The Longest Drive
“I’ve been first and last,
Look at how the time goes past.
But I’m all alone at last,
Rolling home to you.”
-Neil Young, Old Man
The call I thought I would always dread came on a brilliant, late January, Friday afternoon. I was about three months into a year-long mobilization to Camp Lejeune. It was one of those perfect afternoons you get along North Carolina’s Crystal Coast, protected from the colder temperatures that grip most of the country in January by its location set right against the Atlantic, sunny and clear, about 55 degrees and not a hint of wind.
It was about one-o’clock. And my cell phone pinged. I looked at the screen. It was my mother. I answered.
“Glen, it’s Mom. Dad is in the hospice and you need to come home right away if you want to see him.”
This was not as shocking as one might think. Dad had been having serious problems for a long time. In recent months and weeks, there had been some hellish days.
I had been back and forth on the weekends from North Carolina to Arkansas and had witnessed several of them. He had been taken to the emergency room a dozen times it seemed, put in and out of more than one lock-down facility, and forced to leave another after four orderlies his size and more than half his age had serious trouble controlling him. He had just turned 75 three months prior.
I had just been promoted to Colonel in the Marine Corps. At that time, I had just gone over 21 years of service. And the Marine Corps had ordered me back to active duty to fill a special need at Camp Lejeune. And I only had about five days of leave built up.
“What are the doctors saying Mom?”
“They say he has at most two days left. It could be shorter. They have removed all life support.”
I told her I was coming and we hung up.
Barely a month before, I sat in my sister’s living room on Christmas Day with my father. It was just the two of us. The rest of the family — my wife and our two boys, my sister and her husband and my two nieces and nephew — were in the kitchen. As many serious physical and neurological problems as he had been having, he was eerily lucid at that moment, staring either at the television or something near it. He didn’t say anything for several minutes. And then, all of sudden out of nowhere,
“That damn coach doesn’t know what he’s doing.”
“Which coach, Dad?” I asked, playing along.
“That damn basketball coach.”
Ah, this had to mean my niece’s high school basketball coach, because she was the only grandchild currently playing basketball. And then it was a quick torrent of reasons why the coach didn’t know what he was doing. And it was almost scary how articulate, specific, and perceptive his observations were.
It was one of those isolated moments of lightning sharp clarity, as if he were 35 all over again, explaining to me how to shoot a jump shot, or wait until a pitch on the outside corner got deeper into the strike zone before driving it the other way, or how I needed to swing my leg more straight, up, and through the ball on a punt instead of cutting across it.
And then as quickly as he got rolling about the basketball coach, he went silent again.
When a few minutes passed and I asked a follow up question about the coach, he said, “What?” He looked totally confused. He had no idea what I was talking about, although he had just been talking about it himself. “The coach, Dad.” “What coach?” he asked.
I looked out the window of my office at Camp Lejeune. I had been home for Thanksgiving and Christmas. I had flown home a half dozen times since October late on Fridays and flew back late Sundays to be there over the weekend.
I was not planning to fly home again this particular Friday and I didn’t have a ticket. In addition to the ridiculous cost it would be to buy a ticket and fly on the same day, I was half-certain the airlines might strand me in Atlanta, Chicago, or Charlotte and I would never make it home in time anyway.
And I had to be at mandatory military training in nine days. If I left right now and drove myself from Lejeune to northwest Arkansas, I would at worst make it by late Saturday; I would be in control of my own destiny, and at that particular moment in my life, there was no way I was going to put it in the hands of someone else.
I turned off my computer and gathered up my gear. I packed everything and the uniforms I would need at training into my truck. I called my admin unit and told them I needed to take emergency leave and I might very well extinguish whatever I had on the books and go into a negative balance.
“What is the reason for your emergency leave,” they asked.
“My father is dying,” I told them.
“Oh, I’m sorry Sir. Go ahead. We will take care of it.”
Thus began the longest drive I have ever made.
When I pulled out of the gate at Lejeune heading north west to interstate 40, I realized that all along the 1,200 mile route I’d be thinking about him.
The backroads from Lejeune through the Carolina pines to the interstate would take an hour alone. My first of many thoughts was actually a funny one. Or a sad one, depending on your point of you.
I remembered how when I was home for Thanksgiving, he had asked why I was heading back out Saturday morning.
“I have to fly back to North Carolina, Dad.”
He looked confused. “Why are you going to North Carolina?” This despite the fact that we had had a number of conversations a few months before about me mobilizing back to North Carolina. He had apparently forgotten all about those conversations.
“Remember Dad? I had to mobilize out there again for the Marine Corps.” He stared at me with this unknowing look.
As I headed through Richlands, North Carolina, I shook my head at the recollection of that conversation. His decline had become very precipitous in recent months. Whereas even a year ago he would likely remember some past conversation like this, for the last six months when I was around him, he almost never remembered anything going back for more than a day or two. At least it seemed that way to me. He had almost no short term memory anymore, yet he could still remember things that happened when he was a kid.
It was another coin in the wages of having played the game for so long like he did, at his position. The problems that had been manifesting themselves in Dad over the past several years were not genetic; no one in either side of his family had neurological disease. Our entire family intuitively knew this.
His diagnosis of stage four CTE out of four stages — the most severe form of the disease — delivered by the Boston university CTE Center about a year after he died, confirmed what we had always known.
But at the time I compared him to Mike Webster, his former teammate for a few short weeks in 1974 when Dad was on the verge of retirement and Webster was a rookie in training camp with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Everyone knew about Webster’s case. It was chronicled in PBS’s League of Denial. Webster was a center. My dad was an offensive tackle. Their generation of offensive linemen were coached to fire off and lead with their heads and use them as a weapon to disable defensive players. And this is what they did on every single snap.
After years of significant problems, Webster had died at the age of only 50. Dr. Bennett Omalu, the pathologist on duty when they brought Mike Webster’s body in for an autopsy, decided — almost as an afterthought — to examine his brain. And the rest, as they say, is history. Dr. Omalu saw signs of CTE in Webster’s brain. Webster’s case launched a nightmare scenario for football and its culture. And it would usher in the greatest medical crisis facing an American sport in years.
When I had read the book and watched the PBS documentary based on the book, it was eerie how many of Webster’s problems I also had observed in my own father, for many years to that point.
Shocking as this might sound, my own father was the one who recommended that I read the book and watch the documentary. This was back in 2012, when it was first published and Dad was still able to sit through and understand a television show. He was convinced after he watched it that he had the same problems as Mike Webster had suffered. And that is when he first started talking about donating his brain for analysis after he passed away. His suspicions would be born out years later, after he was gone.
But as I merged onto interstate 40 west headed toward Raleigh, all I knew was that Dad most likely had some form of CTE. But I had no idea yet how bad it would eventually prove to be. What else would explain everything that had happened to him and to us?
When you’ve been told that your father only has 24 to 48 hours to live and you know that you may or may not make it there on time, a lot of things go through your mind. The first thing is that you hope that you can make it home in time. You want to be there when it happens. You wonder if you will regret it for the rest of your life if you’re not there.
And then you start praying. You ask God to keep him alive long enough for you to get there before he passes away. And then you realize you don’t get to dictate these things. Whatever is going to happen is going to happen. God is not on your timeline. I guess some people in the same or similar situation might start trying to bargain with God. But I long-ago reached the point in my faith where I knew there was no bargaining with God.
God’s will is God’s will.
So the person with wisdom begins to pray for something different. You pray for the ability to accept whatever happens. So that’s what I did.
“God, please let me make it home in time to be with Dad before he passes away, if that is your will. But if that’s not your will, I pray that you give me the strength to accept your will. If he passes away before I make it home, please give me the strength to except it and not have any regrets. There’s nothing left to say between us. We’ve said it all, and we left nothing on the table. I know how much he loved me, and he knows how much I loved him. And so I simply pray for the strength to accept whatever happens. Your will be done. Amen.”
But I still wanted to make it there in time. Regardless. and I had over 1,000 miles left to go.
The entire time I was driving I realized I could get a text or a phone call at any minute telling me that he was gone. So I started girding myself for that communication that could come any minute.
I wanted to be there first and foremost to support my mother. I am the oldest and the firstborn son and that was my primary concern. Everybody thinks they know how they will react when they lose their first parent, but they don’t have any idea. And I didn’t have any idea how my mother would react. So I wanted to be there to support her as well as my brother and sister and their families and my own family.
Someone would have to be strong. We would all have to be strong. Even still, I knew that as I was driving, my mother was sitting in their room with my dad. My sister was sitting in that room with my father. They were doing the most difficult part. Waiting for something that they knew was going to come, despite not knowing whether it would come in one minute or a day, or two days, or longer. It was a surreal thing to ponder when you really considered it.
I thought about how many of the others had gone. Webster by heart attack at 50. Dave Duerson by suicide at age 50. Junior Seau by suicide at age 43. Aaron Hernandez by suicide in a jail cell at 27. Jovan Belcher by suicide at age 25 after he had murdered his girlfriend. And I was thankful that Dad had lived until age 75.
My father was like most of the others — older NFL players that shuffle off the scene and grow old and out of the public consciousness until later in life and are all but forgotten. The names are countless. George Andrie. Earl Morrall. Tommy Nobis. Kenny Stabler. Bubba Smith. Rob Lytle. John Mackey. And hundreds of others.
They’re all but forgotten after their playing days are done; until that day the newspapers report their death. And then — all of a sudden — everyone remembers them. For a few hours anyway. Before they turn their short attention spans back to the game currently playing on the big screen.
Frank Gifford came to mind. A man who had been an outstanding player and a very good and articulate broadcaster for many years, indeed arguably better at reporting sports for a longer period of time who no one laid eyes on for the last decade-and-a-half of his life while he was in seclusion. Diagnosed with CTE post-mortem after having lived to the age of 84. It was weird how when Frank Gifford’s death was announced, people suddenly realized they hadn’t seen or heard from him in 15 years. It was pretty typical for the gnat-like attention spans of football culture.
And I drove on. Through the heart of North Carolina, past Raleigh, Durham, Greensboro, Winston Salem, and Hickory, trying to beat the night into Tennessee. But as the sun set on the western horizon, I wasn’t quite sure I would make it. And all the while I waited for the call that I feared would come any minute.
Well after dark I pulled into the outskirts of Asheville. But I didn’t stop. I still had over 800 miles to go, and I wasn’t even half way there yet. So I kept going. Along that stretch of I-40 between Asheville and Knoxville that skirts around the Great Smoky Mountains to the south and west and the Blue Ridge Mountains to the north and east, a full moon rose high to light the way. I wondered if Dad had ever been on this road and seen these mountains the way I had so many times.
I knew he hadn’t traveled much, outside flying to other cities for football games. He and Mom used to talk about the only time they went to Hawaii, for instance, which of course, was to play in a football game, the Hula Bowl. Football seemed to have limited him and his experiences in so many ways, and when I was younger, I wasn’t sure why. It was feeling I had that became a gradual realization as time passed by. What travel he did do became increasingly rare as he got older and began to suffer more and more from his playing days.
Yes, the thing had limited him. And it had cut him off from many of the things I had experienced. This is a difficult thing to explain to the uninitiated; the people who have never lived in our shoes, so I won’t waste time trying to explain it here. But our fellow football families know exactly what I’m talking about.
I made it to Knoxville around midnight. I had to stop. I texted my mother and my family and told them I would be back on the road at first light. I had done everything I could on that day, and I needed some rest. But I still had 700 miles to go.
The next day, Saturday, January 26, 2019, dawned bright and cold. They had removed Dad’s life support and all IVs and feeding tubes two days before. He was in a coma or sleeping and unresponsive to anyone.
I started driving west again at 7 am. As soon as I got on the highway, there was another text asking how long it would take me. I had no idea. I wasn’t going to drive 90 miles per hour. I wasn’t going to endanger myself or anyone else. Whatever was going to happen was going to happen on God’s timeline, not ours. I was either going to make it or I wasn’t. It might sound like a pretty stoic outlook, and it was.
In recent years, I had become a strong adherent of Stoicism, of Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Epictetus. I knew from studying them that there were really very few things in life we have any control over.
We have control over our thoughts. We have control over our actions. And we have control over how we react to events. That’s it. Everything else is completely beyond our control.
I had no control over the time my father would pass away. I had no control over whether I made it there in time. But I had control over my thoughts, my actions, and how I would react, no matter what happened.
My Christian faith was as strong as ever, but it had recently been severely challenged by other events. The Stoics’ teachings were strangely very similar to what I had been raised on in the southern Baptist tradition, especially when it came to how one should treat and react to others, personal ethics, and recognizing what you can and cannot control. So on the rare occasion when someone asked me about my faith or what church I attended, I told them I was a “Christian Stoic,” or a “stoic Christian.” And then I tried to explain what that meant.
And so as I drove on west toward Nashville and then Memphis, I alternatively prayed and repeated the guidance of Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Epictetus. I again prayed that I would be prepared to accept God’s will if His will differed from mine. And I likewise recalled what Marcus Aurelius had noted about accepting what happens in life: The world does not revolve around us. Aurelius regularly reflected in his Meditations on the vastness of the universe and the infinity of time, stretching into the past and future, in order to put our own short lives into wider context.
For example, I do not believe you can petition God with prayer. I do not believe that praying “really, really hard” can change God’s will. If God is really what we are taught He is, he doesn’t have a scoreboard on this issue; He does not give those who pray harder what they want and refuse it to those who don’t pray as hard as the others. That would make a mockery of what the Bible tells us. If God truly is omnipotent and all-knowing, then He already knows our hearts before we even begin to pray. So when we do pray, we don’t need to ask for it over and over and over again.
Whatever happened was going to happen and I was going to accept it, either way.
By noon, I had crossed over the Mississippi River bridge into the deltas of eastern Arkansas. But I still had five more hours to go. It was then that I first started to get nervous. I had now come some 850 miles in about 24 hours and gotten about six hours of sleep.
As if on cue, another call came. “The doctor says that he is at 48 hours. This is the longest time most people survive after having everything turned off. He could go at any minute.”
I was silent. How was I supposed to respond to this? What was I supposed to do? I was still four hours away. “I am going as fast and safely as I can. If I get stopped for speeding that will just delay me. I am doing the best I can.” I hung up. It was now becoming a bit torturous.
Finally past Little Rock and into the foothills of the Ozarks, I was on a stretch of highway I felt like I had driven a thousand times. Whether it was that first time in 1975 when I was 8 years-old, giddy at the thought of being able to kicking a football on the Razorback Stadium astroturf (which I did on that trip), or years later when riding on the buses headed down to Little Rock for a home game there back when they still did that, after I had become a part of the machine myself, or much later after I had been a Marine for many years and we were crisscrossing the country again from San Diego to Washington or Lejeune or back the other direction, and I had pointed out the landmarks to our boys, and chuckled to myself, wondering why any of it had been so important. As I drove through the area on this day, none of it was important.
I think the worst part of the entire drive was as I turned north on what is now I-49, headed up through the hills to Fayetteville. I had one hour and about 50 miles left.
It was at this point that I prayed, “God, if I have come this far and it happens between now and when I get there, I’m going to have a very difficult time accepting it.” And yet, I knew I was going to have to accept it.
I pulled into the hospice parking lot. I walked briskly into the building. I found the room and walked in. My mother, sister, and wife were sitting there. “You made it,” they told me softly. They all looked exhausted.
I turned and saw my father. He was in a hospital bed, under a sheet. The only thing connected to his body was a heart monitor; no IVs, nothing else.
It would be easier for the listener if I said he looked peaceful. But I will not lie to you. He looked anything BUT peaceful. I stood there for a minute and watched him. His breathing was labored and punctuated by coughs and sharp, abrupt, cracks, as if he were choking. But as I stood at the side of his bed, the machines proclaimed him still alive and breathing. But it was not peaceful.
It would go on like this for eight days. I met the doctor that first day, and he actually apologized for his prediction of 48 hours. I thanked him for taking care of my father and asked him not to apologize.
When you are keeping a vigil like this, a lot goes through your mind. You don’t want him to suffer. So you start to ask if it’s wrong for you to pray that God will take him so he doesn’t suffer like this. Are you being selfish?
And then he makes it through day three, and then day four. And the doctors are all confounded. He has had no food, no calories, no water, for four days. He is living off the fluids in his body. And he is still alive.
And then the primary doctor who was a combat surgeon while in the Navy in Iraq — who operated on Marines — pulls me aside and says, “I know you’re a Marine. And I just wanted you to know I have never seen anything like this. People less than half your dad’s age do not last this long.”
“He’s a strong man,” I tell him, hoping to comfort whatever the doctor is feeling at this point.
And for the next four days that doctor comes by every few hours to check on my father and sort of throws his hands in the air and tells us, “I’ve never seen anything like this.”
And day four passes into day 5, and day five passes into day 6, and so on.
Early on day 8, February 1, 2019, a Friday, my mother sister, my wife, and I are holding vigil. Morning turns into afternoon. And then, about two in the afternoon, a nurse comes by to check his vitals, just as they have every single day on the hour for eight long and excruciating days.
He is gone, so suddenly and quietly no one notices.
We actually find it hard to believe, because he looks exactly like he has for the past eight days. No one falls to the floor screaming and crying. No one yells or makes any empty statements. We are all quiet.
It’s finally time. Each one of us makes our final goodbyes, in this life. When it is my turn, I lean over him and look at him one last time. He finally looks peaceful. I can’t explain why exactly. There is something different in his face now. And I still wonder if he is just sleeping deeply.
I lean over and whisper to him, “Goodbye Dad. I love you. And I’ll see you again.” That’s it. Nothing more needs to be said. There was never anything left unsaid between us. And for that I am very thankful.
I stand up, make sure we have gathered up all of our belongings in that room, and after everyone else has walked out, I look on him for one final time. I turn and walk out and join our family.
As I’ve written before, watching the human body fight off an oncoming, inevitable death is one of the most excruciating things to which you will ever bear witness. If I had any enemies, I wouldn’t wish it on my worst.
But it was not over yet. It was not the end. Within minutes after we had left the hospice and driven away, men we had never and will never meet came into my father’s room and transported him across the street to an autopsy room.
There, unknown doctors removed his brain and placed it into an ice-filled container for transport to the Boston University CTE Center for analysis.
In the three years since he passed away, I have had visions and nightmares about this, people in an autopsy room in medical garments removing my father’s brain. It is a vision that will stay with me for the rest of my days. But it was one of his final wishes, and we honored it.
It would take almost a year before we would know the full extent of the damage the machine had taken on him. And the truth, delivered on another bright and cold day one year later, would not really set us free, as they say; it would just confirm something we intuitively already knew. The machine — this thing people call a game — had utterly ravaged his body and brain.
Glen Hines is the author of five books, including the recently published Of Time and Rivers, and the highly-regarded Bring in the Gladiators, Observations From a Former College Football Player Who Was Never Able to Become a Fan, all available at Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble. He is the writer and producer of the book and podcast Welcome to the Machine, available on most podcast platforms. His writing has also been featured in Sports Illustrated, Task & Purpose, and the Human Development Project.