'It's about Becky': Caring for his wife is Edmond AD Mike Nunley's top job

Mike Nunley has plenty of responsibilites as the district athletic director for Edmond Public Schools. None, however, take precedence over caring for his ailing wife.
by Jenni Carlson Published: October 6, 2012
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photo - Edmond athletic director Mike Nunley  says good bye to his wife after a visit, Thursday, Sept. 13, 2012. Photo by Sarah Phipps, The Oklahoman
Edmond athletic director Mike Nunley says good bye to his wife after a visit, Thursday, Sept. 13, 2012. Photo by Sarah Phipps, The Oklahoman

Once during the basketball playoffs, Mike looked across the court to see Becky in the huddle. He rushed over to take her back to her seat, but when he told people about the incident later, he laughed and said the advice he'd heard her giving was spot on.

She still had that spunk.

But then in 2005, Becky had another grand mal seizure. Mike had to start caring for her like never before, bathing her, dressing her, putting on her makeup, fixing her hair and doing what she no longer could. He credits their families, who have always helped, but much of the job of caring for Becky fell to him.

She needed nearly constant supervision because while she might do something goofy like using toothpaste for eyeshadow, she might also do something dangerous.

Mike looked around for somewhere she could go while he was at work. He visited several places but found none suitable. He decided he was going to resign his job and go back to teaching so he could better care for Becky.

It might sound rash, but not to Mike.

“It's about Becky,” he said simply.

Mike made one more phone call to Easter Seals Oklahoma Adult Day Care Center. After visiting, he decided to give it a try.

“I don't know what a parent experiences on the first day of kindergarten,” Mike said, “but I think I got an idea when I dropped her off. I thought I had abandoned her. I thought I was throwing her to the wolves. I was terrified of what was going to happen.”

He picked her up at 5 o'clock.

“How was it?” he asked.

“School was great,” she said.

“School?”

Turns out, the adults would sometimes play with the kids at Easter Seals' child care facility.

Becky thought she was teaching again.

* * *

Becky and Mike wanted to have lots of kids. He was one of three brothers so tight that they wore the same jersey number in high school. She was from a family of 10 kids.

But they hadn't had kids before Becky got sick. They were still early in their marriage, still young, still thought they had all the time in the world.

Becky tried to come off her meds once so they could try to get pregnant.

It didn't work.

“But,” Mike says now after Becky has battled for more than 20 years, “I would have never wanted a child to have to sit here and say, ‘That's Mom.'”

No doubt they would've been wonderful parents. They have more than 50 nieces and nephews, and to many, Becky and Mike are their favorite aunt and uncle.

Edmond Memorial athletic director Bill Bays has two daughters. Sometimes during the summers, he'll bring them to work. They always want to see Mike.

“He just has that way with young people,” Bays said. “He has a gift for connecting.”

Nowadays, Mike wishes he had a chance to get to know kids like he did when he was coaching and teaching. But he confesses that he's more plugged in to the adults, the coaches and the administrators.

That's why it thrills him when he gets to see Edmond North tennis coach Dee Wallar stepping back to watch her players celebrate a state title. Or Edmond Santa Fe track coach Carl Hawkins running up and down the stands taking tons of pictures at state. Or Cimarron Middle School volleyball coach Ed Wilson managing a match and molding future players for Edmond Memorial.

And yes, he does watch middle school events. Lots of them. He goes to five or six games a day, everything sorted by days in a three-ring binder that he keeps in his pickup, but on Tuesdays and Thursdays, middle school has priority.

His dedication makes for long days. He talks or texts nonstop on his phone. He puts upward of a hundred miles a day on his truck. He eats little. But he does it because he has a passion for the kids.

“I don't want them to ever think they're not important,” he says.

He does what he does because it's what he wants to do, but in some ways, he does it because it's what he needs to do. His job keeps him busy.

Keeps him from sitting in an empty house.

* * *

Mike pulls his pickup into the parking lot at Grace. The quiet residential area south of Wiley Post Airport, where Grace is located, is familiar. When he worked at PC West, he took his daily walks around these neighborhoods.

He never imagined Becky would live here.

Mike walks through the front doors and lights up. He says hello to a gal in scrubs. He waves at a woman in a wheelchair.

He admits that if you would've asked him to visit a nursing home a few years ago, he would've concocted an excuse for not going.

Now, the people at Grace are extended family.

Mike turns down the first hallway to the left and walks into room No. 108. He says hello to Joyce, Becky's 90-year-old roommate, hands her the newspaper that he brings her every day, then looks at his wife.

“Hi,” he says. “You OK?”

Becky looks at him with glassy, tired eyes. Does she see him? Does she know him?

It's impossible to say.

On May 18, Mike was with Becky when she started having what he thought was a stroke. Over the next two days, she had several hundred seizures. Doctors tried numerous medications to stop them, but nothing worked.

They finally placed her into a medically induced coma.

She remained there for 32 days.

When the doctors finally brought her out of the coma, the seizures had stopped but the damage had been done. The seizures she'd endured and the meds she'd taken had zapped her ability to talk and walk.

“The brain has to recover,” Mike says as he sits in one of those pop-open canvas chairs parents use at their kids' soccer games. “Those synapses — poof — they're separated. So, you pray that as the brain recovers, they go back to their place.”

Becky sleeps quietly in a chair next to him, a pillow behind her head and a blanket over her lap.

“Then she had so many medications,” Mike says. “She was given five different types of seizure medicines. And the amount of medication she was given was enormous. When you pull her blood work, an elephant would be asleep.

“It's got to filter out of her system.”

Becky's eyes twitch and open slightly.

Mike looks at her blank gaze.

“I see you're waking up,” he says.

She says nothing.

“Huh?” he says. “Are you waking up?”

She stares at him.

“Feeling better?” he says.

Listening to Mike's one-side conversation is as painful as seeing the effects of Becky's cancer. She is no longer the perky, petite woman that Mike married, no longer the brown-haired beauty in the wedding-day picture on his desk.

He still dotes on her just like he did the day he took the vow “in sickness and in health.”

He cleans under her fingernails. He washes her face. He puts balm on her lips.

She barely moves.

But when he raises his hand into her line of sight, she does something that she hasn't done in months. She reaches out and high fives him.

“There we go,” he says.

He squeezes her hand.

“Pretty big moment for us.”

He mimics the sound of a cheering crowd.

* * *

Mike walks through the rain and climbs back into his pickup. There are fields to check and phone calls to make and ballgames to watch.

He'll visit eight schools, some of them more than once, and see hundreds of other people's kids play before the afternoon's done. And when he stands on the Wantland Stadium sidelines in the cold and wind and rain before Edmond Memorial's football game, he'll wonder why he didn't study medicine.

“It doesn't rain in the E.R.,” he'll joke.

And yet after riding around all day in his Chevy Silverado, you know Mike Nunley wouldn't want to be anywhere else doing anything else. He is intensely proud of his schools, his coaches and his athletes.

But he is prouder of no one more than Becky.

When doctors removed her tracheotomy tube a couple weeks ago, it was an emotional day for Mike. So was the day she started eating extremely thinned down oatmeal, the first food she's not taken intravenously since May.

“When I walk in the door over here,” he says at Grace, “I am Becky's husband.”

He smiles.

“Best gig I've ever had in my life.”


by Jenni Carlson
Columnist
Jenni Carlson, a sports columnist at The Oklahoman since 1999, came by her love of sports honestly. She grew up in a sports-loving family in Kansas. Her dad coached baseball and did color commentary on the radio for the high school football...
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