In the early morning hours of March 23, 2015, Clete, not being one to half-ass anything, took a head-over-heels tumble down my back staircase, broke and dislocated his neck, and almost died right there in my stairwell. True story. And I, being no stranger to life-changing events, was right there beside him through it all. But what on earth was Clete even doing at my house at four in the morning on that fateful Monday? Well, back in those days, whatever Clete’s godson, Joe Kennett, asked of him, Joe received.
Just months before, my husband Chip, who was also one of Clete’s closest friends, had passed away after living with non-small cell lung cancer for two years and three months. Clete, who had recently separated gracefully from a marriage that had supported us dearly during our struggle with cancer, began to devote pretty much all of his free time to the kids and me. Clete and I originally met in 2007 when we worked together in the same U.S. Senate office. In the months before Chip's death, Chip and I had selected Clete to be the legal guardian of our kids, my power of attorney, and acting agent on my own advanced medical directive after Chip died. Clete, being the secondary agent on Chip’s directive, was our go-to driver for Chip’s middle of the night emergency room runs, so I could stay at home with the kids. Clete was Team Kennett’s biggest champion, teammate and confidant throughout and most specifically, in Chip’s final months. When Chip went into the hospital the week before he died, Clete was the one he asked to come stay overnight with him, so I could go home to get some much needed sleep and be with our kids.
Joe, who had just turned five, had crippling separation anxiety from me after Chip died, and there were few places and people that felt safe to him, but Joe always asked for Clete, so on the weekends and some weeknights, Clete would come over. Our weekends were filled with the kids’ sports, activities and church. After we would get the kids to bed, the evenings usually ended with carry-out and emotional deep dives as we discussed everything from death to divorce to God. In a very painful and scary time, it all felt perfectly safe, and it was, because it was Clete. Clete had always been there and simply continued to be. We had already experienced so many life events together and over time, we began to fill in some of the missing blanks in our respective stories for each other.
On this particular weekend, Clete had come over that Saturday, and we took Joe to baseball, played with the kids in the park, and then the boys took a “Dawg time” trip to the Natural History Museum while I stayed at home with Crosby while she napped.
On Sunday afternoon, when Clete was getting ready to leave following church and lunch, Joe asked if he was going to come back later to put him to bed. I immediately said no and that we needed to give Clete a break, but Clete told him if that’s what he wanted, then he would be back. Later that night, as we were getting the kids ready for bed, Joe then asked for the first time, “Are you going to spend the night tonight?” Clete looked at me, and I gestured it was up to him. Clete told Joe, "Sure, buddy. I'll stay."
Clete slept on the couch in the living room on the first floor that night. Sometime around four in the morning, Crosby cried out from her crib. I immediately jumped out of bed and hurried into her bedroom which was right next door to mine on the second floor. Joe was asleep in the big bed in her room as he did not like being separated from either of us in those early months. When Crosby cried out, it woke Clete up, and as men do when they wake up in the middle of the night, he needed to go to the bathroom. Having no bathroom on the ground floor, Clete went up the back staircase to our other bathroom, because he did not want to come up the front staircase and disrupt my efforts to get Crosby back to sleep.
After soothing Crosby, as I was walking back to my bedroom, I heard this loud thud. I paused and wondered if Clete had actually fallen off the couch in his sleep. I then heard a second, loud thud. I raced down the front stairs to find the blankets tossed from the couch onto the floor. I noticed a light on in the back of the house, so as I walking back towards the kitchen, I caught sight of Clete. He was crumpled in the bottom of the back stairwell, one leg turned awkwardly up the wall, the other tangled in the baby gate, and his head was lying back on a wooden step, and he was completely unconscious.
I opened the gate and touched his arm. He immediately opened his eyes and asked me how he had gotten there. I told him I guess he had fallen, and I thought I needed to get him to the hospital. He told me "no, this happened before in football," and he just needed "a minute" before he could try to get up. Thankfully, we can now laugh about this part.
I stood there barefoot in my pajamas trying desperately to wrap my head around the impact of this new line that had been drawn in the sand. There it was again. The before and the after. However frail mine and the kids’ “new normal” may have been, I knew it had suddenly vanished in that instant.
When Clete indicated he was ready for me to help him get up, I crossed my right arm over to meet his, and when I clasped his hand, it was completely limp. Everyone tries to give me credit for being smart enough in that moment not to move him, but truth be told, I was not that smart. The entire right side of his six foot body was listless, and I was simply incapable of getting him to budge.
Since I do not have a landline, I told Clete I had to run upstairs to grab my phone, but I assured him I would be right back. I called 911 for the second time in ten weeks. I somehow had the wherewithal to ask 911 to please tell the paramedics not to turn their sirens on, because I had sleeping babies, and that I would have the front door unlocked and the front light on for them. As soon as I hung up, I once again called my dear friend, Maria, who was not on standby this particular night, but thankfully answered her phone and beat the ambulance to my house.
As I was climbing into the front of the ambulance, I heard Clete asking the EMTs where I was. His head was taped to the stretcher so he could only see the ceiling of the ambulance. I told him I was right there, and he said, “Sheila Kennett, is this your life?” as I had shared with him in the hospital on the first night he came to see Chip that that was one of the things going through my mind as we pulled away from our house that night. I told Clete I guessed it was, and we laughed for the very first time that morning. I knew his good natured sense of humor was still intact, even with a broken neck, and as I peered at him in the back of the ambulance, tears of relief rolled down my face when I saw him wiggle his foot and fingers on his left side.
I once joked I could probably write Yelp! reviews of hospitals up and down the East coast Chip and I had been in and out of so many, but in all of my trips to the ER, I had never experienced anything quite as scary as when we arrived at the Trauma Center at George Washington University Hospital. It was largely a blur of bright lights, loud noises, and doctors and nurses swarming around Clete, cutting his clothes off and carefully transferring him to a table without moving his neck. Someone escorted me to a chair right outside of his room, and the hospital chaplain joined me there. I have only had a hospital chaplain join me one other time, so that is when I lost it. I was not receptive to her company, and I remember yelling, “Do you know something I don’t know? Why are you here?” In the meantime, if it was possible for Clete to grab a doctor by the throat with his eyes, he did. I heard him asking where I was, and with all the force his voice could muster, he told them not to leave me in the dark, that anything they knew, I needed to know, that I could handle it, and I could make medical decisions on his behalf if necessary.
While Clete was getting his MRI, I called his sweet mom, Suzanne, at their farm in Georgia to let her know what had happened. Within the hour, I was communicating via group text, every detail of what was happening with his immediate family. The MRI revealed Clete had broken and jumped the facets at his C4 and C5 vertebrae, and the physicians placed Clete in traction by adding 40 pounds of weight to a pulley, that was attached to his skull with screws, to elongate his spine to pop his vertebrae back into alignment relieving the pressure off his spinal cord.
It was a critical 24 hour period in which any further movement could potentially cause further damage to his spinal cord. I spent that day sitting in the room with Clete which was the very room where President Reagan had been taken after he was shot. Clete was heavily sedated, but when he was awake, I would rib him about all of the hot nurses he was missing out on seeing, because they had his head immobile, screwed to that “Game of Thrones” torture device hanging off the back of his bed. While he slept, I badgered every doctor and nurse who walked through the door to teach me everything they were willing about his broken neck. When Clete fell, his chin had hit the opposing wall, throwing his head back, causing the dislocation. He then slid down the wall, chin first, and flipped over onto the second landing. The way he had broken his neck was basically the same break Christopher Reeve had suffered.
Suzanne flew in from Atlanta and arrived to the ICU later that night. Before I left, I leaned over so I could get right in Clete’s face in order for him to be able to see me. I promised him I would be back the following morning before he went into surgery. He said to me, “You saved my life,” and I responded with, “You saved mine.” We cried painful, joyful tears. Suzanne, witnessing the whole exchange, said, “You two love each other.”
I spent the next two weeks of my bereavement leave in the hospital and at the National Rehabilitation Hospital with Clete and his Mom. For the longest time, I willingly ceded ownership of the physical trauma to Clete, because he was the one who had endured the injury and marched through the long months of rehabilitation after all, and I was doing all I could to physically take care of the kids and myself. But the emotional trauma from that injury? We intimately shared it and healed together from it all.
It turns out Suzanne was right, and two years later, Clete and I are now married and rearing these two extraordinary kids together. The four of us have truly saved each other. Life is for the living, and we are both so grateful to be able to share ours together.
Some of us bear physical scars, which serve as outward displays and reminders of past injuries, while others bear emotional scars which cannot be seen, but both are to be honored as they serve as gentle reminders of the fragility of life, and they represent the resilience we all possess to not only survive, but to thrive. That does not mean our hearts (or neck!) don’t still ache sometimes, because they do, but Clete and I know the power of healing is greater than our injuries, and we thank God for that.
In life’s most joyful moments and in the darkest of hours and seemingly impossible circumstances, there is grace. Abundant grace always abounds if you allow yourself to see it. This I know, and these are my lessons in grace.
Read about what came before Sweetness Follows at TeamKennett.com.