Breathing – The End of Days

It was October 8th, 2007 and a typical fall Monday in Minnesota.  I was working a technology job downtown Minneapolis where spent my mostly unremarkable days solving technical issues.  I recall my mind being focused on my tasks at hand when my personal mobile phone rang.  I was a bit surprised because I didn’t usually get personal calls during the day, so I was a bit startled.  I grabbed my phone and quickly pressed the accept button and said, “Hello, this is Dwight.”  There was a pause and I could hear the hiss of the phone line, but no one spoke.  My heart knew there was something deeply wrong and I could feel the my stomach churn.  A few seconds later I heard, “Dwight, this is Steve.” I was very surprised to hear my brother-in-law’s voice as I rarely ever received a call from him.  This heightened my senses even more.   I said, “Hello Steve, what’s going on?”  There was another pause and the hissing from the phone line filled my ear with foreboding. “It’s your dad.”, Steve continued, “He was killed.” 

In that moment, I felt as if I was jerked out of my body, floating slightly above and behind my back.  I recall forcing myself to breath and stay connected to my arm and to the phone in my hand.  “What happened?”, I asked calmly.  “He was killed in a car accident just north of town.”, he said.  I was having trouble thinking or speaking, but I managed to say, “Thanks for calling and telling me.  I’ll be coming as soon as I can.”  I ended the call and stared at my phone. Everything I did next was done mostly from muscle memory and a will to do what needed to be done to notify my employer that I had to leave.  Mechanically, I closed out of all my software applications and shut down my computer.  I recall having trouble standing and walking as everything around me seemed very surreal and distorted.  It was as if everything was moving in slow motion and each step I took didn’t feel like I was even touching the ground.

I managed to tell my boss about what happened and that I was leaving.  He didn’t hesitate to tell me not to worry about a thing, and to just go.  I felt a bit relieved in that moment because I don’t think I could have managed to do anything.  I grabbed my coat and lunch and walked slowly out of the offices and took the elevator to the ground floor.  When I reached the outside of the building, I stood on the sidewalk and stared across the street.  I had an urge to collapse to the ground as breathing become a conscious effort. I realized in that moment that I needed to get home, but I wasn’t sure how.  I had commuted part way into the city from Buffalo to a park-n-ride lot, and then I took a Metro-Transit bus from there to downtown.  Since this bus only ran a couple times in the morning and late afternoon, I didn’t have an easy way of getting back to my car.

Running on mostly auto-pilot, I wandered down 2nd Avenue trying to make sense of what was happening.  How was I going to get home?  I was confused, but there was a part of my brain that kept me moving and taking care of my immediate needs.  Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a yellow taxi parked along the street.  Not thinking, I immediately wandered toward the cab and opened the back door asking, “Are you available?”  The driver turned and said, “Absolutely, where do you need to go?” I hesitated because I had no idea if a cab driver would take me out to the west suburbs to my car.  I finally said, “I need a lift to Plymouth, do you go that far?”  “Yes I do.”, said the driver.  “Hop in and I’ll get you there right away.”

I sank into the back seat of the car taking another gulp of air and gave the driver rough directions on where I needed to go, to get him started.  “I have no address, so I’ll have to give you directions.  Is that okay?”, I said as my voice was beginning to waver and the words were harder to speak. I noticed that he glanced up to see me in his rear view mirror. He looked closely, and I had a sense that he knew there was something serious happening to me. 

We drove in silence. This was the first time I allowed myself to relax a bit and let the news of what happened to my dad sink in. I could feel the waves of emotions flow up from my chest and to my throat as I took deep breaths to allow the feelings to flow and for my tears to fall. I didn’t have any real thoughts in my mind, only the knowing that my father was gone and I never again would be able to touch him. I sat in the back of this cab, driving west down Hwy 394, but I had no real sense that we were even moving. It was as if the entire universe existed in the back of this cab and I was in the center of it. I recall forcing myself to look out the front window occasionally and focus on giving him directions to my car.

I made it to my car and realized that I had not contacted my wife to tell her the news. I fumbled with my phone trying to decide how to contact her at the hospital where she worked. I managed to dial the general number and the operator was gracious and quickly located her. She answered the phone with her normal friendly “Hello! What’s up?”. “Hey.”, I paused to breath, “I have bad news. My dad was killed in a car accident.” “What!”, she replied. “My dad is dead. I just got to my car and I’m on my home.” I continued. “Should you be driving? Oh my God are you okay to drive!?” she said. “I have to be. I’ll be okay. I’ll take it slow.”, I managed to connect more words together. “Okay”, she said, “I’ll see how I can meet you at home.” I ended the call and just stared at the steering wheel. “How am I going to do this.“, I thought. I had to intentionally walk through all of the things necessary to drive the car. Seat belt on – check. Keys. Where are my keys? Turn the key, press the brake, put it in gear. I continued down the checklist of things. Each step was an effort, to not only remember how to do something I’d done thousands of times in my life, but also to remember to breath. I have to keep breathing – check.

The rest of my memories of driving home are spotty. I’d driven this same road for years and I felt as if I was running on complete auto-pilot. I only recall a few of the cross-roads until eventually, I pulled into the driveway of my home. The world still felt out of focus. It was as if I was completely submerged in water, seeing the world distorted and heavy with its weight pushing in on me from all sides. I took a deep breath and once again recounted what it would take to get out of my car and walk into my house. What was I going to tell my kids? What did I need to do next? I decided I needed to breath.

Dwight J. Raatz – November 16, 2020

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