Where Dreams End
THE BOULDER HAS RESTED HIGH UP ON THE CANYON WALLS for a thousand years or more. Now it has broken loose and is hurtling down toward the westbound lanes of Interstate 70 in Glenwood Canyon, one of the most spectacular stretches of roadway in our country. The rugged cliffs reach far into the sky on either side of us, carved through the millennia by the Colorado River, which winds along the ﬂoor of the canyon. The highway is an engineering wonder to all who travel it. I have come this way more times than I can count, and now Kathy, my wife of twelve years, and our sons, Tanner and Shea, are returning to our home in Aspen from a youth hockey game in Vail.
The peacefulness of the drive is suddenly shattered. I catch a ﬂeeting glimpse of the beast as it hits the ground next to the Suburban and then smashes into the passenger side where Kathy is dreaming. The great rock continues on its path over the top of the vehicle, tearing at the roof with a grinding shriek that will always be with me. It is like being broadsided by a train. The force and the sound of the impact are terrifying, and the big car is slammed halfway into the other lane. I stand on the brake pedal and ﬁght the steering wheel back under control, ﬁnally bringing us to a spark-ﬂying stop along the right hand guard rail. A profound silence settles upon the car.
Beyond reason, I am untouched. I look across the front seat at Kathy. The left side of her head is unmarked, but I know that she is dead. The door and window where she is sitting are exploded inward, and she cannot have survived. A chunk of ﬂesh is lying between my feet. It must be part of her. She looks strangely peaceful. I reach across and touch her hair. “Kathy,” I choke out. “Oh, Kathy.”
Ripping off my seat belt, I look back at our boys. We’d lowered the middle seats, and Tanner and Shea have been buckled into their third-row seats watching a movie on the portable VCR. Nothing will ever compare with the horror of that moment. The middle section of the vehicle is mangled, and I can see the late afternoon sky through a hole in the roof. The boys are lying on the seat beneath the ﬂattened roof, and neither is moving or making a sound. My soul cracks wide open, and as I crawl and ﬁght my way back between the seats I scream and scream at the sky. A man is running up the highway toward us, and he slows for a moment as he hears me. By now I am on my knees next to the boys trying to lift the twisted metal off them, and the man climbs onto the car and reaches in through the tear in the roof to help.
Finally we free them and I lift ﬁrst Tanner and then Shea up to the man, who gently places them side by side on the edge of the highway. I will never know his name.
Inexplicably, they do not look badly wounded, although there is evidence of a deep trauma on the right side of Tanner’s forehead. Shea just appears to be sleeping. Somehow, though, I know in my heart that they are both desperately hurt and that I may lose them. Oh dear God, these are beautiful boys, and I love them with all my soul. On my knees I move from one to the other trying to breathe life into them, to keep them alive. I’ve descended into madness. I alternate between praying to God over and over to save my sons, desperate grieving, and screaming in blind rage at the rocks towering above me toward the clouds. I know that help will be on the way, but we are on an elevated highway in the middle of sixteen miles of canyon, there are few exits, and I learn later that the ambulances from Glenwood Springs have to go all the way to the top of the canyon before they can circle back down the westbound lanes.
Two doctors from Oregon get out of their car and hurry over to see if they can help. They pull breathing tubes and stethoscopes out of their medical bags and listen for signs of life while taking over the artiﬁcial breathing from me. Tanner has a faint heartbeat, but they can detect nothing in Shea. I kneel helplessly next to the boys, talking to them, telling them over and over how much I love them, my whole essence concentrated on transferring my power, my strength, my aliveness into my dying sons. I’m scared it will take a vital force greater than mine to change their fate. I am so hopelessly alone.
I ask one of the doctors if he will check on Kathy. He stands up from the roadside and moves quickly over to the Suburban. He reaches in through the shattered window for a minute or two, and then walks back toward me, sorrow etched across his face, shaking his head gently from side to side. He returns to working with the boys.
A man leaves his wife and children in their car and comes to stand beside me on the roadway. His son played with Shea on the Aspen Mites hockey team in the game that we are all returning home from, and he had introduced himself to me in a pizza place after the game. Cecil is a quiet and reserved man, yet his presence is deeply comforting. “Can I help in any way?” he asks. “I don’t know,” I say. “They’re not doing very well.” He stays with me in my anguish. He hears me begging to God to help them breathe, to make them conscious once again. “Dear Lord,” I cry, “if they cannot both survive, please save one of them.” In some way Cecil is cradling me with his spirit. Who is this stranger who cares enough to be with me in this bleakness, this horror? I still wonder at his courage.
Two ambulances ﬁnally weave their way through the slow-moving trafﬁc, mournful sirens echoing in the ancient canyon. Nurses and EMTs jump out and check on Tanner and Shea, and one of them also looks in on Kathy, but there is nothing to be done for her. They speak brieﬂy with the Oregon doctors, who are still by the boys’ side, quickly lift Shea into the ﬁrst ambulance and speed off down the highway toward Valley View Hospital in Glenwood Springs. They suggest that I ride with Tanner in the second ambulance. It is clear to me that they think Shea is in the more critical condition, that Tanner has the better chance to survive. I help carry Tanner’s gurney to the back of the ambulance, and then I climb into the front seat next to the driver.
The drive down out of the canyon seems endless, though it probably takes no more than twenty minutes, and I can hear the nurse speaking anxiously with the doctors at the hospital. I keep talking to Tanner down the little hallway that separates the front seats from the caregiving part of the ambulance. “Stay with us, Tanner, please try to stay with me. I love you so very much. We’re almost there.” Tanner, I believe, is ﬁghting to come back to his father.
We pull into the emergency entrance to the hospital, and an EMT hurries out to hold the door open for Tanner’s gurney. He doesn’t quite meet my eye, and my fear for Shea stabs deeper. I’m led into a waiting area, and I’m aware of frenzied activity in two emergency rooms near me. I feel as if I’ve passed into some barren and savage zone, between knowing and unknowing, where the extreme dread and desperation have given way to liminal space, a time between things. I am waiting for God.
As I sit there, Cecil and his wife, Noelle, arrive to be with me. Someone approaches and suggests that I might be more comfortable in the small hospital chapel next to the waiting room, then leads me to it. Cecil and Noelle come with me. I stand numbly before a little altar with a wooden cross on it, running my hands over the cross while looking blindly at a colorful stained-glass window in the wall. I clasp my hands together, crying and praying helplessly. I don’t know what else to do. A doctor enters the chapel and stands by the door. He looks at me, then quietly tells me, “I’m sorry, we couldn’t save either one.”
I scream and fall to the ﬂoor, curling up like a child. They’re all gone. All I want is to be with them. I don’t want to go on without them. There are no words to describe where I have gone, what I am beginning to see. Noelle and Cecil try to hold me, to give what comfort they can. Eventually I climb back to my feet and we walk out of the chapel into the emergency area. I ask to be with my children.
A nurse leads me ﬁrst to one room and says, “One of your sons is here,” and then leads me to the adjoining room and says, “The other is here.” In each room a naked child lies peacefully on his back on a gurney. Their eyes are closed. There is an eternal stillness about them. They are no longer here. But I am. What can I do? I go from one room to the other and then back again. Why can’t they be together, when they were so incredibly close in life? I want to pick up one son and carry him to be with the other. I wish that Kathy’s body was here with us, too, in these last moments, but with her awful head injuries I think she might not have wanted that.
The starkness of this ﬁnal place is surreal. How do I tell my children what I am feeling, what I have always felt, what I will feel through eternity? I do what I can. I touch their faces, their eyes, their lips. I tell each of them, many times, how much I love them, that I will always love them, that somehow we will always be together. I ask their forgiveness for the things that I was not, as a man and a father. I ask God to receive them in great love and beauty, to take away their wounds and their pain, to embrace them in eternal joy and happiness. I beseech God to keep our love alive beyond this death, to bind our hearts and souls forever as one. Then I say good-bye to them, one at a time, and I turn away and leave them.
In the waiting area a priest is sitting by himself, hoping to talk with me. He doesn’t know my faith, and I don’t learn his, but he has come to be with me. He is a kind man who knows human anguish, and we spend a few quiet minutes together. A nurse approaches and asks softly if I would be willing to allow Tanner and Shea’s vital organs to be used to help other children. The boys answer through me, “Of course.” I am becoming aware that life around me continues to move on, that only mine has stopped. How am I ever going to be part of it again?
There is a call that I must make. Piper, my beloved daughter from my ﬁrst marriage, also lives in Aspen, and she doesn’t know yet about Kathy and her brothers. She is twenty-four now, a good deal older than Tanner (who would have been eleven next month) and Shea (who is six), but they love each other very much. When she picks up the phone I tell her, in a voice that she can hardly hear, “Piper, I have some terrible news . . .” As soon as she hears it, she bursts into tears, and cries, “Oh Dad, I can’t believe it. Are you all right? I love you so much. I’ll meet you at the house.”
Cecil and Noelle are patiently waiting for me. God bless them. There is no one else. Noelle has arranged to ride home with another hockey family, and Cecil asks, “Art, where do you want me to take you?” I can already feel the deep emptiness of my house, but I tell him, “I guess I want to go home.” As we drive through the darkness toward Aspen, about an hour away, I hug my knees in desperation, rocking back and forth, and I cry out to Cecil, “Where am I going to put my love?” Side by side we sit, crying. Time and again he reaches over to touch me. He understands there are no words. The road seems to stretch away to nowhere.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Out of the Canyon by Art and Allison Daily. Copyright © 2009 by Art and Allison Daily. Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.