Saturday, April 28, 2012

Devin's Way, Chapter 7: Flying Home

Chapter 7

    My phone rang again, the sound for a text message, as I made my way through the Pittsburgh airport terminal.
    It was from Tomah Jim.
    We spent the better part of the last week, hustling from one end of the David L. Lawrence Convention Center to the other. The Wheelchair Games are a big deal, and Pittsburgh pulled out all the stops, with celebrity athletes galore on hand, like Rocky Bleier and Franco Harris, two of my childhood favorites.
    Bleier himself had come back from a devastating Vietnam War injury that could have left him in a wheelchair. That didn’t happen. He walked again, and helped lead the Steelers to four Super Bowls, so it was only natural that he was the honorary chairperson for the week.
    Usually if I was at one end of the convention center, they were at the other, shaking hands, taking pictures and signing autographs. The only time I got close enough was during the opening ceremonies, when I was taking pictures of them, with our paralyzed veterans, the way it should be.
    Still, Jim couldn’t help but needle me about it. He tried to help, sending me text messages throughout the week when he saw them, but I was always somewhere else. Jim and his daughter, Anna, 16, who was a volunteer for the games, had a knack for finding famous people in Pittsburgh that week, including some actors from the "Twilight" movies.
      He did it again in the early evening hours of Aug. 7. Since he and his daughter were leaving by train around midnight, they were still at the Omni William Penn Hotel, when he ran across the owner of the Steelers.
      He had to send me a text to brag.
    “Just met Dan Rooney in the lobby of the Omni," he wrote. "How cool is that?”
    Normally I’d be ecstatic and jealous and text back a swear word or two.
    Not this time. And thus, Jim became one of my first friends to learn the news.
    “Very nice, Jim. Just found out my son was killed in a car accident last night. Headed back to Kenosha,” I texted back.
    “I just sat there. Stunned.  What do you say to that?” Jimmy later recalled.
    After a few moments, my phone rang again.
    “Oh my…I am so sorry to hear that.  Horrible just horrible. Anna is in tears. God be with you and your family,” Jimmy wrote.
    Putting the words in a text made it even more real, if that was possible.
    Jim notified Susan Varcie, director of the Wheelchair Games, who was the next to send a heartfelt text message.
    That started the domino of people within the public affairs community hearing about Devin, and a few more text messages followed -- one from Kathleen Pomorski, and others from the Wheelchair Games.
    All I could write back was, “Thank you.”
    I was numb and felt, once again, outside my own body.
    All around me, people were happy, talking with family, and getting ready for flights. Surrounded by hundreds, I felt empty and alone. I looked at some of them with their children and wondered if they realized how life could really, truly change in an instant.   

Friday, April 27, 2012

Chapter 6, Devin's Way


 Chapter 6
            By now, the Edmarks and Lemens came to the car. I could hear confusion on the other end.
            In the distance, I could still hear my beautiful wife sobbing. Each jagged, choked sound was like another stab of the dagger to my own heart.
            Someone on the other end said they had to get Stephen. He still didn’t know. He was at another part of the park doing a geo cache with Paul Lemens.
            I could hear some of the younger kids excitedly yelling for my only surviving son. I braced for what would surely come next.
            Miriam composed herself and took control.
            “Gary, we will take care of Ruth. Just do what you have to.”
            A few minutes later, it was Ruth who called me on the phone.
            She sounded utterly empty, and was now probably experiencing what I felt at Kennywood -- somehow outside her own body, going through the motions.
            “I’m OK right now,” she said. “I’ve got to take care of Stephen.”
            Ruth showed incredible resilience, and was quickly moving into a protective Mommy mode while trying to staunch the gut-wrenching agony.
            She put Steve on the phone. He only managed a couple words before breaking down and crying.
            “I’ll take care of Steve and I’ll tell Ashlie,” Ruth said. “I want to tell her.”
            I had totally forgotten about calling Ashlie earlier.
            What if she called me back? What if she had picked up the phone?!?
            I looked up the phone number to the campground where Ashlie was working and gave it to Ruth. She called the camp director and told him what happened, but instructed him not to tell Ashlie, who was still working. When Ashlie got on the phone, she simply told her Devin was in an accident, and Ashlie needed to get to the Wisconsin Dells, where everyone was camping.
            Ruth smartly didn’t want Ashlie driving while knowing that Devin was dead.
            But Ashlie said she knew it was bad. Why else would I call her followed by Mom?
            She knew, but she didn’t want to be right.
            Meanwhile I still needed a return flight to Wisconsin and called the government’s contracted travel agency back. I was put on hold again, and had to grit my teeth when the operator came back on the line.
            “I’m sorry, Mr. Kunich. Every flight out of Pittsburgh, back to Wisconsin, is totally booked today. You might be able to fly out on standby, but that’s the best I can do …”
            “You checked every flight?” I asked.           
            “Yes sir. There’s nothing available.”
            “You are absolutely sure? My son just died. I really need to get back.”
            “Yes, I’m sorry, but there’s nothing there.”
            “What if I called the airlines directly?” I asked.
            “You can try,” the man on the other end said. “But I haven’t found anything.”
            I hung up the phone and logged onto AirTran’s web site. There were still five seats available for a flight leaving at 8:30 p.m. AirTran also just happens to be one of the government’s preferred airlines.
            Really?!?
            I looked at the small print at the bottom of my government ticket print-out. There was a $17 charge for emergency calls on the weekend.
            They sure as hell better not charge me or the government $17 for absolutely nothing.
            How the hell could I get a flight in five seconds on the Internet, when the travel agency operator couldn’t get me one after putting me on hold for 15 minutes???
            My next call was to the funeral home.
            Ruth specifically asked me to call the Piasecki-Altaus Funeral Home. We had been to several funerals there. It was a nice place that did nice memorials.
            Never dreamed they would now do one for me.
***

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Chapter 5, Devin's Way: My wife finds out


Chapter 5
            I disconnected from the travel agency and hit the answer button to connect with Ruth, the woman who gave birth to Devin nearly 22 years ago.
            600 miles away, she just finished the hike, dropped off everyone at a grassy lunch spot, and went to park our maroon, Chrysler Plymouth mini-van in one of the asphalt lots in Devil's Head State Park She sat inside the van, got my voicemail, and called back, waiting for me to pick up.
            My mouth went dry as I prepared to say … what? How do you tell your wife her child is dead?
            The next few seconds are seared into my brain.
            “Hi honey,” I said flatly.
            “Gary, what’s wrong?!?”
            I paused and started to form words I did not want to say.
            “Devin’s … been in a car accident …”
            “Oh no! What happened? Is he in the hospital? What hospital is he at?”
            I didn’t answer right away.
            “What hospital is he at?” she asked again.
            “Ruth …”
            One second. Two seconds. Three seconds.
            “He’s dead. I‘m so sorry …”
            My voice cracked as tears flood my eyes and Ruth made the most painful noise I’ve ever heard.
            “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!”
            It was an utterly deep and painful, howling wail that will forever be tattooed on my soul. It’s as if I stabbed her with my words and she was dying on the other end of the phone.
            She continued an anguished combination of screaming, wailing and moaning as she dropped the phone, fell to the ground and the line went dead.
            Unbeknownst to me, Miriam was walking toward the van to get her own cell phone when she heard Ruth cry. She came running.
            I called back and could only hear Ruth crying, screaming and yelling, “No! No! No!” over and over and over and over.
            This was the worst thing I ever did in my life.
            It was more painful than getting the news that Devin had died.
            “I’m sorry,” is the only thing I could say. “I’m so, so sorry …”
            Miriam, aware something horrible happened, but not sure what, grabbed the phone.
            “Gary? What’s going on???”
            “Devin was killed in an accident, Miriam.”
            She isn’t just Ruth’s best friend, she’s like another sister. She’s been a loving aunt to our three children. She watched Devin grow up. The news tore at Miriam, too, and she started to cry.
            I could still hear Ruth. She sounded like a severely wounded animal, making the last sounds of life, while caught in the throes of death.
            At the one time when I should be there holding my wife, hugging her and offering words of comfort, I could do nothing but listen to her mournful, agonizing and gut-wrenching wails of pain over the phone line, 600 miles away.
***

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

An excerpt from Devin's Way, Chapter 4


CHAPTER 4
            We got back to my mother’s house and I collapsed in a chair. I tried to call Ruth once more, got her voicemail again, and hung up without leaving a message. She would get it soon enough. I knew they canoed the day before, and were probably hiking today.
            I called up my e-mail and did something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. I clicked on the photo Lou sent and blew up to a larger size.
            On the screen in front of me was a tightly cropped face shot of Devin, obviously taken on the highway, obviously dead.
            It was Devin, but did I really think it wouldn’t be?
            He was dead.
            I called Lou back to make it official, and asked him to tell me more about the accident.

            “Gary,” Lou said, “I will never lie to you. There are things I won’t tell you, but I won’t lie. He did have lower body trauma. Again, Gary, I am so sorry …”
             What wasn't he telling me? I didn't have the will to ask.
            We continued talking a few more minutes. It's as if I was watching my body go through the motions. It gave me a strange, small comfort that Lou was giving me this information -- that someone who knew us was taking care of this part, but it didn’t change the fact that Devin was dead. I knew Lou was sorry. I knew this was more personal than other stuff he had to do.
            The next few minutes were spent calling the emergency number for my government travel to get a return flight as soon as possible. Surely, the death of a son would warrant a seat on an airplane, any airplane, to get back to Wisconsin. While the travel agency put me on hold, my phone beeped. Another phone call was coming in.
            I looked at the screen.
            It was Ruth.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Devin's Way, Chapter 1

Sorry to do this out of order, but I figured now that Chapter 1 is necessary to put everything into context, so here is an excerpt from that chapter.


CHAPTER 1
            Our family began planning our annual, neighborhood canoe trip back in February 2011. Every year in August, for the last 10 years, several neighbors and friends have gotten together to spend a weekend canoeing down the Wisconsin river and camping on sand bars, which are like mini-islands, along the way.
            Word of caution: There are no bathrooms on these weekend excursions. If you need a toilet, you carry a shovel into a wooded area on a sandbar. Some are able to make it an entire weekend, but most end up breaking down and saying, “I need to walk the shovel.”
            And we all know what “walking the shovel” means.
            It truly is roughing it.
            Devin has been on most of these yearly canoe trips, and could be a paddling fool on the water, where he could show off his boundless energy. These are not easy ordeals. We pack all our food, refreshments, camping gear, portable stoves and other equipment in large, black trash bags that are tied to the canoes with bungee cords. If one of those canoes tips, and the gear gets wet, it could make for an ugly, miserable weekend.
            Same goes for rain, but we’d been pretty much blessed each year, only enduring a little spritz or sprinkle at the worst, though we heard plenty of stories of said downpours happening in the years before we moved to Kenosha and became part of the yearly canoe trip.
            It was bound to happen to us eventually.
            A couple years back, hours after we picked out a great sand bar, ate dinner, made sure our canoes were secure and some of us were turning into bed, the wind picked up … and it didn’t stop. It howled louder and louder before, in the next few seconds, we were in the middle of the damned closest thing that could be compared to a hurricane mixed with a torrential flood pouring from the black sky above.
            It kept going, and growing and getting stronger and scarier by the second.
            I jumped up and grabbed hold of the inside corner of one tent, while our youngest son, Stephen, tried holding down another. At any second, either of us might lose and find the whole tent -- us included -- tossed into the angry Wisconsin River.
            Devin, exhibiting a mixture of pure stupidity, courage or a little of both, lunged outside to rescue canoes before they could float away, as well as chairs and other random items being hurled around in the wind. This was no passing storm, or if it was, it decided to pass over top of us and then stick around, right on our sand bar, the better part of 20 minutes.
            It was damn windy and damn scary.
            When the mayhem finally ended, we did a tally of people and equipment. We came through soaked and battered but all accounted for.
            The next day, Wisconsin just acted like the night before never happened, while we sat around a bit shell-shocked as we tried to dry out gear, repack it in garbage bags and make our way back down the river to our final destination.
            Looking back, that might not have been possible, had Devin not run outside the tent to rescue our canoes.
            We finally had “one of those trips” that we could now talk about for the next 10 years.
            Our 2010 trip was the first year the trip had to be totally postponed before it ever happened, literally changing in the moments before we got in our cars to make the three-hour drive to our launch site. Heavy rains made the river impossible to navigate, with no sand bars, which meant no canoe rentals. On a whim, we called Christmas Mountain Village, where we own a timeshare, and found they had room at their campground. Instead of camping, we spent the weekend camping at a resort and hiking around Devil’s Lake.
            Roughing it … with a real bathroom to poop and get a shower, not to mention a pool and hot tub, and lots of water parks nearby. No need to walk the shovel.
            It was a great time, so when plans came up again this year, we opted to forego the canoe-only trip, and make a return to Christmas Mountain. It would include camping, a one-day canoe trip and a one-day hiking trip along the challenging Devil’s Lake trails.
            The trip would take place Aug. 5 to 8.
            I had already planned the time off from work, and did shopping to get ready for the trip, when I got a phone call from my public affairs buddy, Tomah Jim. Jim was so nicknamed by me -- and appropriately so -- because he was my counterpart at the Tomah, Wis., VA hospital.
            A year earlier, we had both volunteered to participate in the VA’s National Wheelchair Games, where paralyzed veterans from across the United States, Puerto Rico and Great Britain, compete in a series of athletic events such as rugby, basketball, pool, table tennis, and an excruciatingly hard obstacle course -- all the while in wheelchairs. I especially wanted to get picked because the Games were taking place in my hometown of Pittsburgh, Pa.
            As it turned out, Jimmy got the OK to go to the games. My coworker, Brian Walker, who has worked at 17 of the last games, was picked, too.
            I wasn’t picked. As a relative newcomer to the VA, I didn’t make the cut. Needless to say, I was a bit bummed. It was Pittsburgh, my hometown after all!
            The phone call from Jim was a pleasant surprise but presented a bit of a quandary. Someone on the public affairs staff had dropped out at the last moment, and they needed  a replacement. He recommended me. The problem was the Wheelchair Games were taking place July 31 to Aug. 6, the same exact time as the annual camping trip.
            My Doe-Eyed Bride, Ruth, told me it would be OK to go to the Games. She and our youngest son, Stephen, would go on the camping trip. Ruth’s best friend in the world, Miriam Reda, would also come in from Virginia, and be on the trip as well, along with our neighbors, the Edmarks, and the Lemens.
            Devin wanted to go, too, but he had a summer job working weekends at the Renaissance Faire in Bristol. Plus, he needed the money because he had plans to move into a house with three of his best friends.
            We told Devin he could house sit for us. It was win-win all around. Our dogs, Sandy, a yellow Lab, and Shadow, a black Lab/Shepherd mix, wouldn’t have to spend the weekend in a kennel and Devin could use the extra money. Besides, he loved the dogs. One of his last Facebook posts was, "I just realized how needy these canines are." 
            Since then, of the millions of scenarios that have played out in our heads since Aug. 7, one of them has been: “Why didn’t we bring Devin along on the trip and put the dogs in a kennel? He’d still be alive … ”
            There are a million other things that could have happened, and he’d still be alive … had he stayed at the Ren Faire to give one more hug, had he left 10 seconds earlier, had the girl driving taken a different route or not gotten a call …
            A man can drive himself insane while thinking of the different scenarios. 
            Unbeknownst to us for more than 12 hours after it happened, our son was dead.
***

Monday, April 23, 2012

Devin's Way, Chapter 3, Aug. 7, 2011


CHAPTER 3
            We made it to the parking lot and the phone rang. It was Lou Denko again.
            “Gary, I hate to do this to you, and this is not the usual way we do this, but I need you to identify Devin. Can I send you an e-mail …”
            I hadn’t thought of this. They still needed a positive I.D.
            “I don’t want to get your hopes up. This is a one in a million chance here, but we can’t do the autopsy until we know for sure …”
            Autopsy? They have to cut up my son?
            Dear God.
            I swallowed hard again.
            “Lou, can we have an open casket?”
            Years earlier I went to see Roman at the funeral home. His casket was closed. What a horrible injustice that must have been for his family. Not only is your son dead, but you can’t even see him.
            “Yes, you can,” Lou said.
            He told me a little bit more about the hours after Devin’s death.
            He had his Renaissance Faire ID on him. The girl who hit him called 911, and so did at least two other people.
            Lou and the police stopped by our house, and thankfully, Devin left the door open. Well, no sense getting mad at him for that one.
            “We figured you guys were out of town,” he said. “We looked through some of the rooms and found a picture of Devin from a water park …”
            The photo was taken a month earlier at Mt. Olympus. It was one of those group family shots they take as soon as you enter the park and then sell to you at the end of the day for a ridiculously high price. I almost hesitated for a second not to buy it, but changed my mind. Truly, it was a gift from God.
            “Devin was wearing the same shirt in the picture that he was wearing when we found him,” Lou said. “We tried finding Ruth and went to Aurora, but they didn’t have a good phone number.”
            After working at Medix, my wife became a registered nurse. She started as an emergency room nurse at Kenosha Hospital and then moved to Aurora Hospital in nearby Racine a few years ago. Lou and the police mistakenly went to an Aurora Hospital in Kenosha. At first we wondered why Lou didn’t just find her cell phone number from his records and call, but realize that wouldn’t be the proper course of notification.
            Lou looked me up on Facebook and saw I made posts everyday about the Wheelchair Games.
            “We figured you were there in Pittsburgh, so we sent the police to your mom’s house.”
            If the Pittsburgh Police came, we don’t know. Mom picked me up early Sunday at the hotel in downtown Pittsburgh, and we only made a brief stop at her home before heading to Kennywood.
            Lou told me the dogs were in their kennels.
            It was now 2:30 p.m. and I was the only one in the family who knew Devin was dead.
            It was on Facebook.
            Oh my God, I thought. I can’t let Ashlie or someone on the camping trip see this on their smart phone.
            I called Paul Kloiber back.
            “Paul, no one else in my family knows! You have to tell everyone who put it up on Facebook to take down the posts!”
            He promised to do his best. Perhaps the only thing worse than finding out over the phone, would be on a social network site.
            My next call was to Bob Klausegger, who until recently, had lived a few doors down from us in our Kenosha neighborhood, before moving a couple miles away.
            Finally, I got a human being and not a voicemail.
            “Helloooo Gary,” he said good-naturedly.
            The words spilled out of my mouth.
            “Bob, Devin was killed. I need you to go to my house and check on the dogs.”
            I can’t imagine how that felt to be on the receiving end.
            “WHAT?!?!?”
            I repeated myself.
            “Bob, I’m out of town in Pittsburgh and Ruth is on a camping trip. Do not call her! She does not know yet! I’m trying to get hold of her!”
            Like so many other people, Bob offered sympathies and was truly distraught. His own sister had been killed by a drunk driver when she was 18 and he was only 16.
            I got in touch with my brother next, and got the same reaction as I did from Bob. He started to cry and my eyes grew damp again, but I blinked them as dry as possible. There was still so much I had to do. I wasn’t supposed to fly out until the next day. I had to get to Mom’s house and change my ticket. I had to get in touch with Ruth. I had to identify Devin. Dear God, I had to look at my son and identify him. Still existing outside my own body, I could not afford to cry.
            I closed my eyes and wished it was all a horrible dream.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Devin's Way: Chapter 2, Aug. 7, 2011

CHAPTER 2
August 7

    The Wheelchair Games were a blast, and inspirational at the same time. Watching hundreds of paralyzed athletes compete and excel in events that any one of us would bomb in was awe-inspiring.
    Some had been paralyzed after their military service in car accidents. Others were paralyzed or lost limbs in various wars. None of them had a bad attitude.
    It was my job to help with media and write stories. While there was a sizeable public affairs staff, I became particularly close with Tomah Jim and Kathleen Pomorski, another public affairs officer from the Coatesville, Pa., VA hospital. If we weren’t hanging out together on the job, we were usually getting dinner or sharing a beer afterward, patting each other on the back, talking smack, and making fun of one another.
    In my pocket was a commemorative coin we all received as a token of our service. I don’t collect many of these military-style coins, but this one was special to me. The front had the artwork and logo of the Wheelchair Games. The back had this year’s motto for Pittsburgh: “Where heroes become legend.”
    I was, and remain, in awe of these amazing veterans, and the coin would be a constant reminder of their never-say-die grit and determination.
    The trip back home was also nice since I could spend time with my Mom, who still lives in the same house we grew up. She came down for some of the games, and we were able to get lunch. Since the games officially wrapped up Aug. 6, we made plans to spend the day together and visit Kennywood the next day, a great amusement park about 30 minutes from our home. Everyone in Pittsburgh goes to Kennywood every year. With its mixture of old-time roller coaster greats like the Jack Rabbit, Racer and Thunderbolt, mixed with new behemoths like The Phantom’s Revenge, it’s a one-of-a-kind place. Many of my children’s first roller coast experiences -- just like mine -- happened right in that park.
    Mom picked me up at the hotel, and we had breakfast at one of my favorite places -- Ritter’s Diner, with the same meal I’ve always had whenever I’m in town: well-done corned beef hash, two eggs, and well-done and crispy home fries with brown gravy. Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.
    Little did I know, as I ate my breakfast, that Devin had already been dead for more than nine hours.
    On our way to Kennywood, we drove by a cemetery. My best childhood friend, John Garvey, is buried just inside the gates. He commit suicide in 1993, and I still think of him every week. It was John’s death that made me rethink suicide and the dogma surrounding it. I know some religions teach that someone who does such a thing goes to Hell. I can’t find that anywhere in the Bible. I can’t think anyone who does that is in a right mind, and think God judges them mercifully.
    “How you doin’, John?” I said out loud as we passed the cemetery gates.
    A minute later, we were rounding a fenced-in curve of the far side of the cemetery. This was the place, in 1985, where my brother’s best childhood friend, Vince Sharpe, along with Roman Lawniczak, died, after crashing their motorcycle.
    “Thinking of you, Vince and Roman,” I said, as I often did in that area.
    Why did my mother drive this route when there were others to choose from? Was Devin telling me something?
    We got to Kennywood and I was worried about Mom. She is 72, and though she thinks otherwise, does not get around as well as she once did. She almost died a year earlier because of a gangrenous colon and three emergency surgeries, so it’s probably a bit of a modern-day medical miracle that she is still with us. She has changed quite a bit in the years since Dad died back in 1996, and I’m not sure she ever quite accepted the fact that her three children grew up and had the audacity to join the Air Force and move away from home.
    The oldest, Ellen, lives in South Carolina with her husband, Stu, and two children, Caroline and Zoe. Steve, the middle one and four years older than me, lives in Virginia, with his daughter, Amber. Steve and I were born on the same day, four years apart -- one of us was 21 days early, and the other was 21 days late, Mom says. I’m not sure which one was which. I just know I ruined his fourth birthday party. We live in Kenosha, Wis. There’s me, my wife, Ruth, and the three kids: Devin, 21; Ashlie, 19; and Stephen, 15. We ended up here in 2001 after leaving Aviano, Italy, where I was stationed with the Air Force and got a job at Great Lakes in North Chicago.
    From the day we arrived, my kids decided we weren’t going to leave again. They had a real neighborhood, with real sidewalks and real neighborhood friends. Wasn’t quite like that overseas. One year became five, I retired from the Air Force, worked at the Kenosha News, and then moved onto the VA.
    After 10 years, Ruth and I were talking about leaving, and starting a new phase of our lives. I brought up the subject with Mom as we walked through the gates of Kennywood. She was disappointed to hear Pittsburgh wasn’t on our short list. We wanted to go some place hot, located near family, and had narrowed it down to South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia and San Antonio, Texas. Ruth and I have always loved San Antonio, since we were both stationed there with the Air Force years ago, but didn’t know each other back then. She has family there, and we love the area, the heat and the great housing prices.
    I already applied for a job working public affairs for the Army’s Southern Regional Army Medical Command. Based on my background, I figured I had a pretty good shot. We start looking at houses online, and dreamed about our new San Antonio home, complete with a den and built-in pool in the backyard.
    The world might change, and so does Kennywood, but it does not disappoint.
    Some rides long loved and remembered as a child are gone, like the goofy Horrible Harold’s Haunted Hideaway, but the old standbys are still there. Mom and I first stopped at the Jack Rabbit. Years earlier, I took all three of my kids, Devin, Ashlie and Stephen, on the coaster.
    Mom walks a bit slower, so we ambled next to the Log Jammer. I remember standing in line for what seemed like hours the year it first opened in 1975. It’s your standard, ride-in-a-plastic-cart-that-looks-like-logs-and-go-down-two-water-hills-and-get-splashed-in-the-face ride. Time and technology may have passed the Log Jammer by with faster, wetter rides, but it’s still a hoot going down that last hill, especially if someone in the front is carrying a little extra weight.
    With all the bright, loud amusement park music, and joyful yelling and screaming that can only be found in a place like this, I never heard my cell phone ring.
    We got a soda and found a park bench since Mom needed a break. We sat down to watch people go by, as I absentmindedly checked my cell phone and saw there was voicemail.
    Listening to Mom with one ear, I punched in my four-digit code and heard my friend, Paul Kloiber’s voice with the other.
    He sounded more stressed than usual.
    “Gary, this is Paul Kloiber. I am so sorry. I just heard the news about Devin … ”
    Oh no, I thought. Devin’s in trouble …
    “I am so sorry. If there is anything I can do, anything at all …”
    What did my son do???
    “… if you guys need food or whatever just let me know …”
    I felt blood drain from my face. My jaw opened.
    “…Again, I’m so sorry. Call me if you need anything … ”
    I swallowed while my brain tried to make sense of the call. Happy, amusement park music piped over loudspeakers. People walked by laughing.
    I swallowed again, and looked at Mom, and formed words that didn’t want to come.
    “I think Devin is dead.”
    She blinked, the words startling her into silence.
    “What?!?”
    “I just got a message from my friend, Paul. I think Devin is dead.”
    It didn’t register with her right away.
    “Honey, what do you mean?”
    “He just called to say he was sorry about Devin, and he wanted to bring over food. I’ve got to call him back.”
    Every image and every voice and sound blurred into one another. I looked all around for a quiet place, any place, to call Paul back, and spied a corner next to a food booth. It was still loud, but it’s all I had.
    With fingers shaking, I went to the call history, hit the “missed calls” button, found Paul’s number, and hit “Dial.”
    The phone rang once.
    “Gary!” Paul shouted.
    Everywhere music and noise and I could barely hear.
    “Paul! I’m out of town in Pittsburgh! What’s going on? Is my son dead?!?”
    “Oh my God!” he cried. “You don’t know! You don’t know! I’m so sorry!”
    My heart thumped in my chest as his reaction confirmed what I suspected. I blinked and choked back the first set of tears while steeling myself for the rest of the conversation.
    But everywhere, everywhere noise and music and laughter …
    “Paul! What happened?”
    He was sobbing. I collapsed against the wall of the food booth, trying to block out noise and sounds that wouldn’t stop.
    “I am so sorry,” he kept saying over and over. “Devin was killed last night on his bike! I thought you knew! I wouldn’t have called you! I’m so sorry! I thought you knew!”
    A couple tears filled my eyes, but I was too shocked to totally break down.
    “He was riding his bike home from the Renaissance Faire,” Paul continued. “It’s been on Facebook, that’s why I thought you knew!”
    “How could it be on Facebook?” I yelled.
    “I don’t know! I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean for you to find out this way!”
    “Paul, I have to go. I have to call the police.”
    Mom walked over to me and our eyes met. I tried to unsuccessfully will away the painful knot in my chest and stop my hands from shaking.
    “He was killed … I have to call the police …”
    I tried walking to a slightly quieter place near one of the picnic areas, while pushing the numbers for the Kenosha Police Department. After four and a half years as a reporter, I knew the number by memory.
    A dispatcher picked up, and I took a deep breath to regain some semblance of composure.”
    “This is Gary Kunich. I just found out my son, Devin, was in an accident, and might be dead. Can you give me some information?”
    Maybe, just maybe, I thought, it wasn’t true. There was an accident, but he wasn’t dead. He couldn’t be dead. It wasn’t real.
    The dispatcher hesitated for a moment.
    “You’ll have to call the Pleasant Prairie Police Department.”
    It took a second to filter through my stunned brain, and turn into anger.
    “My son might be dead and you can’t tell me?!?”
    She hesitated again.
    “I’m sorry, I don’t know, but there was a bad accident over there.”
    She knew. She had to have known, but she couldn’t say. Her inability to say anything confirmed it all.
    And still everywhere, there was laughter and shouts of excitement. I wanted to scream at the world to shut up! Did they not understand my son was dead?!? What the hell was wrong with them???
    She gave me the Pleasant Prairie number and I made the next call and repeated myself.
    “One moment sir, let me get you the detective,” this dispatcher said.
    One more person, same question. “Is my son dead?”
    “Yes sir,” the male detective said. “I’m afraid he is. I am sorry you had to find out this way. We have been trying to get in touch with you and your wife all day.”
    I looked up at the sky, and all around me, trying to gather my thoughts and willed myself not to cry.
    “What happened?”
    “Right now it looks like a horrible accident,” he said. “He was riding his bike north on Highway H at about 12:50 a.m. and was hit from behind. He was wearing dark clothes. The girl who hit him may have been on her cell phone.”
    Why was Devin out so late? Why was he out so late?
    Why was he dead?
    He told me the medical examiner was trying to get in touch with me.
    My phone battery was low, and I didn’t know how much time I had left before the phone shut off completely. I asked him to give my number to the examiner, and told him I’d be home in a half hour to recharge my phone.
    Everywhere, everywhere there was still noise and music and laughter, and I felt sick.
    Ruth had to know.
    I called her cell. It went immediately to voicemail.
    “Hi Ruth, this is Gary. Please call me as soon as you get this. I love you.”
    She later said I sounded so sad on the phone. She thought my Mom had died or had a stroke at Kennywood.
    I’ve got to get in touch with her.
    I called our youngest son, Stephen. If he answered, I’d just ask him to put his Mom on the phone.
    “Hello, you’ve reached the phone of Stephen. I’m sorry I can’t take your call right now,” his voicemail said.
    “Steve, it’s Dad. Please have Mom call me as soon as possible. I love you.”
    I called our next-door-neighbor, Maggie Edmark, who was on the camping trip. I had her number in my phone since she usually watches the dogs when we’re out of town.
    Another voicemail.
    I called our daughter, Ashlie, 19, who was working in Rheinlander as a camp counselor for the summer.
    Thank God I got her voicemail, too. I was not thinking clearly. What would I tell her? Your brother is dead, and  hey, how is camp? I can’t imagine how she might take that news.
    I tried Ruth and Stephen again with no luck and frustration building up inside as we began walking toward the front of the park. My entire body and brain felt numb and tingly, like I was out of my own body, looking at it and the world around me. It felt cold and unreal.
    My phone rang. It was an unfamiliar number. I numbly answered.
    “Gary! This is Lou Denko! Ruth’s boss from Medix! I’m the deputy medical examiner now …”
    His words came in a garbled mess that I couldn’t discern from the sounds that crushed in on me from all around.
    “Who is this???”
    He repeated himself.
    When we first arrived in Kenosha, my wife wanted to immediately start nursing school, but there were no open slots available. She had been a medic in the Air Force for 12 years, and it was always her dream to become a nurse. With no openings available, she instead worked part-time at the Cracker Barrel, and then took a part-time job with Medix Ambulance, a private ambulance company that Lou owned.
    “Lou!” I yelled, finally figuring out who was on the other end, all the while willing myself, unsuccessfully, not to be sick. “What happened?”
    “Gary, I am so sorry you had to find out this way,” he said with genuine compassion.
    This wasn’t just another case, another death for him. I could tell in his voice. He recognized Devin’s name, and knew he was our son.
    “It really looks like a tragic accident, Gary.”
    “Was she drunk?”
    “No,” he replied. “No indication of drugs or alcohol. She may have been on her cell phone.”
    This isn’t happening, I thought, but knew it really was. What am I going to tell Ruth? How am I going to tell Ruth?
    Devin was dead.
    Devin was dead.
    Dear God in Heaven, my son was dead …
    And everywhere, everywhere the crushing sound of music, laughter and noise continued all around me …