Putting life in perspective.
Stories of hope, courage and inspiration.
The Sunday Series (17): Hold Onto My Heart
It happens every day, though we frequently don’t notice, or are simply not aware. A light is kindled, another extinguished. One soul enters this world, another exits.
Light, life and Craig Wehrle, a perfect match. Craig grabbed onto life with both hands and gave it everything he had. Navy man, businessman, mason, sailor, hunter, father, grandfather, uncle, friend, soul mate. Gail Parker knows all about what made Craig “dynamic, powerful and alive”, she spent two decades by his side. The two brought their respective families together in perfect harmony. Though Craig and Gail never married, it wasn’t because they didn’t want to.
Life just got in the way.
A visit to the podiatrist because of a blister on Craig’s toe led to a referral to a vascular doctor and eventually a neurologist. Tests run, results deciphered, the doctor said Craig had peripheral neuropathy, a condition which can distort and sometimes interrupt messages between the brain and the rest of the body. The doctor put Craig on steroids. It was a Band-Aid for what was ailing him, but the journey inside the journey of Craig’s life was now underway.
A tough man, a war veteran, Craig Wehrle served for the Navy in Vietnam. At one point, spending four solid months in a submarine. His experience taught him to love the water and when he left the Navy, he was ready to sail again. Craig bought a 32-foot Morgan (built by the legendary Charles Morgan), called Lulu, named after the cartoon character Little Lulu. For Craig and for Gail the open waters were magic. They both loved to sail and spent a tremendous amount of time with Lulu, riding her and working on her.
But as the illness took a turn and the “drop-foot” started for Craig, the sailing started to subside. From experiencing trouble with his foot, to walking with a cane and then to a walker, Craig’s mobility was waning. Eventually Gail bought Craig a scooter chair so he could get around quickly, it was important, it was necessary, because besides his love of the water, Craig also loved something else…to work, to provide.
A mechanical engineer by trade, Craig ran his own business then sold it and went into property management, eventually managing a 33-story high-rise, the Penthouse Condominium in Towson, Maryland. The position was not for the weak of heart, nor for someone without stamina, because dealing with more than 300 affluent condo owners, Craig rarely sat still. It wasn’t part of his DNA anyway, he loved not only to sail, but to hunt and to be part of the Masons fraternity. Craig was the Grand Master of his lodge, Liberty 219 Grand Lodge of Mason. For those who might not know, the main principles of Freemasonry insist that each member show tolerance, respect and kindness in his actions toward others; practices charity and care for the community as a whole; and strives to achieve high moral standards in his own personal life. The Masons, their mission, the opportunity to care and give back fit Craig to a tee.
What didn’t fit with Gail was what was happening to Craig. A man so mobile, so agile, so strong, now had trouble even climbing the stairs. The doctors Craig was working with to battle their diagnosis of neuropathy said they were having success using chemotherapy as a treatment. Gail and Craig were planning to take a trip, they had purchased the airline tickets, ready to go to overseas to Italy, and to get married. But the couple, searching for a ray of light, hoping to improve Craig’s lot in life, canceled the trip and decided to give chemo a try. The first round of chemotherapy, every Friday for ten weeks, brought what the couple believed to be a glimmer of hope, some feeling, some tingling in Craig’s left leg. But not much more. The second round of chemo beat him down. Gail says Craig couldn’t do much more than sleep and still find a way to get to work.
Gail says watching Craig simply get to his car in the morning was tough enough: “A man who was so agile, a sailor, if you saw the things he did on the sailboat, handle the lines, climb up and down the mast and now he was having a hard time just walking to his car. It broke my heart.” Gail decided what the doctors were doing wasn’t working and she was going to take action. Talking with Gail Parker, you can tell she’s a woman of action.
Gail searched and got in contact with Dr. Vinay Chaudhry of Johns Hopkins. She secured an appointment four months down the road. Gail wanted more information, more help, willing to do whatever it took to find a way to help Craig get better. But time was not on their side. Is it really for any of us? The one thing in life which is completely out of our control, though we search in vain for ways to make time stand still, especially when someone we love is failing…to stop the precious moments from ticking away. Craig was getting worse and by July of 2012 the powers that be told Craig his work in property management was over.
September 17th of that same year, Gail and Craig and their respective families met Dr. Chaudhry. After a nerve connectivity test the doctor asked them a question, one which would bring hope to an end. Dr. Chaudhry, a Professor of Neurology, had a few areas of expertise, one of those was dealing with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. “Did anyone talk to you about ALS?”, Dr. Chaudhry asked the family. Gail said the other doctors told her multiple times Craig’s condition was not ALS, it was peripheral neuropathy, which is why they had been searching for treatment to improve his life. Dr. Chaudhry said not only was this ALS, it was aggressive. Hope – which Craig, Gail and their respective families held onto was no longer the word of the day. The focus now was hospice, hospice at home.
Gail says Craig told her, “I don’t want to leave you, but I don’t want to live like this and put you through this. I can’t walk for myself, I can’t care for myself and I don’t want to put you and the family through this.” On December 22nd, just three months after official diagnosis of ALS, Craig was gone.
Gail still harbors anger saying she has little faith in the medical system, believing Craig was put through the mill with misdiagnosis, mishandled and because of all of this the family had little time to prepare for the inevitable. But Gail is also giving back for good. She says the MDA, The Muscular Dystrophy Association, reached out during Craig’s ordeal and Gail has formed Team Craig for the annual walk. Last year she raised $6,000, second most of any team which participated and this year she is striving to be the number one fundraising team for the MDA. The goal, to find a cure for one of the most debilitating of diseases. http://mda.org/?gclid=CIr26o-l4rwCFcY7OgodfwEA3A
Gail and Craig’s son Jason have also gotten his beloved boat Lulu back in the water, renamed her Lulu Ann, for Gail’s middle name and the middle name of Craig’s granddaughter Morgan. They plan to spread Craig’s ashes along some of the places Craig and Gail visited together along the Chesapeake.
Gail now sails through life without her partner saying she is, “haunted by the experience. But the goodness that comes out of something like this is the family and strength of the family I still have by my side, we’ve continued a very strong bond and that’s wonderful,” says Gail. Part of that family and extended family are Gail’s nephew Jason and his wife, Xian. On December 22nd, Jason and Xian, about to have their first child, came to visit Craig in the hospital. Craig had been overjoyed for his nephew and niece and their impending bundle of joy. On the day he died, Craig was heavily medicated, nearly in a coma, the sight upset Xian, and upon returning home, her water broke. She gave birth to Hailey that same day.
Gail says she learned of the news and received pictures on her phone. Gail climbed into the hospital bed with Craig, spoke to him, let him know Jason and Xien had a baby girl, named Hailey. She asked Craig to open his eyes to see, Gail says she thought he did, saw them flutter, but she knows he heard her and the announcement. At 7:11, exactly two hours after learning of the news of Hailey’s birth, Craig took his final breath.
A light kindled, a light extinguished. A soul entering this world, a soul exiting. Such is life, it happens more often than we know.
Until next time thanks for taking the time,
Author, It Takes 2. Surviving Breast Cancer: A Spouse’s Story
#1 Amazon Best-Seller
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