Creative Writing

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Be the Best

Dean Karnoski was a hometown hero who never saved anyone’s life. He was the biological father to three boys and a father-figure to hundreds. He inspired an entire city, but never spoke to half of them. Dean’s favorite phrase, “Be the Best,” is etched in the boy’s locker room of Glendora High School and will be there forever despite only coaching football there for five years. Dean suffered from a terminal disease, but never suffered from self-doubt or pity.
November 17, 1997 changed the Karnoski household forever. Dean Karnoski was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), otherwise known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. This disease gradually deteriorates nerve cells in the brain. Slowly, muscles begin to shut down while the immune system is also dangerously affected. The decline is ploddingly painful to watch. Each case is completely individual. For example, some may lose the use of their arms first, while others lose their legs. It becomes easier to become ill with other, common diseases that cannot be treated in a normal way. Catching a cold becomes a trip to the hospital.
Dean’s case was no exception. When I met Dean he was still able to drive. We had just moved across the street from the Karnoski’s and were getting used to his illness slowly. He worked at my high school and drove to and from work everyday during my freshman year. I would watch him come home from work, slink out of the car and saunter up to the off-white door. His head would be tilted to the left side with his arms slightly tucked into his sides. This was the first image of Dean I can remember clearly.
My mother had a special relationship with Dean: his first year of teaching was her freshman year of high school. They had stayed in touch since she graduated and saw each other around town every once in a while. With this previous bond already in existence, Dean had known about me since I was born. He knew me before I had even met him.
He had noticed all the correct symptoms: difficulty with pronunciation, weak muscles in appendages, and shortness of breath. After many tests, Dean was diagnosed with ALS and given two years to live. There is no profile for the perfect ALS victim. This disease is relentless and can be contracted by anyone. It is not contagious, but completely random.
With his youngest son, Luke, turning four years old in a few weeks, Dean dedicated the rest of his life to his family. He lived out his days working in the athletic department of Glendora High School, visiting with friends, and spending as much time as he could with his family. As time sped on, Dean’s health quickly declined.
“He is the strongest person I know,” says Claudia Karnoski, Dean’s wife. She would sit next to his medical bed and fold laundry while CSI blared from the television. Dean watched fervently and dreamed of being able to speak normally. It had been three years since I first moved across the street and Dean had since become bedridden. His legs were immobile, his vocal cords dormant. Watching home movies of the once hyperactive football coach was bittersweet.
“YOU LOOK LIKE A BUNCH OF IDIOTS OUT THERE!” Dean used to scream. We watched his halftime pep talks and laughed at his intensity. He would turn out the lights so you could only hear him. When the lights were on, objects were being thrown across the locker room. We laugh at his melodrama, but our smiles are broken when we glance at the ailing Dean who looks longingly at what he once was.
“Dean once told me that if this wouldn’t have happened to him, he wouldn’t have found God.” My mother reflects on Dean’s words of wisdom that stay with her to this day. She once had a dream that she was stuck inside of her body and was not able to move. “That was the closest I have come to understanding what he was going through,” she says, meditating on the fear she felt when she woke up.
Truth be told, no one could know what he was going through.
“I don’t even want to know how it feels to lose your husband to that. Just to watch him slowly die. You have no control. I don’t even want to think about it,” Stephanie Armenta, 20, explains in disbelief. “Everyone knew him. You can’t live in Glendora and not know about Dean. He was just a valuable person, you know? Just one of those people you can’t forget.”
“He was just a genuinely good person,” Stephanie’s boyfriend Matt states. “No one was more influential in this town.”
200 other citizens of Glendora agreed, attending Dean’s memorial on May 2, 2004, almost a week after his anticipated death. Dean had outlived his diagnosis by five years, which is average for most ALS patients. During this traumatic time, Dean met many wonderful people who enveloped his family with loving hearts and open arms. The day he died, instead of shedding tears, laughter could be heard throughout the halls of the Karnoski house, which was overflowing with loved ones.
“He isn’t in pain anymore. He can run, eat food, do whatever he wants. He gets to live with Jesus now.” Claudia surrounds herself with loving people who support her while she celebrates the life of her late husband. “Of course I’m sad,” she says, “but he isn’t hurting, and that’s all I wanted for him.”
“I finally can watch my soap operas!” My mom jokes, having been his caregiver all day, everyday for the past three years. “No, honestly, I will miss him dearly. It will be a hard transition.”
I talked to Claudia just recently about Dean’s ailment, two and a half years later. Walking into the house that was once abundant was oxygen tanks and medical supplies, it has taken on a new form. New furniture scatters the living room and pictures plaster to walls. Claudia has spent her days redecorating and working, but mostly getting her mind off of Dean.
“Things are constantly getting better. For a while, I was severely depressed. I thought it would be easier because we knew for so long that he was going to go, but it was worse. He was what kept me occupied all day long, and now I have nothing to do. Its getting easier though, I mean, it can’t get any worse. I know he is watching us and keeping us safe. I know that Dean is finally at peace.”


Blogger LukeK. said...

Hailey this is beautiful and this is Luke by the way i just stumbled across this and it really was amazing. I know this is a little over do but its just cool to go back to memories and see what we went through and that we came out of it in the end. I love you and your family and I'm happy i came over with my ice cream that day.haha. i will always love you guys and you are truly part of our family forever.

12:43 AM  

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