Read: “Life’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint.” by Kelly Caruso

An inspiring story about overcoming a tragedy during the isolation of Covid-19.

I’ve had an easy life. I grew up middle class. Not insanely wealthy, yet not poor; I like to call it comfortable. I was smart and athletic and most things came easy to me. I was popular and well liked. My family took vacations and we had nice things. Life was uncomplicated and simple. 

My parents loved each other very much, so that’s the family model my brother and I grew up with. No one in our family ever really got sick, no one got hurt, no sob stories here.

If you had asked me about mental health a few months ago I would say, “Yes I have some friends that struggle with anxiety or depression, but I don’t.” I wouldn’t be able to relate. I believe in mental health issues and that they are real and very serious, but I had never suffered from them so how could I really know?

I had just gotten back from the gym. It was Monday night and I had spent my weekend in NYC with friends. It was probably one of the best weekends of my life. I got a call from my mother. Not uncommon; she probably wanted to know how my weekend went. I answered all cheery, expecting the same on her end. Her voice was shaky and cracking. I immediately knew something was wrong.

My mom is one of the strongest women I know and she’s not one to break down easily. She told me my dad had been in an accident. He was running and was hit by a car. My mom kept her cool demeanor as she told me this, although I could tell she was holding back tears.

She did not know much, just that he had a brain bleed and they think he fractured a bone in his leg and some vertebrae. He was taken to a hospital near their house and was going to be transferred to the Neurosurgical Trauma ICU. She didn’t make it sound all that serious and told me I didn’t need to come home. I had friends coming over so I showered and tried to get through the night acting as normal as possible. When they all left around 10 PM, I had an epiphany. What the hell am I still doing here? I need to go home.

I got to the hospital around midnight. They were doing some procedures on my dad and I was not allowed to go see him. I waited with my mom and cousins. They all left around 2 AM. My mother and I stayed through the night. I didn’t sleep much. I finally got to go see my dad around 6 AM, and he looked pretty good for a guy who got hit by a car.

His lower body looked completely intact and he only had minor cuts and scrapes on his arms. His right eye was swollen shut and all bruised, and there was a pressure monitor coming out of the top of his head. It didn’t hit me then that this was all that serious because from the outside he looked fine. I didn’t realize that under the surface things were not okay. Guess we cant always see our injuries, huh? 

I think I slept a total of 10 hours the next few days. I have never felt so incredibly anxious. I couldn’t eat, and in any other instance I would have been thrilled about the weight loss that followed. I spent a lot of time crying, and other times I just felt numb. Whenever I was at home I was constantly on edge; waiting for a phone call from a nurse that my dad wasn’t going to make it. I didn’t feel at ease until I was in the hospital and had spoken to a nurse and knew that he had gotten through the night okay.

The anxiety that I endured was crippling and it was my second real taste of mental health (the first was a nasty breakup that left me depressed for months).

In the end I think if something had taken him naturally, like the blood clots they warned us of, or the vasospasms threatening to restrict blood flow to his brain, it would have been easier. The decision would have been made for us. But my dad was a fighter and in incredible shape. We kept hoping that his previous pristine health would be what saved him. Hope, that damn word. It was constantly in the back of my mind, poking through every now and then, but ultimately retreating.

After 11 days in the ICU, my dad showed no signs of improvement. The right side of his body was paralyzed. He would never walk again. My dad, the 8-time marathon runner, would never be able to walk unassisted. My dad’s other hobby was reading. Due to the damage on his brain from the impact, his communication center was severely injured. He would not be able to read, or write, or talk, or understand us.

What kind of life is that? It was not even a question at that point. We knew what we had to do. But how do you say goodbye to someone you love when you know that miracles can happen? The “what ifs” swirled through my head. How do you say goodbye when you weren’t ready to say goodbye at all? All those years you don’t get to have with that person; ripped out from under you. It’s selfish to have wanted to keep him here any longer in that state. That wouldn’t be fair to him. He wouldn’t have wanted to live like that.

We decided to stop all care. Family from all over rushed to arrive on time to say their final goodbyes. My dad’s room was packed as we all huddled around and leaned on each other. His last gift to us was to go quickly, in about 40 minutes his carotid artery had slowed to an invisible pulse beneath his skin, and his breathing stopped. Looking back now, I’m not sure if I would want to be in that room watching my father take his last breaths. I wouldn’t wish this upon my worst enemy.

The next few days were a blur. Lots of emotions ran through my head: sadness, anger, regret, and more anger. I didn’t understand how this could happen to my family. Nothing bad ever happens to us. This is the kind of stuff that happens in movies, or you hear about on the news happening to other people. It wasn’t fair. Someone had taken my dad from me, deprived me of having him walk me down the aisle at my wedding, or meet his first grandkid some day.

These are selfish thoughts, but they are what hit me hardest. Then I felt sadness for my mom. That was her person. They had plans to grow old together, to retire and move south and travel the world. My mom’s future was shattered. And of course, the regret sank in. The words I didn’t get to say to my dad, and the times that I took him for granted. I would dwell on the days that I didn’t take him up on his offers to go running or kick a soccer ball around. My brother and I talked a lot about this feeling. We both felt guilty for not spending more time with him. But how were we supposed to know this was going to happen?

We planned my dad’s service and it didn’t feel real. None of it felt real. It felt like a bad dream that I was going to wake up from. The outpouring of love and support that I received from my friends and family was immense. I never felt alone in my days at the hospital and leading up to my dad’s funeral. It’s the days after it all ends, after things slow back down and people go back to their normal lives, which are hard.

I think it’s all heightened because of the nationwide lockdown we have going on. It’s pretty bad timing to be sad and anxious and alone and not be able to see your friends and family. And I know others are feeling these emotions as well in their own personal lives so it’s hard to reach out and put my burdens on someone else who is suffering. I think this comes from my thought process that someone always has it worse than I do. I don’t feel like my issues are a priority. I also never like to make a scene. I’d rather sit in the background, unrecognized, than be center stage. I think that’s why I’ve had such a hard time showing some of my emotions. 

At my dad’s wake people kept telling me to “be strong” when all I wanted to do was scream and cry. I have a few friends that have lost their dads; it’s a club you don’t want to be a part of. I don’t think you can really understand it until it happens to you. I’ve leaned on them a lot. They have given me the best advice of all, which is who the fuck cares what anyone thinks. These are my emotions and I’m allowed to do or feel however I want. If I want to scream, I should scream. If I want to be angry, let me throw shit. I’m not going to hold back when I cry, and I’m a REALLY ugly crier.

Returning to work after this whole experience has been really hard on me, and I haven’t told many people about that. I couldn’t work in the hospital for a few weeks because seeing sick patients in their beds was too triggering for me. Because of COVID-19, I’ve had to do exams on some pretty sick patients. And they all remind me of my dad. I see little similarities here and there. And it hits me like a ton of bricks; especially the patients hooked up to ventilators. I constantly struggle between wanting to work and help those that are sick, and wanting to be selfish, to tell my boss that I can’t scan those patients because I might break down and cry. I’m not sure what the correct action is at this point. 

I’ve had a lot of time to think about what happened and how it has affected my life. I guess there are a few silver linings to this story. My dad was doing what he loved. Running made him so happy and it was a gorgeous day for a run. He got to see his kids grow up and start their careers. My dad was SO proud of my brother and I, and every single coworker that came to his wake let us know that. A lot of them I had never met and they felt like they knew me because of how much he talked about us. He had some neurocognitive issues going on that I won’t get into, but I feel like we got some closure when test results came back revealing that he may have been developing early onset Alzheimer’s. Who knows what the next few years with him would have been like? 

I still struggle knowing that he was taken from me with no warning. I have good days and bad. Luckily, I have amazing friends that have been my rocks from afar (seeing as we can’t get within 6 feet of each other). I’m not sure how I would have gotten through this time without them. It turns out talking about this has actually helped me. I’m not as hesitant to share what has happened and talk it through with friends. I even told a random patient one day about it all. It’s been therapeutic for me. I just need to keep reminding myself that it’s okay to be sad, to be angry, to have all these emotions. It’s okay to be human.

Listen to the full podcast here: https://nycnature.com/2020/07/lifes-a-marathon-not-a-sprint-episode-7/

Watch the condensed video story here: https://nycnature.com/2020/07/movie-lifes-a-marathon-not-a-sprint/

What do you think of Kelly’s story? Have you experienced something similar? Hit the ‘Let’s Talk’ button below and let us know!

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