Mike Lemieux struggled to make his words understood. He tried once but they were unintelligible. He tried again but the sounds still made no sense.
Speak slowly, said Gordie Wakelin to his friend, lying in a hospital bed with a tube in his throat to help him breathe. Lemieux did.
“Give. Me. A. Hug.”
Wakelin bent over to give Lemieux the embrace he couldn’t feel but knew he was receiving. The journey of a 42-year-old man’s new life was beginning.
Lemieux was riding his bike alone on Portland’s Eastern Promenade near East End Beach on Aug. 4, a Sunday, when he was distracted and fell. His head hit rocks, breaking his neck. He rolled to the water’s edge. It was low tide.
Lemieux was a fit man. He played hockey in a men’s league. He tried to get back to his feet but couldn’t. Nothing moved. It’s not known how long he called for help.
Two months later, Lemieux has not regained feeling from the neck down. He is the single father of Jean-Claude Lemieux, a junior and a hockey player for Cheverus High, and Victoria, a Cheverus freshman. Overnight, Lemieux’s concerns changed.
Who would help take care of my family? Who would help me get back my life?
Wakelin, a longtime youth hockey coach in the Portland area, was among the first to hear of Lemieux’s accident. It brought back 18-year-old memories of Travis Roy crashing headfirst into the rink boards in his first 11 seconds on the ice for Boston University.
Now, as then, the hockey community in Maine turned to each other and asked: What can we do? First, mindful of a man’s pride, Wakelin asked Lemieux in the intensive care unit at Portland’s Maine Medical Center if it was OK to organize fund raising in his name.
Wakelin had coached Jean-Claude Lemieux in youth hockey. As a father, Mike Lemieux never questioned Wakelin except to ask how he could help the coach.
“I’m good at getting balls rolling,” said Wakelin, “but a lot of others have jumped in on this. It was the same for Travis.”
A hockey jamboree for Lemieux begins Friday night at the University of New England’s ice arena and continues Saturday morning at the Travis Roy Arena in Yarmouth, and Saturday night at the Family Ice Center in Falmouth.
An auction of dozens of items that range from a trip to a Costa Rica resort to Boston Bruins tickets will be held at 5 p.m. Saturday at the Elks Lodge on outer Congress Street in Portland. Travis Roy will speak before the bidding.
“I will never forget the good will and support my family and I received after my accident,” Roy wrote, responding to questions emailed to him. “It came from across the country, but what took place in Maine and my hometown of Yarmouth was astounding.
“I know firsthand how important these fund raisers are. I hate to say it so matter-of-factly, but the most important thing people can do for a spinal cord injured survivor and their family is to raise money.
“You need three things when it comes to living a productive life as a quadriplegic: insurance, family and friends, and money. The immediate and ongoing expenses are overwhelming.”
Roy’s injury was seen on a national cable sports channel. Boston University had won the national title the year before. The championship banner had been raised and a new season beginning. Roy’s story became a national story.
No one saw Lemieux’s injury. His story wasn’t big news but his immediate challenges were Roy’s challenges.
Lemieux is at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston, beginning the therapies that will maximize what he can do. He’s being weaned off the breathing vent. He ate for the first time the other day. It was Jello.
He has started to spend time in a wheelchair. He will soon start learning how to make it take him where he wants to go.
He talked to his girlfriend of 18 months. Mary Ellen Grade was at her home in Falmouth, helping organize the auction with friends, including Sandra Anthoine, mother of UMaine hockey captain Mark Anthoine.
“For the first time it sounded just like Mike,” said Grade. “He was using a speaking valve before.”
They met four or five years ago at a youth hockey game. Grade’s son plays, too. The tears don’t come as quickly now. Hope has replaced hurt.
“I have seen people come out of the woodwork to help. It’s been overwhelming to see such goodness,” she said.
When Grade and Lemieux are together he doesn’t need to ask for a hug. “I caress his face. I know he feels that.”
(For further information, go to michael-lemieux-event.com)
Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at:firstname.lastname@example.orgTwitter: SteveSolloway———
Correction: This column was revised at 11:02 a.m., Oct 25, 2013, to state that Mary Ellen Grade lives in Falmouth.