What If…

Posted on Monday 6 February 2012

There are times when you make decisions and the results make you ask “What if?” Those “What Ifs?” can drive you crazy.

One such decision for me happened nearly 25 years ago, when my twin left on a drive back to San Diego, headed back to school. This is the first time I am writing about his death to any real degree.

I was supposed to go with him. I had a bag packed and sitting in his car, and airline tickets waiting for me in San Diego, to fly back. It took him an hour to convince me not to go. It was a Friday morning. Little did I know it was the last time I was ever going to see my identical twin—that less than 24 hour later he would be dead—killed by a drunk driver.

Dave’s argument was pretty simple—I had been out of college on a medical leave of absence, having had to go through months of physical therapy and learn how to walk again for the second time. It had been almost nine months and this weekend would be the first quarter I could register for classes and return to college myself. If I went on the trip to San Diego, I’d have to put off returning to school for another three months. He wanted me to get back to school and get on with college—and this would be the first chance I’d have to do that. I couldn’t argue with him—he was right.

The medical leave of absence was pretty simple—I couldn’t walk any more. The muscles in my left leg and hip had atrophied and weakened to the point where walking, even with crutches was just not reasonable. All this was the result of a car-bicycle accident six years earlier, where a 1976 Granada turned me into a bumper sticker and left my bicycle 150′ down the road from me one day on my way home from school. I had done months of physical therapy starting not long after the car accident for the exact same problem twice before—about seven months every two years. This was the third time I had to go back for physical therapy.

So, I bowed to my brother’s request and let him drive off without me. It was the first time that he was going on a cross-country drive without me. We had driven from San Diego, to Los Angeles, and then to Las Vegas and continued onto Colorado, to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and finally to Boston earlier that summer in his 1969 Mach I Mustang. I grabbed my bag out of his car and saw him drive off. He had promised to call me when he got to San Diego—a phone call I am still waiting for.

Dan and David with their paternal grandmother.

Dan and David with their paternal grandmother.

Early Saturday morning, I woke up from a nightmare, screaming, drenched in sweat, and knew that my twin had been killed. The dream was at the exact time of his accident and was probably very close to what he would have seen in his final moments of life. I couldn’t get back to sleep. This was before the age of cellphones, so there was no way for me to contact him and see if he was okay. I knew he was gone because the little voice that I had always had in the back of my head that told me how he was and what he was doing had gone silent.

About three hours later, I heard my father come up the stairs and he entered my bedroom. As he turned on the light, I said, “What happened to Dave?” He never understood how I could know something had happened to my twin over the more than a thousand miles he had traveled since that morning. It’s a twin thing I guess. He told me that my twin had been in a bad car accident and was in the hospital, in surgery, and they didn’t know anything more than that yet.

One of my friends, Lisa, was starting at school at the same university I was returning to. I had promised to help Lisa move into her dormitory the previous day, since I wasn’t going to be going to California. I called Lisa and her mother early Saturday morning and told them what had happened, and her mother told me to come over. I’ll always be grateful to Lisa’s mother for being there for me that weekend. We packed up Lisa’s stuff and drove over to the dormitory and started moving her in for the school year.

I’d point out that I was friends with Lisa and her mother mainly because of my twin. Lisa was one of his adopted little sisters, and I only really knew her because she was friends with my twin brother first. Around 11:00 that morning, a campus police officer came to Lisa’s dorm room looking for me. My father had called the campus police with news that my twin had died on the operating table. I had already known he was dead hours earlier. What had been on that operating table hadn’t been my twin, just his body.

The accident was a pretty common one. My brother’s car had a problem—exactly what we will never know—and it had broken down on his way back to California just west of Nashville, Tennessee. While he was looking under the hood of the car, trying fix whatever had gone wrong, his car was hit by another doing over 70 miles an hour. The impact was so hard that it crushed the bumper of his 1969 Mach 1 Mustang in past the rear wheel, pushed the car up and rolled it twice—with my brother’s upper body and head trapped in the engine compartment by the engine hood—which had slammed down on him at the time of impact.

The driver of the other car was mostly uninjured. He was drunk. He was under-aged. This was his third major offense if I recall correctly. I took the Nashville police department over five years to arrest the man. In the intervening years, the police department had lost the results of the blood alcohol test and the eyewitness, a hitchhiker that my brother had been giving a ride to from what I read in the accident report. The drunk driver that killed my brother got 90 days suspended for killing him.

For years, I agonized over my decision not to go with him the previous morning. I told myself that he might still be alive if I had been there. I told myself that I might have been able to warn him in time for him to get clear of the car before the drunk drive hit it. I told myself that I might have been able to fix whatever was wrong with his car or spotted the problem before it had gotten bad enough to make the car stop.

I also blamed my father for many years. Now, I have to explain that my father is one of the most knowledgeable automotive engineers in the country. He is a former section chair of the Society of Automotive Engineers and on their board nominating committee. The fact that my brother hated him and moved 3000 miles way to get as far away from him as possible and wouldn’t let my father anywhere near his car has always haunted me.

I will always wonder if my twin and father weren’t so bitter and angry at each other—whether my father would have spotted whatever was wrong before my twin left on his trip. For most of that summer, most of what I did was keep peace between my twin and my father. That was the best I was able to get from the two of them.

The “what ifs?” surrounding my twin’s death nearly cost me my life. I owe my life to my second fiancée, Su, who saved me. Lauren Elizabeth’s father introduced me to Su about a month before my twin was killed—August 14 to be exact. She was one of the few friends I had when Dave died that wasn’t devastated by his death. It took me nearly seven years to recover from his death in so many ways.

Flash forward 14 years. I’m now living in Northern Virginia, and working for a major news company in Washington, DC.

Two years earlier, I had gotten engaged to the incredibly beautiful and gracious Korean woman I had met on a blind date. We had gotten engaged on the twelveth anniversary of my twin brother’s death—something I am sure she had planned. Just before we got engaged, I had moved Gee to Seattle, Washington, so she could attend the graduate school she had been planning on going to before we met.

Six months after we had gotten engaged, right after Gee moved back to Northern Virginia because she didn’t want to be apart from me any longer, she was diagnosed with stage four metastatic pancreatic cancer, on Easter Sunday. She had her Whipple operation at Johns Hopkins that May and went through her first round of chemotherapy over the summer leading up to our wedding. Seven months and one week to the hour after our wedding started, she lost her battle with cancer and died. Most of our story is found in the Life With Gee pages of my website.

Gee and Dan at Gee’s new apartment in Seattle.

Gee and Dan at Gee’s new apartment in Seattle.

For months following her death, I asked myself what I did wrong? Should we have used a different chemo drug? Should we have tired a different treatment center? Should we have tried to get Gee onto an experimental trial? These were all more “What Ifs” that made me wonder if there were anything I could have done to save the woman I love.

Fast forward to this past summer, June 2011. I realized that I have known the woman Gee asked me to look for just before she died for almost 20 years. Lauren Elizabeth is someone I’ve known and loved in some form since she was born. She is much younger than me, but I am certain that she is the woman Gee meant for me to find.

On June 22, 2011, I asked Lauren Elizabeth to marry me. She didn’t answer my proposal, but responded by telling me four things.

The first was a question: “Would Gee be angry at either of us if we got married, if I got re-married to her?” I explained to Lauren Elizabeth that the last promise I had to keep to my late wife was the one that I would re-marry if I met the right person. I told Lauren Elizabeth that she was the right person, and that I was certain that she was woman Gee had asked me to seek out over ten years earlier.

The second thing Lauren Elizabeth said was that she wished she could have met Gee. I have talked about Gee and her impact on me and my life for many hours with Lauren Elizabeth, often in response to some of the questions about love and life that Lauren Elizabeth had asked me. I wasn’t really surprised that Lauren Elizabeth wished she could have met Gee.

The third thing Elie said was that she regretted never having had a chance to meet Gee. This is something that many of my blog/website readers have told me in comments and e-mails.

The fourth thing and final thing Lauren Elizabeth told me before we left the restaurant was “I love you”. This was a very simple and clear declaration of her feelings for me. Given the circumstances, I believe she meant that she loved me much the same way I love her—as two people who want to share their lives love each other.

Lauren Elizabeth giving me bunny ears at Fire & Ice on her 18th birthday

Lauren Elizabeth giving me bunny ears at Fire & Ice on her 18th birthday

For a week, we talked about every issue that might touch upon our starting a future together and getting married. She started that afternoon by telling me she adored “Asians with freckles” and what she wanted to name our first two children. We talked about postponing any wedding until after she had graduated from college. We talked about religion and she was surprised to hear that I was planning on converting to the Catholic faith as part of marrying her. It really wasn’t a surprise to me, given how important her religion is to her and her family—something I have learned over my 30 years of friendship with her family.

We talked about the gold claddagh ring I had bought for her and how it would be replaced by a platinum one that I was designing for her wedding ring. We talked about how the gold one would go to our eldest daughter. On June 28th, six days after I asked her to marry me, she asked to see the claddagh ring. I told her I would bring it over the next time I was supposed to see her. I never got the chance.

The following day, June 29th, she posted something about going down to Cape Cod and going there to drink. I asked her not to drink or use the fake IDs she had shown me the previous day. She and I haven’t spoken since I confronted her about her drinking. At the time I did not realize she was a drug addict and an alcoholic. No one did—not even her family.

For the past seven months, I’ve tried to get her the help I believe she has been asking for and that she needs to no avail. For much of the last three months I have been asking myself if there were anything I could do differently. I have been wondering if there were anything I could have done to prevent the rift between us from forming or prevented her descent into her addictions.

Finally, I have realized that there probably was nothing I could have done that would have prevented all that has come to pass. I have also realized that I need to walk away from my beloved Lauren Elizabeth because I can not stay and watch her addictions destroy everything I love about her.

I have finally realized that the “What ifs” provide no comfort and no answers. They only force us to doubt ourselves and our actions—even when we have done all we can for the people we love. In some cases, changing anything would have just resulting in more death or tragedy. I am pretty certain, from a perspective of almost a quarter century’s hindsight, that probably would have been the case with my twin. If I had gone with him, I’d likely be dead as well. But even knowing this—human nature still makes us ask “what if…” as I have about Gee and Lauren Elizabeth both.

With Gee, we had gotten the best surgeon in the country for the Whipple procedure, possibly the best in the world, to operate on her. We had gone with doctors that were experienced in treating pancreatic cancer—in fact our primary oncologist’s father had the same illness Gee had. We had taken the best care of Gee that was possible—otherwise how was it possible that she went from 88 lbs. to 103 lbs. while undergoing chemotherapy leading up to the wedding. Her father, a pediatrician, had trusted me to make the right medical decisions for Gee and later told me that no one could have taken better care of his daughter than I did—something I consider a great honor.

With Lauren Elizabeth, I have done everything I could possibly do without help from her family. I put together the documentation of her illness as her mother asked me to do. I have tried to get that documentation to her mother, and given it several others that I hoped might be able to help Lauren Elizabeth get the treatment she needs. I have tried for seven months to get Lauren Elizabeth to realize how she is destroying her health, her future and everything I love about her. I have lost her and her family to the illness that consumes her, her brother and father. So, I have finally walked away—not because I don’t care about Lauren Elizabeth—not because I don’t honor the vows and commitments I have made to Lauren Elizabeth—but because I can do nothing further until Lauren Elizabeth herself asks for help.

I have no regrets about my decisions with respect to David, Gee or Lauren Elizabeth. I have done all I could, given the circumstances and the information I had at the time. If I had to do it all over again, I probably would do much the same as I have had, even knowing how things would turn out. These three, along with Shelley and my grandmother are the five people I love most in my life. I will always love them, and I miss them every day. I don’t have these regrets or doubts about Shelley or my grandmother because I had no part in making decisions for their care—I was merely someone who loved them and lost them.

I hope someday, the pain of losing Lauren Elizabeth Kelley will fade as much as the pain of losing David or Gee has. It has taken almost 25 years for the pain of my twin’s loss to be as bearable as it is, and over a decade for Gee’s loss—both of whom I think of and miss every day. Right now, it is too soon to know if that will ever be the case with Lauren Elizabeth. I mourn her and grieve for Lauren Elizabeth and the loss of our future—the Asians with freckles that our children would have been—and the amazing young woman that said “Sarangheyo” to me this past summer.


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