My Circle

My Circle

Monday, August 22, 2011

One day that changed us forever...

This post is going to be a little different than my other ones, I've been asked several times by friends and aquaintances, "what exactly happened to Cj", and it dawned on me that although I have assumed everyone knows what happened; that does not seem to be the case.
I decided it is time for me to process that day a bit more so, I'm going to write about that summer day and what happened... this may end up coming in installments as I attempt this. This will be a bit rough and raw...

Monday, July 11, 2011

It was a beautiful, summer day in the mountains of Tennessee! We were on a family vacation with my family and Cj's sister who had come to visit us from Nigeria and had traveled with us from Texas.
We woke early because we had planned a fun morning of playing at the river, tubing and just playing at the local swimming hole. Cj was so excited, he had just recently been getting into outdoor adventure stuff like this and was thrilled to try his hand at another water sport.
It was a busy morning, getting all the family fed, dressed in swimwear, loading up all the necessary items for a day at the river and into the various vehicles. We eventually got every one and every thing loaded and on the road - only an hour past our original leave time! (:
The 20 min drive to the swim hole was full of Cj's laughter and jokes as he chatted with me and his sister who rode with us in the van. It was such a good morning!

Upon arrival, the kids dashed off to join cousins and other family members already splashing in the cold water. Cj stopped me for a moment before going down to the water, he wanted to make sure I was okay and everything was alright. We chatted for a moment, and I had my hand on his shoulder, I remember him smiling down at me as I touched his face. How was I to know, that would be the last time I would touch my husband like that?
After making our way down the steep bank, we set up camp and started enjoying the water. The scene was beautiful, serene water rippling out from the bank, shallow and clear and deeper pools surrounded by large river rocks that the kids and adults could sit on and enjoy the cold water under the hot sun.
Farther out to the right was deeper, still water where my brothers (Elijah, Daniel and Josiah), brother in law (Aaron) and Cj, were playing around, having swimming races, jumping off rocks, etc. To the left, farther out, was the river's current as it swept past and rushed over large rocks, creating a small rapids and disappearing around a bend.
As the kids got braver, they began venturing out into the deeper water and Christian was begging us to let him ride the inner tube down the small rapids since his cousins and uncles were doing it. Since he doesn't swim well and I didn't have a life vest for him, I was against this idea and got some ribbing from family about being an over protective mom. Cj and I watched as family members made their way down the rapids on the innertubes - Aaron carrying his 2 year old daughter on his lap, both without any life vests, and came back laughing.
Cj couldn't wait to try it out, but, he made sure that we got on the life vests and floats for the kids that he had made sure I purchased the day before we left for vacation.
Cj grabbed a tube and after getting some guidance from the family members who had ridden before, he sailed away down the river, hands and feets sticking up into the air, a huge grin on his face.
He came back, laughing and excited about the trip - he loved it! Our 4 yr old daughter, Cadie, was begging him to take her on the ride, since she had seen her cousin go down and she couldn't wait to try!
He made her wait until he went down 1 or 2 more times to make certain it was safe for him to take her. I remember telling myself, "Hannah, maybe you need to lighten up, everything will be okay... we've prayed and asked for God to protect us and all the children, just enjoy the day..."
I made my way over to one of the small pools of water with the baby, so he could play while I chatted with my mom who was sitting in the pool. The other kids were happily playing in the shallow water and wearing life vests, so everything was fine I told myself.
Cj and Cadie loaded up onto an inntertube, I remember Cadence looking excited but a little apprehensive and Cj had the biggest grin on his face as he held his hands up high with the "V" for victory, Cadie waved good-bye and I waved back to them as they floated by me. "Have fun!" I called out.
My back was to the bend, but, I remember my sister in law, Anna saying "oh, they got tipped over" as they went over the rocks, "but," she said, "Cadie's okay, Cj grabbed her right up".
"They will be okay" I thought "just need them to appear from the walkway through the bushes as they come back, poor Cadie, probably won't want to do that again..."

As that thought went through my head, I heard a loud shout, my head came up -- and I heard it again, my brother, Luke shouting, "...AARON..."

I instantly was up, carrying William on my hip, I raced after my brother Elijah and brother in law, Aaron (who is certified as a whitewater rafting guide)through the bushes towards the other side of the bend where the rapids let out... behind me I heard my mom start praying. I yelled over my shoulder, "call 9-1-1 now, call 9-1-1". I knew something serious was wrong and we needed help on the way as fast as possible, I figured if we ended up not needing them, we could just say sorry for the trouble.
As I raced over rocks and tripped over branches going through the bushes, I was praying, pleading with God to "please, let everything be alright... God, please... let everything be alright... Oh Jesus, please!!".
I didn't know what was wrong, I thought maybe Cadence had gotten hurt... or that Cj had lost his hold on her... it never occured to me that my big, strong husband could have been the one in trouble...
As I came out of the bushes where the river came around the bend, I saw a group of people, spread out across the river, others gathered on the riverbank... Aaron was in the water, asking "where did he go down...", everybody was talking, pointing... several of my brothers were running farther down river...
I saw Cadence in the arms of a girl on the bank, she reached out to me and said in a scared voice, "mommy -- daddy went down in the water".
I turned towards the river and she cried out, "no! don't go in there mommy..." I grabbed her and held onto her as I scanned the river, looking desperately for signs of Cj. I was praying out loud as I searched, "...Jesus, have mercy... Oh Lord, help us to find him, please... Oh God, have mercy..."
My stomach hurt, my heart was pounding -- all I saw was the river rippling past... everybody was looking and praying. The other side of the river, across from where we were at was a rocky cliff, the people who had been playing in the river at this spot when Cj and Cadence came around the bend, said that was where he went down.
Aaron kept diving down next to the cliff, but, had to keep coming back up before he reached the bottom because of a strong current that was sucking him down as well.
My mind was whirling, so many thoughts flashed through my head, "how can this be happening? God, please show us where he is... please, let him be okay...what happened, he knows how to swim, did he hit his head??...where is he? how long will it take emergency services to get here, I may have to do cpr... remember how to protect his spine in case he's hurt...WHERE IS HE??... oh God, I can't lose my husband...we have five kids, they are just babies!! How can they lose their daddy... God, this can't be... Jesus, where is he!!??"
My sister came up to me, everybody was crying, I remembered that I had left and the kids were still in the water, I panicked as I thought what if another kid tried to ride an innertube down the river, "Get the kids OUT of the water, NOW... get them OUT" I shouted, my sister ran back to make sure they were all safe.
Several women and girls came up to me, "we tried to save him..." they said, "he was holding on to the little girl and as he came around the bend, he pushed her over to my daughter and said "help me" and then went down...I grabbed your little girl and my daughter tried to push an inner tube to him, but, he went down so fast..."
These women were so precious,they didn't even know me, but, they stayed with me, praying with me, calling on the name of Jesus, holding onto me at times, offering to help in any way.
As the seconds became minutes, my clinical side started "talking" to me, "Hannah it's been about 4 minutes, you know he can't survive intact past that...nobody can. Oh God, how CAN THIS BE??"
It was around this point that I felt I needed to pray a different prayer as I stood there, knowing my husband was just out of my sight and reach, but, passing into another realm, "Lord, God - I don't want this, but, Your will be done. Oh God, please -- please, don't let him be afraid, please give him peace and take him home safely... don't let him be afraid... Oh God, I don't want this!!! Lord - You give and You take away... blessed be the name of the Lord."
I was weeping, praying loudly... with every fiber of my being I wanted, NEEDED to save my husband, but, at the same time I knew, even then, that God had a plan and that He had not left us alone. He was there, shepherding my husband into glory, beyond the reach of pain and sorrow.

Time continued to pass, it felt like forever, we were so helpless... we all knew that Cj was most likely right in front of us, just beyond our reach... and I knew that it was too late for us to help him.
We finally heard the sirens and the first responders showed up, quickly donning their gear and fanning out, heading down river to search for him... they were still calling it a "rescue", though I remember thinking they were just doing that to be nice to me. I could read it their eyes. As a nurse, I know that look, it is the "this is a lost cause, but we have to try because of the family" look. I remember saying to one of the officers, "I'm a nurse -- I know how this goes..."
The river was too deep and the current too strong for even the first set of guys to be able to dive by the rocky cliff across from where Cj had gone down. They had to wait for another set of guys, and then set up teams. One guy would dive, while another guy, on land, held onto a safety line attached to the man diving and helped pull him back out when he got tired.
Time began to drag on... several rangers and the chaplain asked me to go wait up in the cars, didn't think I should be there when they found him, they gently tried to explain, " has been a long time now, you may not want to see this..." I knew he was gone, but, I told them that I needed to wait, I wanted to see where they found him - - I KNEW he was right in front of us, WHY couldn't we find him in time?
Part of my family had taken the kids and left for the cabin so they wouldn't see all that was going on. My mom, sisters Martha & Sarah and several of my brothers, Aaron and Esther stayed with me on the river bank. Alternately weeping or just sitting numb and quiet, I kept wondering when I was going to wake up from this nightmare... I remember sitting on a fallen tree trunk and watching as bugs crawled in the dirt and not even caring - - and thinking, "this is so weird, normally I would be freaked out by all this dirt and bugs...but I just don't care at all... this is so surreal, I need to wake up".

Esther sat quietly next to me, tears streaming down her face, I was worried about her as she was pregnant and I concerned that the heat and stress would affect her and the baby. I remember making sure she had a seat and asking for water bottles so she could drink, I made myself drink some too.
My clinical side kept going, I remember thinking, " need to drink, it is very hot out here, you haven't eaten today, you are dehydrated and under stress... you cannot let your body give out now..."
Time dragged on as they kept searching, it was now almost an hour and a half after Cj had disappeared. All of the sudden, I got very nauseated and I knew I needed to move... I hated just sitting there waiting for something to happen, I NEEDED to do SOMETHING!! I was still wearing my swimsuit and cover-up which were wet and dirty, I decided to go up to the van and quickly change.
I headed up the embankment, the road was blocked with emergency vehicles and I saw a news reporter walking along the river bank with a camera... I was in shock, I thought, "how is this MY life? I'm going to end up on the tragic news, a one liner saying, tonight a man drowned while tubing with his family... HOW can this be me??? I always kind of wondered how the people felt that you see at the scenes of accidents, well, now I know!"
I finished changing and leaned against the van for a minute waiting for the nausea and dizziness to pass.
When I turned to head back I saw my brother, Elijah, walking towards me and he was sobbing... I knew then that they had found Cj, I called out, "did they find him?? Where is he??" and took off running back towards the river.
I was grabbed by a state trooper and my sister as I reached the sidewalk, I saw my family and Esther coming up the hill, they were all sobbing and then... beyond them I saw the emergency crew quickly making their way up the steep hill, carrying a stretcher with my husband on it, they were working on him, he was intubated and as I watched, they stumbled and had to halt for a moment before making their way to the waiting ambulance.
I was clinging onto the back of a pick up truck as the officer was holding onto me, keeping me back, not letting me go towards Cj, she kept saying, "come on over here, sit down, put your head on your knees..." I let her lead me away to the sidewalk, but as soon as she let me go, I was up pacing, "I'm not going to pass out!" I said emphatically. My family reached me as the ambulance took off, sirens wailing.
Everybody was crying, holding on to me, I remember at one point wrenching free of someone's grasp, "let GO of me", I thought "I feel like I'm being smothered, this CAN'T be true"
Elijah spoke up, bringing everyone together for prayer, I remember grabbing onto him and breaking down into sobs... I couldn't hold it together at that point, " husband, my husband... oh GOD!!".

(They found Cj's body trapped under a rocky ledge beneath the cliff face directly across from us, he was at the bottom of a 12ft deep section of the river, a combination of the rapids and a strong undercurrent pulled him down and stuck him there.)
We loaded up into several cars, I was in Aaron and Martha's van, we followed the state trooper on the long, winding drive through the mountains to the hospital where they had taken Cj.
I sat in the front seat, staring out the window, tears streaming silently down my face. Aaron sang softly as he drove, praising God even as we all cried.
As we drove up to the hospital, I began to get nervous, "what would it be like to see Cj dead? How would I react, would I get sick? pass out? Oh God, I just want to hold him again, one last time... I just want to touch his face and tell him good-bye..."
When we walked into the ED, we were led into a small private room to the side, I remember thinking, "This is not my life, I'm not supposed to be doing this... when will Cj walk through the door and they will tell me where the mistake was??"
Another chaplain came and introduced himself, they were very kind and attentive, offering us drinks, etc.
Then the ED physician came into the room with the charge nurse... I remember thinking, "so this is what it is like from the other side, I've been on the professional side of bad news before, but, now... this is what it feels like to be TOLD the bad news..." He was a kind man, soft spoken, he knelt down next to my chair and introduced himself, then he looked me in the eye and said gently, "...he didn't make it -- we did try to revive him, but, he didn't make it."
Although, I had known this fact, it was when he looked at me and said the words, I felt the pain go through me like a knife, tears streamed down my face.
I don't remember all of what happened next, more things were said, but I just kept thinking, "I just want to see him, I need to hold him, I just want to feel him one more time..."
I asked if I could see him, they hesitated and I knew, with a growing dread, what was coming next, "...well, because it is a medical examiner's case, they don't like that, you aren't allowed to touch him -- in case there was foul play..."
I felt like a part of me died as I realized then that I was never going to be able to hold my husband again, maybe never even touch him.
"please... I just have to see him" I asked again. After some discussion, they came back and said I could come back and see him, I could touch his hand, but I had to promise to not touch anything else.
After a few moments, they came and got us... we filed down the hallway - I felt like I was walking a gauntlet, I was completely on display in my pain. It seemed that every person who worked in the ED was gathered around, watching us as we walked towards the room that held Cj.
We finally made it and I stepped into a small exam room, there was a security guard standing in one corner, making certain we didn't "disturb" anything.
I looked at Cj, his 6'2+ frame more than filled the stretcher, his bare feet hung off the end. His body was covered by a thin white sheet, his arms sticking out from under the sheet. His head was turned to one side and he was still intubated, other than a small cut on the side of his neck, he looked normal. Fresh tears filled my eyes as I gazed at my husband, "he just looks like he is sleeping" I whispered brokenly "this isn't right, he just needs to open his eyes and look at me!"
Martha and the chaplain stood on either side of me, arms wrapped around me. I reached out and took Cj's hand, it felt slightly cool, but the same as when I held his hand anytime before... but his strong arms lay still. I just stood there... running my fingers over his thumb, feeling the rough calluses -- like I always did when I held his hand.
"'s just not right..." I repeated. I was dimly aware of the chaplain praying, my mom, sisters, Aaron and Esther crying as they stood around the stretcher. I just wanted to lay across Cj's chest, hold on and cry, but, I wasn't allowed to do more than this, just hold onto his hand.
Shortly afterwards we left and began the drive back to the cabin where the rest of the family awaited us.
As we drove, Aaron singing off and on - I was numb, I stared at the landscape passing by... "my beautiful husband, Lord I didn't want this -- I didn't want this!! Father God, where are You?? My husband, my beautiful husband!! What am I going to do?!" and then "Cj, I love you so much, I know you are happy are home... it is over, no more pain or worry for you... your burdens are gone, my love..."

When we got home, I was thinking, "how do I go in there and tell my children that their daddy is gone?? How do I tell them that he is dead??"
When we walked in the door, I went to our room and there on the dresser was Cj's wedding ring and watch; he had left it there for safekeeping. I slid the ring onto my thumb, it was still too big, but I held onto it, crying. In one of the bags they had brought back from the river, I found Cj's t-shirt which he had taken off before getting into the water - it was warm from the outside heat and had some sweat stains, but it smelled like him! He had been wearing my favorite cologne of his and as I wrapped the shirt around my shoulders, the smell filled the air. I sat in the corner on a pile of sleeping bags and pillows and wept, holding the hot fabric to my face as I soaked it with tears. "Cj...Cj... Oh God, my husband, he's gone... my husband..."
That night I slept with the shirt on my pillow and for days afterward, as long as his scent lingered, I carried his shirt around, draped over my shoulder, his ring on my thumb.
I don't know how I was able to tell the kids without falling completely to pieces, God granted me grace for the moment. I gathered them into our room and explained to them that Daddy had gone to heaven to be with Jesus. Christian sat still, crying silently as the younger kids asked many questions... not fully understanding. Then Cadence looked at me and with a sad face said, "I'm never going to have a daddy now..."

I'm going to close now, this has been very hard for me to write... I'm not done yet, but I think this answers the question of what happened to the central man of our lives. Cj died a hero, he demonstrated the greatest love - he laid down his life for another's. The last thing he did was to make sure Cadie was safe, by pushing her to safety with his last ounce of strength.
In closing, I want to share a few of the verses from the devotional for that date, I found them very appropriate for the last day of Cj's life. God knew Cj's last day and He comforted me with these verses when I read them later.

"My soul longs, yes, even faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God." Ps 84:2
"Having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better." Phil 1:23
"I shall be satisfied when I awake in Your likeness." Ps 17:15
"They shall neither hunger anymore nor thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any heat; for the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to the living fountains of waters. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes." Rev 7:16-17

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