Three years ago, Inquirer reporter Michael Vitez wrote about Matt Miller, an aspiring young triathlete from the Philadelphia area who survived a cycling crash that, but for an extraordinary stroke of luck, would have killed him. Vitez gives a full account of Matt's accident and his struggle to recover in a newly published book, "The Road Back: A Journey of Grace and Grit." All this week, Philly.com will be sharing excerpts from the book. In today's installment, Matt's family receives a call no family wants to receive.
The Millers were maybe a mile from the Charlottesville airport, looking for some place quick to stop so they could get their son Michael something to eat. He had spent the night with swimming friends and promised his parents he would have eaten breakfast by the time they picked him up, and of course he had not.
Time was short and even McDonald's would do. While Matt would never eat at McDonald's, which was far too unhealthy for him, Michael was a furnace, and a string bean, and would eat anything.
Michael, sitting in the front passenger seat, took the call from Emily. Both Mike, who was driving, and Nancy, in the backseat of the rental car, could hear Emily's tears and hysterics through Michael's phone, though they couldn't make out what she was saying. They knew it wasn't good.
Michael's face had turned pale. Emily actually could barely speak. She was just trying to get the words out to Michael between sobs.
Michael summarized for his parents: Matt had been in a bad accident and they were flying him to the UVA hospital.
Mike Miller pulled off the road into a strip mall parking lot. It was as if all the air had been sucked out from the rental car. They sat there for a moment, the three of them, in the strip mall parking lot, trying to catch their breath.
This was where the narrative of their normal lives suddenly went off script, where the life they knew and loved and understood suddenly made no sense, became this fuzzy dream, this nightmare. Mike Miller just couldn't believe it. He was an attorney by training, a litigator, and he wanted more information. He took the phone and spoke to Emily. What exactly had happened? How bad was it?
The Millers would drive straight to Matt's duplex, and pick up Emily, and they would go to the hospital together.
Mike Miller turned the car around, heading back into Charlottesville. They were all grateful, at least, that the call had come when it did, before their plane had taken off.
Mike Miller had worked hard his whole life, nobody worked harder, and he had built a wonderful life for himself and his family. He married his college sweetheart and paid his way through law school and clerked for a federal appeals judge and became a partner in a law firm and risked it all in an effort to save a struggling company and succeeded after a three-year slog and reaped the rewards and then came to investment management giant Vanguard where he was successful and loyal and beloved. The biggest thing in life for him to get upset about was UVA losing a football game it should have won.
Until that moment. "Mike had this attitude that everything is going to be great in life," said one of his closest friends, Mike Missal, a former law partner. "Not that he's bulletproof, but good things seem to happen to him and his family. But all of a sudden there was a reality — that life isn't always going to be great. We're not invincible."
At that moment, it was a huge challenge for Mike Miller to stay in control of his emotions, and he wasn't altogether winning. But he was fighting back his tears well enough to drive the car.
Nancy Miller was not crying. From that very first moment she held herself together. She was scared and she was upset, but she knew, not from some rational decision, but reflexively, driven by DNA or maternal makeup or her Gone-With-The-Wind roots or because she was a doctor's daughter, or maybe because of all of these things, that she must stay calm, that she would stay calm, and keep a clear head, and save her energy. Her son was going to need her. And letting her emotions run wild would only sap her strength.
Her husband was ripped up, as he should be. Nancy was less emotional than Mike, or at least more in control of her emotions. Her father had been a surgeon in Roanoke. He would get these calls. She understood that horrible things can happen to anyone. Look at the families of soldiers in Afghanistan or Iraq. They lived in fear of these phone calls every day, and too often received them.
Nancy Miller understood she was suddenly now being swept along on this rapidly moving stream, with no control of events, where all she could do was hope for the best. But that's what she was determined to do. Hope for the best and keep control of herself. Whatever was happening with Matthew Quinn Miller, and Quinn was her mother's maiden name, Nancy could help him and her family the most by staying calm.
Michael, tears welling in his eyes, was taking cues from his parents. He mostly sat quietly and prayed for his only sibling. Michael and Matt had been competitive as boys, warring over all the usual things, even who was better at ping pong. It really mattered who won at ping pong. But they were always close, and at college together had grown even closer. Michael was far from being a holy roller but he believed strongly in the power of prayer and it felt good to pray, or at least it provided him some comfort on that silent car ride back into town.
Thursday: Contacting Matt's parents after the accident.
Monday's excerpt: 'Battlefield Decision'
Tuesday's excerpt: Before the accident
To Read More
Tuesday through Friday, philly.com/roadback will feature a daily excerpt from Michael Vitez's book "The Road Back: A Journey of Grace and Grit."
You can order the book at www.michaelvitez.com, amazon.com (Kindle and hard copy), or BN.com (Nook edition).
Vitez will be selling and signing books at:
The Irish Mile, 350 Haddon Ave., Haddon Township, Tuesday, May 22, from 6 to 8 p.m.
Haddonfield Library, for a discussion and signing, Wednesday, June 13, at 7 p.m.
Breakaway Bikes (with Matt Miller), 1923 Chestnut St., Friday, June 22, at 7:30 p.m.
Free Library of Philadelphia, Central Branch, for a discussion and signing, Wednesday, July 18, at 7 p.m.