Dave Melbye >

Random Numbers

 

I was driving north on I-94 at 8:20 AM on a Wednesday morning as a sinking feeling made its way to the middle of my chest. I had been late too many times that month, and I knew my luck was running out. My job selling computer consulting services allows me some latitude in time spent away from the office, but I was pushing it. I had a great excuse in that my wife's job took her out of town, and somebody had to get the kids to the camp at the YMCA, but I still felt that sooner or later I was in for it.

So when the cell phone rang, and I saw the office number on caller id, I squirmed as I hit the answer button.

"Dave, are you coming in today?" It was my boss, Scott, and he didn't sound happy.

"Yeah, I had to get the kids to camp and stuff this morning. I'm late, I know—but I should be there in 10 minutes or so." I prayed that I sounded honest and sincere.

"Come to my office right away when you get here."

That's the sort of statement that will get your heart rate racing, and mine went from a heightened, slightly nervous 90 to a frantic 290 in a matter of seconds. "What's up?" I said, desperately trying to cover up the quiver in my voice. It had to be bad, just had to be.

"I don't want to talk about it over the phone" he said, "this is kind of personal. Just come in here as soon as you can."

I hung up the phone and thought about everything that had happened over the last few weeks. What was this all about? I had no clue, and I had time to writhe in the exquisite pain of knowing I was going to hear bad news without knowing what it was about.

When I arrived, I decided on the aggressive approach, and walked into Scott's office with a purpose. I sat down as if I had a million things to get done and this meeting simply was not on the agenda. "So, what's going on? What did I do now?"

"It's not about you—it's about Tim."

I sat down slowly. Tim was a long-time friend whom I had worked with at my last job with General Electric. I helped recruit him to our firm when GE decided to fold up the tents on that division, and he had been with us for about four months. But that's not what drained the blood from my face.

You see, Tim is a cancer survivor. And the way Scott looked at me, I thought for sure that the cancer had resurfaced. That guess couldn't have been more wrong—and as it turned out, the right answer was worse.

Scott spoke quietly. "Tim and his family were in a car accident last night…..Tory didn't make it".

 

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In early 1995 I was offered a job with AmeriData Consulting to help open their new office in Milwaukee. It was a chance to help start a new information systems consulting practice, and after ten years of doing it for somebody else, it sounded intriguing to try and do it for me. I felt that the best way to decide on this offer would be to sit at Slim McGinn's, an ancient Irish pub, with a bunch of my drinking buddies and discuss the opportunity in an informal, if somewhat loud, setting.

It's hard to say no to anything after three hours of beer drinking at Slim's, so my friend Steve had an easy time talking me into taking the offer. When I announced to the gang that I would accept the position, they celebrated by having me pick up the tab, which he said was quite an honor with this group. Of course, the reality was no one could expense it to a client account, so I was conned into paying.

I started my new job in February, and met all the sales representatives a few weeks later. Tim was in his late thirties, average height with an athletic build ideally suited for the golf outings we all enjoyed. He was a clean-cut guy with one of those disarming boyish smiles and a quick wit that worked well with customers, and a competitive spirit that worked well at the office. He could take it just as well as he could give it, and our tight-knit group of guys built a lot of camaraderie around that sort of friendly abuse and frequent practical jokes. Tim liked to laugh, and he was the poster boy for the work hard, play hard set. But regardless of what was going on, he never took himself too seriously, and I think that endeared him to me more than anything.

It was easy to like Tim and to laugh at the world with him, and although our work schedules didn't give us a lot of time together, we made the most of the time we did have. I met his wife and daughters, and we were slowly developing a friendship that seemed to survive my lengthy out of town trips. Regardless of how much time passed between get-togethers, Tim and I were able to pick up right where we left off, as if no time had passed at all.

Towards the end of 1997, I had managed to complete a long out-of-town assignment and get back to our main office. It didn't take me long to notice that Tim wasn't around very much, and when I did see him, he didn't look good. I could tell he was thinner because his clothes hung on him as if they were a size too big, and his face looked tighter, almost gaunt. He tried growing a beard and moustache to fill out his face, but it didn't work. He didn't talk much, because his throat hurt and he had a distracting rasp in his voice. He stopped golfing, because he didn't have the strength to swing the clubs anymore. He looked tired to me, with a hollow look in his eyes where the laughter used to be. He didn't say much when I asked him about it - just that he had been sick and needed more rest.

Steve filled me in on the real story—cancer. And Tim didn't have the kind that came with an off-the-shelf treatment plan. This was full-blown lymphoma, and Tim would spend the next few years getting up close and personal with a colorful variety of medical equipment, drugs and doctors. His prognosis would go from promising to no chance and back again, and I sat there dumbfounded, wondering what I was supposed to say to a guy who was routinely exploring questions of his own mortality.

Tim didn't like to accept help and definitely didn't want pity or sympathy. He was the kind of guy who figured he should take care of his responsibilities and you should take care of yours, and that way nobody has to worry about anybody else. Nonetheless, this situation forced him to look beyond himself, maybe for the first time, so he found a support group or two, and he found his faith. His family got him through a lot of stuff, and they needed to. His hair fell out, he lost even more weight, and for a while he completely lost his voice. He could come to work for two or three days in a row, then he needed several weeks off to rest. To my amazement, he came back to work a couple of times simply because he couldn't stand lying in bed all day.

But on those days when he was back in the office, by mid-afternoon he had to leave again, either to rest or get one of the many chemotherapy or radiation treatments he needed. At one point, about a year into the treatment plan, he had to endure a painful bone marrow transplant that I wasn't sure he had the strength to survive. But in a testament to the strength that I badly underestimated, he came back a few months later, joking that his treatment plan single-handedly elevated the hospital chain's stock price.

Over the course of two years, with a lot of help and a great attitude, Tim went from cancer victim to cancer survivor. He and his wife Carol had their third daughter, Maggie, and Tim was counting his blessings. And I counted mine, as I often wondered if I could do what Tim did in beating the disease. I wasn't sure I would have had that kind of courage, and I thanked God more than once that I didn't have to go through it. I am still in awe of Tim's ability to move on for the sake of his family.

While Tim could beat his medical demons, he couldn't beat the computer hardware market. All good things must come to an end, and so did AmeriData. After being sold to General Electric, the company went into a nosedive as GE struggled to figure out where this new division fit in. As profits plummeted, and we went through a major market downturn, GE decided enough was enough. They couldn't find a buyer for the business, but they could enact all kinds of policies designed to self-destruct the company. This would reap tax benefits for GE and its shareholders, and devastate the lives of those who had made the company successful in the first place. You don't get to be a $100 billion diversified products and services conglomerate by caring.

Prior to the deconstruction of the hardware side of the house, the consulting division that employed me was sold to another faceless firm, and I ended up moving on to a smaller, regional consulting company as a business development manager—a nice euphemism for salesman. The hardware side of GE's business fell apart a few months later, and all my buddies over there were suddenly looking for work.

We had an opening at my new firm, and Steve and Tim both applied for it. I had a little bit of a conundrum in that I had recommended to both of them that they consider this job, but there was truly only one opening. I felt that Tim was a better fit for the kind of environment we had, but I was closer to Steve and I thought it would be a lot of fun to work with him.

As it turned out, Tim got the job when Scott and I finally figured out that he wanted it more than Steve, and he came on board in the spring of 2000. We put him in the cube next to me, and our warm acquaintance turned into a genuine friendship. He took on the new job with a lot of relish, and fit into our group without a hitch. He and I settled into our roles together, and over the next few months our friendship grew and we came to know each other pretty well, sharing our stories and our laughter and our pain, like really good friends are supposed to.

 

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That history flashed through my mind as Scott paused. Tory? She was Tim's middle daughter, the same age as one of my girls. Random anguish flashed through my mind in an instant. How could this happen? What else was he going to have to face in life—wasn't beating cancer enough? Wasn't losing your job when your company went out of business enough? How much tragedy do you have to endure before it's someone else's turn? Do you really have to witness the death of your own child to understand that there is senseless evil in the world? Isn't that a lesson more easily taught? And why did this have to happen just when things were starting to turn around for the better? What was the point? For what possible reason would a pre-teen with an entire wonderful life in front of her have to die?

I had a lot more in my head, but all I could do was lean on Scott's desk and struggle to keep back tears. Somewhere in the background Scott's voice was continuing. "I know you and Tim are close, so I thought you should hear it in person rather than over the phone. We're all in a state of shock right now."

I looked at Scott. "What happened?" I wanted to know more, I wanted to know what sort of random chain of events could have led to this. I wanted to know who to blame, whom to punish. I mostly needed to know if this death had any meaning.

"The details are a little sketchy. Guess some kid lost control of his car, and skidded sideways into the northbound lane while trying to go south. Tim's van T-boned into him, and they all ended up hospitalized. Actually, I'm not sure which of his girls were killed - I think his middle daughter, Tory. Anyway, Tim is on a lot of morphine right now, so it's hard to get the whole story."

Scott continued for a while, but I wasn't really listening anymore. I thought of my own kids, I thought about what it would be like to lose them in a violent accident. I wondered if Tim would unfairly blame himself, the way I would.

I called my wife, and some former co-workers who knew Tim. I shared the story over and over again, until it came by rote, almost emotionless. But the hard part comes when there are no more phone calls to make, no more tasks to accomplish where you can put your brain on autopilot so you don't have to think or feel. I finished the last call, hung up the phone and looked around my cubicle at all the artwork my kids had created for me. I looked at the little wallet-sized school pictures next to the computer, and the homemade pencil holder on top of the file cabinet. I saw all these connections to my children and I just couldn't hold it in anymore, and I put my head down and let all the tears and anguish come out, not really caring who heard me. I knew that Tim had the same sort of shrine to children's artwork in his cubicle on the other side of the wall, and that it would never hold the same meaning for him.

I recovered somewhat, and went back to Scott's office and tried to fill the void, tried to make some sense out of it by reconstructing the details of Tim's accident. I guess we thought it would be easier to understand if we knew what had happened. In hindsight, it just gave us one more thing to do so we could avoid being overwhelmed at the senseless loss of a child.

We knew a few things, but not much. A 19-year old man was driving his brand new sports car south on Green Bay Road. He had a passenger, a friend of his, and he was trying to show off his new car. So at 9:00 at night, on a particularly hilly and curvy part of the unlit two-lane road, he got the car up to 60 in a 35 zone while executing a slight left turn. He lost control and skidded wide into the gravel, then across to the other lane, where Tim's van piled into him. In the back row of the van were Tim's middle daughter Victoria, Tory for short, and her friend. Tory's friend had a broken arm. Tory was in the middle of the back row, and was killed instantly by the impact. The coroner's report would later say "head trauma". She was nine years old.

I really can't recall much about what I did the rest of the afternoon before leaving to get my kids. I remember walking around to try and think, even though the layout of our office space is far from conducive for walking. Our office is "L"-shaped, with about ten offices and conference rooms around the back of the L, and cubicles for about twenty on the inside. As I walked around the office to clear my head, I passed the twenty-odd cubicles and offices twice, three times, a hundred times, just looking at the faces.

I'm not sure I've ever seen so many grown men crying. Some people looked the other way as I passed, not wanting to get involved in my pain or share theirs. Others looked bewildered, I suppose because they didn't know Tim and couldn't quite comprehend why I was so upset—after all, Tory wasn't my child. Some seemed to want to talk, but being unsure of their words, just looked at me and nodded. Perhaps they thought that if they didn't talk about it, it would all just magically go away, and the day would end like a Disney movie.

I picked up my kids from the YMCA camp later that afternoon. I let some more tears come when my girls ran into my arms, and I held them as tightly as I could. I held my daughter Kayla, who like Tory is nine, so tightly she had to ask me to please let go. Kalene, my seven year old, thought she was getting extra hugs just because. Kids have a sixth sense about these things, and when Kalene finally broke away and saw the look on my face, she just reached out and quietly hugged me again.

I let the kids listen to the radio while I drove home, lost in thought. Some tragic events hit you harder than others. It is easy to ignore the TV commercial with the starving children who have flies crawling in their eyes. Those kids are ten thousand miles away, and there are too many degrees of separation to let you care too much. Like my family, you may send some money to sponsor a child out of guilt for what you have, but by and large, it is hard to muster up much sympathy for something you can't see or even picture too well.

This one though, was tough. Too close to home. Too easy to imagine it happening to me. A stark reminder of the randomness of our world - blessings one moment are followed by tragedy the next. Here was a child that I had smiled at and waved to at our company picnic not three weeks ago. Here was a family that had already conquered more than most, facing yet another tragedy. These are real people, with real lives that touch our own. And this hurt.

I wondered what the last thing was that Tim and Carol said to Tory, and I hoped that it wasn't a yell to keep it down in the back seat. I wondered how they would find the strength to take care of the other two kids, what Christmas would be like with a child gone, what they would feel when her birthday rolled around. I wondered how many times they would have to relive the event as the district attorney began to prosecute the driver of the other car, as the insurance company called to get the death certificate, as well-meaning people expressed condolences. I wondered how much more a family could suffer and still stay intact. I wondered whether they could manage to stay in the same house, or drive a car again.

Several hundred people attended the wake a few days later, and my wife and I stood in line for nearly two hours to see Tim and Carol. Tory's casket was off-white, and the kids took turns signing it in colored marker, as they struggled to deal with feelings that kids shouldn't have to deal with. Tim was in a wheelchair with a shattered ankle, and it was hard to look him in the eye knowing that my nine-year old was just fine while his was gone. There was something not fair about it all, and I didn't know what I could say.

The funeral the next day was equally well attended. The minister gave a marvelous eulogy, telling us that it was not God's will that Tory be taken from us - that God wanted her to live. I guess free will is a gift from God that isn't always used properly. On the other hand, maybe there really are accidents, and maybe Tory was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Maybe God felt the need to inject a little more pain into Tim's life; maybe God had nothing to do with it. While my already meager faith was taking a beating, Tim somehow found that his faith was strengthening and supporting him. After the service I asked what we could do for him and his family, and he simply said "Pray."

After the service, I took one of the cards with Tory's picture from the table with the guest book. I have it at my desk now, on the wall opposite the pictures of my kids. I look at it every day, and I still have no answers. Of course, I count my blessings, and I have all the hope in the world for Tim and his family. But underneath the obvious feelings is a simmering anger for the stupidity of a teenager, guilt for what I have, helplessness for not being able to do more. I wonder at the randomness of it all, the need for order where there is none, the need to control the outcome when we know we can't, the need to make sense of senselessness.

A couple of weeks after the funeral, I was still spending a lot of my time, sometimes entire afternoons, reflecting on all that had happened to Tim. The tears had stopped, but not the questions. Late one night I lit a single candle, and sat at the computer in my den to write it all down, hoping that would provide closure and give me some answers. Instead, I find myself experiencing a thick soup of feelings while staring out a window where the scene constantly changes and there is no one scene that is really right. Maybe the answer is that there is no answer. Maybe life is just that messy, just that random. That's hard to believe, and it sounds harsh - even cruel. And so to avoid the inevitability of that conclusion and the pain that it causes, I keep searching; hoping that I will find something to help make sense of it all.