Garth. 5873 Days. 23: I Love You, Too.

I had a concert to go to. A Garth Brooks concert with my Mom, my Uncle Dan, his girlfriend, and the man himself, Garth, on Saturday October 10, 1998. It was two weeks before this concert where I had an alcohol induced “prize fight” with one police officer, one released canine, a German shepherd, and one unforgiving dirty Creek. A thirty-five foot fall into that creek accompanied by a near drowning proved to be the epic battle of my 20 years on this earth.

I was in the fight of my life drowning for at least four minutes, until a group of three heroic police officers jumped to my rescue. Paramedics and fire rescue arrive shortly thereafter to help return my damaged body from the creek bed to dry land. I spent 19 long, fearful days in St. Luke’s Hospital in Duluth, MN. I was trached, taken on and off life support, was labeled as brain damaged (TBI), and the final blow was being told that the likelihood of my ever living a productive life was simply just “NOT” going to happen. It was impossible. “Let’s just focus on your son staying alive, then we’ll talk long term.”

I wasn’t going to make my concert. A family friend (i.e. My People) contacted Garth’s people (Thanks, Kim), told them the predicament I was in, and wouldn’t be able to attend my favorite artist’s concert. What happened next was truly amazing. I received in the mail, Garth’s Double Live from Texas Stadium 1993, plus an autographed photo, signed by the man himself: “Nick, God Bless ya pal, I believe, Garth Brooks!”

Steve Jobs said it perfectly when he said, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward. You can only connect them looking backward—so you have to trust the dots will somehow connect in your future.” And connect they did.

St. Luke’s transferred me to Abbott Northwestern for eighteen months of rehab, followed by part-time work in my father’s corporation, followed by 3 ½ years of college (against my neuropsychologist’s advice). Eleven months later I was working again for my father’s company, and then one day, my friend Steve suggested I try and get a job in a hospital. I was unemployed for six weeks, spending four of them taking a course to be a nursing assistant, and began my service on August 23, 2004 for Park Nicollet Methodist Hospital. Had my first date with Tina, a nurse, in April of 2005, married Tina in August of 2008, had our son in March of 2012. Published 23: I Love You, Too in June of 2014. I could never have connected those dots looking forward as I struggled to find my place.

In January of 2014, my wife sees online that Garth is back and returning to Minnesota’s Target Center in November of 2014. Tina and her sister Kelly are online when the tickets become available, and finally get a pair after two hours working tirelessly to get a pair of tix so I can finally get to my concert.

5873 days between concerts and in between, an overabundance of positive and negative dots. Remember, we can only connect those dots looking backwards, never looking forward!

Witnessing Teresa Shaw and seeing her trade Garth “his guitar” for “her sign” that said, “Chemo this morning, Garth Tonight, enjoying the dance” was truly providential. It truly was a meaningful exchange. It was during the song, Unanswered Prayers, I heard Garth say, “I Love You, Too,” to a person on the right side of the stage.

I was in Speech Therapy with my Mom at Sister Kenny and I was simply repeating words. I was semi-comatose, in a wheelchair, not looking like Trisha Yearwood’s, Prize Fighter. My Mom said to me, “I Love You,” and I said, “I Love You, Too!” Not a huge event, but the simple fact that I added the “too” was a huge sign that I was coming back to life.

I said those four words in November 1998, heard Garth say it sixteen years later also in November, and all the dots came together. When I heard him say those four little words—I Love You, Too—it was as if every moment in my life had meaning. Every moment I dismissed as insignificant became invaluable. I could see the pain and feel the loss of my past, and remember how things were back then. And in that pain, however, there was healing.

Would I have been able to truly appreciate Garth Brooks back in 1998? Would that concert had given me the same gifts sixteen years ago? Maybe, but to be completely honest, the answer is probably “no.” Of course I would have enjoyed seeing my favorite musical genius, that’s for certain, but I wouldn’t have been prepared. I needed those sixteen years to get prepared.

Sixteen years. Countless positive relationships. Countless defining moments… all connected by countless dots. Garth, thank you for returning to Minneapolis. Thank you for sending me the signed picture and Double Live Disc set. Thank you for your newly released album. Thank you for bringing Trisha. Thank you for introducing us to your band. Thank you for People Loving People, which is, my entire purpose and probably the greatest lesson we can all share with others—life is about faith, hope, and love. Thank You for all the lessons you’ve given us through your music. Thank you for being one of the most meaningful dots of my life. Thank You, Thank You, Thank You!

God Bless ya pal, I Believe, too!

Faith, Hope, & Love, Nick

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23 Rules for Living

I had decided that the following 23 rules were important to follow as I evaluated my TBI and the life that became my future.  My hope is that whoever reads this can apply any of the rules to their own life.  Not all will apply, since this is my own list, but I would imagine you can find something meaningful within the 23.  After re-reading my list, I think many of the 23 relate to attitude and how we see the world.  Thank you so much for following 23.    

Nick’s 23 Rules for Life

1. Believe in faith, hope, and love.

2. Never be afraid to fail. It takes “baby steps” to make a dream come true.

3. The critics are here for a reason.

4. Seek out positive personal relationships and know your family.

5. Somebody always has it worse.

6. Find your voice and speak it aloud.

7. Do not give in to self-pity, regret, or fear.

8. The path to happiness is to make others happy.

9. A positive attitude is everything; define the moment.

10. Forgiveness restores power.

11. See your glass as always half full.

12. Accept others for who they are; everyone has a powerful story.

13. If you have your health, you have everything.

14. It’s the heart that really matters in the end.

15. Know that with love, anything is possible.

16. Without compassion, humanity could not exist.

17. Never quit on yourself; never rely on excuses.

18. We are never alone; if one wins, we all win.

19. Focus on what you’ve found, not on what you’ve lost.

20. Never fear the unknown.

21. We can never give what we do not possess.

22. Life and people are basically good.

23. What we do to others we ultimately do to ourselves

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Why You Didn’t Fail As a Mother by Angela Miller

I met Angela Miller at the Wise Ink Writers Workshop a few weeks ago! We didn’t have much time to share stories, or talk one-on-one for that matter, but do you ever find yourself in the typical serendipitous situation where you meet someone new, and one of two things happen. 1) you feel like you have known this person for years, or 2) you have this extremely strong feeling that you were exactly where you were at exactly the right time to get connected to this person. In this case, for myself, #2 applies!

After getting connected via Facebook, and reading Angela’s story and what her book is about, I found it really similar to 23. Well, actually, similar to my parent’s experience, and what they endured when I was in the hospital. I cannot wait to read, “You Are the Mother of All Mothers” simply because it will put me in alignment with understanding how my parent’s felt in Duluth. Angela gave me permission to reblog her message on mine, and I am so thankful she did! I can’t wait to share this with others!

Blog Writer: Angela Miller
You Are the Mother of All Mothers

“I have to tell you this.

You didn’t fail. Not even a little.

You are not a horrible mother.

You didn’t choose this. You didn’t want this to happen. You didn’t do anything wrong. It just happened. To you. Despite your begging, pleading, praying, hoping against all hope it would not. Even though everything within you was screaming no, no, no, no, no.

God didn’t do this to punish you, smite you, or to teach you a lesson. That is not God’s way. You could not have prevented this if you tried harder, prayed harder, or were a “better” person. Nor if you ate better, loved harder, yoga-ed more, did x, y, or z to the nth degree—fill in the blank with any other lie your mind devises. You could not have prevented this even if you could have predicted the future like no one can.

No, there is nothing more you could have done. You did everything you possibly could have. And you are the best mother there is because you would have done absolutely anything to keep your child alive. To breathe your last breath instead. To choose the pain all over again just to spend one more minute together. That is the ultimate kind of love. You are the ultimate kind of mother.

So wash your hands of any naysayers, betrayers, or those who sprinted in the other direction when you needed them most. Wash your hands of the people who may have falsely judged you, ostracized you, or stigmatized you because of what happened to you. Wash your hands of anyone who has made you feel less than by questioning everything you did or didn’t do. Anyone whose words or looks have implied this was somehow your fault.

This was not your fault. This will never be your fault, no matter how many different ways someone tries to tell you it was.

Especially if that someone happens to be you. Sometimes it’s not what others are saying that keeps you shackled in shame. Sometimes you adopt others’ misguided opinions and assumptions. Sometimes it’s your own inner voice that shoves you into the darkest corner of despair, like an abuser, telling you over and over and over again you failed as a mother. Convincing you if only this and what if that, it never would have happened. Saying you coulda, shoulda done this or that so your child would not have died.

That is a lie of the sickest kind. Do not believe it, not even for a second. Do not let it sink into your bones. Do not let it smother that beautiful, beautiful light of yours.

Instead, breathe in this truth with every part of yourself: You are the best damn mother in the entire world.

No one else could do what you do. No one else could ever mother your child as well as you can, as well as you are. No one else could let your child’s love and light shine through the way you do. No one else could mother your dead child as bravely. No one else could carry this unrelenting burden as courageously. It is the heaviest, most torturous burden there is.

There is no one, no one, no one who could ever, ever replace you. No one. You were chosen to be your child’s mother. Yes—chosen. And no one could parent your child better in life or in death than you do. You have within you a sacred strength.

You are the mother of all mothers.

So breathe, mama, keep breathing. Believe, mama, keep believing. Fight, mama, keep fighting for this truth to uproot the lies in your heart—you didn’t fail. Not even a little…”

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Thanks, Tom, Meg, Harry, and Sandra, for the love…

Tom Hanks.  Meg Ryan.  “You’ve Got Mail.”  Sandra Bullock.  Harry Connick Jr.  “Hope Floats.”  Both love stories.  Adam’s daughter from Parenthood is Sandra’s daughter from the “Hope Floats.”  Both 1998 releases.  These were the first two movies I saw after facing death in Duluth.  I was still in therapy, but I was home.  I was still weak, but I was rebuilding.  I was dependent on my family, but the only opponent I faced was myself.  I couldn’t drive.  I could barely hold a conversation.  

Today we watched part of “You’ve Got Mail.”  Every time I see a movie or experience something that I watched or experienced back in 1998 I feel different.  I feel empowered.  I feel my purpose.  I remember 1998, not everything but some things, and I am reminded where this journey began, when 23 emerged.  It is not a journey I’d like to repeat.  Sure, I’d definitely welcome the lessons, and I’d accept the strength that accompanied the struggle.  But I wouldn’t want anyone I loved to experience the pain they felt, the pain that I caused.

One thing I remember when Mom and I (I spent a lot of time with my Mom in 1998-9) went to Eden Prairie Center was my poor balance.  Even though I was able to walk, I was very unsteady and my balance was gone, and I had to hold on to the top of the seats as we entered the aisle in the theater.  But it was Tom, Meg, Sandra, and Harry, who not only gave me a lesson in love, they gave me a courageous “high five” to not only move forward but to always follow my heart. 

23: I Love You, Too is about love.  Thanks for believing…          

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Real Life, Real People, Reeeaaale With Cheese…

It is actually a “Royale With Cheese” from the movie, Pulp Fiction! I was thinking about California today, actually I was thinking about Hollywood, which gave me the idea to add the line from John Travolta. During Obama’s State of the Union speech last night, they mentioned the Patriarch from Duck Dynasty, Willie Robertson, being in attendance amongst a few other stars from television. I have to be honest, I have never actually seen the show, but I know it is popular. I have read or seen the news about Willie’s recent removal and return from the show and about his strong Christian Faith. So I began thinking.

Yes, some of his remarks or comments upset quite a few people. And they were just as bad as those from Chick-fil-A’s founder, Mr. S. Truett Cathy. I don’t agree with anything they said, it was insensitive. It wasn’t my belief, or my faith. But I think that is the greatest thing about life, we are all given the freedom to believe what we want to believe and follow whichever faith we choose. Christian. Islam. Buddhism. You name it. That is their right.

There is so much controversy consuming our world regarding religion, politics, education, whatever, I can only imagine how great of a place it would be if everyone would simply focus on the one thing that unites us all: love. I was also thinking about “The Beebs” and how it appears he has been causing a lot of trouble. Justin Bieber is 19, right? He’s immature. He a little wild. It’s never right to assault anyone, but regardless of the fact that younger kids look up to him, he is pretty much just a child himself. Cut him a little slack! He’ll eventually shape up (I hope!). We were all immature once, we all have made mistakes in the past, we have all moved forward.

So whether it’s making duck calls, eating delicious chicken sandwiches, or acting like a fool, we all have the opportunity to make the world a better place. Instead of hating anyone, try loving everyone. Instead of arguing, try listening. Instead of condemning, try accepting! I recently heard someone say that our time on this earth is limited, why waste your time doing things that a) you don’t enjoy, and b) living someone else’s life. Just live for the greater good! Thanks for Believing!

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Fears and Thankfulness…

My Dad told a while back, “Never let fear make your decision!”  This is one of many of things he has said to me, but it makes me consider the things in my life that wouldn’t have become had I, in fact, given in to my fears and insecurities.  First, I would not have decided to find a job in a hospital and be employed where I am.  I’ve reflected pretty seriously on this decision for so many reasons, but I think there is really only three that matter.  1.  M wife.  2.  My son.  3.  My restored life. 

One & Two are kind of a pair because you can’t have one without the other, but it is true.  Had September 27th, 1998, never happened, I would be on completely different path.  Not necessarily the wrong path, but I can’t even imagine the path I’d be on.  I would NOT be working at the hospital, I would NOT have met my wife, and I would NOT have my son.  I can almost be 100% certain of this.  After talking about this experience with a friend at work, she wondered about the impending effect alcohol may or may not have had on my life, because, I was unfortunately under the influence when I was hurt.  I have to be honest about this because I might have very well been on the verge of becoming an alcoholic.   

So when I look back, I can’t help but wonder if I’d be willing to exchange the painful weeks in Duluth, the painful months in Minneapolis, and the painful thoughts of what might have been, for an unscathed life without “the story.”  I guess you could relate “the story” to such things as my purpose, my passion, or my mission.  Publishing 23: I Love You, Too with the help of Wise Ink Creative Publishing’s Amy Quale and Dara Beevas, the perfect editing help from Jennifer Manion, and the exceptional design from Jay Monroe, would not have been possible.  Thank you all so, so much!!! 

Much of what I have written here can be experienced in the ebook, however, you can never go wrong when you express your gratitude to those who have helped you make things right!  My life truly had been restored, however, it was at the expense of the pain of my family and friends.  But that is an entirely new blog in itself. 

Until next time… 23 forever!                

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23 Foreword… by Anita

Below is the Foreword by my dear friend and therapist, Dr. Anita Kozan! She had written one for the first edition, it was only perfect if she wrote one for the second. It is essentially the same, yet Anita made necessary changes, while adding info to acknowledge who I have become. My favorite part related to her reference to life renewal. Seven years between editions. Seven years between cells renewing themselves. I am forever grateful for having met this beautiful person, Anita! As I reflect on my journey, I look back and see the people I would not have in my life had I never been hurt. Anita is one of many. Hope you like the foreword!


Who is Nick Dennen? In order for you to appreciate who he is now, you need to know who he was then. I will never forget the first time I saw him. Sitting in a wheelchair in a hallway, his gaunt man-child body leaning slightly forward, oblivious to the hubbub around him, eyes open but distant, gaze cast downward at nothing, he remained motionless. A woman stood at the back of his chair, talking to his therapist. Her calm warmth spread toward her son as if to soothe him.

The next time I saw him, he was upright, gingerly and slowly walking along a hallway wall with the assistance of a physical therapist, looking even taller and thinner than I remembered, but with a glimmer of concentration piercing the clouds in his eyes. His mind was starting to work, telling each foot to move forward carefully, concentrating to maintain his fragile balance. His mother walked slowly behind, matching his steps, a proud smile beaming on her face, her joy cushioning his every move.

I officially met Nick Dennen months later when he became my patient at Abbott Northwestern Hospital’s Sister Kenny Institute Brain Injury Clinic in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Ten months had passed since he had escaped death. During that time he had transferred to our hospital, gone from in-patient to day hospital rehabilitation and finally made it to a specialty out-patient clinic through the sheer force of his indomitable spirit and the unflagging support of his dedicated family and friends. He was motivated to improve every aspect of his communication, including his pronunciation, conversational skills, and general use of his voice, as well as his reading and writing. His mother, Patty, became his work partner at home, continuing to be a source of encouragement as well as constructive feedback. Our sessions together at the hospital revealed steady progress in every aspect of his work. The severity of the brain injury still impeded his awareness of some of his limitations and there was no magic potion to speed that up, but he was perfectly clear about his determination to recover as much as he could, including his physical strength and stamina. His eyes shone with dedication and pride when he described his daily progress at the gym near his home, where he had first entered with his father Jack’s physical as well as emotional support. Now he worked out like a house afire, setting and meeting goals like every other athlete there.

Nick wanted to be discharged from our out-patient program five months after we started. Who could blame him? He needed to be back out in society, testing himself in yet unimagined ways, perhaps first by working, then attending school, seeing his friends, and ultimately making a life. He left to begin the next phase of his recovery, and with it the continued integration of his mind with his body and with his spirit. He stopped by to see me every few months, looking brighter and stronger every time, talking more easily and using more sophisticated vocabulary. He began writing e-mails to me, telling me about his life, about college, asking questions about the speech and language aspects of his brain injury, and letting me glimpse his spiritual journey. He sent me inspirational messages that he had found helpful, and eventually our e-mail and in-person conversations took on a collegial nature. I usually tell my patients that, even though I am their doctor and they are my patients, they are also my teachers and I am their student. I learn from everyone I see, and not just in terms of acquiring professional knowledge. However, never before had I the privilege of working with anyone as injured as Nick, who through his rigorous discipline and compassionate desire came to a place where he could write such an inspirational book as 23.

So, welcome to the world of Nicholas P. Dennen, a human just being himself, striving to become the best he can be and giving voice to his journey. He is now farther along that road, having just completed the second edition of this book, seven years after the first edition. I cannot quantify the changes that have occurred in that period, but as surely as the cells in the human skeleton are renewed every seven years, so has Nick renewed himself once again. I certainly believe that he would have been a success in life, no matter what, but the circumstances that led to him writing 23 also profoundly affected his view of the world. Nick is a man who listens carefully to others, whoever they might be. He asks them questions about themselves and shares the stories of his life in ways that inspire people to find within themselves that intangible resource that we all need to thrive – hope. He ministers to their uncertainty, suffering, and sometimes simply to their humanity. He celebrates their successes. He meets and talks to people wherever he goes. Living his life in this way, he has grown into a man who has intelligence, insight, gentleness, humor and compassion. His ability to communicate helps his fellow travelers on the road of life to heal their ills, whether of mind, body or spirit.

Nick is a man who survived a tragedy and lived to tell about it, who unlocked the words trapped within his mind and the feelings within his soul, and in the words of French writer Emile Zola, “…came to live out loud.” He will take you where he has been and encourage you by showing you the possibilities before you, possibilities you can embrace if you have faith in yourself. He is living proof of Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel’s eloquent words: “We become what we think of ourselves.” He will not speak in platitudes but rather will touch you with his acceptance of his struggle to become whole, and will inspire you with the joyful healing his new life continues to embody. I hope that Nick Dennen will do for you what he does for me – believe that the best is yet to come. And even more important – believe that it can come from within ourselves.

May peace flow through you like a river, no matter whether or not you know the next step of your journey. And remember to ask for help along the way. You never know whom you will meet. It just might be Nick!

Anita L. Kozan PhD, CCC
Speech and Language Pathologist
Kozan Clinic for Voice, Speech and Spirit, LLC
Minneapolis, MN

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