No. That’s not a typo on my part. It’s the title.
If you’re wondering why you’re reading an entry titled December 20th, 2014 on January 3rd, 2017 you’ll just have to read until the end. And if you recall my very first post, I warned you this blog was about more than just curling. This entry is neither happy nor funny and, other than a brief mention at the end, has almost nothing to do with curling.
So my apologies if you tuned in hoping for another episode of the misadventures of Team Schneider. Those will continue shortly, I assure you. Meanwhile, if you’re interested in a different look at the life of a competitive curler, then read on. And it’s a long read, so I suggest you get comfortable, maybe top up that coffee or hit the bathroom before you go further.
That date has a special meaning for me. It should have been the beginning of a new, wonderful time in my life-in our life. Instead, these past two Christmases have been melancholy ones. My thoughts less on the present and the season but instead, no matter how I try, drifting down the rabbit hole into the land of what-might-have-been.
I’ve been truant with the blog. Not because of the holiday season, or being too busy, or by our abysmal failure at zones and the fallout afterwards. No, I’ve been avoiding facing this particular entry because of what it really means. So, as Sherman and Mr. Peabody used to do, let’s step into the way-back machine…
The Tacoma, January 2nd, 2015-midday
On a wintry Friday, January 2nd, 2015, a four door Toyota Tacoma with Saskatchewan plates slowly made its way west on a two-lane stretch of the Trans Canada Highway between Golden and Revelstoke. It was snowing off and on and road conditions were typical for the time of year.
33 kilometres from Revelstoke, an eastbound car veered over the centerline. It could have been the snow, perhaps a distraction or not driving according to the conditions. Either way it doesn’t really matter. What does matter is the car clipped the fender, just behind the rear wheel on the driver’s side, of the westbound Tacoma, spinning the Toyota 45 degrees and sending it broadside into oncoming traffic.
There was no time for the driver, John Chatten, to correct the slide and the Tacoma was promptly hit by 3 full-size pick-ups. Even travelling at reduced speeds in the snow, they had no time to stop, hitting the Tacoma at speeds somewhere between 60-70 kilometres/hour. The passenger side of the Toyota taking almost all the impact. No one in the other pick-ups was seriously injured.
Inside the Tacoma were four passengers. John, his wife Margaret, their daughter Lori and Rupert, the family dog. Lori was in the front beside her father, Margaret behind her in the back with Rupert. Margaret died almost instantly in the crash. Lori, In the front, suffered severe internal injuries, went into shock immediately and never regained consciousness. John was also unconscious, having suffered a severe concussion, major soft tissue injuries to the left side of his body and nerve damage. He would not wake up until several hours later in a bed at Royal Inland Hospital in Kamloops.
While all this was happening, I was back in Vernon recovering from an awful Christmas flu, but happily roasting a duck for a delayed New Years Day dinner with my kids. I had no idea that 150 kilometers away the woman I loved was inside that Tacoma, unconscious, in shock and dying.
It would be another day before I knew and my world, as well that of Lori’s family, came tumbling apart.
If I wrote ten blogs to describe Lori they would barely scratch the surface of who she was or do her justice. Even now I still struggle with referring to her in the past tense-it just doesn’t seem right somehow.
We had met some 5 years earlier when-after the manufacturing plant I worked at shut down-I took a job at Home Depot while still looking for more lucrative work. Just friends at first, we saw each other through divorces and job changes. She knew my daughter Zoe almost from birth and after my separation from their mother she was a frequent baby-sitter for both kids when I curled on Monday nights. I also introduced her to a buddy, Mike Watt, who she would date for almost 2 years.
She was 41 years old when she died, possessed with a head of curly, reddish blond hair, very mischievous blue eyes and a smile as big and beautiful as the sky. She was resourceful, intelligent, witty, fun to be with (she would cheat at board games with my kids. Not to win, but just so they would catch her and then she would giggle like a little girl), loved to sing and play music. She loved the outdoors and camping. She didn’t own a car or have a license, preferring to walk or bike to her job at the Vernon Jubilee Hospital-a profession she went back to school for after her divorce, proudly graduating near the top of her class. Adam and Zoe adored her.
Not long after she and Mike Watt ended their relationship in the fall of 2014, Lori and I realized our friendship was deeper. We started off cautiously and slowly, not wanting to ruin things if it didn’t work out. At her request we kept things quiet. She was concerned this was a rebound thing for her after Mike and didn’t want to come between the friendship he and I had. There was also the matter of when to tell Adam and Zoe, who saw Lori as a friend, but not Dad’s girlfriend. So we said nothing to friends or family until we decided the time was right.
By mid-November we both knew this wasn’t a rebound or fling so the kids were the first to be told. Lori was terribly nervous the night we broke the news, fearing a bad reaction from them. Instead, she got a tackling hug from Adam and a question from Zoe, “Daddy, does that mean you and Lori are getting married?” My little girl has no filter, as you can see.
Lori turned bright red, laughed and never stopped smiling the rest of the night. I did tell them both that for now this was a secret between the four of us-until we were ready to tell everyone else. In hindsight you probably shouldn’t ask your kids to do that, but I told them it would only be a matter of a month at longest-just so Lori could break the news first to her family when she visited them for Christmas.
Which brings us to the title of this entry.
On our one and only Christmas as a couple, Lori had the kids and I over to her small condo on Saturday morning, December 20th 2014 for breakfast and to exchange gifts before flying to Calgary for two weeks with her parents and siblings. During which time she would tell them about the two of us.
It was the last day that I would see her alive, hold her and kiss her. I still remember the clean smell of shampoo in her hair, the warmth of her embrace and her mouthing the words; ‘I love you’ as I backed my car out of her garage.
Two days after she left I got sick. The flu giving me laryngitis so bad I literally could not speak above a whisper for ten days. We communicated of course, by text and e-mail once she found out. She had told her Mom and sister-in-law first and later on her father would recall how happy Lori was during Christmas and looking forward to getting home.
As sick as I felt, I was happy and optimistic about the future. For of all her other wonderful attributes, Lori loved me for who I am. I was free to be me. I’ve always tried-sometimes unsuccessfully-to be the same towards partners. I believe with all my heart that when you fall for someone it should be for who they are, not what you think they should be. In short, she had no interest in changing me and I had no desire to do the same to her.
She didn’t curl, but she wanted to try and encouraged me to keep playing competitively-knowing how important it is to me. I distinctly remember thinking that maybe, just maybe, I had finally found a soul mate. And, ironically, there’d she’d been for the past 5 years, right under my nose.
And perhaps that’s how the best relationships happen. You start as friends, seeing over time the other person’s good and bad traits and slowly, gradually, without knowing it, you fall in love. Until one day it finally dawns on you both-with all the subtlety of a baseball bat to the back of your head-that the perfect person has been standing right there in front of you, all this time. The same bemused smile on her face as yours, because she’s just come to the same conclusion as you.
Originally she was going to fly home on January 3rd. I had made plans to surprise her at the airport with the kids and flowers instead of a buddy picking her up (she thought it was too late for Adam and Zoe to be up). The family were all staying at her brother Paul’s home in Calgary for New Years when her parents offered her a ride home. They had decided to drive from Calgary to Vancouver Island to visit family. It made sense to stop over in Vernon on the way, so why not save Lori the air fare? There might even be time for all of us to meet before they carried on to the coast.
So she cancelled her flight home and texted me the news, happy we could see each other a day earlier than planned. I wished her safe travels and to let me know when they reached Vernon, knowing if the weather and roads were bad that a normal 6-hour drive from Calgary could easily become an all day, or longer, affair.
It is the last message I have from her.
Outside of the Tacoma it was eerily silent after the accident as traffic came to a standstill. Snow fell softly on the scene while people in their vehicles overcame the shock of the incident and began to exit their cars and trucks.
I know this because someone, travelling west-and instead of stopping to help-drove by, took a video on a phone and uploaded the scene to YouTube. I would see that video a day later.
Road conditions and the traffic jam kept rescue personnel and paramedics from reaching the scene for over an hour. Lori was still alive when she was extracted from the truck but passed away 45 minutes later as an ambulance tried to rush her to hospital. The weather was too severe and the pass too narrow to allow a helivac.
So many ifs remain. If the road was 4-lanes and divided. If the accident had occurred closer to a population center allowing for quick rescue. If that car hadn’t crossed the center line just enough to clip Tacoma, if they had left the restaurant after a breakfast stop in Canmore 5 minutes earlier or later. If she’d just flown home as originally planned.
The truth is; dwell on all those ifs and you will be driven mad.
Vernon-the following day
I woke up on January 3rd feeling healthier than I had in days, no fever, my voice more or less back to normal but still unaware of the accident and Lori’s death. In fact, no one in Vernon knew and in Calgary it wasn’t until police knocked on Paul’s door in the middle of the night that they first learned the terrible news.
I roused the kids, fed them breakfast and got on with the day. Lori hadn’t called or texted but I wasn’t concerned. I knew the drive might have gone long-an avalanche could easily block the highway and have them stuck overnight in Golden. Or they arrived so late in Vernon that they just collapsed into bed and she was now busy helping her parents get back on the road. There was even the chance she got called into work for overtime-something I knew she would take. So I just called her cel and left a voice mail to call me when she had time. I was making plenty of food for dinner and she was invited if the timing worked.
By early afternoon, when no responses came, I began to become concerned. I left another voice mail and several texts, still with no replies. Then around 4pm I checked Facebook. I still have no explanation why I did; save a feeling of dread I’d begun to have. And there, from Mike Watt and coming up as a post to her page, was a cryptic post. He didn’t mention that she was gone. He only alluded to how things had been going so well for her in her new job and that her future had been so bright.
My heart stopped; Mike was referring to Lori in the past and not present tense.
20 seconds later I had him on the phone, demanding to know what he meant. He probably wondered at the combined angry/frightened tone in my voice-for Lori and I had yet to tell him about us (Although he was going to the be the first person we told after she got home). There was no easy way to put it, he said. And then he briefly told me what he knew about the accident and that she was gone.
I vaguely remember Mike mentioning he was on his way to the curling club to get drunk in an effort to ease his sorrow. For, as he spoke, I had slumped against the wall, sliding to the hallway floor before I hung up. I sat there in a daze until my son, hearing the thud against the wall, came around the corner to see if I was okay. I got off the floor, told Adam I was fine and to hang with his little sister while I got dinner ready and did some other things.
It is said that the first stage of grief is denial. Mine came on like gangbusters. Mike had to be wrong, I reasoned, and I went into overdrive.
I began racing through Google for news, hoping for something different than what Mike had told me. Maybe there had been an accident, but it was someone else who’d shut down the highway for over 12 hours. Lori was simply in a hotel in Golden, with no phone access, waiting for the road to reopen. Or she was in an accident but in the hospital and unable to get in touch with me as she recovered.
But all the news items told the same, grim story. There had been an accident. Two women losing their lives while the driver was in stable condition in hospital. No names were released so I clung to a fools hope that it was someone else. I called the Revelstoke RCMP detachment and could only leave a message with reception-who promised an officer would call back as soon as possible.
And then I saw the link to the Youtube video. It was obviously taken just after the accident and lasts maybe 40 seconds. There’s debris from the pickup strewn around the scene and although I recognized the model from a decal on the rear quarter panel, I didn’t know what her father drove, so again I hoped this was someone else. Thankfully, you cannot see anything inside the Tacoma. But my heart sank watching it and the inevitability of what Mike told me slowly began to creep into my brain.
Several hours later, after putting the kids to bed and with my best friend Don Eyers, sitting with me, I received a call from the RCMP. The constable confirmed the accident and deaths, but she could not release names to non-family. She was sympathetic and confirmed it the only way she could, by suggesting I get in touch with my girlfriend’s family to see if they knew her whereabouts. She rang off, sincerely regretting she could not do more.
Her tone said everything. I gave in to reality. Lori was gone and had been so for over 24 hours. I hadn’t known and even if I had the distance meant there was nothing, absolutely nothing I could have done to save her. Of all the other thoughts and emotions since that day this haunts me most; the guilt of the simple knowledge that I didn’t know and wasn’t there for her when she needed me most.
No matter how many people tell you you’re blameless, that little nugget stays shiny and never completely lets you off the hook. Example: all I need to do is ask myself a ‘what if?’ Like, ‘what if I’d said; the roads are too sketchy this time of year, just fly home as planned, the kids and I will pick you up at the airport’.
Think it’s easy to get over? Still trying to tell yourself you’re blameless? Play that game in your head a few thousand times then let me know how you did. For what it’s worth I wouldn’t want my worst enemy to go through what I did.
Don stayed until after midnight, having the foresight to show up with beer, hoping it might slow me down, perhaps blot out some of the pain and maybe it did. But after he left and I tried to lie down, I couldn’t sleep. I might have dozed but I’m not sure. Whatever sleep did come, it couldn’t have been more than two hours, if that.
I broke the news to Adam and Zoe the next morning. At five, Zoe understood only that Lori was now an angel in Heaven. For my son, who loved telling Lori corny jokes, it was like watching a replay of my own reaction to my father passing away when I was 12. No tears, but he was hurting, not understanding why someone he cared for was suddenly just gone forever.
Traci came by at 11am to pick up the kids. I’d called her the night before to arrange it. I couldn’t think of anything else to do and I didn’t want them to see me in this state. After they left the house was silent and I was alone with my grief. Only then did the tears start.
In Kamloops, after several hours of unconsciousness, Lori’s father awoke at Royal Inland. John told me he saw two golden forms at the foot of his bed. As his vision cleared, one smiled-Margaret’s smile-and then both disappeared upwards into the ceiling. He said he knew then, without remembering any of the accident and before medical personnel or police broke the news, that Margaret and Lori were gone.
Within a few days he was able to leave Kamloops with his sons; Paul and Dan, and return to Calgary to begin his recovery. I consider it a blessing for him that he has no memory of the accident. John has recovered but still suffers aftereffects of the concussion and other injuries.
In Vernon a small gathering was held at a friend’s home the Friday after the accident. There was a balloon release, each bearing a personal, hand written message of love. The kids and I let ours go together as a family. We stood in the snow and watched until they faded from sight, Zoe believing that we couldn’t see them anymore because Lori had gathered them all.
The 3 weeks following the accident are remembered not sharply but in a blur. Maybe it’s a coping mechanism of the brain to keep you sane. The memories are all there, but not clear and concise-more surreal than real-as I got through work and the days but hardly slept. And although I know it was done out of compassion and concern, after the thousandth time the question was asked: ‘is there anything I can do to help?’, I wanted to scream that building a goddamned time machine would be appreciated.
It would be months before sleep came easily and over a year before I finally sought the help of a grief counselor.
18 days after the accident, on the 20th of January, the first of 3 memorials was held in Calgary (the others in Burstall, Saskatchewan where John and Margaret lived and in Whitehorse, Yukon where the family spent many years when the kids were growing up). Mike Watt and I attended, the sole representatives from Vernon.
Circumstances kept us from arriving until just before the memorial, so I asked her sister-in-law, Paul’s wife Kari, if she could have the funeral home place 3 red roses-one each for Zoe, Adam and I-with Lori before her cremation. Kari went to the home herself and placed the roses with Lori, whispering who they were from and her own good-byes. I will be forever grateful and in her debt for that act. They would have been the roses we gave her had she flown home.
At the funeral home and just before the start of the ceremony, I met Lori’s family for the first time. Still fighting grief, I was also incredibly nervous, wondering if I deserved to even be there. But they welcomed a complete stranger, whom they had only just learned about and treated me no differently than any family member. There are no words adequate enough to express my gratitude for this generosity of the heart. For my grief was a pittance compared to theirs.
After the service we went to Paul and Kari’s home before Mike and I had to catch a return flight home. They have two children; daughter Cassidy-who bears a striking resemblance to Lori as a teen-and son Logan. Sitting around their kitchen, we shared some stories of Lori and I learned some things about Margaret. I told them about our last breakfast and how the kids and I had picked out a pair of flannel Christmas pajamas as one of her presents. Kari disappeared from the room and returned a few moments later. In her hands were the pajamas and she asked if I would like to have them and save them for the day Zoe could wear them.
I took the pajama’s in my hands. They’d been washed back in Burstall and it was obvious Lori used the same detergent as her mom. They carried the same scent as her clothing, linens and bedding, bringing on a flood of memories and emotions. I cradled them gently in my arms for several minutes as tears once more blurred my vision.
Those pajamas reside in my closet, well kept, for the day I can give them to my daughter as a present from Lori.
Four months later we held a celebration of life in Vernon. May 25th would have been Lori’s 42nd birthday and it was a chance for the family to meet some of the friends she had in Vernon. Both brothers and their families came and John was able to make it -along with little Rupert, who had been uninjured. We had a barbeque in Mike Watt’s yard on a warm, spring day and while I wish more had been able to attend there was a good turnout. Tears were outnumbered by smiles and there were stories told with laughter about both ladies. More than a few of us got a wee bit tipsy that day.
I like to think they were both there. Sitting up on the edge of Mike’s roof, feet dangling in the air, watching us, smiling and shaking their heads at all their silly friends and family, thinking we shouldn’t be making such a fuss over them. It’s an image that always makes me smile and a good one on which to bring this lengthy entry to a close.
Now you know the story behind the title and as I hit the ‘Post Entry’ button it is two years, almost to the moment when I read Mike Watt’s Facebook post on January 3rd, 2015.
So, does this story belong on a blog that is supposedly about a curler and curling?
There’s more to any competitive athlete than just the game they play. It’s events like this which shape a person and provide insight into who they are. We struggle with the reality of life no different than any other human being on this planet and death-be it tragic or otherwise-comes to us all. It was also the game that helped pull me from the grief of Lori’s death and these events which led me to becoming a member of Team Schneider.
If there is one thing you can learn from my experience it’s this simple truth; make certain to tell those people you care about how you feel. For life may not give you a second chance. I cannot fathom how I would be now had I not told Lori, often, the 3 little words that mean so much.
So yes, as an accolade to the woman I loved and an insight into your author, Lori’s story belongs here. Perhaps more so than any other previous, or future, entry.
I miss her, every day.