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Tragedy survived -- then relived

The chill of a late summer night had fallen over California's Sierra Nevada range, and all Jim Lighthizer could do was pace. Here at 10,600 feet, the trees had thinned out and a full moon lit the canyon. But the splendor hardly registered.

His steps took him back and forth in front of a two-man tent. On the floor lay his 28-year-old son, Conor, a diabetic whose condition worsened by the hour. What was he supposed to do? What the hell was he supposed to do?

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He could go for help or send his brother-in-law. It would take either man five hours to reach the ranger station at Kings Canyon, five hours down a steep incline in the dark. But he was so used to Conor's managing his own disease that he still looked to his son to make the call.

"Conor, do you think I should go out?"

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"No," his son said firmly, "let's wait until morning."

Conor hadn't been able to hold down food or water for hours and was now too weak to carry a backpack, much less traverse the rocky terrain down to the ranger station. Since the symptoms first appeared two days earlier, Conor and Jim had told themselves that it was just the flu or altitude sickness, nothing Conor couldn't handle as long as he gave himself the proper amount of insulin. But Jim didn't even know whether Conor was operating his insulin pump correctly anymore.

Jim wanted nothing more than to take control, to right the situation. Once a prominent political figure known for limitless energy, the one role Jim Lighthizer wasn't made for was that of bystander. But that's what he was reduced to now, a bystander forced to look on as his son's skin grew more pallid, his thoughts more confused.

In the morning, Jim knelt outside the tent and prayed. That's all he could do: pray and think to himself, This can't be happening again.

An absent father

He was a young father - then a very busy one.

Orville James Lighthizer lost his father at age 19 and became a father himself a year later when his wife, Virginia, gave birth to James Jr. in 1966. Two more kids followed, Robert and Patrice. Theirs was a full house in Crofton but not, it turned out, a happy one. The marriage ended, and the family literally split up.

Patrice went with her mother to Massachusetts; the boys stayed with Jim. By day, he sold IBM Selectric typewriters and at night attended law school at Georgetown. In between all that, he managed to wedge in his parenting. The three weren't alone for long. In 1976, Jim married again, a 25-year-old schoolteacher named Gloria Voets, and they added to the family. Conor arrived in 1978 and, a year later, Meghan.

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Jim was practicing law in Annapolis by then, but had an itch for public office. He won a House of Delegates seat in 1978, and after just one term set his sights on the position of Anne Arundel County executive. He won that election, too. In his two terms as county executive, he was a swaggering, skillful executive who managed an $800 million county budget. He spent money - lots of money - on public projects and had a particular weakness for parks. The capstone of his public achievement was Quiet Waters Park - a stunning, $19 million, 336-acre complex along the South River.

The media-friendly Lighthizer relished public service, but the work left him little time to help raise his children. "Politics," he'd say, reaching for a cliche, "is a jealous mistress." This mistress routinely demanded 80-hour work weeks - weekends included. Jim delivered more than 300 speeches a year and served on countless committees, which meant countless meetings. He missed many dinners and bedtimes, but Jim made a point of coming to his kids' basketball, football and lacrosse games.

The other activity Jim made time for was camping and hunting trips with the boys (these were all-male affairs), who all inherited their father's love for the outdoors. One inviolable ritual was hunting geese in Queen Anne's County the day after Thanksgiving every year. In family photo albums, the Lighthizer males pose in camouflage hunting jackets and hip boots, shotguns at their side, dead Canada geese at their feet. So many early mornings in duck blinds. Not talking if you felt like it. Chili dinners. Then, sleeping like exhausted children.

With his reddish hair and fair complexion, Bobby - Jim's second child - resembled his father the most. Worried him the most, too. By eighth grade, Bobby seemed to be losing his way, and his father couldn't put his finger on what was wrong. He began to say a special prayer for Bobby every Sunday.

At Arundel High School, Robert Francis Lighthizer - named for Robert Francis Kennedy - was an all-county lacrosse midfielder and team co-captain. At 6 feet 2 inches and 200 pounds, he was a handsome, strong kid, a natural leader, his coaches thought - as did his father. But he was not a student. With his grades, Bobby barely made it out of high school. College wasn't a realistic option, although he made a couple of stabs at community college.

But there were other possibilities. Bobby just needed to find some traction, his father thought.

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After high school, Bobby bounced around - living with his grandmother in Cleveland, then his mother in Michigan. He came back to Maryland and lived briefly in Crofton with Jim and Gloria before moving out. For several weeks, Bobby moved into the home of Joe Alton, Anne Arundel County's first executive, and a friend of Jim's. The older man served as the young man's mentor. He hired Bobby to paint his house while he was staying with him. Alton suggested that Jim set Bobby up in a job in the county Public Works Department, but Jim didn't want to use his public position that way.

Instead, he prodded Bobby to enter the military, which struck Alton as a bad fit.

Bobby won some commendations in his time in the Army, but after he was honorably discharged in 1989, he showed no more direction than he had before. He held a series of odd jobs - busing tables and working at a sporting goods store. Sometimes, seeking solitude, Bobby would camp out in Gunpowder Falls State Park, living on hamburgers. He told his father he'd keep trying to finish college, but Jim finally told him to bag school.

In early February 1993, Bobby seemed unusually upbeat. He talked to his older brother Jim, who was starting out in the real estate business, about getting a steady job. Jim Jr. - like his father - was ambitious and confident, a go-getter. And he wanted nothing more than to help his brother, whom he regarded as his best friend. But despite Bobby's optimism, something was deeply troubling him.

What others had seen as aimlessness or a lack of ambition was something more, the family would learn just one day after Bobby had spoken to his brother.

On Feb. 17, 1993 - the day before Conor's 15th birthday - a Maryland state trooper spotted a red Chevrolet Corsica parked on Bunker Hill Road in Gunpowder Falls State Park. When he got closer, he saw a figure in the car. It was immobile.

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Robert Lighthizer.

Jim, then Maryland's secretary of transportation, was at work in Annapolis. Torrey Brown, head of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, who had been alerted by the Maryland State Police, broke the news to his friend. They were mistaken, Jim told him. It couldn't be Bobby.

His son was discovered in white sneakers, jeans and a Notre Dame sweat shirt. Bobby, 23 years of age, had died of acute carbon monoxide intoxication, the chief medical examiner's office ruled. A hose had been connected to the car's exhaust pipe and inserted in the car window. Towels sealed the window opening. Bobby had wet a rag to keep the hose from getting too hot and slipping off the tailpipe. His clothes were wet, suggesting he had immersed himself in the river. A trooper told Jim that people who commit suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning sometimes wet their clothes in the belief that it accelerated the poisoning.

It occurred to Jim that his son had carefully researched how to painlessly kill himself.

The autopsy would note the presence of alcohol in Bobby's blood.

In Bobby's apartment, notes were found. One was addressed to Jim. "I didn't do it to get back at anyone," Bobby had written. "It's nobody's fault." He advised his father to just try to forget this happened and try to move on.

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Lynn Krause and his wife, Helen, came to the Lighthizer home that night. Krause, Jim's former law partner, had never seen a man so distraught. "Jim was totally blindsided by this," he says.

Bobby might have been troubled, but that he was suicidal never had crossed Jim's mind.

At the eulogy, Jim talked about when Bobby got his first deer on one of their hunting trips. He said something about his son being good company. Jim didn't say much more.

He knew parents who beat themselves up over a child's suicide. But, as he scoured his memories, Jim simply couldn't detect any warning signs. As far as Jim knew, Bobby hadn't been involved with drugs or heavy alcohol use. There had never been any run-ins with the law, no previous suicide attempts. Nothing stood out as "a cry for help." Had he suspected anything this serious, Jim would have been the first to get Bobby the best of care. Even Bobby's brother, Jim Jr., later said he never suspected anything, either.

Still, the fact remained that Bobby had been in a crisis - one invisible to his father and other family members. Jim tried not to blame or second-guess himself, but how could he not? Questions haunted him, as he grieved privately at Bobby's grave at Crownsville Veterans Cemetery. He planted trees there, watered them, and sprayed them for bugs. He dragged garden hoses out during droughts. Anything to keep those trees alive. And often during these Sunday pilgrimages, he talked to Bobby.

Over time, friends noticed changes in Jim. His exterior wasn't so tough. He took more time with people. When he asked how they were doing, he really wanted to know. He was more solicitous and caring.

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And he was more involved with his children.

He had lost a son, and that seemed to make him more resolved to appreciate his other children more. He couldn't make up for lost time with Bobby - but maybe he could with Conor. The next year, Jim's term as transportation secretary would be up, and after 16 years he would leave public service. In time, he created a new tradition for him and his sons, adventures into some of the most splendid vistas in America. He called them their "big boy hikes," and they would eventually take them to the Grand Canyon, the Grand Tetons, Glacier National Park - and, finally, last September, to Kings Canyon.

Into the canyon

After a long horseback ride and hike, Jim and Conor reached the backcountry in Kings Canyon during their September trip. Their campsite overlooked Granite Lake, a blue-water alpine jewel in the Sierra Nevada range. Kings Canyon is a magnificent national park with immense mountains and caverns, sweeping foothills and giant sequoias. Jim and Conor had climbed higher than they had on any of their previous big boy hikes. If they were lucky, they might catch a glimpse of mountain lions or black bears.

At 28, Conor John Lighthizer - the fourth of Jim's five kids - was living in Annapolis. He was single with a large group of friends, many from childhood and college. He had graduated from the College of Charleston in South Carolina with a degree in philosophy. Now he was a construction loan officer at 1st Mariner Bank in Baltimore, which, to Jim's delight, had forced Conor to cut off the long hair that had driven his father nuts. Conor, though, hoped a banking career would not be permanent. His dream was to one day become a park ranger.

He enjoyed physical activity. On his birthday the previous February, he had run his first marathon and was in training now to run his second. No Lighthizer man has ever done that, Jim had proudly told him. A special reason for his pride, they both knew, was that Conor was a diabetic.

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At age 4, he developed the most severe form of diabetes, Type 1. Doctors told Jim and Gloria that Conor's blood sugar levels could easily veer of control. He was at considerably higher risk for heart disease, blindness, kidney damage - and of ketoacidosis, in which there's not enough insulin to convert sugar into energy. For these diabetics, mistakes in management or care can be lethal.

Over the years, Conor learned to manage the disease under the watchful eye of Gloria, who became the family expert on juvenile diabetes. At 12, he got his first insulin pump, which enabled him to manage the insulin going into his body depending on his activity at that moment. The pump made him feel more in control, more independent, more like other kids. The last thing Conor wanted was to be identified as a diabetic or be restricted from activities enjoyed by others. He particularly wanted to play sports like his brothers. Big brother Bobby taught him lacrosse. Conor's athletics and outdoor activities never caused a problem with his diabetes.

On Sept. 2, Jim and Conor, along with their camping gear, flew to Fresno, Calif., where they met up with Greg Voets, Gloria's 55-year-old brother. Jim Jr. didn't want to take off from work, so Jim had invited Greg to join them. They drove a rental car into Kings Canyon National Park, collected their hiking permits and checked into cabins. The next day, Conor struggled to finish a three-mile run, normally a breeze for any marathoner in training. He attributed his nausea to the flu or that his body had not yet acclimated to the altitude. In any case, it was hardly enough to cut their four-day hiking trip short. They had a five-hour climb to Granite Lake the next day. Conor could make that.

They started up at 9 a.m. on horseback, single-file, with Conor wearing his customary white baseball cap. At 1 p.m., they sent the horses back down. Just another hour on foot. Conor customarily took the lead, but he was dragging. At 1:30 p.m., he stopped to vomit - violently.

Jim found a water pump on the trail and got Conor some water, then went on ahead another quarter-mile to set up camp near to their destination, a rocky outcropping called Granite Basin. Jim came back to get Conor. He carried his son's 30-pound backpack as they walked to the campsite. Conor was too weak to help Jim pitch the tent.

For the next three hours, Conor threw up any liquid or snacks he tried to ingest. Conor and Jim still thought it was the flu. Jim warned Conor to be careful about pumping too much insulin into an empty stomach.

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"Yeah, I'm watching it," Conor said. He lowered the pump's flow of insulin.

There had been times when Conor had been lax about managing his diabetes. Three times he had been hospitalized when his blood sugar levels went seriously out of control, risking ketoacidosis. But the most recent episode had been years ago, back in college. Ever since then, Conor had been more conscientious about managing his diabetes through diet and exercise. His son knew his own body best, and Jim trusted Conor's understanding of his disease.

Still, at 6 p.m., Jim asked Conor whether Jim should hike down the mountain to get help. Jim knew it would be midnight before he reached the ranger's station, but he would go if Conor gave the word.

No, Conor said, they could wait until morning. This wasn't an emergency. He was sick, but he could handle it. Jim trusted that Conor knew best.

About 8 p.m., Conor seemed better. He was finally able to hold water down, but he was terribly thirsty.

Despite Conor's improvement, Jim was concerned that ketones could be building in his bloodstream. They could easily check with Chemstrips, which, dipped in urine, detect the presence of ketones. "You have those Chemstrips?" Jim asked. Conor didn't. When he had packed for the trip, his apartment hadn't had electricity, thanks to Tropical Storm Ernesto. With only a camper's headlamp for light, he had overlooked the strips. He also hadn't brought a Glucometer, a less handy but more accurate device diabetics use to check blood sugar.

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No Chemstrips. No Glucometer. And no phone that would work at 10,000 feet. Still, Jim didn't feel panic. Conor seemed stable. He wasn't complaining. Jim even managed to doze.

"I could use some Gatorade," Conor told him about 11 p.m. They didn't have Gatorade, so Jim kept giving him water. He was still nauseated. Jim knew this wasn't just some flu or altitude sickness. This was somehow related to his diabetes. Maybe he should press Conor harder about someone making a dash for help.

By 2:30 Tuesday morning, Conor's condition had worsened considerably. He was listless, dehydrated and confused. For the first time, Jim was scared. He woke up Greg.

"Listen, I'm going to stay with Conor. I want you to get out at first light on that trail and go as fast as you can go," Jim said, believing Greg would travel faster and safer when it was light. "I want a helicopter as fast as you can get it up here."

Father and son lay in their tent. A full moon lit the canyon, which was more rock than forest. The night was cold and quiet - no animals rustling. Jim remembered two hikers he had seen on the trail earlier and wondered if they had anything like Gatorade. In the morning, he would try to find their campsite. Until then, he continued to give Conor water.

At dawn, Greg started down the steep mountain, and Jim set off to find the hikers. He found their campsite about a quarter-mile away and told them his son wasn't doing well. Mark Coats, a 50-year-old oil rigger from California, gave Jim powdered Gatorade. He mixed it with water back at Conor's tent.

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His son took his first gulp. Then, another.

"Oh yeah, that's a lot better."

Jim asked Coats and his hiking companion, Mark Bolen, if they had a satellite phone. They didn't.

Over the next few hours, Conor drank 40 ounces. But he couldn't urinate.

Jim saw Conor fumbling for another cup of Gatorade.

"Conor," Jim said, stunned and scared, "can't you see this?"

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"No," Conor replied, "I'm blind."

At 7:30 a.m., Conor said he was going to turn off his insulin pump for two hours. Jim asked him why.

"I want to let the carbohydrates get into my system," Conor told him.

Jim supposed that made sense. There'd been nothing in his system for the insulin to work against. "How do I turn it off?" he asked Conor.

With Conor's help, Jim managed to switch off the pump.

"Man, I'm so tired," Conor said, "I just want to sleep."

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Jim was dubious. "Conor, when you were in the hospital, what did they have you do?"

They didn't want him to sleep, Conor said.

That was all Jim needed to hear. He lifted Conor into his arms and, as if they were hugging, he walked him outside the tent. But Conor's legs were rubbery. "Conor, man, you got to keep moving, man. This is serious. You could die."

For 20 minutes, Jim tried to keep Conor moving until he finally sat him down gently against a rock. He held his hands and tried to keep him alert: "Who did you vote for?" he demanded. "Who is the governor of Maryland?"

Conor's disorientation deepened. By the time the two hours were up, he was too confused to tell Jim how to turn the insulin pump back on. Conor wasn't rational anymore.

"We've got to get this goddamn pump back on!" Jim cried. The pump's computerized screen flashed symbols that meant nothing to Jim.

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Jim scanned the sky for a helicopter, though he knew it couldn't arrive for hours yet.

About then, the hikers appeared at the campsite.

"Can we give you a hand?" Coats asked.

They all tried to keep Conor alert - tapping him, talking to him. Jim showed them the beeper-shaped pump around his son's waist, and asked if they could make sense of its dial. They couldn't.

"Conor!" Jim yelled. "We're trying to save your life! This is life or death. You've got to help me on this. You've got to help me." But Conor didn't respond. He just wanted to sleep.

At 10:30, after four hours of a rugged, steep hike, Greg Voets made it to the Roads End contact station. Within moments, the rangers summoned a helicopter to Granite Lake. Greg thought everything would be fine. Help would arrive.

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Up the mountain, Jim managed to start Conor's pump. Numbers on the screen showed the insulin doses entering Conor's bloodstream.

"It's in!" his father said.

Jim watched the numbers on the dial indicating that insulin was entering Conor's bloodstream. He looked at his son's face for signs of improvement, but his skin color remained ashen, his eyes sunken. His breathing was deep and slow. Conor - his head resting on his backpack - did not appear to be in pain but in some kind of dream state. He was just ... disappearing.

At 10:35 a.m., his eyes rolled back and closed. Coats checked for a pulse.

There was none.

"He died," Jim said, as if he needed to say it out loud.

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The hikers stayed with Jim, listening to him speak of his dead sons. Jim talked about his son the marathon runner. He talked about how he had lost Bobby.

He wondered if he could have saved Conor.

"What the hell could I have done differently?" he asked.

"Don't beat yourself up," Coats said.

Jim resumed pacing outside the tent.

At 11:53, the helicopter arrived. Coats told the park medics it was too late. Jim found a yellow flower and placed it on Conor's backpack. He gently squeezed his son's cold hands, then kissed him. "I love you, son, and I'm terribly sorry for what happened. I'm terribly sorry."

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Then, he said, "Tell Bobby, 'Hi.'"

Remembrance

On a dingy October day, Jim and Gloria Lighthizer watched a backhoe lower Conor's black vault near a sweet gum tree with a view of a pond. Lakemont Memorial Gardens had buried him in the wrong spot. Today they were moving him.

There are no ceremonies for reinterments. Jim and Gloria could have spared themselves this spectacle, but it seemed wrong to have Conor make this last journey alone. A headstone will eventually go up, bearing the silhouette of a mountain to commemorate his love of hiking.

Since Conor's death, Jim has agonized over every detail of the Kings Canyon trip. They had been right that the flu or - more likely - altitude had made Conor sick at first. But they hadn't suspected that the illness had also triggered ketoacidosis. It would have been easy enough to detect if Conor had packed the blood-testing strips. They would have both known then to cut the trip short and get Conor to a hospital. Forgetting the strips was a careless oversight for a lifelong diabetic.

But that wasn't the end of it. Turning off the insulin pump had also been wrong. It was exactly the opposite of what Conor's body had required at that moment, which was a massive amount of insulin. Without that insulin, his body was just burning fat and producing more ketones. By turning off the pump, all they had done was to accelerate the poisoning of his bloodstream.

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The toxicology report said Conor's blood contained ketones and a glucose level of 895; the normal range is 60 to 100.

What a daring act it is to become a parent. You create life but you also expose yourself to the risk of unimaginable loss. Jim suspected Gloria might have recognized sooner the seriousness of Conor's condition. But he didn't believe in self-recrimination. It didn't change anything. Another of his boys was dead. Jim had loved them both, and both were gone.

After another funeral and another wave of sympathy cards, the Lighthizers were left with reminders of another loss. Conor's Toyota Camry remained parked in front of their house. His voice was still on the cell phone retrieved from Kings Canyon. Photographs taken early in the trip were still in his digital camera.

Jim told himself his children would have wanted him to go on and, of course, there was no alternative. A month after Conor's death, a diabetes walkathon was held in his honor in Annapolis. Jim's first son, Jim. Jr., gave the speech for the family. Meghan and Gloria wore the hunter green "Team Conor" T-shirts. With bagpipes playing, Jim walked alone and ahead of the group.

Before the Kings Canyon trip, Jim and Gloria had arranged to celebrate their 30th anniversary in Hawaii in November. The trip had been paid for, and they debated whether to cancel. But in the end, they decided to go. It was, Jim believed, a deliberate choice whether to live around their grief or concede to it.

The day after Thanksgiving, Jim and Jim Jr. kept the family tradition alive and went goose hunting in Queen Anne's County. Jim took some pictures with Conor's camera. Jim Jr. missed a couple of geese, but that hardly mattered. Even if they both were going through the bittersweet motions, the remaining Lighthizer men were out there again.

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And Jim resumed work. After his public life ended, Jim Lighthizer, who is now 60, embarked on a new career saving Civil War battlefields. He is drawn to hallowed places. He knows Anne Arundel's historic cemeteries, where he has walked the cramped rows, reading the dates, and imagining the stories behind the tombstones. Cemeteries, he has always believed, have stories to tell.

At Bobby's grave, Jim wants a fifth tree planted - one for each of his children. A willow oak would be a strong addition next to the sycamore, which he has ringed with stones from big boy hikes Bobby never got to go on. Conor had a tattoo of that sycamore on his left shoulder. Conor had also visited maybe once every month or so. Jim had never known he came that often. Occasionally he and Conor would come together, weed the beds, plant flowers in springtime. Mainly, Jim liked being here alone.

His pacing on all those Sundays finally wore a groove in the ground next to where Bobby is buried. Soon enough, Jim knows, Conor's gravesite will have a groove of its own.

rob.hiaasen@baltsun.com


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