To us, he is Gordie Howe, Mr. Hockey, one of the greatest to play the game. To Cathy, Mark, Marty and Murray, he is Dad. And on Sunday, Dad, 86 years old and in failing health, had a stroke while staying at Cathy’s house in Lubbock, Texas.
Cathy used FaceTime to connect with Mark on the East Coast, and Mark could see with his own eyes: The big, strong athlete couldn’t move his right side. The funny, quick-witted man couldn’t speak.
“As soon as I hung up, I said, ‘I’ve got to get there quick,’ ” Mark said Wednesday afternoon. “The way he looked, I didn’t know if he was going to make it.”
Mark and Marty met Tuesday at the airport in Newark, N.J. They caught a flight to Denver. Mark said when they landed, he was hoping and praying he didn’t have “that message.” He turned on his phone, and it was full of voicemails and texts from reporters and well-wishers because the news had broken, but “that message” wasn’t there. They caught a connecting flight to Lubbock and landed about 11 p.m. local time.
What they didn’t know was that Dad had taken a nap, and he was pointing at his watch, wondering when they would arrive. When they walked into his room, he knew who they were. He gave them a big smile.
“I gave him a big hug and a kiss,” Mark said. “It was tons better than what I saw on Monday.”
Could he speak?
“Not really,” Mark said. “He’s attempting to now. He didn’t even attempt to before. Now he’s attempting. You get the odd little word. But I got the three key words out of him you want to hear. You can tell him you love him, and he can say he loves you back.”
Mark choked up.
I love you.
“You had to interpret it, but yeah,” Mark said. “You know what he meant.”
Mark and Marty went to the airport Wednesday morning to pick up Murray, and so they’re all there now – all four kids, together with Dad.
The family released a statement Wednesday through the Detroit Red Wings: “His condition remains guarded, although he is showing some signs of improvement. We acknowledge that there is a long road to recovery ahead, but Dad’s spirits are good and his competitive attitude remains strong.”
Mark put it like this: “Anything going in a positive direction is a nice thing. But no, he’s having a hard time. He’s still in a difficult state. If he does recover from this, it’s going to be a long haul.”
The Howes lost Colleen – Gordie’s wife of nearly 56 years – in 2009 after she suffered from Pick’s disease, a form of dementia. They have watched Gordie battle dementia himself over the past few years.
This summer was particularly hard. He had outpatient surgery for spinal stenosis, which was causing him pain. He had mini-strokes.
“The doctors and everybody have told us that the little ones are going to continue, and sooner or later, they’re going to get bigger,” Mark said. “Everything they said has kind of come true, unfortunately. So hopefully we don’t have another big one for quite a while.”
Not long ago, Mark told his children to go see their grandfather. His daughter and her 1-year-old daughter went to see him over the weekend. They went for a long walk Saturday. It just so happened he had the stroke Sunday.
At first, he got worse, not better. He started to improve Tuesday. The Howes have been showing him old family photos and videos.
“We’re trying to get his mind back and trying to keep him sharp,” Mark said. “It’s great to see him smiling, just for him to do a little bit like that. He’s attempting to engage. But it’s very difficult. It takes a toll on him. He’s getting some rest in while we’re trying to do little rehab stuff.”
He was restless Tuesday night.
“With his dementia, I’m not sure how much he understands what has happened, so that’s part of it, too,” Mark said. “He wants certain things to move, and they’re not moving. I don’t really know if he understands why.”
All over the hockey world – from the prime minister of Canada on Twitter, to NHLers past and present in the media, to hockey fans at home – people are thinking and praying and sharing stories about a player who was great on the ice and a person who was great off of it. Gordie Howe was a titan of his time. He hasn’t acted like it. He has had so much time for so many, giving autographs, taking photos, telling jokes, throwing mock elbows. He is beloved.
But in that house in Lubbock, he is surrounded by his loved ones. The kids are taking it day by day with Dad. They are trying to make sure one member of the immediate family is always with him.
“It’s important for him, and it’s important for us,” Mark said. “It was really hard watching him on FaceTime the other day. If things go well as I hope, I plan to make this part of a monthly ritual, being here, spending time. I hope that’s the case. From what I see right now, that would be a home run.”
Send cards or letters of support to this address:
c/o Texas Trailer Corral
12207 HWY 87