How I remember Memorial Day

May 26, 2014 by

Memorial Day weekend.  It’s a holiday filled with events that pay homage to those who have fought bravely.

In my world, Memorial Day weekend usually fills my calendar with multiple graduation ceremonies and parties, all of which are amazing and fun.  This day, however, holds special meaning for me because it was on this day that I discovered my own heroes.  If you’ve followed my story so far, you know that my husband received horrible news on April 1, 2013 –  hepatitis C.  This resulted in a flurry of tests, only to discover that he might be battling something far worse.

Spring season/early summer is usually the time that all major tours are prepping for the summer of show runs.  During the month of May in 2013, Sam was working with Alan Jackson, doing shows up and down the East Coast.  While taking Sam to the airport, the hepatologist (doctor who specializes in diseases of the liver, gall bladder, pancreas, etc.) called with his test results.  Sam focused on getting everything ready for his flight, so he put me on the phone with the doctor.  “It doesn’t look good, Mrs. Harden.  From the CT scan, markers show that he is definitely battling something serious.”  Now that’s a sentence you don’t want to hear as you are driving your husband to the airport.

If there was one thing I knew that Sam loved more than me, it was stage lighting.  It was his dream, his gifting, and he lived it well.  My husband worked for twenty years doing what he loved, and I loved watching him work.  He worked for some of the biggest names in the industry and I was either driving him to the airport or to bus call.  Today was different.  As I drove him to the airport, I listened numbly as the hepatologist rattled off his statistical test results.  Sam didn’t want to talk to him, more so because he was making sure he had his ticket, passport, etc.  “Could I call you right back?”, I asked the doctor.  I mean, should he even go on this trip?  It’s not like he had a choice.  Alan Jackson’s people had already purchased the plane tickets.  Shows were scheduled and it’s not like you can call in sick on this type of job.  So I did what any wife would do…I drove him to the airport.  I asked him to call me every day and let me know how he was doing.  I kissed him goodbye and dropped him off at the curbside check-in for American Airlines.

The drive home was surreal.  I called the hepatologist back to get the real answers.  Dr. Michael Porayko is one of the best at Vanderbilt Hospital, specializing in liver disease and liver transplants.  He was also one of the kindest doctors I dealt with.  “Mrs. Harden, I can tell you that this is serious…very serious.  From the markers on the CT scan, we usually have a sign of where we are.  I can honestly tell you that we’re looking at a 50% chance of survival for 6-12 months with palliative care.”  I’m sorry……what?  How did we go from getting preliminary tests run to a death sentence?  Just like that?  “Are you sure?” were the words that followed.  I was asking a veteran expert in the field if he was sure.  “I’m sorry, Mrs. Harden, but this is very serious.”

The next few weeks were a blur.  How was I supposed to tell Sam?  I didn’t want to call him out on the road and give him devastating news, especially since he had to spend the next ten days bouncing up and down the East Coast doing shows for Alan Jackson.  I didn’t want him stressing and worrying while trying to work.  I didn’t want to kill his dream.  Not yet.

Flash forward to life at home.  It was the end of a school year and I was neck-deep in year-end project presentations with my students.  I didn’t want to tell them what was happening.  Better to not let them worry about Mrs. Ronei and look forward to summer.  I also had to prepare for the upcoming graduation of our daughter.  Savannah had worked so hard during her high school years.  They weren’t easy.  She attended a college-prep classical school that allowed her to pursue a challenging academic path that eventually enabled her to dual-enroll her senior year at Middle Tennessee State University.  I serve on the board of the Middle Tennessee Home Education Association and our organization holds a special graduation ceremony for homeschool graduates.  We were especially proud because this year, our daughter would serve as one of two commencement speakers chosen by the graduation committee.

So……..it was graduation central in our house.  Sam had come home from his gigs with Alan Jackson and scheduled to begin prep work on Toby Keith’s tour.  The crew set up shop at the Curb Center on the Belmont University campus.  They spent a week setting up the show and doing rehearsals before the show hit the road for the summer.  Sam spent the week with the crew at a hotel near Belmont so they could handle the long days/nights of rehearsal.  Little did I know (or did Sam know) that this would be his last gig.  I think he knew it even though he never admitted it.  It was hard to watch my husband face this ordeal, but he did so with such fortitude and stamina that I am still in awe.  While he was in rehearsals, we were busy getting ready for graduation.

I can remember it like it was yesterday.  It was Friday night, May 24th, 2013.  Sam came home from a week of rehearsals and when he stepped inside the door, I had to contain myself.  He was YELLOW.  He looked like a human highlighter.  Even the whites of his eyes were yellow with jaundice.  He was also shaking and itching.  We would find out later that his bilirubin count in his bloodstream was 42, a level that most humans cannot withstand without severe pain and irritation.  “Sam!  Have you been like this all week?  You probably scared the bejeezus out of the crew!  Why didn’t you tell me?”  It was always like that with Sam.  He didn’t want to bother folks or make them feel sorry for him.  He was determined to finish his job well.  “Yeah, it’s been doing this on and off, but if I get some sleep, it seems to go away after a while.”  It goes away for a while?  Does that mean it comes back?  What was I going to do?  Graduation day was tomorrow!!  Savannah came upstairs when she heard us talking and saw her father.  She was equally concerned.  Sam, however, wasn’t going to budge.  I wanted to take him to the ER right then and there, but he wouldn’t have it.  “Tomorrow is Savannah’s graduation.  Let’s get through that first, then we’ll talk.”  Talk?  You are YELLOW and you want to talk.

I didnt’ sleep much that night.  Neither did Sam.  He was in a lot of pain and due to the high bilirubin levels, he was itching all over his body.  Our son, Seth, works third shift for Nissan.  The plan was that Seth would come home from work, sleep, then come by the house and pick up Sam and the two of them would join Savannah and I at graduation.  I had to have Savannah at graduation rehearsal and run-thru at 9am.  Graduation was at 1pm.  I called Seth to warn him of what he would see when he picked up his father.  Needless to say, when Seth got there, he asked me why we didn’t take Sam to the hospital. “Mom, he needs to go.  NOW.”   “Have you tried talking your father into going?”, I asked.  “I’ve got your sister on this end who doesn’t want to give her commencement speech and your father won’t go to the hospital until he sees her give her speech and graduate.  Two boneheads who won’t budge.  Apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.  I’d like to hear your suggestions on how to fix this.”  Seth knew all to well what that conversation would do.  Absolutely nothing.  “Just don’t argue with him.  Keep an eye on him and if it gets really bad, call me.”  Meanwhile, I had to convince a very nervous and very shaken daughter that we HAD to go through with this.

It’s times like this when you find out just how strong you are.  It was on this day that I discovered the heroes disguised as my husband, son, and daughter.  Who knew that we would have to walk this path together, facing insurmountable odds, and face lots of people who would have lots of things to say.  I had to call and warn my fellow board members and the graduation committee to not call an ambulance or cringe in horror when they saw my husband.  Savannah and I were on our way to the rehearsal, but would be just a little late.  Little did I know that they made an announcement to the entire graduating class (parents included) and took a moment to pray for us.  Boy did we need it.

We arrived at rehearsal and slowly but surely, Savannah started to crack.  She was fine until she saw her father walk in.  He was jaundiced and wincing from the itching and pain.  Still, he smiled at her and said, “You’re going to be great!”.  You see, Sam had been on the road touring with Lord of the Dance when our son graduated, so he didn’t want to miss this one too.  He was adamant about not wrecking this for her.  Savannah and I had spent lunchtime in the car, eating sandwiches and reviewing her speech.  “Mom, I can’t do this.”  We went through the line for the photographers, taking her senior picture in cap and gown.  Then it was time.  As I pinned her hat in her beautiful hair, she sobbed.  “Mommy, please.  I can’t do this.  I can’t.”  When the sentence starts with Mommy, you know it’s serious.  “Baby girl, there are times in life when you can’t stop and cry.  Great people have gone before you in this life, facing horrible circumstances while called upon to do something great.  God has given you this moment, THIS moment, to speak…not just to your graduating class, but to your father.  He needs your words now more than ever.”  I took her precious face into my hands and spoke the only words I knew to say.  “Savannah, in this life, you will face many things that will feel just as awful as this does.  But you’ve got to remember….you serve a God who is bigger than this.  No matter what happens, no matter how hard things get and how much life may shake, God will always be there.  Always.  He will be your constant when everything else around you falls.  He’s got you.  You can do this.”  I wiped her tears, she freshened up her makeup, and the rest, they say, is history.

Little did we know, this would be our last family picture together.

Little did we know, this would be our last family picture together.

So how did she do?  Well, you can see for yourself.  She was amazing.  As soon as graduation was over, we left for Vanderbilt’s ER.  Sam was admitted and for the next six days, Savannah slept on the tile floor next to her father.  There was no graduation party (except for the fundraiser she sang at to help one of her friends raise funds for her mission trip to Ethiopia).  No graduation presents.  No senior trip. No fanfare or friends to show up and support her.  Just the halls of Vanderbilt, the staff, and the unknown journey ahead.  We would have only six months left.  Still, we had this moment….together.

This is how I remember Memorial Day.  The day my heroes fought well.

6 Comments

  1. jamiekocur

    Your strength and your story amaze me. Thanks for sharing.

  2. This is powerful and touching. Thank you for sharing.

  3. Wow, I can’t imagine being in that kind of situation. You be a very strong person to go through that. It’s apparent your family loved each other very much! And the memories can always be cherished. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Alyson

    Your family has always amazed me and Savannah has always been wise beyond her years! You are all strong and courageous! Savannah your speech was amazing and inspiring! Ronei you are one of the strongest people I have ever known and continue to be!

  5. Can’t wait to meet your amazing family. Thank you for always sharing your heart and baring your soul.

  6. Janeen Kilgore

    WOW! Oh Ms. Ronei, you have such an incredible story. The world needs to hear you. Please consider writing this down for others.

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