I first met Woody when he walked into my group at Onsite in January of 1992. It was the second therapy group that I had led at Onsite. He was a wonderful, warm, charismatic, 49 years old; a 225 pound giant of a man, who I would soon learn was in incredible psychic pain. My dad’s name was Woody, and this Woody, carried with him a lot of the same pain, and humor, and honesty as by dad. I, as well as many others, was immediately drawn to him.
He told of an incredibly painful past. He was a Vietnam Veteran, but the pain had started long before. So much so, that he volunteered for the war, hoping to end his life in some kind of meaningful way, but end it none-the-less. During the war, he had been a helicopter pilot. As he told his story he said that looking back, he had used his helicopter experiences in Vietnam as a way to try and end the pain that he carried to the war. Without one ounce of pride or bragging he told us that he would repeatedly volunteer for missions to rescue troops when no one else would. Time after time, he would insist on going; all the while hoping that he would be killed. Helicopters would be shot down all around him; seven helicopters he was piloting would be shot down. Seven without him getting a scratch. No one else was ever injured either.
This type of risk taking ended one day when, as usual he volunteered once again. He said that he had a habit of volunteering not only himself but his best buddy and co-pilot too. On this day, their helicopter was shot down again, and as usual, Woody didn’t get a scratch. His co-pilot was not so lucky. He suffered nearly fatal wounds that ultimately resulted in an amputation of both his legs from mid-thigh. Woody told us that he never did anything like that again in Vietnam, because he didn’t want to hurt anyone else.
Though he said that his buddy had forgiven him for taking him into such risky situations and for the wounds he suffered, Woody could not forgive himself. This incident had served as just one more example to him of how worthless he was, and how he felt that all he ever did was end up hurting people, especially people he cared about and loved.
Upon his return from Vietnam, he told us that he continued trying to kill himself by doing every crazy stunt that he could think of or had an opportunity to try. Still, he was never injured and couldn’t understand why such a simple thing, trying to end his life, was so hard.
The day Woody did his therapeutic work in group was one of those not so unusual 70 + degree days in January in the Black Hills. Warm enough to need to use the air conditioners but because they are so loud, we opened the front and back doors of the group room, to take advantage of the wonderful warm breeze. The work he did was powerful. It seemed especially significant because he had chosen a Marion, a Lakota lady to represent his spiritual guide and higher power since through his experiences in life he had lost all faith in a traditional sense of God. She told him of her people’s belief in the special powers of the Hawk and the Wolf and that she would use their power to help him. He did incredibly deep work. Actually, at one key moment in the work, a bird flew in the back door, circled the room and flew out the front. It all happened so quickly that we couldn’t figure out what kind of bird, but it was a big one. We were sitting there in awe, certain that we had witnessed divine intervention on behalf of Woody. Then we remembered what Marion had said about calling on the power of the hawk to help Woody. Wow! Even those higher power skeptics were quieted by that one.
The piece of music I had used to close his work was a song called “The Rope”. It is a song about a man who goes out to sea, his ship is sunk in a storm, he is on a life raft feeling as if there is no hope and has given up, when he hears a voice calling “reach out for the rope”. That was a very moving song to Woody. Later that evening, he asked me if I would allow him to hear it again and I gave him the song to take to his room for the night.
Marion, the Lakota lady, related in her feedback to Woody, that she, in fact, had seen the spirits moving around the room as he did incredibly deep and profound work. When he had finished, he said, “I have never felt such relief and peace like this in my life”. “I have never felt better” “I never want to leave this special place”.
The next morning, Wednesday, I had arranged to meet Joe Cruse (husband of Sharon Cruse, who had created Onsite) who had flown in to meet one-on-one with the clients as they began to close out their treatment week.
I was staying at the Kelly Inn in Keystone. Joe and I had planned on going to the workshop site a little early and stopping by a special overlook that I had recently discovered. I got a call that morning from Joe and instead of him saying “I’m ready to go”, he said that our night supervisor had called and told her of an emergency. Joe said “Woody’s down, it looks like he had a heart attack while he was taking a hike with a group of other clients on the flume trail early this morning, we need to get there right away”.
I immediately said “He is in my group and did such powerful healing work yesterday, I hope I didn’t do anything wrong”. Joe, said, as only he could replied “I hope not either”. If I was looking for assurances, it wasn’t going to happen then.
We drove to the Nugget. Woody had already been taken by ambulance to the hospital. We went to the site on the flume trail where he fell. He had been on a hike with a half dozen other people, three of whom happened to be physicians; one an emergency room specialist. As we reached the spot, I stooped over where he had fallen and picked up the plastic top of a syringe used by the paramedics in their attempt to help Woody.
Later in talking to members of the group who had been hiking with Woody, they said one minute he was with them leading the way, talking and joking and the next he was on the ground. Initially they thought he had tripped and fallen, but very quickly realized that something much more serious had happened. They had sent someone back for help as they took turns administering CPR until the paramedics arrived.
When Joe and I arrived at the workshop site, we, as well as the community, were in a state of shock and disbelief. It was breakfast time and we decided to keep the whole group together to help deal with the event. Joe called the hospital and told them that he was the Medical Director of Onsite and would like to have an update on Woody’s condition when they had one.
At about 8:25 AM, the phone in the back of the room rang. The room went totally silent as Joe went back to take the call. Joe hung up and said “As of 8:18 this morning, Woody expired”. I had the fleeting thought, “how ironic is it that we try to help people be clear and direct, and in this moment we use the word ‘expired’ instead of died?” The truth is that Joe was in his best medical doctor form on that day, and we were all more than glad that he was there to support us.
Woody’s roommate shared that the night before Woody died he told him that for the first time in his life he felt like his soul was as peace and repeated that he didn’t want to go home. Now, he wouldn’t have to. He died with his new family being with and loving him in a way that his original family back home could not.
Three minutes later the phone rang once again. Again Joe answered. This time he called one of the participants to the phone. Again, the room was totally silent as he took the call. He came back into the room, sat down, looking very confused, and said “you are not going to believe this, but some of you know that my wife and I are in the process of adopting a baby. My wife just called to say that the baby we had been waiting for was born about 20 minutes ago, he is a big beautiful baby boy who was born at 8:18 this morning”. We all just looked at each other, stunned. The man whose baby had just been born had also been Woody’s roommate.
We all just sat in silence. There was more than one of us who wondered about the timing of this ‘coincidence’. If we had any doubt, the rest of the week was filled with events that would test even the most spiritually skeptical of us. We were about to experience a series of events that left even non-believers scratching their heads for ways to explain what happened.
Eventually we all went back to our small groups and began processing the loss of one of our group mates. There were a lot of feelings about and affirmations for how Woody had in such a short time gifted, touched and inspired us all. As I sat there listening to the others share, I had the sense that by his death, Woody had divided himself up and given each of us each our own treasured piece of himself for us to take home with us.
We decided to conduct a formal ceremony to celebrate Woody’s life that evening. To prepare for it, that afternoon, our group took a walk to an overlook we had been to previously, to each look for something to take back to the ceremony to represent a remembrance of Woody. As we were walking in silence back from our pilgrimage, I heard a raucous screeching noise, looked up and a hawk flew overhead, circled us and flew off into the mountains. Marion simply said “There’s Woody”.
As a part of the ceremony, I read the Native American version of the 23rd Psalm. That version talks about the ‘rope of love’, and, instead of talking about going through the valley of death, it uses the metaphor of being drawn up between the mountains, where perhaps God might take the pilgrim’s heart, but at the same time, give him a place to live for eternity.
One of the men from another group shared that during his meditation time earlier that day he had fallen asleep and dreamed of being with a group of people who were walking in the forest behind the Gold Nugget. He noticed a stream and looked across and saw Woody sitting on a rock in his flight jacket. Woody looked up and saw the group, and encouraged the group to go on, calling out to them that he was ok. (Woody had not worn his flight jacket to the program, the man did not even know that he was or had ever been a pilot).
Marion, our Native American lady, from our group, upon hearing that, doubled over in her chair, shook her head and just groaned. Earlier that week she had told us, as a part of her work, that her 3 year old niece had tried to commit suicide recently. The suicide attempt had failed and when the little girl was asked why she had tried to kill herself she said that she had a dream where she had seen her mother, (who had recently died), sitting on a rock across a stream in the mountains and she wanted to go be with her.
Marion, I noticed, oddly, that evening, except for that comment, was the only person who had said nothing or came forward with anything to contribute to the pile of objects that were being presented to celebrate Woody’s life.
On the last day our group had decided to get up very early and go to the actual place where Woody had fallen two days before, to give him his LCP medallion, and to say our final goodbyes. We found the spot, where a tree was growing impossibly out of a rock. It was a place where you can see the trees, the top of the mountain, the sun rise, and in the bottom of the canyon Spring Creek runs. Marion said “good choice Woody”.
I had suggested that perhaps we could all take the objects that had been collected from the community during the ceremony the previous night and leave them there to honor and symbolize the effect he had on our lives in the short time we had known him. I had taken a pine cone, since I had once learned that it is only in the process of the fire that the seeds of some pine trees are released for new growth. It seemed that somehow a fire, often seen as a tragedy, not unlike a death, actually is necessary for rebirth. One by one, we placed the objects and shared a gift/lesson that Woody’s being in our life for even such a short time had given us. I was next to last, only Marion, as had happened the night before, had not presented an object nor had anything to say. As I reached to put the pinecone on the ground at the place his head had fallen, a feather actually fell, landing directly on the back of my hand. Marion said “Oh my god” as I picked it up.
Marion gasped and began speaking. Through choking tears she told us she had been looking for the last day and a half for a feather to use in his honoring, but had been unable to find one. She said she had not participated last night because she had not found what she was looking for. Now it appeared to her and all of us at this last moment.
It seemed clear to Marion and many others of us that Woody’s spirit, gave her and us, this one last gift, and in his own way said his goodbyes. We walked speechless back to our group room at the Gold Nugget, very full and in a state of awe, knowing that if we tried to tell anyone else about this series of happenings, it would sound like fiction.
These are just few of the incredible things that happened that incredible week.
But the story wasn’t quite over yet.
10 years later, Sharon and Joe were doing one of their favorite things, taking a cruise. The exercise director and they begin talking. They found out that they had many mutual touch points, the most shocking was that she had been Woody’s fiancée when he came to the program in January 1992.