OPINION COLUMNS

Tragedy and joy shape a new perspective

By J.D. Clark | Published Saturday, June 17, 2017

Ray Wylie Hubbard has a line in a song that goes, “The days I keep my gratitude higher than my expectations, I have really good days.”

Nothing taught me more about perspective, gratitude and assessing good and bad days than the experiences of losing my father and becoming a father.

J.D. Clark

In September 2014, I received a phone call that my dad had been in a serious car accident. The person who called me had been driving behind him, knew it was my dad’s truck and witnessed the wreck. He called to let me know what had happened.

The wreck was east of Chico on Farm Road 1810, just before you cross the Big Sandy bridge. Dad was westbound, so he was likely heading home from work.

When I arrived, cars, trucks and 18-wheelers were backed up for a long way down the road. I pulled my car off to the side, locked it and began running to the accident scene, past all the waiting vehicles.

When I got there, Wise County EMS was still trying to extricate Dad from the cab of his truck. Understandably, law enforcement was working to keep the general public back and away from the scene. One of the DPS troopers on scene knew me and knew it was my dad in the truck, so he took me up to the vehicle.

The driver’s side door had been cut off his truck as they were working to remove him, and I could see Dad inside. He was obviously in pain, and the medics were talking to him, trying to keep him calm as they worked. I told them to let him know I was there.

One of the medics said, “Donald, J.D. is here.” Dad reached his hand out in my direction, and I was glad he knew I made it to the scene.

They removed him from the cab and got him situated on a gurney. As they wheeled him to the helicopter, I walked alongside him, patting his shoulder and telling him I was going to pick up Mom and we would meet him at the hospital.

But as they were loading him in the helicopter, I felt a rising panic. I didn’t want him to have to make that flight without someone he knew. I asked the air medics if I could fly with him, but I was told that space limitations wouldn’t allow that. Instead, I gave them my name and cell phone number. I watched as they took off with him, then headed to pick up Mom.

The ride to John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth was surreal. It’s hard to find things to talk about during the drive as a cloud of fear and uncertainty floats in the vehicle.

When we arrived, we were told he was in surgery and a doctor would be out to talk to us soon.

We waited, and in the meantime, my brother and his family arrived, as did my wife Leah, who was my girlfriend at the time, and her mother. My grandparents and my dad’s sister arrived shortly after.

I asked again about Dad and was told again he was in surgery and a doctor would be out to see us soon.

As we continued to wait for an update, my cell phone rang, and I saw it was a Fort Worth number.

I answered. “Hello?”

“Yes, I am trying to reach J.D. Clark.”

“Yes, that’s me.”

“Mr. Clark, this is the Tarrant County Medical Examiner. I just wanted to call and tell you that I am so sorry for your loss.”

I can’t describe what I felt, processed or even understood at that exact moment. It was as if this information had been rapidly inserted into my brain, and it took a second to interpret its meaning.

“What?”

“Mr. Clark, has no one at the hospital talked to you yet?”

“No. No one has told us anything.”

“Mr. Clark, I am so sorry. I am so sorry.”

Click.

Waiting to get an update on your dad’s surgery and then receiving a premature call from the medical examiner is a tough way to find out your dad’s gone.

Even tougher is then having to take your mom and brother aside to break the news to them.

At some point after that, well after we had learned the hard way, a chaplain and a doctor came out to tell us what we already knew.

That was the worst day I have ever experienced, and as a perspective shifter, it is now the benchmark by which I judge all other days.

That day was a bad day. When you use that as your litmus test, it makes you realize that all the other days with minor inconveniences – work stresses and other less-than-ideal scenarios – are really good days.

A tragedy, while painful, life-altering and in many ways unending, also serves as a reminder that in the grand scheme of things, we have so much for which we should be thankful. A tragedy alters our expectations of what a bad day can be, and through that, we are reminded of how lucky we are to have so many days that are not like that.

Likewise, a perspective shifter would also be something that gives us a new concept of what a good day can be. For me, that was becoming a father. I don’t mean simply the day Claire was born. I mean every day with her in it is a good day.

While my dad’s accident gave me a harsh, extreme definition of a bad day, Claire has made identifying the good days really simple. It’s any day I can see her smile, any day I can hear her jabber at Leah and me, any day I can watch her toddle around, explore and discover something new.

In short, Claire makes any day a good day, and I don’t have to look very hard to see that.

During a recent transportation planning meeting, the consultants were projecting a large map on the screen with red dots indicating the locations of fatal accidents in Wise County. I knew exactly which red dot was my dad’s.

That place just past the Big Sandy bridge is on my daily route to and from work. Of course, I think of him and that awful day as I drive past, but at the same time, I know at the other end of FM 1810, there is a little girl waiting on me, a little girl who just wants me to get in the floor, play with her, read books and then sing her to sleep.

And that, my friends, is a really good day.

J.D. Clark is the county judge. His father, Donald Joe Clark died Sept. 25, 2014, following a car accident. His daughter, Claire Grace, was born July 22, 2016.

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