What My Father Taught Me By Fighting For His Life

dad baby

When my dad was born, the doctor told my grandmother that he was going to die. He had a rare congenital birth defect affecting his lower abdomen, and there was little chance that it could be surgically corrected. My grandma was advised to enjoy the brief time that she would have with her blonde-haired bundle of joy. The doctor didn’t even file a birth certificate. There was no hope. And that was that.

That may sound cold and heartless, but the doctor’s prognosis was probably reasonable for a baby born with such a rare and serious condition to a blue-collar family living along a remote gravel road in The Middle of Nowhere, Ohio, in 1950. But the doctor didn’t know that my grandma, who was already raising my dad’s four siblings and who had kept the home fires burning while my grandfather served abroad in World War 2, did not take “no” for an answer. Ever. Her tenacity in caring for that baby and her unwavering faith in God are now preserved in family legends. She refused to surrender without a fight, ultimately seeking treatment at the best children’s hospital in the state despite having little means to do so, and the fact that I exist to write this is evidence that her persistence paid off.

But this essay isn’t about my grandmother. It’s about the baby, my dad, who was immersed in a battle long before he knew what fighting for your life actually meant. First, he survived infancy, which was an impressive feat in itself.   Then, after many childhood surgeries, excruciating recoveries, and months of hospitalizations far from home, he was still thriving at the age of thirteen – another milestone that doctors did not believe he would reach. (This earned him a bit of spoiling from his older siblings, one of whom actually bought him a pony. No joke.)

dad lady

As soon as he was old enough, he began working full-time, insisting on exerting his independence and keeping up with – or surpassing – his peers. A few years later he was married, something he probably never imagined given his gloomy prognosis as a child. He and my mother were reminded that he would never father children, but the young couple figured there was no harm in trying, and, voila, the family grew by one girl and one boy.


Even after beating so many odds, my dad didn’t waste time contemplating old age. Why would he? He had already challenged fate so many times that expecting to qualify for the senior discount at McDonalds seemed a bit presumptuous, even to him. But last year he retired from a long and respected career as a butcher, and today his biggest smiles can be attributed to his four grandsons. I bet his younger self never, ever saw that coming.

dad grandpa

My dad doesn’t talk much about his medical history, and he probably won’t appreciate that I am writing about it either. In fact, most of what I know has been collected in bits and pieces from my grandma, my mom, and my aunts and uncles, and only because I won’t stop asking. Maybe the stories churn up too many painful memories. Or maybe, like an old sweater, the memories have lost their shape and just don’t fit right anymore. Regardless, I know that my dad’s experiences shaped him, and, in turn, shaped me. Here’s just a sampling of the wisdom he has shared by being the man who would never give up.

  1. Your challenges may shape you, but they don’t have to define you. Every experience has the power to shape you, to mold your spirit into something just a little different than it was before, and my dad’s childhood included some pretty traumatic experiences that certainly impacted the man he became. However, my dad’s life has never been about suffering or limitations. Over the years, he had every right to complain and to seek sympathy and to worry and to find shortcuts, but he chose not to do those things, even when he probably should have. He taught me to accept what life throws at you, grow from those experiences, and move forward. Progress doesn’t result from sitting still.
  2. Take a lesson from man’s best friends. My dad loves animals, particularly dogs and horses. Both dogs and horses are known to be extremely loyal companions, and it is no surprise that loyalty is a quality that my dad holds in high regard. There were many times when my brother and I questioned his loyalty to people who did not reciprocate, but my dad’s values did not change depending upon who was the recipient of his kindness. I like to imagine that his independence and strong sense of right and wrong sprouted from the challenges that he faced as a kid. Whether they did or they didn’t, his example taught us to be respectful and loyal to our friends, neighbors, family, and employers, no matter what. Your own integrity is what matters; if others abuse your devotion, move forward knowing that you can rest comfortably at night while they tiptoe around the minefield that is their conscience.
  3. You have no idea what someone else has experienced just by looking at him. My dad’s high school graduation photos reveal that he was quite a handsome catch back in the day. Today, his hair is just a little (okay, a lot) thinner, he’s added glasses to his ensemble, and he could easily blend into any grandparent scene. Unless you are a doctor who happens to examine his x-rays, you would have no idea that what is on the inside of him is not the same as what is on the inside of you. And if you ARE a doctor who happens to examine his x-rays, you will most likely make a bee line to his hospital room to ask him lots and lots of questions. It’s okay. He’s used to that.

    The point is that when we see people and we think that they look okay, then we assume that they feel okay, too. And when people who look okay say that they don’t feel well, especially if the problem is chronic, we, as a culture, tend to dismiss them as whiners. If they were really THAT sick, then surely we would be able to SEE that. Maybe this is why my dad never complained, even when it was warranted, or why he dragged himself to work at times when anyone else would have stayed home. He made a habit of reminding us to be compassionate and to recognize that people face invisible battles every day. When people say they are in pain, believe them, and realize that it is probably worse than they are even sharing – because they are afraid that you will think that it is all in their head.

  4. There are no “issues.” There are people. Politics is a common topic of conversation in our family, and that is mainly because my dad is an avid reader and watcher of political news. His politics are not based on alliance with a particular political party or a family tradition or a single point of interest. He is interested in how leaders make decisions and how they talk about people – because every political “issue” that is discussed as a big, abstract idea is really about people at the end of the day. When government assistance has helped to save your life, you understand the human side of political decisions. When you have lived in fear of losing your health insurance and bankrupting your family, you are keenly aware that “issues” are “people,” and your children understand that, too.
  5. Don’t let anyone put you into a box. Build your own box. My dad, at a very young age, refused to climb into the box that his doctors designed for him. In his case, that box, literally, would have been buried six feet under far too soon. Instead, in a figurative way, he decided to build his own box. And when he outgrew that one, he built himself another. And then another. And then another. He made a habit of defying expectations, and he encouraged us to defy them, too. If you have to chop off a limb to fit into the box someone else has built for you, it’s time to build yourself a new box, with room to grow.
  6. Walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. If that doesn’t make you nicer, try running a marathon in them. “Walking a mile in someone else’s shoes” sounds nice and has certainly become a common refrain in character education. My dad reiterated that we all benefit when we are more empathetic toward others and when we recognize that any one of us could unexpectedly face the greatest obstacle of our lives at any time. But a mile isn’t a very long walk, really. People who live with chronic illness live with it for the long haul. Make sure that your empathy is the kind that lasts. Try not to be the friend who jumps in to fill the immediate need but forgets that the struggle doesn’t end – ever.
  7. When you are struggling, help someone else. My dad never had a high profile job that paid a lot of money, but he was always able to provide for us and would have worked five jobs if it had been necessary to make ends meet. But no matter how much or how little we had at any given time during my childhood, he was willing to share it with someone in need. A neighbor needed help in the middle of the night? He would be there. A friend’s car broke down on the side of the road? Give him ten minutes. His co-worker needed to borrow money for gas? He had only a few dollars left until payday, but here you go. I don’t recall my dad asking for anything, but I vividly remember him giving. A lot. Even when he didn’t have much to give. Even when he could hardly stand up. Even when the person didn’t deserve it. He has helped a lot of people, but he taught us this secret truth: Helping others is a great way to help yourself.
  8. There are lots of ways to be smart. When I was younger, I was a bit of an academic snob. My parents encouraged us to excel in school, and I enjoy learning about almost anything. (Except chemistry. I really hated chemistry.) I applied my dad’s work ethic to my studies and graduated from high school as valedictorian. Grades mattered to me, and academic knowledge seemed like a good way to compare people at the time, and I thought I was smart.

    I don’t actually know much about my dad’s school years other than that his attendance wasn’t always the best. When you are in the hospital, it is hard to go to school. I imagine that his grades suffered. He did not go to college, but he learned a trade and garnered great respect for his skill. I remember a time when he was laid off from his job, and before he could even look for a new position, he received phone calls from employers who wanted his help. He was not valedictorian, but he is a smart guy. It turns out that there are lots of ways to be smart.
    Now, I teach students who are considered at-risk for a variety of reasons; their grades aren’t always the best, but many of them are exceptionally smart in ways that are not measured at school. It turns out that life is full of educational experiences, and while I was smart on paper when I graduated, I wasn’t nearly as smart as I thought I was. Academics are important, but true wisdom is never assessed on a report card. My dad taught me this because, well, he’s really smart.

  9. Work hard. Really hard. I have already mentioned that my dad is a hard worker, but this is such a central part of who he is that it demands its own spot on the list. My dad has always given more than 100%. Always. In fact, this part of his character is so intense that it is both a blessing and a curse. He missed some things because of his work ethic, and that was disappointing at times. However, I am extremely grateful that my dad taught us the pleasure of a job well done – no matter how hard the job is or how little the material reward. I am baffled by indifference and indolence. My dad taught me better.
  10. If someone says that you can’t, just smile. But in your head say, “Just watch me.” My dad is not confrontational, but he is competitive. If he wants to figure something out, he will figure it out. If he wants to get something done, he will get it done. If he thinks that you don’t think he can do something, he will do it. He won’t argue with you. He won’t fight about it. But come back and visit in a week or two and whatever you said couldn’t be done will be finished. He just wasn’t going to tell you about it. He didn’t need to. The satisfaction was in proving that he could do it – to himself.

This is just a sampling of the lessons that I learned from my dad, a man who has always refused to give in or give up. On this Father’s Day, I am so grateful for his unfailing perseverance; it is, after all, the reason I am even here. I am also grateful that his grandchildren are still learning from him today, so many years after he was given a death sentence while swaddled in my grandmother’s arms. Thanks, Dad, for fighting the good fight and beating the odds. I will always root for the underdog because of you; those unexpected victories are so much more rewarding.

dad wedding

Brain Freeze? 100 Ideas for Summer Fun!


HELLO, SUMMER!  Oh, how I dreamed about you through winter’s icy chill.  You and your gorgeous sunshine.  You and your endless blue skies.  You and your lush green grass and lazy evenings and beach vacations, all of the gifts that you bestow with the most delightful change of seasons.

Oh, yeah . . . And the bored children.  The kids who complain (by day two) that they have absolutely nothing to do.  I guess that’s your fault, too.  Oh, sweet seduction!  How you betray me!

Sure, there is plenty to do with the freedom of the summer months, but sometimes we all need some inspiration.  To help you out, my kids and I have created a list of 100 ideas to keep you and your kids busy this summer.  You can customize it to meet your own needs.  We like to create a bright poster where we can mark off the things that we do, and, although we call it our “Summer Fun” list, we work on our list all year and never, ever finish.  But that does not diminish the fun!  If you want a more realistic summer bucket list, reduce this.  Create your own poster, or write the ideas on popsicle sticks or paper strips and put them in a jar.

Do you have more ideas?  If so, please leave a comment!  Here we go . . .

1. Plan and record a parody or lip-sync video.  You know, like the ones you see on YouTube!
2. Build forts inside with sheets and clothes pins and anything else you can find.
3. Use toothpicks and mini-marshmallows or Dots candy to build things on a rainy day.
4. Make lemonade from scratch.  Set up a lemonade stand on the corner.
5. Watch a movie from the 1980’s.  Tell the kids what life in the 80’s was like.
6. Put glowing neon bracelets into plastic Easter eggs.  Hide them at night and enjoy a summer
egg hunt.
7. It’s pizza night!  Experiment with new crusts, sauces, and toppings.  Make a dessert pizza.
8. Build a fire.  Let the kids burn something from the school year that has passed.  Roast hot
dogs and marshmallows.  Make s’mores.  Talk.
9. If you have a dog, learn how to teach it new tricks.  Then teach it something!
10. Write down questions to prompt dinner conversation.  Who was your favorite teacher and
why?  What was the scariest moment of your life?  Put them in a jar.  Pull one out at dinner.
7165061308_697c37ab25_s11. Enjoy ice cream for dinner on a special day.  (We do this on Father’s Day each year!)
12. Create a neighborhood scavenger hunt with things to find (two friends talking, a black cat, a
garden gnome, an American flag, etc.) and then take a long walk to find them.  Make it a competition if you want to.
13. Play in a creek.  Catch crayfish.
14. Round up all the kids in the neighborhood and meet at school for a soccer game.
15. Too hot?  Go ice skating!  You will have the rink to yourselves!
16. Go bowling.  Look for opportunities for kids to bowl for free.
17. Check out your town’s Visitor’s Bureau.  What are you missing right where you live?
18. Plant tomatoes.  Make fresh salsa together when the tomatoes are ripe.
19. Play cornhole in the backyard.
20. Attend a sporting event of some kind – little kids, college students, or professional athletes.
7429267376_998b4294c5_s21. Grab a mason jar and catch fireflies at dusk.
22. Visit a farm.  Feed the chickens.  Ride a horse.  Talk to the farmer.
23. Play with puppies at the pet store or at an animal shelter.
24. Water fight!  Fill balloons and water guns!
25. Clean out closets and toys.  Decide where to donate them and deliver them together.
26. Be adventurous eaters.  Try a new restaurant.  Maybe it will become a family favorite!
27. Just a little adventurous?  Go to the family’s favorite restaurant, but agree that everyone
will order something they haven’t tried before.  Critique your meals like food critics.
28. Host relay races in your backyard.  Search for ideas online.
29. Sleep in tents – in the backyard or at a campground.
30. Spend a relaxing day at the pool.
2408439519_7cde12c9a3_s31. Ride a roller coaster.
32. Hold a baby.  Any baby.
33. Bake your favorite cookies.  Deliver some of them to someone who needs a hug.
34. Find a strange fruit or vegetable at the grocery store.  Buy it and try it!
35. Visit the grandparents.  Write questions in advance and interview them about their lives.
Write it all down or record the interviews.
36. Play flashlight tag.
37. Splurge.  Buy from the ice cream truck at least once.
38.  Record a “radio show.”  Include commercials, news, weather, and music.
39. Exercise together.  Train for a fun 5K, like a Color Run, and run together.
40.  Everyone gets a $5 bill to go to yard sales.  Who got the best deals?
15141499823_c6600b6bfd_s41. Play a classic yard game, like croquet or badminton.  (But no lawn darts!  Yikes!)
42. Go to a drive-in movie.
43. Create a scavenger hunt at the park.  Hide the clues and provide a surprise at the end.
44. Binge watch a series of movies, like Back to the Future or Jurassic Park.
45. Jump on a trampoline.
46. Visit a park.  Create a plan to visit a different park every week all summer.
47. Go for your longest family bike ride ever.
48. Jump in the car for a spontaneous road trip to visit a relative who lives a few hours away.
49. Join the summer reading program at the library.  Sign up for library activities, too.
50. When is the last time that you put a BIG jigsaw puzzle together?  Ready, set, GO!
21170004_5d71b9ee41_s51. Plant herbs in a pot.  Cook a meal together using the herbs you have nurtured.
52. Collect big cardboard boxes and duct tape.  Let the kids build whatever they can imagine
with only those supplies (and something to cut the tape) in the backyard.
53. Get out the paints.  Everyone loves to paint once in a while.
54. Raid the garage.  Use stuff that you find (pool noodles, hula hoops, etc.) to create an
obstacle course in the backyard.
55. Watch a movie that is considered a “classic.”  Talk about it.  What was the theme?
56. Family video game night!
57. Grab a towel and the sunscreen and head to the water park.
58. Buy an ant farm or a butterfly garden.  Keep a close eye on what happens there.
59. If your kids have been asking for a pet, summer is a great time to research.  Let the kids
study the costs, challenges, and benefits and report back to the family.
60. Volunteer at the food pantry or anywhere that will allow children to help.
5867179580_634f11768a_s61. Decorate a friend’s driveway with sidewalk chalk for a birthday or a “welcome home.”
62. Project a movie in the backyard.  Throw down blankets.  Invite kids.  Make popcorn.
63. Start a summer book club as a family, or start a summer book club with friends.
64. Meet mom and/or dad during their lunch break from work.  Eat out.
65. Visit a science museum.  On the way home, talk about what you learned.
66. Family board game night!  Each family member chooses a game.
67. Learn five words in a different language.  Use them in family dinner conversations. When
everyone has mastered those, learn five more.
68. Work together to plan a cookout.  Invite friends and neighbors.  Build community.
69. Go retro.  Go roller skating.
70. Cut postcards from empty boxes, like cereal boxes.  Write notes to friends and mail.
2404521703_46c451d819_s71. Go to the zoo.  If you go to the zoo often like we do, try something new there.
72. Raid the craft drawers.  Give the kids a bunch of supplies in a box and let them think
of a project.
73. Introduce the children to old-school television, like Night Rider or MacGyver or Alf.
74. Browse at the local farmer’s market. Buy fresh ingredients and talk about nutrition.
75. Play in the rain.  Enjoy every minute!
76. Attend a local theatrical production.
77. Let the kids write and illustrate a children’s book.  Read it to a younger child.
78. Try a new flavor of ice cream.  Better yet, make homemade ice cream!
79. Create cards for servicemen and women.  Mail them.
80. Invite the cousins to spend a few days at your house.  Play and laugh until it hurts.
3434902567_6cd15c1cda_s81.  Lie down on a blanket and study the clouds together.  Use your imagination!
82. Tie dye t-shirts.  It is not as hard as you might think.
83. Try a new recipe once a week.  Let the kids help.  Pretend you are on a cooking show.
84. Ride in a boat.
85. Start with a dart gun battle.  End with a pillow fight.
86. Watch a movie from the 1990’s.  Tell the kids how life in the 90’s was different.
87. Pack a picnic lunch.  Eat it in your own yard or at the park or in the woods.
88. Have the kids write a script and perform a short play for the grown-ups.  To make it harder,
give them a topic, a character name, and five words that they must include in the story.
89. Make a special effort to attend an event that will include lots of extended family.
90. Go to a movie on the first day that it opens.
5713936753_35c6ecca21_s91. Go for a hike in the woods.  Look for something specific like toads or tadpoles or Big Foot.
92. Go to a fun local festival.  Eat a funnel cake.
93.  Snuggle up and look at picture albums.  Tell stories about the kids when they were small.
Really nostalgic?  Watch home movies, including your wedding video.
94. Listen to live music.  Somewhere.  For free.
95. Go fishing.
96. Google search for simple science experiments.  Try some!
97. Pick berries.  Eat a few while you pick and a lot when you get home.  Make shortcake.
98. Learn about geocaching.  Try it!
99. It’s pajama day!  Don’t you dare put on “real” clothes!
100. Go to a history museum.  Look for something that starts with each letter of the alphabet while you are there.

 School's Out

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/36006949@N00/2472470734″>Pink Ball</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/76758469@N00/7165061308″>Baskin Robins</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/97051543@N00/7429267376″>Burning bottom</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/7612058@N04/2408439519″></a&gt; via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/15542854@N04/15141499823″>Croquet</a&gt; via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/25229920@N00/2919896961″>Books</a&gt; via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/98652633@N00/21170004″>Herbs: Basil</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/26782864@N00/2404521703″>Giraffe Close-up</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/27624680@N02/5867179580″>Sidewalk Chalk</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/81677556@N00/5713936753″>Cornered</a&gt; via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/14158052@N07/3434902567″>Gradients of Blue</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;

A Message to my Students on the Last Day of School


Dear Students:

This year has been fantastic!  It is hard to believe that it is coming to an end.  On this last day of school, I want you to know that you and your classmates have amazed me in SO MANY ways.

I have talked to some of you often.  Some of you have avoided talking to me at all costs.  Some of you have shared your joys with me and made me laugh.  Others have shared heartbreaking experiences that made me cry.  Some of you have poured your thoughts and feelings into your writing.  Some of you have worked to overcome your fears so that you can begin to reach your dreams and goals.

Some of you have made me very proud this year.  Some of you have frustrated me, but only because I want you to see in yourself the potential that I see in you.

Some of you have found online school to be your perfect match.  Some of you are just learning what online education is all about.

Some of you have discovered yourselves this year.  Some of you have become leaders.  Some of you have excelled at helping others.  Some of you are still finding your unique place in the world, and that is okay, too.

All of you made progress in some way.  And that is what matters most.

Before you turn off your computer for the summer, write yourself a note to read on the first day of school next year.  Remind yourself how you feel RIGHT NOW.  Remind yourself what you did well this year and what you want to improve.  Remind yourself of a few rules that you want to set for next year – and WHY.  Remind yourself that Mrs. Ware believes in you.  Read your note in August, and then post it where you can see it every day.  Next year will come with the same distractions and temptations, maybe even more, so it will be important to follow your own advice.

Most importantly, believe in yourself.  I will miss you next year, but I know that you must move forward in order to accomplish the great things that your life has in store.  Stop holding yourself hostage.  Stop letting your fears hold you back.  LET YOURSELF do great things.  Give yourself permission to DO better.  Give yourself permission to BE better.  Give yourself permission to BE SUCCESSFUL, even if no one else is telling you that it can happen.




And be sure to tell me what you accomplish!

I am grateful that I had the opportunity to teach you.  Thank you for a great year!


Mrs. Ware