Having been there

I woke up to an e-mail this morning that made me nauseous. Two of my dearest friends woke up Monday to learn their father had suffered a small stroke. From there, it just got worse. A few minutes ago, I got off the phone with one of the sisters. Apparently, the doctors have found something of greater concern. As I talked to my friend, I heard the same sound that was in my voice a little more than three years ago. Tonight, I’m hoping my friends are as lucky as I was.

For those of you who have only recently started reading here, I’m going to re-post a long series of updates I wrote back when my dad was in the hospital. I do it both to remind me how lucky I was, and to give hope to others.

Peace tonight, friends.


From an e-mail I wrote to friends a few days after my dad’s collapse from a ruptured aneurysm

There are loads of brain injury-related claims but the thing about a brain injury–as near as I can tell–is that it not only affects the decision making skills of the afflicted, but also the people in the vicinity. Exactly 12 hours ago I thought we were in a holding pattern in which there would be no further action taken on my father’s head until at least the weekend. After all, that was what the doctors said. Of course, the doctors had said the same thing the last two days and changed their minds. On both days we were fairly sure my dad was going to die.

Nine hours ago my dad went in for the second brain surgery he’s had this week. This one was more life-threatening than the last. While I’ll spare everyone the emotional details, there is something to be said for the cathartic qualities of taking one last chance to tell your father what he has meant to your life.

In what was a relieving but frustrating sequence of events, Dad came out of the second surgery intact and alive. He is again breathing on his own and is sleeping off the anesthesia. Medical-types will be interested to know the doctors have still not been able to fix the original problem. However, today, they removed a blood clot from my dad’s brain that was about the size of an egg. That should help some the problems he was having. On the frustrating side, Dad now requires a third essential brain surgery. We have to wait a few days before that will happen. If it wasn’t for our injury lawyer helping us secure compensation we wouldn’t have been able to pay for all these surgeries.

Michelle has been the backbone I’m sure all of you expected she would be. I’m trying to find the strength to send her back home. However, in the past three days I’ve had reason to believe my dad was going to die each afternoon. I’m hoping Thursday proves to be an exception to this week’s pattern.

Just as important as Michelle’s support has been that I’ve been getting from friends and family around the country. From phone and e-mail messages, to internet comment sites, to blogs, the support has been overwhelming.

This afternoon, I stood in the entryway to the waiting room. My dad had been in surgery for a couple of hours and I was trying to find a way to not puke on the reception desk. A woman walked in carrying a thick envelope. She was looking for my dad’s family.

“We had so many e-mails they almost wouldn’t fit in the envelope,” she said.

I took them and walked toward my assembled family, expecting to read a few. I started flipping through them and started recognizing names. Michelle saw me from across the room and did as she’s learned to do when she sees “the look” on my face. A few seconds later, Chelle was sharing all of your well-wishes with my family as I took a walk around the perimeter of the hospital. Sometimes the good stuff can get to as hard as a bad stuff.

I’d like to spend the next hour writing about how much I appreciate everybody. I like to consider myself a rock. Turns out, it’s easy to be stable when you’re entire foundation is built on friendships like the kinds I’ve seen this week.

One thought before I see a bed for the first time in 40 hours…

As Chelle and I sit in the Neuro Trauma ICU, our journalist brains kick in. Chelle’s heart has found itself in the middle of many a family’s pow-wow. As my family goes through it’s greatest struggle yet, we are surrounded by at least five families going through the same or worse in the very same week. The names travel from mundane to exotic. The stories are all horrible.

Jennifer Lojudice begged her husband not to buy a sports car. She didn’t think she would have to beg him not to drive 120 mph and flip the car. Two weeks ago doctors told her to plan his funeral. Today he is still alive, but barely.

Randy Lawson was Marshfield, Missouri’s answer to Lance Armstrong (or in the case of the WYFF’ers, Scott Enright). He got hit by a car while riding down the road. His daughter pulled up on the wreck and called back to ask, “Mom, Daddy didn’t go out riding tonight did he?” He’s a bag of mangled pieces that sometimes wakes up and sometimes doesn’t. We’ve lost count of the surgeries and number of doctors.

Margaret Edders dad had just retired a couple of years ago. He was bored and decided to help his son clean a high ceiling. He fell off a 12 foot ladder. The concrete below met the left side of his head with enough force to make sure he didn’t wake up for the last three days.

There is likely a great message in all this, but I don’t feel qualified to assess what it is. Suffice it for me to admit that I have been more naive than I thought I was.

Again, I hope to send Chelle home soon. I don’t know when I’ll be back. For the sake of my mom, the rest of my family, and frankly myself, I hope I have reason to see Greenville again very soon.

Again, I’ll never be able to repay the love you’ve all shown my father, me, and
Michelle so far.


Written after emergency brain surgery #2

The Neuro Trauma ICU has windows and televisions. Though they masquerade well as portals to the outside world, they are more decoration than anything else. On more than one occasion, one of the assembled masses (usually one who hasn’t seen a shower in a couple of days) looks up from a crossword puzzle and asks, “What day is it?”

To remedy the problem, at least in part, we’ve started hanging handmade signs from the bottom of our lifeless TV. Today’s read: Today is…FRIDAY…October 24, 2003.

On the surface, Friday was much like any other day this week. Waking up in a fluorescent-lit room, dry-nosed from the conditioned air, and chilled to the bone by the vents overhead. Eating something quick from the hospital cafeteria. Slugging down coffee and double shots of espresso to shake out the cobwebs.

Deep down, today was different. For instance…a few of us cried today…out of happiness. That doesn’t happen much around the NTICU.

Dad is waking up from a week in the fog. He has a large semi-circular scar etched around his hairline. His eyes are glazed. His hands often feel cold. Still, he smiles occasionally and is finding some humor in the middle of his hell.

Michelle and I sat next to his bed today. The nurse poked him the chest. They do that to wake him up when he doesn’t feel like it.

“Hey, there. Will you tell me your name?” She did this every time she woke him up from his deep nap.

Dad didn’t answer. I sat on the edge of my chair, hoping against hope that he would say something…anything resembling his name. Just two days before he had called his feet “books.”

Dad didn’t say anything.

“What’s your name?”

I was getting ready to cry when I heard him say something. The nurse didn’t hear him through his croaking throat (the breathing tube made it sore).

“What? What’s your name?”

Dad spoke louder…this time with a smile. “I said I thought you’d know it by now.”

Dear God, my Dad is joking. Unbelievable.

Two minutes later, after a couple more jokes, Dad looked at Michelle and me. The nurse asked if he knew who we were. I clenched my wife’s hand. While he had seen me there a few times, he had never really acknowledged me.

“That’s my son, Brad, and his wife, Michelle.”

That’s when I started crying.

Everyone was smiling today. We understand there are dangerous days ahead. In a few short hours everything could change and we could be facing tough decisions. We’ve already made a few, including authorizing a surgery that could’ve killed our father. We did it because we knew he would’ve wanted it. Though the decision nearly made us collapse emotionally, the surgery worked and we believe it is why Dad is talking to us now.


Written during the long wait for brain surgery #3

Dad was always too busy reaching for success to care much about TV. He had a real world to conquer and the relative safety of America’s televised fiction was a poor substitute. TV served more as background noise while he and his family sorted through work files. We learned to alphabetize early, not knowing the work we were doing would someday lead to a college education and comfortable lifestyle.

Still, when Dad took a break from ruling his life and business, he would occasionally escape into the TV. While I know we spent more time in front of the tube than I remember, the best memories are the Cardinals/Royals World Series and reruns of Cheers. Dad’s laugh shook the room and made you want to laugh even if you didn’t get the jokes. And he’s still ticked about that call at first base.

Sometimes one of the kids–and sometimes Mom–would start talking ad naseuem during a program. Like a frog about to die in a pot of soon-boiling water, we didn’t notice the volume level of the TV going up or the remote control in Dad’s hand. Soon enough, though, we’d realize the noise had risen to a silly level. We’d look over and Dad would be smiling quietly. He never had to say a word. The intent was clear. Shut up…please.

This afternoon Jeff and I went back to visit Dad in the middle of the Rams/Steelers game. We chatted quietly and watched the Rams take it to the boys from Pittsburgh. When Chatty Nurse walked in and started quizzing Jeff on his medical aspirations (rather loudly) none of us noticed what we should’ve expected. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the TV on the wall got louder…until it was maxed out and blasting through the ICU.

Sitting here in the dark, I still feel a little guilty for my first thought. Jesus, Dad has lost it. He can’t hear a damned thing and he’s trying to turn up the game so he can hear it.

Then I looked down at his face. He didn’t wink, but he might as well have. I almost wish I had interpreted the situation for the nurse. Shut up…please.

Dad is in there. He goes to sleep a lot and takes a while to come back after he opens his eyes, but he’s in there. That sense of humor that we love is dancing behind his glazed eyes.

For instance, last night I was sitting beside his bed. We were alone and talking about his past and future. I said to him what I actually believe: This situation certainly sucks, but it could’ve been worse.

Dad said, “Yeah, it could’ve. I could’ve died.” A brief pause. “That really would’ve pissed me off.”

Me, too, Dad. Me, too.

I walked into the hospital exactly one week ago this minute. By this time next week, I hope…

Well, we all know what we hope.


Written as the third surgery was on the horizon

If you dig through the Willis family archives, you’ll find a picture of me standing in front of the television. I’m in my underwear and watching the Charlie Brown “Great Pumpkin” special.

As the stories go, as a child I would cry when Charlie Brown holiday specials signed off. I don’t know if it was because as a child I thought I’d never see them again or if I simply enjoyed them so much I never wanted it to end.

Tonight I found myself standing in front of one of those old-school hospital televisions watching and waiting with Linus for the Great Pumpkin. I sucked on a sucker and watched quietly. It would only be a few more minutes until visiting hours began. It would probably be the last time I got to talk to my dad before he went into surgery the next morning.

Dad was lying back in the bed with his head propped up. He was holding my mom’s hand tighter than he had in the last few days. He was acting tougher than he had all week. He was ready and I could see it. He’s a Willis. His eyes might as well have screamed, “Let’s get this thing done and get on to what’s next!”

It’s been almost a week since I stood beside my unconscious father and told him exactly what he meant to my life. As I stood there tonight, I felt as if he had heard me and knew what I wanted to say again. So, I grabbed his hand and held it tighter than I ever had as a child. I kissed him on his cheek and told him I loved him. He looked at me unafraid, and more gentle than I’ve ever see him. He loved me, too.

I wanted to reassure him, tell him not to be afraid, and that everything was going to be okay. All I could say was, “You’re gonna make it through this just fine.”

I felt the tears starting to form and didn’t want him to see my cry. I escaped behind the curtain. As I started to walk away I heard him say confidently, “Don’t worry. We’ll be back. We’ll be back.”

With Dad, everything has always been “we.”

“We’ll be back,” without a doubt meant he will be back.

I’m a lot older than I was when I stood in front of the TV in my underwear watching the Great Pumpkin. But, there is still a part of me that fears it will never come on again. There is still a part of me that’s had so much fun that I never want it to end.

If there is anything that brings me comfort as I try to find some rest tonight, it is this: Some things are too good to not bring back every holiday season.

If you’ve never met my dad, I hope you soon will.

I want you to know the man who is too good to die.


Written immediately following the third surgery


Odd how one can be so full of words when things look so bad. Right now only one word seems appropriate:


It took just a few hours. A doctor who will forever have me in his debt (the insurance company should pay for Dad’s end) was able to take care of Dad’s aneurysm. The chances of it ever being a problem again are about 1 and 500. I’ll take that.

Shortly after surgery, Dad began breathing on his own. That is a good indication he is not going to die.

The tension held for another hour or so as Dad slept off the anesthesia. There was a still a chance the surgery had paralyzed him. There was a chance he couldn’t move anything from his nose down.

After an hour of sleeping, a nurse convinced Dad to move all his extremities. That included a thumbs-up on the left hand.

We were able to see Dad for about 10 minutes early this afternoon. He was still pretty zonked out, but we think he heard us when we told him he was going to be okay. We saw the hint of a smile under his oxygen mask.

There is still a very long road ahead. While we have reason to be optimistic today, we still don’t know the full extent of his brain damage. The right side of his body is still very weak and will require serious rehabilitation. The left frontal lobe of his brain was also damaged by the aneurysm. That could cause some personality changes.

While we don’t know what to expect in the coming months, we now have hope Dad can be rehabilitated to something close to how he used to be. It will just take time to figure out how close he can come. If anybody can succeed, he can. After all, he’s made it through three brain surgeries in one and half weeks.

The immediate future will be spent in the NTICU. We’re hoping he moves out of there by the weekend. After that, it’s anybody’s guess. We guess it will likely be a couple of weeks in the hospital, followed by some in-patient rehab, followed by going home. I’m sort of hoping Dad makes it home by my Dec. 4th birthday. It’s not an unreasonable hope.

While the immediate threat seems to have passed, the updates will continue here as often as we find time to post them. My hope is that someday soon I can turn over the password to Dad and he can post these updates on his own.

And for all the love, thoughts, and prayers you’ve all sent out over the past 11 days…we love you all. As I’ve said before…we plan to spend the rest of our lives showing you how much we appreciate every one of you.

My brother and I are now going to smile our way back to the hospital in hopes of talking to our Dad. At some point we plan to talk about the future.

It’s a lot more fun to talk about the future when there’s a good chance a future is actually possible.


Written a few hours before I left the month-long vigil at my Dad’s bedside

Saying goodbye

My friend called out of the blue one day. I knew he’d been having some troubles of his own, so it sort of touched me that he took the time to call and see how I was handling Dad’s third brain surgery. At the time I was recovering from a serious bout of “what in the world have we just been through?” I was none too coherent.

Through the familiar crackle of two cell phones connected across half a country of towers, my friend offered an observation that I had not yet considered.

“I was thinking this morning,” he said in a voice I’d heard talk through many a long night and problem, “you’ve had to say goodbye to your father three times.”

I can’t remember how or even if I replied. But it touched me that he’d noticed. He’d been there before. I was still learning.

The first time I said goodbye, it was in a sleep-deprived and grief-induced fog that I hardly recall. I was surrounded by faces, many that I hadn’t seen in years. I saw my dad’s friends, his coworkers, his family. I heard long stories of his greatness. I had not yet found a way to handle the idea that I could soon be planning my dad’s funeral. I didn’t even excuse myself. I just left and sat on a retaining wall that surrounded the hospital.

The second time I said goodbye, I stood alone beside Dad’s unconscious body, my voice barely rising above the beeping of his vital monitors. I forced out each word, determined that I would finally say what I’d spent three decades trying to express. I told him I loved him, then fought the urge to run out of the hospital. I made it as far as the retaining wall again.

The third time, I had developed a numbness. However, with the lack of hard core emotion came a simple resolve that allowed me to believe that Dad actually might survive. That time, Dad was awake. He smiled at me as the nurses rolled him toward the operating room. I still can’t believe that I pressed my hand against the window between us in a half wave. It was all too theatrical to be real.

When the ICU waiting room volunteer pulled me aside and whispered that the docs were able to fix the aneurysm, I couldn’t contain the smile. I couldn’t help but yell across the room to whoever would listen. “They got it!” My mom nearly collapsed in relief, the first time she publicly broke down during the entire ordeal.

A slow calm set in. It was one that said, “Save your goodbyes for another day, young man.”

It seems like something that happened when I was a kid, but it was two weeks ago today.

Maybe I wouldn’t have thought about the three goodbyes again for a while. Maybe I wouldn’t have thought about how hard it is to tell the only male role model and hero of your life goodbye.

Thing is…in nine hours I’ve got to look my old man in the face and tell him I’m leaving. Two hours later, I’ll be on a plane. And a few hours later I’ll land in another world, one my Dad barely knows, and one that is too far away to look my Dad in the eye and tell him everything is going to be okay.

I know I’ve got to go. I know Jeff felt the exact same way when he got on a plane a couple of days ago. We both know we’re leaving Dad in great hands. We both know there is little more we can do here but provide a small amount of moral support.

It’s still one of the toughest things we’ve had to do. That is, next to saying goodbye to our dad three times.

Thursday afternoon, Dad will see the real world for the first time since October 19th. As part of his therapy, the therapists are taking him to Barnes and Noble. He’ll get to shop around and see something other than a sanitized hospital room or what must seem like a torture chamber-ish therapy gym.

The updates will continue to show up here on this site, so we encourage you to keep reading. But from two sons who will be several hundred miles away, we’d appreciate it if you’d look in on Mom and Dad when you get a chance. Mom is going to do a great job and Dad should recover soon. Still, they could probably use the occasional smile in front of them.

To all the people we’ve known forever and to all the people we’ve met in the past four weeks…and to everyone who has been keeping tabs on Dad from afar…we offer our eternal gratitude, endless respect, and undying love.

Somehow…our family just keeps getting bigger and bigger…and somehow Mom and Dad still don’t have grandkids.

How about that?


Written a few weeks after the surgery when I finally started believing everything was going to be okay

I suppose if you’re not a Willis you might find the following statement a little silly. I mean, even some Willi (that’s the plural of Willis, by the way) find it a little silly. Nonetheless, it’s proven true quite a few times.

Where there is a Willis, there is a way.

Apparently that axiom is among the many things Dad has not forgotten. Today, he applied it to walking.

That’s right. Six hundred feet. The length of two football fields. More than one tenth of a mile.

The stubborn sonofagun walked. No cane. No walker. No shoulder on which to hold.

The guy walked.

Today he saw his house for the first time in a month. Tomorrow he moves back in. He’ll sleep in his own bed, under a roof he worked his entire life to have over his head.

I’ve seen Dad do a number of amazing things in the last 31 days. I didn’t actually see this free-walking thing happen. I wish I had. Still, the feeling is unexplainable. It’s almost as powerful as the grief we all felt in October.

Grief is an odd thing. Some of us hold it in tight. Some of us let it go. I was reminded of that fact yesterday. It was the first time I’d been on a murder scene since I got back to work.

I was in a poor neighborhood. The cops and the reporters were doing their best to think about things other than the two guys inside the little brown house. Those two guys had bullet holes in their heads.

There were other things to occupy our thoughts. Gallows humor, the chief coping mechanism of cops and journalists worldwide, took over.

Someone spotted the dead dog on the front porch of one house. A taxidermist had done a heckuva job on the mutt. Apart from the obvious rigor that had set in many year earlier and the cob webs hanging off its nose, the dog looked like it was alive and alert.

Then, someone else spotted the dozens of plastic spoons, knives, and forks sticking up from a flower bed. While we were sure the homeowner had a purpose for the dirty cutlery, we joked about her planting a plasticware garden for many a picnic lunch come springtime.

It was an odd neighborhood, indeed, made even stranger by the dead people a few yards away.

The jokes, told in whispers near the fringes of the growing crowd, served their purpose. They kept the cops and reporters from going slowly insane. But no joke could stop the growing level of grief in the crowd. The dead guys had big families. Nothing was going to stop the screams. A photographer snapped this picture as the grief came to its climax.

One woman’s face turned into a mask of insanity as she screamed. A man collapsed on the ground like a forgotten toy.

As it always has, the sound turned my stomach. It was made even worse this time by knowing I was very close to having those screams escape my mouth a month ago.

Over the course of the past month, Jeff and I talked about whether this experience might help us or hurt us in our jobs. Whether it would make us more sympathetic or make us unable to deal with what we have to see everyday.

The jury is still out on that one.

But one thing is sure: We know how thankful we should be.

And because we know how thankful we should be…we are.


Now, in 2007, my dad is Dad again. He is also Papa.

In a couple of months, we’re going to a Cards game together.

I am among the luckiest people I know.

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Brad Willis

Brad Willis is a writer based in Greenville, South Carolina. Willis spent a decade as an award-winning broadcast journalist. He has worked as a freelance writer, columnist, and professional blogger since 2005. He has also served as a commentator and guest on a wide variety of television, radio, and internet shows.

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