One last Todd Mead story

Everyone I know has a great story about my dad. He gave me one last good one.

My dad always was good at finding random patterns in numbers, and I think he would have gotten a kick out of dying on 07/14/21. "Seven plus seven plus seven!" he might say. "Some jackpot, huh?" But he was also tougher than some cosmic slot machine, so he stayed alive, unconscious but there, for just a couple days more. Take that, universe.

The first lives Todd Mead saved were, barring some happenstance I don't know about, the lives of his younger brothers, who've told me in various ways about how my father protected them from their father, who my dad never spoke about aside from saying he died when he was young. It's impossible to make a final tally, but over the course of the following decades he saved quite literally hundreds of lives, both in his late career as a firefighter, and via a Forrest Gumpian series of adventures and events as he traversed the West Coast in the time bookending his meeting my mom and raising a family together.

To hear my dad tell a story was to hear life at its most saturated. He and my godfather Brent could veer from telling me a story about the cops breaking up a Fear concert at their house in Torrance (named the Ska House because, well, they'd painted the walls checkerboard. It was the mid-80s.) to telling a story of caring for a man who'd been shot outside their kitchen supply business in Watts. This would take us to how they ended up living in Hawaii, remodeling kitchens for rich people, hanging with legendary surfers like Banzai Betty Bepolito, and oh yeah there was that time that Brent passed out on my mom and dad's North Shore porch shredded to ribbons from getting dragged under a reef while surfing. The listening experience is the kind of raucous whiplash you get only from people who've truly lived every day.

I was born in Hawaii, but when my sister was on the way, my parents decided to move us back to the mainland. And a few years later, having gone through the Los Angeles Fire academy but looking for a full-time job, he moved the whole family up to Chico, a tiny Norcal town unknown to my very Socal family, to begin a career with Chico Fire.

He worked 24 hour shifts, from 8AM to 8AM, which meant that I'd usually get to see him coming home from work on my way to school. Most of Chico Fire's calls for emergency medical services, meaning a firefighter EMT like my dad will show up on the scene of a traffic accident or a heart attack or a puking college kid or a guy wandering down the street with a chef's knife sticking out of his head, and start triage before ambulances arrive. (This is a common structure for municipal fire departments.) I never thought about this as a kid, what must have gone through his mind as he unwound on the short drive home. I just know he was always excited to see me, and he always looked so strong and tall in his navy station uniform of pants and a tucked-in t-shirt. 

My dad was tall, 6'1" in his straightest-backed years, with dark tan skin, a big barrel chest like an old-timey weightlifter, black hair that loved to describe as pelt-like, and bright blue eyes. He was graceful until his declining health took it out of him, with quick reflexes honed in years of training in karate. (There wasn't a school for his style in a small town like Chico, but in his later years, he wrote letters to the organizing body of the Shotokan school in Japan documenting his diligent independent training to finally upgrade his brown belt to a ceremonial black. He was very proud of that.) More than anything I remember how he smelled as I'd get a hug, stubble scratching my neck, a scent I only recently nailed as a combination of Old Spice, stale sweat, and the deep, old campfire scent that's just an inherent feature of a working firefighter's turnouts.

My dad was so proud of his work. It's a hard job, but it has its highs. Allegedly there are a couple young men out there named Todd after their moms asked him name following an emergency delivery in an elevator or whatnot. My dad spoke fondly of any time he got to climb onto burning building with a chainsaw to cut a hole in the roof, ventilate some heat, and allow the rest of the crew to enter. My dad said he most loved the job because every day he was faced with new problems to solve, and new people to help.  He loved the family and brotherhood of his crewmates. And plus he got to drive a big red truck really fast, and look good doing it.

I'm writing this on my phone with my sister and fiancée while waiting in the ICU with my dad. Today is the day we're taking him off life support. It's crazy the things you remember while waiting for a loved one to die, and I have no real way of weaving this into the story, but a few years ago I saw the mythical video of my dad's appearance on Wheel of Fortune in 1990. True to himself, the broadcast features him hamming it up to the point that you can see the host before Pat Sajak slowly working up the nerve to tell him to shut up and let him do the hosting. But of course they all end with laughter, because my dad never left a room without making friends.

It's been years now that every time I've received a robocall from my home area code, I've assumed it was someone calling me to tell me my dad is dead. The wretchedness of robocalls aside, it's not an entirely unfounded reaction. In June of 2018, a few weeks after getting out of the hospital myself after a minivan driver ran through a red light and over me on my bike, I was in California sitting in a friend's backyard when I received a series of calls from an unknown number. It was someone who identified themselves only as a sheriff's deputy, who said they weren't allowed to tell me this but as a courtesy to a former first responder's family, he was calling to say that my dad was being airlifted from the Butte County jail to a hospital in Sacramento, and then he didn't know the situation, but he recommended that I get to the hospital as quickly as I can.

What they don't tell you about an incarcerated person being sent to the ICU is that they don't tell you anything at all. My sister, mom, and my dad's youngest brother all met me at the hospital, where we were stonewalled. Hospital policy is to neither confirm nor deny whether said incarcerated person is even in the building. I knew he was there, based on the mysterious tip I'd gotten, but no one in the hospital would tell us if he was alive or dead. He wasn't on their patient rolls, they said. This escalated on a Sunday night in an empty hospital lobby until a pair of on-site police officers came to try to talk us out of the building. It's impossible to describe the emotional sensation of being in the liminal space where someone might be alive or might be dead, but to be told that my Schrodinger's dad doesn't even exist by a pair of police officers authoritatively rustling their Batman belts... Well, I had the fleeting thought of "Here we go! I'm about to punch a cop. I wonder if dad would find that funny." Of course he wouldn't. I gave up. It was Father's Day.

Late at night I drove my friend's car back to his house in San Jose, slipped in the back door, and slept on the couch not knowing if I'd see my dad the next day.

Thankfully my mom and sister are more persuasive than I am, so we were admitted to the ICU. The staff was professional enough but nonetheless had the undercurrent of side-eye you get when people smell the taint of the judicial system on you. Having a police officer slouched a chair as I spoke to my unresponsive father (was he always this small? Or is he just overshadowed by all the machines?) was frustrating in the hopeless way you may know if you've ever attempted to stare down down our carceral state, but the small injustice that I'll never live with is the shiny pair of handcuffs going from one of his frail, bandaged wrists to the arm of his hospital bed. Where is an unconscious, disabled old man with a big surgical hole in his skull gonna go? This is the man who taught me about the tradition of firefighters buying their crew ice cream when they're the one who gets a hero shot on the nightly news. It's my fucking dad. Why the handcuffs? And why did it have to be on his left wrist, visible for the whole ward to see?

This is quite a long post so here's a picture of my dad and me in Hawaii. Please note his incredible pants.

I have precious few words to sum up a whole life, and it's unfair of me to dedicate so many words to one of the worst periods he experienced. My dad had an adage meant to stoke the old rivalry between police and firefighters: He'd say that both cops and firefighters show up on people's worst days—the difference is the firefighters are sent there to make things better. How does someone with a history of PTSD and brain trauma and self-medication end up in jail for a mental health crisis? It's a rhetorical question, of course: the police are America's first responders for mental health crises while actual mental health resources are chronically underfunded. Some 2 million Americans with serious mental illness are booked in jails each year; one survey of Iowa jails found that 48 percent of incarcerated people had diagnosed mental illness, and that a staggering 99 percent of those cases were diagnosed while they were imprisoned. In June of 2018, an average of 560 people were present in Butte County, CA jails on any given day, according to self-reported statistics from the county that held my dad. On the last day of that month, when totals were tallied, the jails had 235 open mental health cases.

Why in this country is it so impossibly hard to find help before it gets this bad? We trusted doctors to help and they tried to fix his brain with pills, and we spent years after being told by doctors and clinics and support groups how he's a hero but he's either too damaged or not damaged enough for them to be able to help. Why does it have to be so brutally difficult to get someone the help they need and yet so easy for a disabled man to end up face-down on the floor of his cell for an unknown period of time? How does someone who'd given as much of himself as he could to anyone who needed end up chewed up by such an uncaring world, spit out, and chained to a bed, maybe alive, maybe dead? 

Injuries were part of the job, but the one that left him broken was a training accident where he fell right off a second story roof onto his head. Even 15 years ago, brain trauma was treated a lot more casually than today. He was taken to an urgent care clinic, told to rest his head, and given pills for his mangled back. What follows is American as it gets: prescription opioids are more addictive than they are effective, leaving you needing more and more. 

Little research has been done to quantify the prevalence of brain injuries in firefighters specifically. One of the few studies I found, from 2020, summed up its results by saying it "appears most firefighters have sustained at least one lifetime [minor traumatic brain injury, such as a concussion]." Veterans are a far more studied cohort, and research on Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have consistently shown that vets with severe TBI symptoms are at increased risk of long-term opioid use and abuse, despite guidelines against prescribing opioids to treat TBIs, because while opioids dull the pain, they make TBI symptoms worse. (One study found the problem so prevalent that the authors ended their paper's title with an unusually exasperated question for medical research: Do clinical practice guidelines matter?) In addition to exacerbating TBI symptoms, opioids also exacerbate substance abuse issues, and they don't work as advertised: OxyContin dominated the pain-management market due to maker Purdue Pharma's heavily marketed claims that a single dose could last 12 hours, which is rarely true in practice, leaving patients needing higher or more frequent doses, increasing the risk of addiction. The week before my dad died, the Sackler family, who own Purdue Pharma and who made billions off of opioids, agreed to a bankruptcy settlement in which they'll pay $4.5 billion but not be required to admit they did anything wrong in a crisis that's killed at least 500,000 Americans.

Combine an increasing need for opioids with layers of PTSD, mental health struggles, the resultant self-medication, a ravaged body, the sudden loss of an identity-defining career, a divorce, and the ocean-deep frustration of knowing that your once incredibly sharp mind has been dulled by physical damage in ways you can only outline in the fuzziest, maddingly tip-of-the-tongue way? 

I mean, what are you going to do? Where can you go? I would have preferred some sort of long-term care to the years I spent getting calls from random motels and borrowed cell phones as my dad reverted to the transient ways of his youth, but he was way too independent to end up in a retirement home. (We tried. It lasted a few days.) And while he had Medicare and a small pension, getting someone with no fixed address and a damaged memory to navigate the hostile bureaucracy of the healthcare system on their own is a fool's errand. I could barely do it myself.

My dad wasn't really able to travel well during my bout with cancer. I was still living in NYC, where I'd moved to continue my career as a journalist. I was inspired in part because I wanted to work at National Geographic as a kid, but largely because as a teen my dad told me he didn't want me to become a firefighter because of the toll it'd take on me, and barring that or becoming a teacher like my mom, journalism felt like the best way to do some good in the world. It also meant that, with the gulf of a country between us, I didn't see my dad very often. Despite him calling every couple of days to check in and promise he was hopping on the next plane, I never encouraged him to come. What a raggedy pair we would have made. 

But when I was able to visit him after I finished treatment, we went out to drink some beers and shoot some pool. He was more wobbly than I'd remembered, and starting to look really old. But he still knew how to charm a room, and he still kicked my ass on the table. I think it was that night that he told me that the best period of his life, the point of his life that he felt all of his life was leading toward and revolving around in that bendy way time takes on, was when he was raising my sister and me. Yesterday, when I was waiting to be able to see him in the hospital during an hour-long bandage changing, I sat in my sister's backyard (how is she a mom now? And so incredibly good at it?) talked about dad. He was a good dad, a dad who loved us, and none of his struggles got in the way of that. But we're so sad the struggles existed at all.

My sister said she hopes this means my dad can stop running. She's the insightful one, proven here again. I always thought of my dad as the guy who runs towards the problems, who runs into the burning building to save the baby or the cat, because many times he did. But I didn't think about how, when you sum up his 68 or so years on Earth, how much time he'd spent trying to get to the next place. (A story uncle once told me is that they had spent months acquiring tickets to see the rock band Mountain play up in Topanga Canyon or some far-flung place for a flatlander. When they finally arrived, they saw two songs and my dad said "Alright, I've seen them. Let's jet.") The starlight you see is from millions of years ago, meaning if you can somehow move faster than light, you can see backward through time. I can't know entirely what drove my dad's endless yearning, but spending your childhood protecting your brothers from your father has got to make you want to see the world. And more than anything, my dad tried to squeeze as much life as he possibly could into every day he was given, an existential drive underscored by the knowledge that the universe is so big and we're so small. I'm glad I learned it from him.

I'm writing this while waiting in the same hospital as the last time I waited for my dad to die, but this time he's in a burn ward dedicated to and by firefighters who raised the funds for it. After all the near-misses, it was the heat that got him. He was found unresponsive in downtown Chico on a 105 degree day, burned either from the sun or the scorching ground. Same thing, really. It's impossible to sum up anyone via a single descriptor, and I don't recommend defining your identity through your job, but when our lives can ping-pong in any direction at any moment, closing the loop with dignity and love is all any of us can ask for. 

Apparently back in the late 70s my dad was traveling up the California coast and stopped in Cambria, a beautiful coastal town. There he found Arthur Harold Beal, the creator of Nitt Witt Ridge, a house made entirely of found materials like abalone shells and driftwood that's now a historical site. As would happen with my dad, he brought over a six pack and ended up staying a few months helping with the house. Beal was surely a kook, but my dad loved to quote one thing he used to say: "They ain't carrying me off to the marble orchard just yet!", with "they" left undefined in the way it has to be when you're raging against the inexorable one-way street of our ever-passing lives.

I only have the most simplistic answers for why the world we live in, and the hostile systems that dominate it, have to be so punishing all the time. I can't even guess what happens to a person's soul after it's released from a battered body and mind that had scrambled its expression for so long. But now, sitting in the ICU, telling my helpless, comatose father that he's safe, that he's loved, and that he's home, and is safe there in that loving home in our hearts forever, I have a fresh perspective on the maddening squishiness of time. It goes slow when we want it fast, fast when we want it slow, and only goes forward into the unknown despite us only being able to cherish the memories behind us that we'll never be able to experience again. Physicists tell us that space and time are intrinsically connected, and that the starlight you see is from millions of years ago, meaning if you get far enough away from something, you can see back through time. My dad said his best life was with his family, watching us grow and thrive. And when I look at his life, I see a man who was always trying to get back to that place, even if time wouldn't let him. Now he has the chance to keep exploring the universe as he always has, and I believe he knows that his home will always be the time we spent together and hold deep in our hearts. 

There is a coda to this story, because of course my dad loved a good ending. My fiancée and I were the last to arrive at the first hospital, on account of the drive, and I couldn't tell you if the tears he shed when I told him I loved him and introduced him to my soon-to-be wife were a sign he'd heard us or just the involuntary workings of a body in stasis. But the second day, after he'd taken one last chopper ride and lain there with us as we felt him pass, we waited for forms to be found and filled so we could take his belongings with us. In the bag was what I think at this point is about everything he owned in the world: A dirty, beat up Amazon Basics necklace wallet, the kind tourists buy to ward off pickpockets in Lisbon, that my mom bought him to keep his stuff together. In it was a phone, his driver's license, a debit card, a crumpled dollar bill, and--and here's where the tears flowed from a reserve we'd long thought we'd emptied--a neatly folded, specked-with-dirt-but-bright-as-day portrait of my sister and me, glowing as young adults ready to head into the world. It helped explain what he'd been seeking all these recent years. He was never really homeless, but he was home lost, and the one thing it turns out he had held safe was the treasure map to take him back.