I just put the linked post up at my website, lightsinthedarkness.net. Please go check it out!
One year ago today, my daughter went under the knife for open heart surgery. She was just shy of being seven months old. She had a ventricular septal defect, which is a fancy way of saying “hole in her heart.” We took her down to Monroe Carrell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt May 5, discovered there was a mix-up and the surgery had been moved to May 6, lost our minds for a few hours, showed up again the next day, and handed our baby girl over to a team of extremely skilled surgeons who were given the task of patching her up.
I’m not going to lie and say everything about the road leading up to the surgery and that day itself wasn’t difficult. Because the heart defect was basically stunting her growth and because she was too stubborn to take a bottle, she had to have a feeding tube stuck up her nose for several days prior to the surgery. Another tube, this time of the drainage variety, was inserted into her chest once the surgery was over. She spent about a day in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, and she barely moved the entire time she was there.
All I can seem to remember clearly, though, is this: She had open heart surgery on a Tuesday and was sitting up in her bed by Friday.
The year following that surgery has been a blur. My daughter has filled out, mainly because once her heart defect was repaired she could actually nurse properly (She was having trouble breathing and nursing at the same time.). The scar on her chest has already faded quite a bit, and there’s nothing about her that would indicate anything had ever been wrong with her. These days, we just live life with her like we do with our other four children. We don’t even have anything really special planned for today.
On the surface, then, this day doesn’t seem that different from any other. We’ll always know it is, though. This will always be the day God answered our prayers and made a way for our daughter to be whole again. And that is something this family will store in their hearts forever.
So maybe it is a big deal after all.
I have had three rather significant occurrences shape my life over the past couple of years. The first was my decision to enter counseling for my depression, accompanied by the decision to give antidepressants another try. The second was learning my baby daughter was going to have to undergo open heart surgery before her first birthday and then walking through that process. And the third was turning 40 earlier this month.
I’ve never been a person who could just shrug things off. I might have said, “Eh, it’s not bothering me,” but I can tell you that nine times out of ten whatever it was definitely was bothering me. A lot. Relationships. Striking out in a baseball game. Having to get my car worked on. Workplace disagreements. Being too shy to talk to people. Seeing a C on my report card. Hitting a ball long playing tennis. Prayers that I didn’t think were answered…
Actually, it might just be easier to say everything bothered me.
These days, I am certainly not immune to caring too much about trivial matters. For example, a horrible night on the lanes at the local bowling alley this past October nearly ruined my wife and I’s night out for a friend’s 40th birthday party. I do seem to be mellowing out considerably, though, almost to the point of wondering if I’m getting a little too relaxed about things. I’m moving on from regrets, conflicts, and hesitations quicker than I did before, and I keep asking myself, “Is this a good thing?”.
Here’s what those three circumstances I described in the first paragraph did for me. Depression counseling helped me learn to prioritize situations and stop worrying so much, and the medication (presumably, at least) seems to leveling out my highs and lows. Turning 40 made me face up to the fact that time is not something to be wasted, and dwelling on things for too long slows you down and stunts your growth. And, well, once you’ve seen a drainage tube stuck up in your infant daughter’s chest, life’s annoyances don’t seem all that terrible anymore.
This is where the slippery slope lies, however. How does one stop caring enough to relax and live a balanced life without going over the edge of total ambivalence about everything? I went the medication route years ago without counseling to accompany it, and I nearly lost my focus altogether. Right now, I’m enjoying the peace of being able to just let things go, but I catch myself wondering if maybe I should care just a little bit more about some things. I think that’s a positive thought, though, because if I didn’t care at all, I wouldn’t be caring that maybe I didn’t care enough … right?
Sometimes I want to go all Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive, where I’m staring down the loaded gun of a situation but I’m so focused on what I’m doing I can throw up my hands and say, “I don’t care.”. As awesome as that would be, though, everyone knows Deputy Samuel Gerard really did care about what Dr. Richard Kimble might or might not have done. It’s a fine line to walk between caring and not caring. I just wish I could look that cool doing it.
I was a tumor … or so I’ve been told.
A chance meeting with one of my neighbors today revealed this to me. He knew my dad when I was born, and that’s what my dad had told him when my mom was taken to the hospital the night of my birth. See, my parents didn’t know I was coming, and not in the sense that I was born ahead of my due date.
They didn’t even know my mom was pregnant.
There were circumstances that made this not so difficult to believe at the time, but the fact remains I went through the entire pregnancy without anyone checking on how I was actually doing in there. In my lighter-hearted moments, I joke that this explains why I’m so screwed up in the head now, but the truth is I’m amazed by the whole story. Granted, probably not as amazed as my parents 40 years ago, as my neighbor told me he received a call from my dad that night that began with the words, “You’re not going to believe this…”.
I called the meeting today a chance one, but the more I think about it I’m not so sure. I’ve known that story for a long time (Well, not the tumor part. That was new.), and I’ve learned to embrace it in times of struggle. I’ve had so many days of feeling lost or inadequate or just plain embarrassed to be here that I’ve thought on more than one occasion that I had to be some sort of mistake. If that were true, though, how do I account for the miraculous way I wound up here in the first place?
So in my frustration today, I decided to go for a walk. A little ways up the road, I ran into a neighbor, and he told me I was a tumor. And I was glad he did.
I haven’t written anything here in a little while, but, believe me, it hasn’t been for a lack of trying. I’ve been pondering some heavy topics lately, and they aren’t exactly easy to put into words. You know, typical depressed male with the big 4-0 bearing down on him kinds of things – missed chances, insecurity, etc., etc. And to those of who so graciously responded to my post about the book idea, I promise I haven’t forgotten you. Real life just keeps getting in my way.
Of course, my lack of productivity here has been driving me nuts. Some people maintain blogs to show off their families or share their hobbies or just to (gasp) have fun; I have one to validate my very existence as a writer. I’m supposed to be coming up with a to-do list every day this week, but I’ve been slacking on that because I hate setting a goal and not reaching it. I feel as I need to be accomplishing something every moment I’m awake, whether that’s educating myself with a magazine article, getting in better shape by riding my bicycle, or learning a new song on the guitar.
Today represented one of my most anxiety-enducing scenarios when it comes to meaningful use of time: Watching the kids by myself. You would think a father of five wouldn’t be frightened by the prospect of babysitting his own children, but I always get a little nervous when it’s just me. I don’t like just messing around with them. I feel as if I should be creating those Hallmark commercial father-child moments. Or I should at least be helping them with their homeschooling. Or making them a sandwich. Heck, something.
On this particular day in western Kentucky, temperatures were mild and the sun was shining for the most part. My 1-year-old daughter was in a happy mood, and my other four were chomping at the bit to get outdoors. Now, I had already taken off work early to watch them (My wife was taking my mom to a doctor’s appointment, and we didn’t have another sitter available.), so I was already not getting something done somewhere else. Heading outside would effectively bring to an end any hope of educational activity inside today, which really didn’t matter because I didn’t have anything planned anyway. Could just fooling around, running around the yard on a February afternoon be worthwhile at all?
Turned out the answer was a resounding yes. We basically all played hooky together; they were getting out of school, and I was getting out of work. We played this weird variation of tennis in the driveway. We shot some hoops. I went on a bike ride (which I’m sure I will be paying for tomorrow). In the indoors department, I got to put my 4-year-old son down for a nap, and I got to read a book to my youngest. I really didn’t do much of anything, at least not in the traditional working sense. I did accomplish something very important, though.
It is so difficult for me to realize sometimes that what seems like doing nothing in my mind is actually necessary in some way. Sitting down and watching a television show usually seems like a waste of time to me, but there are times when the body just needs to stop. I don’t think my children learned one school-related thing all day, but they taught me that sometimes the dad who is supposed to be breaking his back for them all the time just needs a play day where none of the “important” stuff matters. Time is a worthwhile thing; my use of it today was certainly not wasted.
Real life kicks back into gear tomorrow. Threat of severe weather, regular eight-hour work day, kids likely cooped up in the house, books and laundry and dishes to clean. Good thing we did all that important stuff today.
I weighed 131 pounds when I graduated high school. One-three-one. I was wearing jeans with a 28 waist. My shoulders sloped so much, one of my friends said I looked like an arrow from behind. And I’m 5’11”, so it’s not like I had an abundance of height to offset my lack of size.
I was small. I knew I was small. What I didn’t know was how much that was affecting me.
I decided in college I was going to gain some weight. Having never had much luck in weight training, I just started to eat. A lot. I used to eat pumpkin pies. Not pieces of pumpkin pies; pumpkin pies. For some reason, I had this weight of 180 set in my head as a goal. That seemed like a nice, round (no pun intended) number. I didn’t plan on forsaking exercise altogether, but I wasn’t exactly aiming to be lean and mean either.
I eventually hit that 180 mark … and then I got married and zoomed right past it. I finally realized I had taken things a bit too far when I visited the doctor and tipped the scales at a little over 190. The waists of my pants, which had grown far beyond the 28 inches I mentioned earlier, had begun to curl under my stomach. My jaw line was gradually starting to disappear. For some guys, 190 is a good, beefy weight. I was not one of those guys.
So I started riding my bicycle every day. I stopped eating anything after dinner, and I started eating healthier things at mealtime. I quit snacking as much. A couple of years ago, I tried to cut as much sugar out of my diet as I could. These days, I hover somewhere between 150 and 160 most of the time, and my pants don’t lap over anymore. I joked with an old friend that I decided since I wasn’t ever going to be a big guy, I was just going to get as small as I possibly could.
I didn’t really want that, though. Whatever size I ballooned up to or shrank down to, I always felt too small. Everyone seemed bigger than me, whether they actually were physically or not. I could be around someone 5’1″, but if they had an outsized personality I’d still feel tiny next to them. I didn’t know it growing up, but I was gradually forming an opinion about myself: I did not measure up to everyone else.
It’s difficult to fathom now that I’m realizing this how much it seeped into every area of my life. Shyness, anxiety, lack of confidence, all of which spiraled into all kinds of other issues. I wasn’t that big, strapping guy girls liked, guys respected, athletes followed, and employers took notice of. No matter how hard I fought it (and continue to fight it), I’ve always felt like I came up short (Again, no pun intended.), and no matter how proud I am of my waistline, I still feel as if I’m looking up at everyone (even if I’m looking down at them).
Of course, I can’t blame all the feelings I described in the previous paragraph on a lack of size, but it certainly didn’t help matters any. I don’t know if this is as big an issue for women, but it certainly affected me as a man. I remember thinking one day how I seemed to have to exercise so hard just to be on the low end of being in good shape, and I think that mentality can be applied to a lot of areas of my life. I have to write the best blog, be the best deejay on the radio, ride my bicycle further than the next guy, shoot better in basketball, play bass guitar better than the guy in the next band, and on and on and on…
This way of thinking is doomed from the start, though, because there will always be someone better. Or, at least, you think there will always be someone better. I guess that’s the small-ish mentality. I know that sounds absolutely ridiculous, since the world is made up of people all shapes and sizes, but if you dwell on it long enough it can start to mess with your head. It just took me nearly 40 years to realize that.
So this isn’t so much a post about size as it is about self-worth. About knowing that even if you’re the weak link in moving a piano (Not that that’s ever happened to me, cough, cough…), it doesn’t mean you didn’t at least carry a little of the weight. About knowing even if you weren’t the most handsome guy in school, you still wound up with a beautiful wife. About knowing even though your friends would totally smoke you on the bike trail, you still lost a whole bunch of weight sticking to the paved roads. About knowing that you’re different, but you’re not a mistake of some sort.
Does all this mean I am now a portrait of manly self-confidence? Hardly. I’m an assistant coach for my daughter’s basketball team this year, and I’m having to screw up my courage every week just to high-five her teammates. I have to start somewhere, though. You know, by taking small steps (Sorry, couldn’t resist…)…
It was 9 o’clock Monday night, December 23, and I wanted to have my hands on a keyboard. I had some great news to share, and I wanted to let everyone know as soon as possible. At least, my brain wanted that. My body, on the other hand, was not nearly as enthusiastic about turning on the computer after spending a large chunk of the day in the car, so I put it off.
And now it’s Thursday. Sometimes you gotta strike while the iron is hot.
So, if you will, allow me to back up and tell this story from the beginning. I’ve written here before about my daughter Sara’s heart surgery she had to have back in May of this year. My wife and I took her back to Monroe Carell, Jr., Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt Monday for a follow-up. We had one goal in mind: Our doctor would say Sara was doing well enough that we wouldn’t have to bring her back for another visit until sometime next year.
We had reason to expect a good report. She had been gaining weight like crazy since the surgery, and she actually ended her first year weighing more than either of her two sisters did at the same age (Not bad for a baby who had dropped to the fifth percentile on the growth chart at one point.). She was nursing better, not panting for air, and not constantly crying whenever we drove anywhere with her. In short, she had been like a different child.
Still, the heart is not exactly something you can see and check up on yourself, so there was a degree of nagging uncertainty. When our local pediatrician discovered the heart murmur that led to the discovery of the ventricular septal defect that had to be repaired during the surgery, my wife had taken our daughter in for what she thought might be an ear infection. Sometimes you just never know what a doctor will find.
So, of course, on Monday, Sara proceeded to scream like a banshee anytime anyone touched her, which made her echocardiogram a highly enjoyable experience, to say the least. This type of behavior can also cause a heart valve to show more leakage on the tests than it actually is experiencing, so we weren’t sure what to expect when our doctor came in to see us.
I feel like I’m rambling at this point, so I’ll sum up quickly: No leakage in the right valve, less leakage in the left valve than our last visit, everything looks great, see you in two years.
That’s right. Sara is doing so well at this point that we don’t have to go back for another follow-up until 2015. The hospital doesn’t even make appointments that far out, so we’ll have to remember to set one up in the future. That kind of news the day before Christmas Eve makes for a very Happy Holiday indeed.
And that’s my good news. Sorry, the body is telling me to wrap this one up. I think the mind agrees this time.