My Dad was diagnosed May, 2009 after being hospitalized. Prior to his hospital stay, he probably had it for ten years before his diagnosis. He would not allow me to say the "A" or "D" word. He kept telling us he had Parkinson's. He DID NOT take the news gracefully, in fact, for a quiet, introverted guy, he fought it tooth and nail!!!

    He was so paranoid and suspicious and needed to be on some medication. He fought that too and raised so much hell the doctors put him in the Psych ward. We found out he was incontinent of both bowel and bladder and was totally unsafe at home alone.

    At the time, my Mom (who was 82) was still working and the bread winner. My Dad was a Marine in the Battle of Tarawa in WW II. He was a Horticulturist, a landscape architect, Teacher, postman, Security Guard, Life Ins Salesman, and a Landscape Maintenance worker for the City schools when he retired in 1986.

    It was so difficult having him admitted to a psych ward and visiting him there. My Mother was a wreck and threatened to run away if she had to continue him threatening her, accusing her of poisoning him, insisting on driving and cooking until he hit a parked car in a parking lot and voluntarily gave up his license because we brought up the fact he was lucky no one was injured. He was 89 at the time. We had been a nervous wreck with his driving for awhile. Mom would come home from work to find the house full of smoke because he left a pan on the stove and it had burned dry...

    When he went into the hospital with pneumonia in 2009, I was staying with him while my Mom was away visiting family. He could not go because he kept taking himself off his heart medications and not elevating his legs which had ulcers which needed to be treated. I found him lying on the living room floor at 4am by the front door.

    Because the doctor was not sure if he fell, they did a CT Scan and discovered his brain was so atrophied they were shocked he could even form a sentence. Once he was stabilized on his meds, he did so much better and after a year, was very happy at the skilled nursing home I found for him. He had excellent care and lived there four years before he passed this past August. We had him interred at Riverside National Cemetery with full Military Honors.

    He was a hero and a wonderful, quirky, loving, family man and Father. He and Mom were married 68 years and had 7 children with one dying three days after his birth. We gathered together as a family, relied on our humor, love, grace and faith. We made a pack not to judge anyone on how often they visited and it worked out well. We all visited and I wrote a blog sharing our journey.

    I am going to follow you and if there is any way I can help with our experience, please do not hesitate to let me know. I also helped my husband with his Mother, who also had the disease.

    We urged Mom to join a Support Group and it really helped her. She has decided to stay in her group to help those just starting their journey with Alzheimer's.

    All the best to you Ed.

    Sincerely, Donna