It was the sort of news headline you see every day on Facebook. The type of story that piques the curiosity and evokes sympathy for suffering fellowmen. I’ve clicked on many headlines similar to this one. But when the face smiling through the headline's photo is my beloved brother and life-long ally, the sight of it becomes unbearable. Those six words are a cruel reminder that this isn’t just a nightmare to wake from; it’s a new reality.
“Highland School District teacher collapes, dies”
The last word elicits uncontrollable sobs and renders me incapable of reading the article’s contents. Not yet, anyway. Instead I let the tears consume me, tears that would seem endless in the hours and days that would follow that awful headline.
Thursday, June 8, 2017 started like any other weekday. I’d been for a morning run, seen the girls off to school and was in the bathroom applying my make-up. Jon was also about his daily routine; playing Candy Crush on the downstairs computer while awaiting his ride to the bus stop that I typically give him on my way to work. At 7:45 am, I got a text from my mom:
“Family prayers needed. They found your brother outside his classroom. Doing CPR transporting by ambulance now.”
The shock of her words stole my breath while a tension gripped my heart. Silent prayers were instantly sent heavenward, but they felt insufficient. So I ran to my bedside, fell to my knees and prayed fervently in a breathless panic for a peace that would not come. I suspect my spirit already knew what my heart and mind couldn’t accept.
“Jon!” I yelled, the distress in my voice immediately alerting him to the urgency of the moment. We met at the bottom of the stairs, where I handed him my phone, unable to speak. Not knowing what he was looking for, he started swiping. “What is it?” he pressed. “It’s Chad!” I hollered in grief, panic and exasperation (why did he swipe?) When Jon finally found the text my mom had sent, he suggested we kneel to pray.
“Please bring Chad back to his sweet wife, Amy” are the words I remember most. Bring him back? Was he already gone? The situation was serious, regardless. Jon decided he should work from home “just in case.” He asked if I could call the school and stay home as well, but unfortunately, I don’t have that kind of job. I had students needing to be taught and no plans for a sub. Besides, I continued to tell myself that Chad might be facing a hospital stay or maybe even a heart surgery, but he’s my 45-year-old brother, he wasn’t going to die. That was simply unfathomable! So I composed myself and went to work, though I was present only physically.
After arriving at the school, I texted my mom for an update. She and my dad had arrived at the hospital, but Chad was not yet there. Knowing my parents had beaten Chad to the ER amplified my panic and made feelings of peace all the more elusive, but I was minutes from greeting kindergarteners so I went about setting up my classroom in a zombie-like state, avoiding all other people whenever possible.
“Call me when you get a chance” were Mom’s words that scrolled across my Apple watch at 8:34. I rushed back to my office to hear the words I’d never be able to prepare myself to hear. Words that play again and again in a relentless, haunting obsession: “Tara, he didn’t make it.”
“What?!” I yelled, doubled over by those gut-punching words. The volume, pitch and emotion in my voice made all subsequent questions unintelligible.
“Honey, I can’t understand you. Do you have someone to be with you?” Mom asked calmly, though the sadness and seriousness of her voice reached through the phone and melted me.
“Sudden cardiac arrest” are the only other words I recall from that horrible, brief conversation. I hung up quickly so I could tell my principal that I needed to go home. I no longer cared that I’d be leaving my students without a teacher or adding an extra burden on my fellow teachers. I couldn’t stay at school. No way.
Within minutes, my school’s counselor and principal were driving me home. From the passenger seat of my own car, simply giving directions to my house a ½ mile away proved challenging. So was breathing or eating or knowing what to do next. Calls and texts were made and received while I paced the floor. We took the girls out of school and watched them crumple under the devastating news. Not Uncle Chad. How could this be? We felt an urgency to get to Yakima as soon as possible.
News spread instantly and condolences and tributes to my remarkable brother covered Facebook. Friends multiple states away began messaging me. And that’s when I saw that headline, the headline that reduced me to mush and reminded me that my life would never be the same.
Due to work, semester finals and other end-of-year testing, our kids felt like they needed to stay home for now. Making arrangements with friends to help with the girls, emailing teachers, coworkers, covering church callings and handling glitches in missionary papers would delay the departure for Jon and me. It was late evening when we finally arrived in Yakima and could wrap our arms around my parents and Chad’s dear wife.
The next morning we would begin in earnest the excruciating process of planning memorial services for one of the greatest human beings I have ever known.