Skip to content

The Day the Music Died…Again

I’ve told this story many times in life. I have shared it via blogs, podcasts, or just speaking. So maybe you’ve heard truncated versions, but I am going to retell the story in its entirety to the best of my recollection. This is a story that has changed my life and shaped my future. This is a story that serves as a foundation to so many other life experiences that I plan to talk about in future posts. 

Sunday, February 4, 2001 

This is my birthday. I was a senior in high school and turned 18 on this day. We were having a birthday celebration at my house with family: aunts, uncles, my sister, my parents. I began experiencing pain in the cartilage of my right ear early in the day. As the day progressed, it became worse. I complained to my mom; she gave me medicine.

My family was singing happy birthday in the evening. It was probably close to 7:10pm because that is when I was born. I bent down to blow out the candles. My dad put me into a playful headlock to rub my hair—a noogie, if you will. My ear exploded with pain that I had never felt before. And this is coming from a guy who had shattered his thumb that needed surgically reconstructed, had a shoulder reconstruction, and broken a hand in three different places. 

I had instant tears. Not exactly the most cherished memory of turning 18. But it sent a clear signal to my parents: something was not right. I spent the next several months seeing a variety of doctors and specialists. By mid-March, with several contradictory diagnoses, my parents decided to take me to Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

Friday, April 6, 2001 

My appointments were done. All initial indications showed that I wasn’t suffering from anything too serious. My dad, my mom, and me celebrated that night with a meal at a place called The Ranch. We were going to take it easy on Saturday before making the eight hour trip back to central Illinois on Sunday. 

Saturday, April 7, 2001

Our evening plans for supper were delayed when dad became ill with severe indigestion. He was a large man, so seeing him writhing in pain in the bed was something that I hadn’t witnessed often, if ever at all. Mom and I left for medicine. 

By the evening, he was much better. Color had returned to his face. I can’t remember where we ate that night. I do know it was a place that was cheap and most likely a buffet. That was an England standard if we were dining out. Get the most bang for our buck. 

Sunday, April 15, 2001

Easter Sunday. As always, our house was the gathering place for family: aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings, friends, you name it. We had a giant feast. We had laughs. And then, as with most gatherings, the tiredness of all the events settled in and people started to disperse. A little after 3:00pm my dad decided to go lay down for a while. 

Around 5:00pm there was a knock on the door. I answered it and saw three of dad’s friends from high school out on the steps. One of them he saw frequently. One only a couple of times a year. The other was maybe once every other year or less. They had stopped by unannounced but ready for a visit. My sister went to get my dad.

For the next couple of hours laughter filled our oversized living room as stories that had been told and re-told countless times were told once again. It was always amazing to me how some extra details (read: embellishments) were always added. The impromptu reunion came to a close after about an hour and a half. 

My dad had a renewed energy. He asked my mom if they wanted to go for a ride. This is something that we had done as a family for as long as I could remember. We’d drive out to state parks or other access areas to look at deer or just to see what we could see. It would always conclude with a drive around Wyman Park in our hometown of Sullivan.

Dad asked if I wanted to go. I declined. I told him my girlfriend was coming over. We were headed to Lovington, a town north of Sullivan about 11 miles away. I told my parents goodbye, and that I would see them later. They left while I waited for her to be ready. 

Finally ready, I drove to her house to pick her up. She wanted to get going because we were running behind. I told her I wanted to drive out of town by the park to see if my friend was home. I was already making plans for after I dropped her off later. She wasn’t super happy because it was out of our way. I said I would make it quick and make up time (i.e., speed). She agreed.

We went by his house and came to a T-road. To the left was a dark country road that would take us to Lovington. To the right looked back towards the park and the winding road that looped around Wyman Park. Police lights flipped on in the park.

Now if you’re not from a small town, you probably don’t understand the excitement of police lights. It’s the opportunity to be the first to know what is going on—except for those who have police scanners in the house. What if it is one of your friends pulled over? That would be great to make fun of them later. 

I paused at the T-road looking right. I told my girlfriend: “Let’s go check that out.” She said no, we had to get to Lovington. I pleaded my case but didn’t push it. We were late, and I had already won the different route argument. I pointed the truck north and headed to Lovington.

Ten minutes later I was navigating the last couple of turns to find this new apartment where her friend now lived. I glanced down at the bench seat of my Toyota pickup and noticed my black flip phone lighting up. I had missed calls from my mom. I dialed her back.

She answered in hysterics. Something was wrong with my dad. Get to St. Mary’s Hospital in Decatur as quickly as I could. I have always been typically calm under pressure. Hearing my mother’s voice like that rocked my world. My vision went blurry. My legs were so weak I could barely push the clutch in my truck to shift gears. 

Instead of continuing on to Decatur from Lovington, I opted to drive back to Sullivan to get my girlfriend’s car so she could drive. She was not a speeder. I do think my own hysteria that continued to build led her to lean a little more on the accelerator. I don’t know how long it took to get to the hospital. I know it was relatively quick. It felt like hours.

Backtracking to Sullivan caused me to be the last family member to arrive at the hospital. Aunts, uncles, and cousins had beat me. My phone hadn’t rang again. Of course, it was early on with the use of cellphones so we didn’t utilize them as much as we do now. We parked in the parking lot and jogged to the entrance.

The double sliding doors activated as we got close. Standing straight back against the wall was a cousin. His face was somber. He was quiet as he pointed in the direction to go. My pace picked up a little more.

I turned left down a hallway. Another family member. They gestured to turn right. Someone else just a few feet later directed me right again to the family waiting room. I appeared in the threshold of the waiting room door and locked eyes with my mom. Through tears she said, “He’s gone.”

My legs gave way. I collapsed into a heap. Someone yelled, “The son collapsed.” I don’t remember how or when I got up. I don’t remember how long we were in that room crying before the hospital staff came and asked if we wanted to see him one last time. When we returned to the waiting room family members began breaking away to head back to Sullivan. 

My sister would later say that when she went to wake my dad up to see his friends he wasn’t sleeping. He was in the fetal position complaining of indigestion. Just like the week prior in Minnesota. I firmly believe it wasn’t indigestion. My father had been experiencing heart attacks over the last week. The one on Sunday was the fatal one. 

I would learn later that as he turned into Wyman Park, he told my mom something wasn’t right. “First thing Monday morning,” he told her, “I am calling the heart doctor.” A half a mile later he pulled over right before they began going around Wyman Lake. The pain from the heart attack he was experiencing was too great. His last act of compassion was pulling over so as not to wreck.

I asked the EMT who attended to him in the ambulance where they were when he passed. He said he wasn’t really supposed to tell me, but he felt I needed to know: he was gone before the ambulance got to him in the park.

The police lights I saw before going to Lovington? A cruiser just happened to be following my parents in the park. When dad pulled over, mom got out and waved him down. For years I asked myself: what if? What if I had gone on the ride. What if I had turned to check out the lights? There are no good answers. Nothing would have changed the events that transpired.

Through exhaustion and emotions, I fell asleep that night. Our house had become the headquarters for all kinds of family members. I slept on a blanket pallet in the living room. 

Monday, April 16, 2001

I woke up for the first time without a living father. My life had forever changed.

Home » The Day the Music Died…Again

The Day the Music Died…Again