As phone calls go, this wasn’t a good one, but it wasn’t the worst Brian Harrell has ever had. Not by a long shot, even though he was on vacation with his family. His job at the University of Akron, he was informed, wouldn’t return with the students in the fall. As a temporary, visiting lecturer, his job was never guaranteed but it was more than a job. “I was born to teach,” he says. So he focused on the moment, standing in his native California with his daughter, Emma, his wife, Cassandra, and their baby, Christopher, at the foot of the Hearst Castle with the elephant seals barking below.
It took something of a miracle to get there, to have this family and that job. In his 20s, Brian “flunked out” of four colleges from LA to Akron in just two years. Estranged from his parents, he worked as a Burger King manager, spending his nights at the Boot Scootin’ Saloon — “The Boot” he calls it — a competition-level country dancer. “That was another life,” he says. One before becoming the “Mr. Harrell” his students at UA know, the kind of guy who makes a bowtie work because its cheerful exuberance seems to match his own.
“Tim McGraw’s voice is echoing throughout the bar, as she spins beneath my fingers. Every eye is on her, as she moves across the floor as though she is dancing on a cloud. I can still see her today, Left foot: I prep her for the next spin, Right foot: underneath my outstretched arm, she spins effortlessly, Left Foot: my hand comes across her back as I spin in front of her, reaching out to pull her back to me, Right foot: the move is completed as she is back in my arms, a full spin together as the music moves on to the second verse, and we start again. Dancing with Laura…” — Brian Harrell, “Quick Quick, Slow Slow”
Laura Brady was Brian’s first wife. They met at The Boot through a mutual friend, an older woman also named Laura. The next evening, they were at the movies. They clicked. She was who he wanted: Someone willing to listen, someone who would laugh with him, who respected the fact he had a past, who wasn’t turned off by the fact that he worked at Burger King and liked it.
Their social world revolved around The Boot. Brian and Laura were constant dance partners and even entered competitions together, taking all comers in the two-step. About a year after they met, they married. Laura took a new job at Progressive Insurance and it wasn’t long before the happy couple would find out she was pregnant.
A month after Emma was born, Laura calls Brian from work. She hadn’t been feeling well so she went to see Progressive’s in-house nurse who immediately ordered her to the Cleveland Clinic.
“Why?” he asked. “Is it cancer?”
“Chemotherapy took her hair and the steroids took her ability to walk. I would wheel her into the bar, just so she could be around the people she loved. …The twice a week routine of going out to dance was replaced with multiple days of traveling back and forth to the Clinic.” — also from “Quick Quick, Slow Slow”
Over the months that Laura was sick, Brian says he had started working through the stages of grief. One day, as he changed Emma, he was overwhelmed. Anger. He called his mom.
“I just bawled and bawled and bawled,” he says. “Then I hear my mom say to my dad, ‘He’s crying.’ So my dad got on the other line and we just had this moment. It was the best moment I’ve ever had with my parents. Always will be.”
While Laura was still pregnant with Emma, they realized Brian’s fast food salary would only cover daycare. Better to have him as a stay-at-home dad. But being Laura’s nurse was a full-time job too. So, his mother, who was a year from retirement, took a year off to spend six months in Akron with Brian, Laura and the grandbaby.
He would find a much-needed breather officiating youth sports. During a pee wee football game in Wadsworth, a security officer came to Brian with a phone, saying 9-1-1 was on the other end. Not yet a year old, Emma’s temperature had spiked, triggering a febrile seizure. Thanks to a police escort, he was able to get to the hospital quickly. Thanks to Akron Children’s, Emma would be fine.
“At this point, I don’t have a degree. I don’t have an AA. I don’t have anything.”
By August 2006, it had been a decade since Brian skipped from college to college, applying to one before the transcript from another could catch up with him, but he was ready now. Laura didn’t need him 24/7 anymore but he figured, as a student college, he could still be around. They went down to Stark State to re-enroll him together.
“She wrote me a really cool note on my planner, which she’d set up for me,” Brian says. “She said she was proud of me — ‘Good luck. I can’t wait for another four years from now when you’re graduating.’”
His first day back in school was a Monday. He came home and offered to make her favorite meal but she wasn’t feeling well. He got her in the car and headed to the hospital.
“Her last words to me were, ‘I don’t know what’s going on with me, Brian.’”
She was in the ICU for a couple of days, her condition deteriorating. Wednesday, he only left her side to get Emma for a visit. That’s when a resident at the hospital called.
“He says, ‘Can we stop the CPR?’,” Brian recalls. Confused, he asked, “What CPR?”
The resident said, “Oh, we’ve been doing CPR on your wife for a half-hour. Can we stop?”
“Oh, okay,” Brian said. “We’ll be up there soon to visit.”
“You know by stopping the CPR what that means, right?”
Brian said, “Yeah, she’s alright now.”
“No. She’s died.”
Minutes later, Emma kissed her mommy on the forehead, saying goodbye exactly a month after she turned two. It was August 31, 2006.
“Friday was her funeral. That next Monday, I was back in school,” Brian says. “I knew, if I didn’t go back to school on that Monday, I wasn’t ever going to go back.”
The future looked a lot different than he expected. He had to go back.
“What could I have done differently? I don’t know, but when I look back at the whole story and I wouldn’t change anything.”
Brian has a job this fall. After considering two other offers, he’ll be back at the University of Akron as one of the full-time, non-tenure track instructors hired after the TVLs were let go.
He looks great, too. Like a different man. When he turned 40, his wife Cassandra, who is a pediatric physician, gently prodded, “Get yourself checked out. We’ve got a baby now.” A year ago this August, he weighed 208 pounds, which led three doctors to warn him to lose weight if he wanted to see Emma and Christopher graduate. He cut back from 5000 calories — “Go to work on McDonald’s. Go home on Burger King. Have dinner with the family. That was my life.” — down to 1500 calories a day, dropping 50 pounds in the process. To get here, he leaned on Laura’s mom, Becky, who watched Emma so he could go back to school and work in the evenings. Eventually, Brian started dating too but he wouldn’t go out with anyone who knew Laura. As he became even more selective, he found Cassandra on Match.com and “winked” at her.
Before their first date, she had spent 36 hours at the hospital. He offered to reschedule but she was afraid they would never meet if they didn’t stick with it. “I made her brownies because flowers are played out,” he says, a grin in his voice, remembering how they sat at a coffee shop so she could stay awake while they got to know each other.
One day, he told her about the time Emma went to Children’s with a seizure. Cassandra remembered it because she was there. She performed the spinal tap on Emma that night.
“People say to me all the time, ‘Obviously, you wouldn’t want that to go through again.’ You know what? I’m not sure of that now that I have Christopher and Cassandra,” Brian says, pausing. “Christopher wouldn’t exist without all of the stuff leading up to this. That’s a really weird thing, man.”
BIO//: A grateful, lucky father and husband, Chris Horne is the publisher of The Devil Strip.