Updated: Feb 11, 2020
I got up early. I was determined to make it down to Kay’s place, in Dana Point, without having to sit in traffic on the 5 and then the 405 through L.A. along with everybody else and their mother on Thanksgiving. Wasn’t feeling too good, just mostly felt like I was beat up, from unrelenting issues and realizations involving my office. Stuff was just not going like I needed it to at work. I don’t think I had slept more than a couple of hours a night for two weeks. Plus, I was up a little late the night before baking a bittersweet chocolate cheesecake for Kay. The recipe, the one my family had coined “Cheesecake by Beefcake,” but that I officially titled “Lloydie’s Famous Cheesecake,” I discovered inside the front cover of my mom’s dog-eared “Joy of Cooking” one day when I was in High School. She had written up in the corner of the 3 x 5 recipe card, “Mrs. Fisher’s Cheesecake. 9/58”. I think Mrs. Fisher was the cleaning lady when mom and dad were still married. I would have still been in a crib back then.
Anyway, Kay and my mom had been best friends since they were little. Both were in Girl Scouts, both went to Santa Cruz High, almost always together. Kay’s last name was Davis, my mom’s was Dayvault, and Kay told me more than once, they were joined alphabetically. They both were in the Sigma Kappa Sorority at Cal, skied together, went on double dates together, and for as long as I could remember, Kay and her husband Alan were part of our lives. When we were living in South Pasadena, they were in Alhambra, less than five miles away. When we moved to Santa Cruz, Alan was transferred to Sacramento, and we went to see them or they came to visit us every few months. When we moved down to Orange County, Kay and Alan turned up in Laguna Niguel, a nice bike ride in the hills from our house in Mission Viejo.
After my mom died in 2006, Kay had become increasingly important to me, really the closest person in my life to my mom, and this loving, enthusiastic, accepting presence who helped fill the voids my mom and grandmother had left. I had started calling her “Aunt Kay” several years before. She loved that. Kay was 92, lived in a family-type home just a couple of miles from where she had lived in Laguna Niguel since the 60’s. There were four other residents, and the staff, all Pilipino, took good care of her. She was unable to walk, so Kay spent her days either propped up in bed or in a wheelchair. In spite of this she was incredibly lucid, knew what was up with politics, everyone’s birthdays, kids and grandkids, her own children’s challenges and news, stories going back to the 40’s and about what was happening with road work and traffic and restaurants and everything else in Southern Orange County. She loved my photography, would imagine the whole scene, what the air felt like and what time of day each picture was taken, so usually my trips down to visit included getting a bunch of enlargements of photos I had taken on my latest road trip to Colorado, Montana, Arizona, or, just a month or so before this trip down to see her, in early October 2017, the Blue Ridge Parkway. I had flown to Pennsylvania, rented a car, visited Gettysburg, and then travelled South through West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee in the Fall. She had heard about my trip and was excited about seeing my photographs.
I was on the road a little bit before 5, brought along some breakfast and had made myself a cup of coffee. Had my bike in the back seat. I loved cycling the roads down in O.C. even though the place seemed so different now, forty years after I lived there, populated with houses and shopping centers and high-priced cars. Figured I would get a ride or two in while I was there, maybe a few miles along P.C.H. up to Laguna and Newport. Packed enough for a couple of days, and plenty of food to graze on in my Rachel Ray insulated bag. The cheesecake was in there with a bunch of cold packs around it.
I have a route that I’ve always taken to get to Southern California, first heading east along the Monterey-Salinas Highway, then south on River Road along the Salinas River. A few miles along, a left on a little road that mostly farm vehicles use called Chualar River Road, that winds east toward US 101. From there, Orange County is about a 300 or so mile drive. I was feeling a little groggy heading along River Road, but wanted to hold off on the coffee until I was on a straight flat stretch of 101 to take any attention from my driving. Turned onto Chualar River Road, maybe doing 50. The road does this wide turn to the left as it heads east across farm fields over to 101. As I started the turn, something happened. Even though my headlights were on and there was some early light over the Gavilan Mountains, stuff seemed to get darker. I felt like I wasn’t there, just blacked out. I came out of it after what I think must have been five or six seconds. My Honda was skidding sideways on the pavement and I was heading, at a good clip, straight towards the side of the road.
It was no use trying to slow down or turn to try to avoid going over the side. I thought, “not a good scenario. Keep loose. Hands on the wheel but don’t get hurt holding tight, try to keep it steady. Try to slow it down.” I was airborne for what seemed like forever, probably two seconds. Came down on furrows, the field ready for planting vegetables of some kind. My car hit a whole lot of them, everything jostling and crazy and bouncing. I was thinking about the cheesecake. “Damn, it’s probably getting whacked. Kay’s gonna be bummed.” Kept the loose grip on the wheel. Felt like I was going in a circle. The car suddenly went up an embankment. Hung there for a second. Then, went over. Everything stopped. Everything was upside down. I was hanging in my seatbelt. The cabin light had come on right in front of me. “Holy s---.” I closed my eyes. Said, out loud, “Thank you God.” It felt like I was still moving and bouncing, but no, nothing was moving. I took a deep breath, sensed whether I was hurt or not. My left shin was hurting, probably bruised. That was it. “Bless you, Honda.” I panicked then, for several seconds. What if the car catches on fire? What if there’s gas leaking out? What if I can’t get out of the car? It was still dark, it was cold, early on a holiday, no other vehicles on the road, and I didn’t know if I had ended up where anybody would even see the car. “O.K. Figure this out. I gotta see if the door will open. But I also need to let myself out of this seatbelt without breaking my neck.” My head was hanging two inches above the roof. Or floor. Or, whatever it was. There was stuff everywhere, all over the roof, dirt everywhere, broken glass in some places. I brushed stuff away from above (below) me, then braced myself firmly with my left hand. “Careful.” With my right, I released the seatbelt and quickly braced with that hand too, lowering myself, sideways, slow. Breathed again. “O.K. Door.” I looked over at the passenger side. The window gone, all sorts of stuff everywhere. I tried my door. Had some difficulty getting any leverage, but sure enough, it opened, at least most of the way. I crawled out. Stood.
My Honda was upside down against a steep embankment leading up to the pavement. The trunk was open, the front end pretty munched. Fluid was dripping out of the radiator, and steam was coming up from it. But no gas. No smells like gas. “I’ve got to find my phone. Call 911. Where did I put it before all this happened? It was on the passenger seat. Great.” I crawled back into the car. Found that the main cabin light still worked. “Thank you Honda.” Looked all over the front passenger side. Stuff. Everywhere. No phone. Looked in the back. My bike, covered in dirt, the back window caved in, I guess part of the farm field in there. I laughed. “Dang.” Rachel Ray bag. Gym bag. Bike shoes, helmet. There it was, sitting right there. My phone.
I got out and called 911. Had a signal. Just when a woman’s voice came on the line, I realized I was really cold, shaky, my voice shaky. Filled her in on what happened, where I was. I think I sounded pretty shook. “We’ll be there soon. Do you have Triple A?” “Yes ma’am.” “We’ll have a tow truck sent after fire and Highway Patrol.” A fire truck with paramedics got there in less than 5 minutes. Parked up on the road and two guys in their fire suits walked down towards me. I was behind my car, picking up the big folder with photos and some dirt in it, pieces of the car that were scattered around. The paramedics asked if I was OK. “I think so. Shook up. Not sure what happened, I might have fallen asleep, seemed like I blacked out. Bruised my shin but I think my car saved my life.” They went around the car, carefully. Looked inside. Asked me several questions, and then permission to do a basic exam to see if I was injured. One of them felt my neck, back, arms, legs. He shined a little flashlight in my eyes, asked if anything hurt. Nothing really hurt. They both suggested that it would be smart for me to go to the hospital. Just check things out. Even though I felt all right. I thought for a few seconds. I had managed to bang myself up a few times in the past, falling off my bike, falling down stairs, running too many miles on unforgiving pavement, injuring joints doing too much weight too many times on incline bench, squats and leg press. There were definitely times I knew I needed to see somebody. And I’d had plenty of things done on me. Three surgeries on my left knee, two on my right, three on my right shoulder, one on my left. But I kept lifting, gradually learning I needed to pay attention to my limits and listen when my body was out of whack. Something inside me, even in times I have been really sick, or hurt, when I’ve lost strength or gone through bereavement or stress that seemed overwhelming, has always pushed me forward. Saying something inside me like you can get past this, you are bigger than this, don’t wallow in this stuff. It always worked. Always. These guys obviously thought something funky must have caused me to black out, but aside from feeling like I’d been in a clothes dryer for a few minutes, this just didn’t seem that serious. “I think I’m O.K. I don’t know how I’d get home, anyway.” A Highway Patrol Explorer SUV came slowly down the embankment, about a hundred feet away where the slope was gentler, then slowly over the furrows until he stopped and got out. Some of the same questions that the paramedics had asked. They all were kind and I sensed these men were sincerely concerned about me. It was pretty cool. The officer had me get in the back of his vehicle. “I’ve got the heater going. It’s a lot more comfortable in there.” It was. The shaking calmed down after several minutes. He got in the front, got on his radio. He asked me if this had ever happened to me before, asked if I had had alcohol last night. No. Nope. “you’re sure you don’t want to go to the hospital?” “I think I’m going to be OK. I kinda want to go see my Aunt. Somehow. That’s where I was heading. Orange County.” “Lloyd, you’re not driving anywhere. Not right now.” Several minutes later a tow truck arrived, took the same route that the CHP guy had done, very slow down the embankment. It was a long flatbed truck. He was able to flip my car right side up using chains and a winch.
I got chills when I looked at the car. The roof over the passenger and rear seats was smashed in. The driver’s side was totally fine. “Wow. Thank you God.” The paramedics ran up to their truck and left, their lights and siren going. I watched, fascinated, as the tow guy hitched up my car and rolled/skidded it up onto his flatbed. He and the C.H.P. officer talked for a minute. The tow guy came over to me. “I’m going to drive you home. You live in Monterey, right? We can leave your car at your house for now. The C.H.P. dude and I are pretty sure it’s totaled. But your insurance people can figure that out.”
I called my buddy Al on the way home, filling him in, and asked if he might help me pull stuff out of the car once we got there. He and my neighbor Buzz, a retired Monterey fire fighter, were waiting in front when we pulled up. Buzz looked at the car and took a long look at me. “You, uh, sure you’re O.K., Lloyd? Your car sure isn’t.” I told Buzz that I was just really tired, and that I’d get in to see my doctor if I had any problems. He folded his arms in front of his chest, still looking at me. “Yea. Get some rest. But maybe see your doc.” Al and I spent about an hour unearthing stuff from the back seat, the seat well (mostly full of farm field), the trunk. The carbon front fork of my bike was busted. But incredibly, otherwise the bike was totally O.K. In the Rachel Ray bag, the spring-form pan with the cheesecake was rather neatly bent back on itself almost exactly in the middle. The cheesecake had split into two even halves but was also, incredibly, intact. As we were going through this stuff I told Al about how I’d been thinking about the cheesecake and what Kay would think when flying off of the road. We laughed. “A little later that day I gave half to Al to share with his girlfriend. Buzz and his wife invited me over to their place for Thanksgiving dinner. It was wonderful. We enjoyed the other half of the cake. I called Kay mid-day and without going into any detail, let her know I’d had an accident, that I was all right, but that I wouldn’t be coming down for Thanksgiving. We talked for a good hour, mostly about a Thanksgiving she and Alan had shared at my grandparents’ home in Santa Cruz, when I was four, how she still remembered how my grandmother could make the holidays magic, made it all look easy, how my brother Craig and I were the perfect kitchen crew and how much we laughed! That was how Kay was, noticing and remembering and erasing loss and trauma with laughter and stories.
It took a couple of days for neck pain and stiffness to set in. Over the following months I saw Damon Anderson for physical therapy for whiplash. Damon had seen me many times over the years following the various surgeries I had had on my joints. I trusted him totally. In March and April, I began noticing vision problems mostly when I was at work in my periodontal office, especially when performing delicate procedures. I figured I just needed a new prescription. Couldn’t seem to get consistent focus in the center. A little loss of my left peripheral vision. Stuff in the office was still nuts, crazy busy. But stuff was getting more and more “off” at the front desk. I started looking for a new office manager. In mid-June I was on my way to Salinas in a new Honda. Heading down an off ramp, I was behind a little pickup truck that I figured was 100 or so feet ahead of me. Suddenly, I ran into him. Later that same week, when I was in the middle of performing a sinus lift procedure, my vision suddenly narrowed, where it seemed as if I was looking through a tube. The periphery was totally black. I felt nauseated, stood up, almost fell, dizzy. “I don’t know what’s going on, Laura. Jeez, this is weird. I need to sit down in my office for a minute.” It passed, but when I went to complete the procedure, I realized I was having real difficulty focusing. Closing—placing several sutures—that normally would have taken a minute or two—took 40 minutes. I called my physician when I was done and asked if he could see me that day. He got me in. After examining me he told me it was tough to say just what was going on, but suggested I see an ophthalmologist, and he ordered an MRI, that would be done up at the hospital the following Monday. I wasn’t able to get in to see an ophthalmologist, but did see an optometrist the next day. A young guy, seemed like he was right out of school. He repeated parts of the exam several times. I could tell he was confused. “Your vision is excellent. Nothing wrong with your eyes. But you’re missing some of your vision in the left periphery. All I can figure is that there’s something going on with your optic nerve, or farther up the channel.” Whatever that meant. On June 30th, I had driven early over to Sand City, hoping to avoid being in much traffic, and was heading home. At an intersection, I stopped, looked both ways, and headed across in order to get in the lane merging onto the freeway. A truck appeared on my left, horn blowing, tires squealing. I swerved to avoid him and ran into another car, thankfully though only at one or two miles per hour. I was freaked. I called my doctor’s answering service. They got him on the line. I filled him in. “Lloyd, you need to go to the E.R. I’ll call them.”
The C.T. they took in the E.R. showed a large “lesion” in my brain. They weren’t sure what it was. “Could be you’ve had a bleed. A stroke. Or it could be a mass, I mean, a tumor. We need to get an MRI to be sure. They aren’t in today.” I was admitted that afternoon, and the MRI was done the following morning, July 1st. That afternoon, a neurosurgeon came to my room and introduced himself. He told me I had a large brain tumor, centered in the left posterior periphery of my brain, in the right visual cortex. He told me it was important he operated as soon as possible, and described the basics of what that involved. He was kind, thorough, and I sensed gentleness as well as a manner that conveyed precision. Good signs. He told me he read about the recent two car accidents. He asked me if I had had any symptoms before, maybe months before. “Well, there was this weird thing last Thanksgiving morning. Like I just wasn’t there for several seconds. Went off the road. That was really the first of three car accidents.” “I’ll lay odds you had a minor seizure. That’s classic.” I told him about the peripheral vision loss and dizziness during the surgery several days before. “Probably another petit mal. Would have been smart to see somebody months ago.” He performed my surgery on July 2nd.
My neurosurgeon’s partner came to my hospital room the morning of July 4th. “We got the biopsy report on your tumor back, Lloyd. It’s not good. You had a Glioblastoma, Stage 4” My brother Craig, who practices emergency medicine, was in the room. He started crying. This wasn’t a good sign.
I asked the neurosurgeon what the diagnosis meant. “It means you have maybe three months, although it could be longer. Prognosis at a year is a few percent, two to five. With a lot of luck, you might make it longer.”
To say that my life has changed since that morning, since all of this, isn’t even close. How it has changed, how I’ve grown and dealt with the multitude of aftermaths, losses, and realities, and how I have found strength, inspiration, wisdom, hope and courage: that’s what matters. But that is another story.