On The Day You Died

The day you died started like any other day.

It was a sunny ‪Sunday morning in October. The crisp fall air flowed through the open window.

I woke up ‪around 7am. I had just returned from LinkedIn’s Talent Connect Conference — it had been one of the highlights of my professional career to keynote and emcee the livestream.

I was brewing coffee as I usually do on the weekend. I was excited to spend a lazy day with my wife and our daughter. We were about to make pancakes. The phone rang. It was your son’s mother.

“You need to call Martin County Hospital. Kai was admitted last night. No one can reach him, and they will only speak with his family.”

“Only speak with his family.” Since both of our parents had passed away, family is your 15 year-old son and me. Me.

I dialed the number she gave me with an unsteady hand as emotions washed over me. Why were you in the hospital? Are you okay? Why didn’t you call me? Why?

The nurse answered and asked several questions to validate our relationship. “Your brother is in critical condition. He’s on a ventilator right now. Does he have a living will?” Time stopped. Minutes seemed to pass before I answered. I’m sure it was more like seconds. I’m pretty sure my response was “Whaaag?” as words left mouth before fully forming in my brain.

Kai flashing his bright smile at my wedding in 2006

“Your brother — can you make medical decisions for him?”

You never told me about a living will, but I assumed it wasn’t something you had done. “I’m family, and I can make medical decisions for my brother,” I said while unsuccessfully choking back tears.

I let them know I was in Virginia and would catch the next flight to our hometown in Stuart, Florida. I told them my stepmother would be on her way to the hospital, and she could be given all of the information on your condition. I scrambled to book a flight. The soonest flight I could find that arrived in West Palm Beach was through Newark. Fuck. I booked it. That’s actually not entirely true.

That crisp thinking and action would be indicative of a man in full control of his emotions. I wasn’t. So many questions were bouncing around my brain. What happened to you? Would you be okay? Are you scared? Would I see you again?

Luckily my wife was there to help me connect the synapses that were betraying my decision-making ability. She made sure I booked the flight and packed. She drove me to the airport. She reassured me as best she could. She told me she loved me and she squeezed me hard before I left her.

I was scared. I wasn’t sure I understood what was happening. I had to run through the airport to catch my flight. I made it to my seat and collapsed in a heap. I had a few moments of calm as the airport sprint allowed me to briefly outrun my emotions.

I made my connection and had a layover in Newark. I was on the ground for five minutes before my phone rang. It was my stepmom.

Sharing a cigar during Kai’s bachelor party

“Lars, your brother didn’t make it. I’m sorry. He’s gone.”

I felt like a balloon that was blown and blown and blown, and then popped with a pin. I quickly found a chair and let the emotion pour out of me. I was destroyed. In all of my “what if” scenarios, never seeing your face again was not one of them.

In the time between the first call of the morning and that call I learned that you had been taking opioids to numb your pain, shooting up a Cancer drug called Opana to ease your suffering. I knew you had physical pain from a back injury at work. I knew you had emotional pain from the consecutive blows of a divorce, bankruptcy, and losing our father. I knew the love for your son was the shining light that kept you going.

As young boys spending Summer’s on our family’s sailboat in Connecticut

I didn’t know how bad your pain had become.

I arrived in Stuart late ‪Sunday night. The next several days were the hardest of my life. So many questions. So much emotion. So much pain. I wept — for you, for your son, for all of those who loved you. I wrote your eulogy. I consoled your son as best I could. I made your funeral arrangements. It was all a struggle.

You left us. I wish I could have seen it coming. I wish I could have done something. I wish I could have been there for you.

I’m not mad at you. I know you had a disease that couldn’t be beaten alone. I now know how common your story is. How many sons are left fatherless. How many husbands are widowed. How many families are broken by this disease. I just never expected that would include mine.

Kai and his son at our wedding in 2006

I never thought I’d be saying goodbye to you at 45.

Opioids took you from us, like the disease of addiction has taken so many others. Your death hit the Martin County Sheriff’s Office hard. Like so many others who cared about you, many detectives were shocked by your death. It galvanized them to take down the dealers and the drug houses where you got high.

They also responded by treating addiction like the disease it is, and brought in new education programs for their officers. They had a new face to addiction and loss. Your face. They brought Narcan pens into regular usage to save OD victims. They have saved people. You have saved people.

People are alive because you died.

I know I can’t bring you back. I know reliving the day you died won’t bring me any peace. It won’t make this anniversary any easier.

My hope is that others may read this and change their views on addiction. Start seeing addicts as the brothers and fathers and mothers and neighbors they are. Start thinking of addiction as something that can happen to them, not something that happens to someone else.

Maintaining his Movember stache through the holidays in 2009

Addiction has no stereotype. I know that now.

I’ve talked to other addicts, and families of addicts, since you died. After reading the letter I wrote on your birthday, friends I’ve known for years have opened up about their own stories of how addiction has impacted their lives. Highly successful executives whose co-workers and close friends have no idea about their past. Terrific mothers whose sons struggle with the disease. They shared with me the shame and guilt they carry because of the stigma society places on addiction.

I now have a better understanding of the weight they carry. The weight you carried.

I had pre-conceived notions about the face of addiction. It wasn’t your face. It was always someone else’s face. I was wrong.

I will honor your memory by doing what I can to shift the stigma of addiction. I now know it can happen to anyone.

I miss you. I love you. I wish I could have been with you on the day that you died.

This post originally appeared on KaiSchmidt.org.

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About the author

Lars Schmidt is the Founder of Amplify Talent and Co-Founder of HR Open Source. You can connect with him on Twitter: @Lars, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, Snapchat.