July 4, 1980, was a day I’ll never forget as one of the best and worst things that ever happened to me, happened on that day.
That day was the first date I had with my wonderful wife, Sharon. It was a great time and as you often hear, I knew right away that she was the one I would spend the rest of my life with. We have now been married for over 33 years and have three beautiful daughters.
The bad thing that happened that day was the accident that would change our family forever. My brother Mike severely broke his
neck diving off a small bridge south of my hometown of Marianna, Florida.
I got back to my house that night after dropping Sharon off at her apartment, so excited that we had so much in common. I couldn’t wait to call her the next day. Back then many of us had answering machines, which was very valuable to me because I relied on it to answer any calls that came in for the small construction company I started less than two years earlier. When I saw there were over a dozen messages, I was a little confused because I had just checked it around noon that day.
What I heard ripped my heart out. A message from my mom telling me, “Danny your brother had a terrible accident, call immediately,” followed by tearful messages over the next few hours: “Mike is on his way to Tallahassee, it is not looking good, please call me honey;” “Danny where are you, we need you;” “Danny, they do not think Mike is going to make it, please get to Tallahassee Memorial Hospital as soon as you can!”
I was completely stunned and numb. Think about the “communication frustration” we all experienced back then. I couldn’t just pick up my cell phone and find out what was going on. It’s not like today with our cellphones, texting, emails, Facebooking, etc.
I knew what I needed to do was quickly grab a few clothes and drive the 268 miles to Tallahassee as fast as possible. I drove very fast, unconcerned about speeding tickets, because I truly thought I would not see my brother Mike alive again.
Well, I did see him, in the worst shape I have ever seen anyone, in the strangest mechanical bed and hooked to more wires and tubes than I thought possible.
The chapter of his life living as a quadriplegic had begun, with very limited use of his arms, no ability to grip with his hands and almost no feeling below his chest. I don’t know how he endured what he did. My brother was tough and “steadfast,” which is somewhat of a polite way of saying, “stubborn as a mule!”
You have no idea how well that trait served him over the years . . .
Mike kept pushing, working hard, learning more about his condition and rarely showing a sad or “poor, pitiful me” attitude. Looking back I often wonder how I would have handled this terrible luck. You have tounderstand Mike was not one who sat around. Mike had his own small construction business around Marianna, helping set up house trailers, doing repairs, erecting farm buildings, etc. He was also one of the few people allowed to work on the well known Russ House by its longtime owner. He told me some cool stories about that special place.
He also loved his horses and enjoyed many multi-day camping trips to the old “Sand Hills” just south of where he lived. He was tall, slender and full of life.
Many people have asked me if Mike was ever married. He was, for several years before his accident, but it didn’t work out and he never had any children. Which is why I think he was always so good to my three daughters and many other kids along the way. There are so many stories I could tell you where Mike spent money buying friends’ children toys, and even built a small log cabin playhouse as a surprise birthday gift for a special young boy. My brother had a big heart behind that tough facade!
Mike continued his rehabilitation at a rehab center in Pensacola, which was nice because it was only an hour from where I lived in Mobile, Alabama. I went to see him as much as I could. I was still struggling to build my young construction business so it was hard to be there more than a couple times a week. It was great being with him, but he was having a hard time and the reality of what was ahead was starting to settle in.
Mike’s doctor asked to meet with the family to discuss Mike’s transition back to his home. He talked about the need for 24-hour care, intense family involvement, the need to completely remodel his home to make it handicap accessible and the stunning statement he shared with us. ”You need to realize, Mike’s life expectancy is only 5-7 years at the most,” the doctor told us.
What did he just say? He is only 26 years old and you are telling us he might not live past 33? Wait a minute . . . I don’t think he knows my brother!
It was clearly a shocking statement to us. When this type of accident happens you always hold out hope that a miracle is going to happen, a medical breakthrough that will enable doctors to patch up the severed spinal cord and he will be walking, riding horses, driving nails and on and on. This was the point when we realized maybe that might not happen. But 5-7 years . . . oh hell no!
Okay, now it was time to go to work on his house, which we did, and so many people helped. Many great friends stepped forward over and over to say, sincerely: “What can I do to help?” They continued hanging in there week after week to help us get Mike’s modest place ready for his return. I can never express how much that meant to my entire family, and to Mike. It made him fight even harder.
Next problem was money. My father and mother always worked hard to provide for our family and did a great job, but we never faced expenses we were about to face, plus Mike was in jeopardy of losing the little house and farm he loved so much and had lived in for years. Local fundraisers held by several wonderful people and organizations helped tremendously, but the future looked bleak to have the money we needed to “save the farm” and provide the care Mike needed. We just could not have him living in an assisted living facility. We couldn’t do that. He loved his little farm too much.
So Mike and I started talking about something we both loved: bluegrass and bluegrass festivals and the idea of maybe having a small festival to generate some money. It was a long process but we kept pushing until we had the first of many three-day festivals. It was one of my proudest moments ever when I called Mike to tell him I was able to sign up the legendary Doc Watson for the very first Sand Hills Bluegrass Festival. He could not believe it. This news made him happier than he had been in a long time. Doc came to Mike’s place and we had a very successful festival followed by several others over the years featuring other favorites like Jim and Jessie, Bill Monroe, Grandpa Jones and many more. It worked, we saved the farm and got Mike settled into a new life with new goals.
Somehow along the way Mike taught himself to use computers and build websites. This always puzzled me because I thought Mike would be the last person that would embrace this “new” technology. Not only did he embrace it, he went on to build websites for people across the southeast including some that he did for free for several nonprofit organizations. He also created three different online stores and sold different products across the country, all from his little farm south of Marianna.
Mike also had a passion for cattle. Not just any cattle, but registered Black Angus cattle. Even though he had only 35 acres, 20 of which was pasture land, he studied different hay-growing techniques that allowed him to eventually build up a herd of more than 75. Keep in mind, Mike was unable to do any of the work himself because of his physical limitations, even though he was right in the middle of it with the various helpers he was able to find.
He had a special fondness for Australian Shepherd dogs. He had several of them over the years. The last one died about two months before Mike did. This breed of dog is extremely smart and they provided Mike security and a lot of company.
Our Dad and Mom, D.A. and Jean Lipford gave so much of themselves to help Mike through the years and eventually moved down to the farm from Marianna to be closer to him. They dedicated their last years on earth to make things better for my brother. They were unselfish, caring and uplifting with all the love they provided.
Mike continued running these successful businesses up until about a year ago, when he started having struggles with his health. His body was just starting to shut down. Mike spent over six months in the hospital fighting as hard as I had ever seen him fight, to get better so he could go back to his farm, now a cattle ranch, he named “South of Dixie.” There were some tremendous friends of Mike’s that dropped by regularly to see him in the hospital to laugh, pray, talk about old times and to think about how cool it would be if he could make it back to South of Dixie. These friends taking time to spend with Mike were some of the most special hours of his life. I know because he told me that very thing. Several of them mentioned to me that sometimes they may have felt a little down when they dropped by to visit Mike, but felt guilty for feeling down when they saw Mike’s positive attitude considering the challenges he was facing.
Mike gave it his best but his body finally gave out the morning of September 30, 2016.
In the last few months of his life, I spent a lot of time with Mike talking about life, our childhood, regrets, happy moments and what he wanted me to do after he passed. I have almost completed the list of things he asked me to do.
You may notice I did not mention any names in this story, because there are too many to mention and of course I might forget someone and hurt some feelings. I can tell you that my brother touched a lot of people and inspired a lot of folks with his never-quit attitude. I deeply appreciate all the letters, emails, cards, phone calls, Facebook messages and conversations I have had with various people since Mike’s passing. He was loved, admired and respected.
They told Mike in 1980 he had 5-7 years left on this earth, but they didn’t know my brother. Thirty-six years later he left us after doing many things they said he could never do in his condition.
I am very proud of what my brother accomplished with his “steadfast manner.” I miss you Mike!
Your brother Danny
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