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Gator attack helps rebuild ties between a minister and his daughter

LUTZ

Missy Medkiff can't recall the words she spoke when she stood on the church stage that Father's Day in 2004. She was still reeling from shock.

A month earlier, a 7-foot alligator attacked her father, the Rev. Rick Cabot, as he swam in the lake off Lutz-Lake Fern Road near his church, First United Methodist.

With his leg still in the gator's mouth, the then-51-year-old threw a fist at the animal's jaw. The gator released its grip, and Cabot swam to shore, bleeding profusely.

Medkiff has plenty of memories about that fateful day. She remembers her mother bursting into the bathroom and rushing her out of the shower to head to the hospital. As Medkiff drove, she watched Cabot prop his garbage-bag-wrapped leg atop their Honda Accord's dashboard. A surreal scene unfolded — hours in waiting rooms, her dad still planning his sermon, doctors applying 38 staples to the wound. Medkiff, who was 24 at the time, shuddered at the possibility of losing her father, even though emotionally she had already felt detached from him for years.

"At a certain point, I guess I kind of decided I didn't need him anymore," she said. "It wasn't as much that I'd lost him, but more like I had thrown him away."

Cabot recalled how badly he wanted to mend the broken relationship. The trip to the lake the day of the attack was part of a training regimen he and Medkiff were undertaking for a triathlon. Cabot was determined to restore the closeness the pair once enjoyed. Even if that meant swimming, biking and running with her.

•••

Being a preacher's kid isn't easy. A Tennessee-based organization called Preacher's Kids International was founded to help clergy's offspring survive what they call "the stained-glass jungle."

The organization's website features stories about heightened expectations and feeling as if you are always on display, emotions that Medkiff experienced growing up as her dad worked as one of the ministers of Bayshore United Methodist Church in Tampa.

Cabot's omnipresence was a constant embarrassment as a teenager. At home, her father was constantly on the phone dealing with church issues. He ran out frequently for hospital visits, deaths in church members' families or board meetings.

"He was there, but he wasn't there," she explained. "I think I was jealous of the church."

In her eyes, her teachers at Bayshore Methodist's private school and church members expected her to be perfect. A youth director once lectured her that she needed to "act like a pastor's daughter."

Pressures built to get a straight-A report card and keep a straitlaced image.

"I felt like this was a life I didn't choose," she said. "I was filled with resentment and anger."

By the time she was in high school, she was living a double life, dabbling in drugs and alcohol.

"Over time I began to pull farther and farther away from my dad, from my faith, from the truth," she said.

After high school, Medkiff went to Oral Roberts University, her dad's alma mater. The strict rules at a Christian college didn't stop her from continuing what she described as "hard-core partying."

During her first year, she quit with a 1.8 GPA.

• • •

By 2004, Medkiff had graduated from the University of South Florida and was getting her life back on track. Cabot, who was training for a triathlon that May, overheard her tell someone she was considering one in August. He suggested they train together.

"I was cherishing the opportunities to share with her as an adult, and we talked as we ran, and biked, and before and after a swim," Cabot said.

Slowly, he began to reconnect with the young woman who used to squeal with delight as he pushed her on the swing.

"I was learning to see him again the way I did when I was little," Medkiff said. "Like a hero, someone I couldn't live without."

The night Cabot was discharged from the hospital, Medkiff crept into his room, crawled into bed beside him and watched him sleep.

• • •

Being out of commission left Cabot devastated. He watched from a scooter as his daughter and son participated in the May triathlon. He pestered his doctor to let him train so he could race with her that August.

"I knew we had only this small window of time in our adult lives to train together like this."

At one doctor's appointment, Cabot grabbed a surgical glove, cut off the fingers and pulled it over his worst leg wound.

"Look, I can swim and keep water out if I seal this with waterproof tape," Cabot pleaded.

Exasperated but chuckling, the doctor cleared Cabot to train, as long he swam in a chlorinated pool and submitted to weekly wound cleanings.

When the big day arrived, it took Cabot six minutes to tape up his wound for the pool swim, but that was okay. They can't recall where they placed, but they both finished.

"It was glorious," Cabot recalled. "Everything I hoped to gain in our time together came about and more."

Even though the ordeal tore his flesh, Cabot sees it as healing.

"It helped me get my daughter back," he said.

• • •

Ten years later, Medkiff is a married mom and teacher at Chasco Middle School. She now sees those years through a different lens, one that reflects gratitude.

She plans to take the stage Sunday at a special Father's Day service to mark the anniversary of her dad's encounter with the alligator.

She doesn't know what she'll say. But she will include one key point for those struggling with their own personal "gators."

"Gator attacks can be bad," she said. "But they can also be good."

Gator attack helps rebuild ties between a minister and his daughter 06/12/14 [Last modified: Thursday, June 12, 2014 5:46pm]

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