Top Shelf

Saying goodbye to Gus

by Chris Aaland

For 43 years, I didn’t know the meaning of Thanksgiving. Sure, I enjoyed the turkey and stuffing and pumpkin pie. And getting together with family was a treat — especially when I was a kid. But the older I grew, the more of a chore these gatherings seemed. All of us had to pack the kids into a car or a plane and head to Colorado Springs. Still, it was great to see everyone clustered around Grandpa and Grandma. But after Grampa died in 2005, the reunions became awkward and somber. I don’t think I ever truly took the time to count my blessings.

While watching my 5-month-old son stretched across a hospital bed at Children’s Hospital in Aurora last Thursday, his little body prodded with hundreds of monitors and tubes, my prior notions about Thanksgiving were shattered. For the past 171 days, Baby Gus had breathed new life into our family. Now he was struggling to make it from one breath to the next. His heart, lungs and kidneys were failing. A rare and nasty bacteria had consumed his little body and ravished it within 30 hours.

Strangely, the proverbial light bulb turned on. I gave thanks for my two beautiful boys, Otto and Gus. I gave thanks that I’m married to such a strong, calm woman, one who stayed awake at night with her sick infant and performed immediate CPR after he stopped breathing. I gave thanks for our siblings, all of whom were in the pediatric ICU within hours of Gus being airlifted to Denver. I gave thanks for my best friend, Steve, who picked Otto up at Mercy Regional Medical Center in the wee hours of Thanksgiving morning to watch over him while we rushed to Denver. I gave thanks for the hundreds of friends, family, coworkers and acquaintances who came to our aid and to the Durango community that rises up every time a family is in need. And I gave thanks to the doctors, nurses, paramedics and Flight for Life pilots who let Shelly and I have just one more day to sing to Baby Gus, to hold him, to kiss him.

August William Aaland died the next day.

No parent should bury his child, but it happens all too often. We’re fortunate to live in a country where it’s less frequent than most, but the odds caught up with us. The illness that claimed Gus affects about one in a million children in the United States. It takes many more lives in the underdeveloped countries where the bulk of the world’s population lives. Millions of families share in the agony and emptiness that we’re currently feeling. My heart aches for all of them.

We held Baby Gus tightly when he breathed his last breath at 12:55 p.m. Friday. I lingered in the room for another 10 minutes before signing some paperwork, packing up our stuff and thanking the doctors and nurses for their Herculean efforts. Shelly cradled him in her arms for a half hour more, singing to him and stroking his head. We were on the road shortly after 2 p.m., heading back to Durango to break the news to Otto, who will turn 5 in less than three months.

The drive home was surreal. My younger brother, Billy, drove most of the way. The business of death forced me to make calls to begin planning the memorial service and burial, plus check up on the need for antibiotics for the rest of my family as a precaution against the bacteria that made Gus ill. My sister-in-law, Melanie, bravely jumped in as she had from the minute she arrived in Denver to get answers for the emotional questions we weren’t ready to tackle.

After gassing up in Del Norte, I took the driver’s seat. The car was quiet with an absence of sound that would become all too familiar the next four days. I couldn’t bear listening to the radio or my iPod. Shelly played a video of Otto singing Gus to sleep that she recorded a week earlier, when we were a happy, healthy family. I struggled to breathe. I got dizzy. Tears welled up in my eyes for the first time in hours. She played the 40-second clip several times. I collected myself and pulled the Tundra onto Highway 160 and headed west.

Take time to hug your kids after reading this. Turn to that friend on the barstool next to you and tell him how much he means to you. Call your mom and tell her you love her. Drop a dollar or two into that bucket next to the bell ringer. Donate some blood. Give thanks. We do.

There’s not much on the musical calendar again this week — the holiday season is upon us, so many venues are booked for company Christmas parties.

Venture Snowboards and Ska Brewing team up for their seventh annual season kickoff party at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Grand Imperial Hotel in Silverton. There are beer specials, music from the Crags and Farmington Hill, tons of giveaways from Smith Optics, Skullcandy, Silverton Mountain, Durango Mountain Resort, Wolf Creek, Silverton Powder Cats and more.

Moe’s lineup this week includes dancing with DJ Soltron at 9 p.m. Friday, the Splatterdays live urban art show with music by Diabolical Sound Platoon Saturday and the weekly Musica del Mundo Sunday.

Finally, Black Velvet plays the Diamond Belle Saloon on Friday and Saturday nights.

This week’s Top Shelf list recalls my favorite memories of Baby Gus:
1. Running a red light to rush Shelly to Mercy on June 7. Her contractions were three minutes apart by the time we got to the hospital. Gus arrived an hour later.
2. Otto climbing into Mommy’s lap the next morning to give his little brother the first of thousands of kisses.
3. Pushing Gus around the Fort Lewis gym and football field when Shelly was teaching class.
4. Singing “Yellow Submarine” and “Happy Boy” in a futile attempt to put Gus to sleep in his first night after moving from our bedroom into his baby room. It only stirred him up because he loved me singing to him.
5. Bouncing Gus in my arms while emceeing the Skyhawk coaches luncheons each Monday at the Irish Embassy Pub. n

And these memories lose their meaning? E-mail me at