This past week I celebrated my 49th birthday. It seems like it was not that long ago that I had just turned 40. So, why care about turning 49? I don’t know; it just feels like a big deal. It is the last birthday I will have and still be in my forties. Sometimes I look back and wonder, how did this happen? Where have nine years gone, and what have I accomplished?
Just after turning 40, I applied to go back to school to work on my engineering degree. In January of 2011, I went back to school— again. This time school was not the comfortable journey it had been in the past. I felt more challenged by the classes I was taking than I ever had previously. What was supposed to be a post-Bach degree, turned into a six-year arduous journey fraught with ups and downs.
It is difficult at best to work full time and go to school full time. I tried for a while, but in the end, I just couldn’t do it. I ended up opting to work full-time and go to school part-time; this, of course, lengthened the time of earning my degree.
Pregnancy and loss
A lot can happen in five years. Midway through 2011, we found out my wife was pregnant. Which in and of itself was quite surprising, considering our first son is adopted after 12+ years of trying to get pregnant, and we were not able to. In January of 2012, we made an emergency visit to the hospital after her water broke at 18 weeks of pregnancy. An infection had already set in, and there was not enough amniotic fluid left for the baby’s lungs to develop. He was born the next day and quickly passed away two minutes later. That was a blow we were not expecting — who would be? It was a trial of faith. I felt lost. I was angry, and I didn’t know how to support and comfort my wife. I didn’t know how to comfort myself.
We did what we could to move forward. We clung to each other. We held tightly to family and our son. In August of 2012, we found that my wife was pregnant again, and in April of 2013, she gave birth to our second son. Right away, there were concerns. Her labor had been arduous and very long. Within ten minutes of him being born, he was rushed to the NICU, and I went with him. Here we were just minutes after welcoming our boy into the world, and we were working hard to keep him alive. He was born with low muscle tone, and at 7000 feet he needed help keeping his oxygen levels up. We spent 11 days in the NICU, he came home on oxygen. He was considered “failure to thrive.” He struggled to eat, he had difficulty keep food down, and he was extremely slow to gain weight. Every day was hard work just to get to the next day. During that time, I learned to appreciate every day — until they all blurred together. Between all the doctors and slews of appointments, it was difficult just trying to keep some semblance of normalcy.
After a couple of years of multiple doctors’ appointments, sleepless nights, frustration, worrying, and flat out exhaustion, we finally found some kind of rhythm. We were living, things were tough, but we were making our way through the world. During this time we found out our oldest son is on the spectrum, mildly autistic, for the uninitiated. We also found out our second son had some chromosomal abnormalities, thus his low muscle tone and his failure to thrive and gain weight easily, but despite this, we had a pretty good thing going.
In the spring of 2016, we found my wife was pregnant again. She was 39 at the time, we knew this would, for all intents and purposes, be our last chance for an addition to our family. I was finally finished with school, and so we looked forward to trying to enjoy this time with our boys and with a new addition on the way. We had learned that my wife had a weak cervix, and a cerclage would be necessary to maintain this pregnancy. After having the cerclage performed at about 12 weeks, we were hopeful that all would go well. With my wife’s age, she was considered a “higher risk” pregnancy. At our 20-week anatomy ultrasound, we learned there were some abnormalities with the baby’s heart. There are many things we learned during the next few months, and there are many things I have to say, some good, some not so good, but for the purpose of this, I will refrain from saying too much. Suffice it to say, we learned that our baby would not survive outside the womb without significant medical attention. He had what is known as hypo-plastic left heart syndrome, which basically means half of his heart was not fully formed. Without surgery, he would not live for very long after birth, 24 to 48 hours. He also had fluid on his brain because the spinal tubes that descend from the brain were blocked. So, his prognosis wasn’t good. He was born on Oct 22, and we got to hold him, love him, and spend a whole 22 hours with him before his little body and heart failed. For a second time, we found ourselves in the position of having another son to bury.
Finding Our Way
During the last two and a half years, we have struggled to move forward as quickly as we would have liked to. It is not easy to put the loss of a child and all the dreams and hopes they represented behind, but lingering in the past and the “might have been”s doesn’t work either. I love movies, especially movies that for me have significant meaning or at least significant meaning to me. One such movie for me is the book turned into a “mini-series,” Lonesome Dove. At one point early in the film after a young boy had died, Captain Augustus McCray said, “Sometimes the best thing do with death is ride off from it.” So, how does one “ride off” when life and everything else is going on in the place called home? Moving would have just caused more stress on everyone, so, we had to find a way to move forward. For myself, part of moving forward came from doing the daily things that needed to be done — going to work, going to church, and helping where needed.
Some things in life do not wait for us to be 100%, or to be the best version of ourself; some situations require our immediate attention, and we have to find the reserves deep within, or at least fake it the best we can. Prior to my wife’s last pregnancy, my nephew had come to live with us to go to school. He was not succeeding in his high school career while living at home. Whatever the reason, things just were not working out for him to do well in school. After the loss of our son, we still needed to help our two boy and my nephew. We didn’t have time to sit back and do nothing. With hard work, he graduated this past June. He had to take extra classes to make up for what he missed during his freshman year, but he did it. He graduated on time, and he has grown into a strong young man that now has dreams of the future.
Each day is still work. There are times when I don’t want to get out of bed. There are days I wonder if anything I do makes a difference, but then there are days like this past week. On my 49th birthday, I had the privilege of watching my nephew go through the swearing-in ceremony as he prepared to ship out to Chicago for Navy boot-camp. Being part of my nephew’s support team is one of the highlights of the last nine years and probably one of the best things I have done.
During the last nine years, I have seen my other nephews and nieces get married. I have watched some of them welcome babies into their families, and our family has grown in number. We have lost some, but have gained more than we have lost.
Looking forward, it is hard to predict what all the future will bring, but I suspect there will be more little ones coming to grow the size of our family. I see cousins playing together. I see family gatherings at holiday time that are larger and larger. I see another high school graduation, a couple of eighth-grade graduations. I see fledgling romances blossoming and those same romances possibly falling apart. I see broken hearts, frustration, fits of rebellion followed by profound moments of understanding, gratitude, and exceptional growth. In short, I see life happening, and I am excited to be a part of it. I don’t want to miss a moment, and I’m sure there will be ups and downs, but over the last nine years I have learned that while I can’t control others or all of life’s situations, I can control how I act in those situations, and that — that makes all the difference.