What My Father Taught Me By Fighting For His Life

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“I Love Our Hugs” and Other Lessons From the Experts

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There are lots of “experts” out there sharing advice about quality parenting, but the opinions that REALLY matter come from our own sons and daughters.  After sifting through over 400 statements that your kids shared about their moms this week, I am thrilled to report that THE REAL EXPERTS SAY THAT YOU ARE DOING AN EXCELLENT JOB! If there is room in their budgets to give you a raise, you just might get one this year. . . but you will probably have to increase their allowances first.

I know that you will enjoy reading about how our sons and daughters (ages 3 to 46) perceive their mothers differently as they mature from preschoolers to adults.  Some responses will make you laugh, and some will touch your heart.  Their answers speak for themselves, but a few trends deserve mention.  First, it seems that we moms expend a lot of breath saying, “I love you.” AND THIS MATTERS. Trust me.  Our kids mentioned it over and over and over again.  If you ever worried about saying it too much or if you thought about dialing it back as your kids get older, DON’T.  Second, no matter how busy life gets, always reserve some time to snuggle.  You might be surprised how often this was mentioned – and by sons AND daughters – and by “kids” of ALL ages.  Third, our sons and daughters treasure ANY TIME when they are getting our undivided attention.  It doesn’t even matter what we are doing with them.  How do I know?  Because that’s what THEY said.

Finally, Trenton, age 11, reminded me that sometimes aunts and grandmas play a significant role in a kid’s life, too.  His aunt and grandma laugh at his jokes, take him places, and care for him, and they deserve a Mother’s Day salute, too!

HAPPY MOTHER’S DAY, EVERYONE!  ENJOY!

 

  1. If my mom becomes famous, it will be for…

Volunteering so much (Brooke, age 15)
Sewing (Katelyn, age 6)
Baking the most delicious homemade pies (Calandra, age 36)
Her minivan driving skills (Kate, age 14)
Her haircutting abilities (Will, age 9)
How much she likes her kids (Ivy, age 5)
Being a movie star (Declan, age 4)
Her awesome cooking (Maggie, age 7)
Helping people (Amelia, age 9)
MURDER. Just kidding. My mom will probably be famous for writing a bestseller. (Dominic, age 19)
Being a teacher (Samuel, age 4)
Our family’s farmer’s market (Ezra, age 26)
Inventing something useless but cool (Joel, age 13)
Singing (Connor and Evan, age 10)
Running (Marin, age 3)
Typing fast (Coen, age 9)
Writing a book (Gavin, age 11)
Being the world’s greatest mom (Jared, age 11)
Watching 100 kids at a time (Hannah, age 8)
Being nice (Ethan, age 6)

  1. One thing that makes my mom different from other moms is…

She takes me frog catching (Mark, age 11)
She likes tools, all kinds of tools (Keara, age 10)
She is always in my business (Brooke, age 15)
Her horrible dance moves (Brody, age 8)
She wears slippers during the day (Kate, age 5)
Her hair. Because she has blond hair. And she has some white. (Aislinn, age 5)
Her unending generosity and hospitality. Everyone who comes into her house is at home. (Calandra, age 36)
Whenever I’m down, my mom always notices even when I try to hide it, and she always cares enough to make me feel better. (Patrick, age 16)
She’s more introverted than most moms, but I love that about her (Kate, age 14)
She doesn’t care what others think about her (Caralyn, age 12)
Her face is different (Ivy, age 5)
She is the nicest person and sweet and pretty and I love her (Rachel, age 11)
She keeps things real – no sugar coating the truth! (Chloe, age 23)
She lets me be spoiled (Gabe, age 9)
She makes her own medicines with essential oils (Amelia, age 9)
She’s been through a whole lot, so she is really a wealth of practical experience in so many ways (Dominic, age 19)
She drives really fast (Leah, age 4)
She takes time to listen to me (Kyle, age 9)
She is caring to every child (Hannah, 8)
She’s way cooler (Jamison, age 11)

  1. My mom always says…

“I love you” (Mark, age 11, and many, MANY others!)
“Get out of the shower!” (Luke, age 14)
“Don’t push me! I have two more kinds of crazy and I am not afraid to use them!” (Keara, age 10)
“Never say never.” (Carson, age 9)
“No.” (Katelyn, age 6 and Aislinn, age 5)
“Call me when you get there.” (Patrick, age 16)
“Be yourself.” (Caralyn, age 12)
“Be nice!!!” (Grant, age 3)
“Only you, Rachel! Ha, ha!” (Rachel, age 11)
“Time to clean up.” (Declan, age 4)
“Go wash your hands” (Leah, age 4)
“Hurry up! You are going to be late!” (Ezra, age 26)
“Because I said so.” (Joel, age 13)
“Attitude is everything!” (Evan, age 10)
“Change the channel!” (Connor, age 10)
“Gavin, you’re grounded!” (Gavin, age 11)
“Be quiet!” (Noah, age 12)
“Don’t talk back.” (Jared, age 11)
“I’m so proud of you.” (Jamison, age 11)
“You can do it.” (Caleb, age 8)

 4. One thing my mom doesn’t like is…

When a song she likes is overplayed on the radio (Luke, age 14)
Anyone that is mean to kids, animals, or old people (Keara, age 10)
When I complain (Carson, age 9)
Pickles (Brody, age 8)
The puppy pooping in the house! (Kate, age 5)
Camping. Because she doesn’t like outdoors. (Aislinn, age 5)
Debt (Calandra, age 36)
Dishonesty (Patrick, age 16)
Drama (Caralyn, age 12)
Kids screaming (Ivy, age 5)
People that chew with their mouths open (Maggie, age 7)
Minecraft (Bo, age 9)
When I pick my nose (Micah, age 7)
When I spill my coffee all over her carpet (Dominic, age 19)
When people watch bad movies (Kyle, age 9)
People who have no compassion (Mary Ann, age 38)
Not listening (Abigail, age 10)
Lazy people (Ezra, age 26)
Tomatoes (Evan, age 10)
Messy floors (Ryne, age 7)
Scary things (Coen, age 9)
Snakes (Hannah, age 8)
People giving up (Caleb, age 8)

  1. My mom laughs when…

I say something funny (Mark, age 11)
I toot (Katelyn, age 6)
The grand- or great grandkids do something funny (Barb, age 46)
She is with her friends (Kate, age 5)
When she’s using her crazy imagination (Gabe, age 9)
When my sister dances (Bo, age 9)
When we tell her a joke (Lainey, age 5)
Silly stuff happens (Samuel, age 4)
We make funny faces (Kyle, age 9)
I’m funny (Marin, age 3)
I say something in a weird voice (Jared, age 11)
She is laughing at her own jokes (Jamison, age 11)

6. I want my mom to teach me to…

Excel at life (Luke, age 14)
Do a flip (Mark, age 11)
Be strong and brave (Keara, age 10)
Have faith, forgive, and be content (Brooke, age 15)
Multiply (Brody, age 8)
Sew (Katelyn, age 6)
She’s already taught me so much – to love, to work hard, to make memories (Calandra, age 36)
To cook. My mom needs to teach me to cook. Badly. (Kate, age 14)
Spell words correctly (Ivy, age 5)
Be a good wife and mother and have patience (Chloe, age 23)
Hang up my clothes (Declan, age 4)
Braid hair (Lainey, age 5)
Fly an airplane (Micah, age 7)
Whistle (Leah, age 4)
Keep plants alive (Mary Ann, age 38)
Drive (Joel, age 13)
Go running (Marin, age 3)
Make fettucine (Gavin, age 11)
Make pancakes (Noah, age 12)
Be successful in the real world (Jamison, age 11)
Ride a bike (Ethan, age 6)

 7. My favorite thing to do with my mom is…

Snuggle (Kate, age 5, and many others of ALL ages!)
Go out to eat (Teagan, age 7; This was also a very popular answer!)
Walk the dog and talk (Luke, age 14)
Go frog catching (Mark, age 11)
Plant flowers and build fairy gardens (Keara, age 10)
Go to the park (Katelyn, age 6)
Hang out (Barb, age 46)
Talk about big stuff, little stuff, any stuff. It’s good to just hear her voice (Calandra, age 36)
Everything. It doesn’t matter what it is. (Kate, age 14)
Play board games (Gabe, age 9)
Play volleyball together (Maggie, age 7)
Go to the mall (Lainey, age 5)
Kiss and hug (Samuel, age 4)
Go to Zoombezi Bay in the summer (Kyle, age 9)
Chat over a cup of hot tea (Mary Ann, age 38)
Dance (Abigail, age 10)
Throw the Frisbee (Connor, age 10)
Make crafts and build Legos (Ryne, age 7)
Play with Playdoh (Marin, age 3)
Take a bike ride (Coen, age 9)
Go to the beach (Gavin, age 11)
Go camping (Noah, age 12)
Spend the day with just the two of us (Jared, age 11)
Read (Caleb, age 8)
Play hide and seek (Ethan, age 6)

  1. I know my mom loves me because…

She always tells me (Brody, age 8, and SO MANY others!)
She likes to snuggle with me (Carson, age 9)
I hear it in her voice and see it in her eyes, especially when we have to leave (Barb, age 46)
She hugs me (Aislinn, age 5)
She says she loves me before I go to bed or leave the house, and before games (Patrick, age 16)
We tell each other that every time we leave (Caralyn, age 12)
She feeds me (Will, age 9)
I was born in her belly (Ivy, age 5)
She kisses my dimples on my hands (Grant, age 3)
She goes to the doctor with me even though I’m an adult (Chloe, age 23)
She lets us live in the house instead of outside (Bo, age 9)
She spends time with me (Kyle, age 9)
I love her (Evan, age 10)
She falls asleep with me (Coen, age 9)
She does everything she can to make me happy (Jared, age 11)
She always takes care of me (Hannah, age 8)

  1. One way that I am proud to be like my mom is…

All babies love me (Brooke, age 15)
We are both nice (Kate, age 5)
I am smart like her (Will, age 9)
I am a Christian, and I love my family and put them first just like her (Chloe, age 23)
I like to make new friends like her (Declan, age 4)
I have her imagination (Gabe, age 9)
We both have a good memory (Bo, age 9)
I like the color purple (Micah, age 7)
I’m good at staying in control and I’m very responsible (Dominic, age 19)
We are happy (Leah, age 4)
We both like vegetables (Kyle, age 9)
We both look for the good in people (Mary Ann, age 38)
She is a hard worker in all aspects of life (Ezra, age 26)
I am good looking and modest! Ha,ha! (Joel, age 13)
I can sing very well (Evan, age 10)
I have glasses (Connor, age 10)
We both like to be outside (Gavin, age 11)
I laugh like her (Noah, age 12)
I have her freckles and dark hair (Jared, age 11)
We love each other (Ethan, age 6)

  1. Something I want my mom to know is…

That I love her so much (Lainey, age 5, and LOTS of other sons and daughters!)
That I really like sports (Carson, age 9)
That I am a good friend at school (Will, age 9)
That she is the BEST (Rachel, age 11)
That she was and is a great mother, even if she didn’t always feel that way (Chloe, age 23)
Sometimes there are five hot dogs in the pan and one goes “smush” (Declan, age 4)
How to play Minecraft (Bo, age 9)
How to fly an airplane (Micah, age 7)
That I’m so glad I am just like her (Dominic, age 19)
That she makes good choices (Abigail, age 10)
How happy I am to be living closer to her now (Ezra, age 26)
That I love everything she does (Evan, age 10)
That I love our hugs (Connor, age 10)
That I appreciate everything she does (Hannah, age 8)
That’s she’s beautiful (Jamison, age 11)
That she’s cool no matter what (Caleb, age 8)
That I love her the mostest in our world! (Ryne, age 7)

A SPECIAL THANKS TO ALL OF THE EXPERTS WHO CONTRIBUTED TO THIS POST!