“The Dreaded Call” Part 2

“The call” that came Monday evening, saw me on my way to my son early Wednesday.  From Redding, CA airport, drove to Shasta – exhausted, weary and emotionally drained.  Conversations had already been going on, funeral homes visited, and “instructions” given to me (do not talk to the press.  Tommy was still up the mountain.  Either this funeral home thing didn’t make any sense or they were listening to a different story than I.  Didn’t “rescue” imply alive?  In my mind, I sure hoped so.  At least this is the term that was used in my presence. And nobody would say “not alive”, but seemed they all were planning that way.

That night, as I tried to sleep, mostly unsuccessfully, all I could see “in my mind” was that same little cave way up high that I “saw” the night before I left, but this time backlit with a glowing, soft yellow light with an image of the Good Shepherd (you know that one from childhood) standing nearby watching over the cave, staff in hand.  My God, no.. 

Early the following morning “rescuers”, family, officials and press gathered at the airstrip at Weed.  Soon circling in was a U.S. military Chinook helicopter, set to ascend Shassta.  

But life wasn’t that smooth.  Someone had calculated that this chopper could not fly that high without oxygen; a decision that was later overturned.  Then there was the matter of the weather.  While prayers were flowing non-stop in a huge variety of places, including a little convent of the Sisters of the Precious Blood, the impossible clouds seemed to open up just a crack and the rescue team of 9 was whisked away.  The chinook that looked so big on the ground was hardly a speck at 14,000 ft.

Then my world crashed for real and forever – I thought the first “dreaded call” back home was hard; this call from the team atop Shasta was permanent.  No more doubt.”The victim is deceased”.  The weather turned immediately vicious, threatening to strand the entire rescue crew up the mountain with my son. No, not 10 people up that mountain in this weather.  No, can’t be.  Tommy would never want this.  I don’t want this. Guess the Sisters and all the others praying kept their “foot in the door” just enough – the team made it down, my son’s body in tow, about two minutes before the weather once again sealed in the top of Shasta. 

Deep in my heart I guess I knew there was no real chance to survive all those days of that vicious weather and cold – alive. There is no textbook on this, but there is one thing to do. I MUST see my son.  Discouraged from this by many, my resolve was firm.  So they complied.  And there in an airport hangar, he lay dead before me. 

There is a reason I had to see him. This was the only way I knew for sure to convince my mind that Tommy was gone.  I had to have that image of him lying there, dead, touch his cold body, kiss him goodbye.  He was in his climbing clothes with ropes still attached, hat still on and face looking perfect.  I always loved his nose – thought it was the cutest from the day he was born. I stroked that for a moment or two. He looked so perfect, like he was just sleeping and could wake up.   How was I ever going to let him go? I was afraid.  I was sad.  I was more alone deep inside than I can ever remember in my whole life, in spite of all the people around.

The emptiness and loneliness inside me will never completely go away.  Can’t think of any of that now.  Later… later…. right now have to be brave and keep things going.  There were interviews to give to a waiting press, tears in their eyes as well as mine. There was family to call – imagine being a grandparent 1000 km away and receiving that information.  There was my daughter somewhere in that crowd at Weed, too upset with me for talking to the press to even acknowledge me.  And too grief-stricken to do anything but sit on the ground outside the hangar once she bade her brother goodebye.

Sometimes we get support and strength from unexpected places.  Contrary to what I was “briefed” upon my arrival, I found the media a great support throughout those hours at Weed.  They were truly touched by the scene that unfolded before them.  And I was touched by their kindness and sensitive reporting.  In fact a few friendships came about as a result of this day.  Some of these folks had problems asking their questions or writing their notes, because of the tears in their eyes and sadness in their hearts.  Somehow their sharing my grief helped; they risked and cared enough to put their collective arms around all of us, and cry with us, as they struggled to do their job and report on this sad human tragedy.

This Easter weekend would seem like that good friday tomb – only this time it was my son my son laid in it. And nothing would change until his autopsy on Tuesday.

There were “debriefing” meetings of rescuers that included family.  What did all of this matter?  Tommy was dead.  I would just as soon this type of dramatic rescue would not ever be needed again for other mothers’ sons and daughters, so why talk about perfecting the rescue logistics?  Guess they have to.  They just sent in the military with one huge helicopter and its crew.  Guess they have a right to want to analyze it. I’ll have to save this one for now.  Have too much to attend to. When I can think, I really want to make sure whatever happened to Tommy doesn’t repeat itself.

Then all those who had gathered set out for home, including the Chinook with its crew.  Life is starting to slip away.  I can’t imagine Tommy not in life.  Not sure how I’ll figure that all out.  Well I won’t today, that’s for sure.  Just keep busy right now, keep things going.  Keep a clear head. 

That second “dreaded call” from atop may be over, but there is so much left in its wake – so much minutia to deal with, so much to work through.  And then there was the matter of grandparents, who are inconsolable.  To say nothing of his sister, his best friend, whose journey through all this even I can’t imagine.

Well, I guess it’s on to Oakland to visit his apartment and collect a few of his things before heading back to Redding for the results of the autopsy.

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