‘Dads Behaving Dadly’ tells the stories of modern fatherhood

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We men have some work to do in terms of learning to respect the choices other fathers make, particularly when it comes to paternity leave.

DaddyThis subject broke through the din of radio sports talk shows last week when the New York Mets’ Daniel Murphy missed the first two games of the season, including Opening Day, so he could be with his wife for the birth of his first son.

As far as Major League Baseball is concerned, Murphy did nothing wrong. The collective bargaining agreement ballplayers have with the league allows for three days of paternity leave.

But as far as some radio talk show hosts are concerned, Murphy committed the grave baseball sin of choosing a once-in-a-lifetime event over the first two games of a 162-game season.

Sports writers, talk show hosts and fatherhood bloggers either came to his defense or joined the cacophony of criticism. (Here’s a taste.) He probably would have made fewer headlines had he corked his bat or tested positive for steroids.

I sat on the sidelines shaking my head, not certain my voice could add anything to the conversation. The fact it was taking place merely reinforced what I already knew: Different men place vastly different values on fatherhood. Too many men do not see fatherhood as the most important job they will ever have.

But then I thought of the men who are out to change that perception, two of whom I have the pleasure of helping. Hogan Hilling and Al Watts are two fellow fathers and writers who have spent two years collecting stories of modern fatherhood and dads behaving dadly.

The result is “Dads Behaving Dadly: Real Stories of the New Fatherhood Culture,” expected to hit bookshelves by Father’s Day. I submitted a story some time ago, and Hogan and Al thought it worthy of including in their submission to the publisher.

I’ve yet to hear if it will make the final cut, but they have sent advance copies of their book to some motherhood bloggers. Kim Court, who blogs at These Are the Days, found the book inspiring.

She called it “a beautiful compilation of some of the most heart-warming and heart-wrenching stories you’ll ever hear about parenthood. And they’re all written by dads.”

I’m glad she liked the book so much, but saddened she sounds surprised that dads could tell such stories. Of course, I don’t blame her. We live in a culture where a dad can be publicly skewered for being present at the birth of his child.

Sigh. We certainly have a lot of work to do.

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Celeste returns to school after scoliosis surgery

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Celeste returns to school today, nearly two months to the day of undergoing scoliosis surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital to free her spine of the curve in her spine.

Celeste

Celeste smiles brightly half-way through recovering from surgery to repair scoliosis. She returns to school today, two months after the operation.

It’s been a long road, one we started on blindly when she was diagnosed with scoliosis more than two years ago.  It’s all I’ve written about since the days leading up to the operation, whether it was the anticipation of the surgery, my thanks for the support we received, her recovery, or the terrible drive home from the hospital.

Of course, all those posts were from my perspective. So on the eve of Celeste’s first day back at school, I thought it would be a good idea to write something from her point of view. I sat her down Sunday, and started asking her questions so I could understand how she felt about it.

Me: How do you feel about this whole process?

Celeste: I don’t know.

Well, how do you feel about your surgery?

I don’t know.

How do you feel about going to school tomorrow?

Fine.

Sigh. You see where this was going? You’d think I would have known better. I interviewed countless people during my two-decade career as a journalist, and knew that kids are hard interviews.

You can’t ask them yes-or-no questions in hopes they’ll expand on their answers. They won’t. If you ask them a simple question, they’ll give you a simple answer. That’s why I asked Celeste how she felt about scoliosis and her surgery, but I could see she wasn’t interested in talking about it.

I gave up after just a few questions. “I’ll figure out something else to write,” I told her.

She walked away as I stared at a blank screen, the cursor taunting me as it blinked. My fingers danced lightly on the keyboard, just enough to make noise without letters appearing on the screen.

What now?

She returned a few moments later. “Want to play a game, Daddy?”

I looked away from the blank screen. “Sure, I’m not getting anywhere here. What do you want to play?”

“I don’t know. A board game. How about Sorry!”

“Let’s do it.”

We sat down at the table. Celeste picked her usual blue. I picked red, and I saw my chance to ask her a few questions while she set up the board.

I bet you’re glad to go to school tomorrow, aren’t you?

Yeah.

Why?

Well, I want to see all my friends.

But not your teachers?

Sure, I want to see my teachers again, but I don’t want to take tests and have lots of homework.

That’s the answer I’d expect from a 12-year-old. Did you learn anything after all this?

All of what?

Dealing with scoliosis all this time. Did you learn anything?

No.

Really? What would you tell your friends if you found out one of them had scoliosis?

But they don’t have it.

But what if they did?

Well, the don’t.

OK. What would you tell your friends if they were going into surgery?

That it’s not as bad as they might think. It’s over before you know it, and it feels like no time passed. It’s just like sleeping at night. You wake up the next morning, and you don’t know how much time has passed. It’s weird.

That’s what I hear. I’ve never had surgery.

I know. You’ve told me that, like, a thousand times.

Maybe not a thousand, babe. Did you have any dreams during surgery?

I don’t think so. My mind was just blank the whole time. I really don’t remember.

But you were in pain afterwards. What would you tell your friends about that?

Yeah, it hurt a lot sometimes, but I had medicine that helped. And now I’m not in any pain, so it doesn’t last forever.

Were you scared going into surgery?

No, not really. The doctors knew what they were doing.

That’s true. We went to the best. I bet you’re glad to never have to wear the brace again, aren’t you?

Yeah, I didn’t like how other kids would ask me all the time, “Hey, what’s that thing sticking out of your back?”

What would you tell them?

That it’s none of their business.

But you’ll never have to do that again. That must feel good.

Yeah. I have a scar now, but no one’s going to see it. Well, they’ll see it at the swimming pool or maybe the girls in the locker room, but that’s OK. I don’t care about it. Besides, it’s fading.

Any other thoughts about surgery?

No. Now stop asking me questions. It’s your turn.

Oh, all right.

I don’t know if Celeste learned anything profound during her treatment of scoliosis, but from her perspective, it sounds like she’s most happy about not having to wear a full-torso brace ever again.

Though she wore it without fail 20 hours a day every day, just like the doctor ordered, it obviously made her feel different. And if kids want to be anything, “normal” tops the list.

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Our snowy trip home from the hospital

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I wrote earlier this month about how well Celeste has been recovering from scoliosis surgery, and how boring these recent weeks have been for her.

snowy traffic

Photo courtesy www.freefoto.com.

As a father, I’m glad she’s been a little bored because that means she isn’t in pain, and hasn’t experienced any complications from the lengthy operation. In this context, boring is good.

But her recovery didn’t start out boring. In fact, it started out down-right scary just minutes after we left the hospital.

The forecast called for snow that Sunday, but it wasn’t supposed to start until after noon. If we left the hospital early enough, we’d be home before it started. We left at 10 a.m. If all went well, we’d be home by 11 a.m., an hour before freezing rain was predicted to fall.

Plenty of time.

We hopped in the car and made our way through downtown Baltimore City. Celeste was resting comfortably in the front seat with Karen directly behind her. We stopped at a light near Orioles Park at Camden Yards 10 minutes later, and were greeted by throngs of Ravens fans heading to M&T Stadium. Light snow danced on the pavement, but none of it stuck.

No problem.  I don’t even need the windshield wipers for this.

“I wouldn’t want to sit out for a game in this weather,” I said.

Karen agreed. Celeste said nothing. We were at cruising speed on I-95 out of Baltimore 10 minutes later. Snow started to fall heavier.

Time for the wipers, but still no problem. Slow down a bit. We’ll make it.

Snow started to stick to the shoulders as we approached the Baltimore beltway. Twenty minutes had passed since we left the hospital.

What’s going on?  Slow down a bit more. I hope we’re not driving into it.

I looked over to Celeste leaning back in the front sleep. Her eyes were closed. She was still resting comfortably, and oblivious to the outside world. Karen sat in the back seat, and started to voice some concern over the weather.

Too late to turn back now. Wouldn’t know where to go even if we did.

Snow fell harder as we turned onto I-70. It began to swallow the driving lanes, and turned a three-lane highway into a two-lane country road. Traffic slowed to 20 mph. I gripped the wheel tighter.

We might be in trouble.

Where were the plows?

Bigger snowflakes fell, turning the wipers into moving popsicle sticks that could barely clear the windshield. I had just a small hole in the ice and snow building up on the windshield through which I could see the road.

Celeste woke up at some point. Was it the change of speed? The sound of the icy wipers? Regardless of the reason, Celeste was fully aware that we were driving in a snowstorm.

“Are we going to make it home, Daddy?” she asked.

“Of course we are,” I said. “No need to worry.” I’m worrying enough for all of us.

I drove close enough to the car in front of me to follow its tire tracks, but far enough away that I wouldn’t crash into it if I needed to brake.  I turned defroster on high, hoping it would melt the ice and snow building up on the windshield. No luck.

My window of visibility was shrinking. I could see nothing. I had to stop.

A quick glance in my rearview mirror showed the closest car several hundred yards behind us. I gently pulled over to the shoulder after one of the exit ramps, climbed out of the car into ankle-deep snow. My toes complained about the cold, but I ignored their cries as I cleared off the wipers.

That should last a while.

I kicked my shoes clear of as much snow as I could and climbed back behind the wheel. I eased back into traffic, praying the wheels would catch pavement, and resumed driving 20 mph on a highway designed for 65.

Karen and Celeste began to voice their concerns, incredulous at the road conditions and wondering where the plows were. We saw none.

“Let’s not wonder that aloud,” I said. “ It’s not helping at all. I just need to focus on the road.”

They fell silent. The radio played quietly in the background, but I don’t remember a single song that aired. I only remember the snow, and gripping the steering wheel tight as though my grip would transfer to the tires.

We passed our usual exit ramp. Taking back roads is shorter than taking the highway around, but since we saw not a single snowplow on the main roads, I was certain the back roads were buried.

Ice began building up again on the wipers.  Damn! It hasn’t been 10 minutes!

We’re stuck

I stopped a few minutes later to clear off the wipers again. I found refuge under an overpass, but worked quickly in case someone behind me lost control of their car. The snow wasn’t as deep because of the overpass, but my toes were starting to freeze.

The snow I stepped in earlier melted in the car, and dampening my toes. The moisture absorbed the cold like a sponge.

How are we going to get out of this mess?  I cursed myself for not planning better as I climbed back into the car.

“Just a few more miles, and we’ll be home,” I said.   I pulled back into traffic, but had to stop a few moments later as traffic came to a halt.  I willed the cars ahead of us to keep moving, but they didn’t budge.

We sat there for 10 minutes listening as the wipers scraped against the windshield and failed to do their job. Ice built up again, so I cleared them off yet another time.

Karen looked at the exit ramp. “Maybe we should try that,” she said.  “At least the cars are moving.”

I agreed, and eased over to exit.  The road was no better, but the traffic was moving. We were near FSK Mall, just a few miles from home.

“Might was well try the back roads, ” I said.  “How much worse could they be?”

We worked our way through the mall access road to turn onto the road that would take us home.  But the front tires wouldn’t grip the pavement at the slightest incline. We were stuck.

DAMN! I climbed out, threw some rock salt under the tires, and tried again. No luck.

I climbed out again, dug out the tires a bit, and threw down more rock salt. That has to work.

I climbed behind the wheel, gently pressed the gas, and felt the tires grip. We eased into traffic again, but I knew we couldn’t make it home. I pulled into the mall parking lot.

“What are you doing?” Karen asked.

“We can’t make it home,” I said.  “We got stuck on the slightest incline, and the road ahead has much steeper hills. We’ll never make it. We’re going to have to get a hotel for the night and wait until tomorrow.”

Celeste whimpered.

“Oh no, we’re not,” Karen insisted.  “Because you’re going to call one of your friends, and they are going to come rescue us.”

Sigh. “I’ll try.”

I took out my phone, and dialed the friend who had watched Gavin while we were in the hospital. “Hi Lisa,” I said when I heard my friend’s wife.  I explained our predicament. “So, how’s Jarrod feel about driving in the snow?”

“Oh, he’s fine about it,” she said without flinching.  “Remember, we’re from New England, so this is nothing. I’ll have him put on his boots and send him right up.”

Whew!

Celeste’s pain meds started to wear off. Luckily, we filled her prescriptions at the hospital pharmacy before we left, so I could give her some oral meds. They’d take a while to kick in, but it was better than nothing. She leaned back in the seat and tried to relax. We listened to the radio and waited as the snow piled up around us.

Jarrod pulled up 20 minutes later. We left our car in the mall parking lot, and he drove us home without incident.  Our planned one-hour drive home from the hospital had become a three-hour ordeal that fell a few snowflakes shy of a nightmare.

Not the first time

That drive home was the second time our car failed us in the snow. The first time was Christmas Eve 2012. Snow had been falling for some time that evening, enough so that we’d wake up to a white Christmas the next day, a rare treat in the Washington, D.C. area.

I thought little else of the snow as we headed out. We may have had an inch or two on the ground, but it wasn’t enough to scare me away from driving in it. I drove slowly, and turned onto the road that would take us out of our neighborhood.

I knew it had a big dip and hill, but never gave it much thought until I stared at the snowy incline. A small voice in my head questioned if we should keep going, but a bigger one said, “Of course you keep going. It’s Christmas Eve. You’ve always gone to church on Christmas Eve. No stopping now.”

So I put the car in low, and continued driving. We made it to the bottom of the hill without a problem, but gravity slowed us as the road inclined. I fed the engine some gas, and felt the wheels catch the pavement.

So far so good.

I fed the engine more gas as the hill continued to incline, but the front tires started to slip. I tried more gas, but the wheels slipped more. I hit the brakes. I tried the gas a few more times to no avail. We were done, perhaps 20 yards short of the top of the hill.

No Christmas Eve service for us tonight.

I managed to parallel park on the divided road, but if I parked like that on my driving test I would have failed.  We walked the half-mile back to the house in our church clothes amid an inch or two of snow on the sidewalk.

Karen and the kids warmed by the fire with hot cocoa, while I headed back to the car with a shovel and a 50-pound bag of salt. Once I turned the corner onto the hilly road, I saw a line of six or eight cars stuck right about where I was.

I must have parked worse than I thought.

I sped up and met the lead car, whose rear bumper was a couple of feet from the side of my car. His tires were spinning on the snowy hill, unable to grip the pavement. Every second his tires spun brought him a few inches closer to my car.

I offered him a push. Other drivers who were stuck behind him climbed out of their car to help. We managed to free him from the icy grip of the road a few moments later, but not until after his tires spat snow, ice and grime all over my pants.

Oh, well. We weren’t going to church anyway.

One by one, the other drivers returned to their cars, and each time had one fewer helper to push them up the snowy hill because the previous car made it through the icy trap. Before I knew it, all the cars were gone, and I stood alone on the hill with no one to help push me.

Lovely. Maybe they were all late for church.

I shoveled out my car, cleared the road of more snow, threw down some salt, and headed home. The tires slipped a couple of times, but I never lost control. And I never will again. At least not in that car.

We traded it in the day after Christmas for an all-wheel drive Sorento.

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Passing the milestones of recovering from scoliosis surgery

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We all measure life by the milestones we pass, and few are sweeter than the ones we parents count for our children.

Whether it’s the first word, tooth, step, day in kindergarten, or bike ride, all parents marvel at how quickly their children grow and pile up life’s milestones.

Clover has been a faithful companion for Celeste during her recovery.

Clover has been a faithful companion for Celeste during her recovery.

But a child’s first surgery is one milestone no parent wants to pass, and one I never gave much thought to during my first 12 years as a father. With Celeste’s scoliosis surgery to fix her curved spine several weeks behind us, I pray we’ll never have to pass it again.

That day, Dec. 4, 2013, is burned into my memory. We woke up at 4:30 a.m. to give us plenty of time to arrive at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore for Celeste’s appointment. The drive was quiet. We had already said everything we could say in the eights weeks leading up to the surgery. All we had to do now was show up.

We listened as the DJs on Radio Disney asked the kids who called in if they ran water over their toothbrush before or after putting toothpaste on it.

Does it really matter? Probably not. I’d ignore the silly conversation on most drives, but on this one it gave us a light-hearted distraction from our destination. None of us wanted to make this drive, but we all knew we had to. The curve in Celeste’s spine had given us no other choice.

We drove through Baltimore City, parked, and found our way to the waiting room without incident. We sat uncomfortably for the nurse to call our name, and did our best to give privacy to the only other family in the waiting room by giving them as much distance as we could.

The friendly face of our pastor greeted us a few minutes later, and he kept us company while we waited. Our turn finally came. The nurse called us back to make the final preparations before surgery. Gown? Check. Vitals? Check. Allergies? None.

Prayer? You bet. As our pastor stood over Celeste’s bed and said a prayer, I placed my lips on her forehead and silently echoed my own. Celeste pulled away enough to look me in the eye. Her eyes spoke the words her lips failed to say: I’ll be OK, Daddy. I choked down a tear.

Our pastor left and Karen escorted Celeste to the operating room to stay with her until doctors put her under. I stood alone in the pre-op area wondering how to pass the time, but Karen returned moments later.

That was fast.

We walked to the waiting room. A computer screen mounted in the upper corner of the room displayed a spreadsheet of the numerous surgeries taking place down the hallway. It displayed no names. Numbers corresponded to patients, and parents could see where their child was based on the color that highlighted their child’s number.

Celeste was 960280. Green meant surgeons were operating on her. Red meant they were done, and she was being transferred to the recovery room or pediatric intensive-care unit. Brown meant she was already there.

Only one patient’s green grid was longer than Celeste’s, meaning someone’s child was undergoing a longer operation than my own.

Bless them. I looked around the room to see if I could tell who it was, but of course I couldn’t. No parent’s worry is worse than anyone else’s, regardless of the ailment or time in surgery. All our faces shared the same concern and told the same story, but no one’s eyes met.

It was as though no one wanted to acknowledge anyone else because if they did that meant it was real. If we remained in our own shells, and on our own islands, then perhaps we could wake up and find it was all a dream.

But it wasn’t a dream. We were all parents who were powerless to help our children more than we already had by seeking medical care from the best doctors in the world.

Whether one hour or 10, every parent counts the countless moments their child is in surgery. One mother passed the time crocheting something. A scarf? A sweater? I couldn’t tell. Her husband sat next to her with eyes fixed on his phone.

On the other side of the room, a father slept sprawled back in a chair not designed for anyone who needs to catch a few winks. His wife sat next to him staring off in the distance. Had they been anywhere else — a bus station, a shopping mall or a coffee shop — but in the same position, you’d swear he was drunk and she was thinking about leaving him.

But they looked normal in the waiting room of a pediatric surgical wing. I understood his need to sleep, and could read the blankness in her stare. They were just exhausted parents sick with worry over their child.

A woman from the front desk walked around the room and called our name.

“They’ve started,” she said when we made eye contact.

“Thank you,” we said and leaned back.

We’ve done all we can. Now we can only wait.

Karen wrapped herself in a blanket from home and pulled out her Bible to find passages related to Advent. The flipping pages stopped in Luke. Without reason, her eyes landed on chapter 8 verses 40-56, which told the story how Jesus healed a woman and rose a 12-year-old girl from the dead.

It’s one thing to know your child is in the best medical hands in the world, but it’s another to believe that she’ll be fine. I believed the moment I read that passage.

The next seven hours crept by in a haze. We read, napped, ate, and binged on Netflix.

I looked at Celeste’s green grid every 20 or 30 minutes, as though time would pass faster. It didn’t. Her pink hair band hugged my wrist the entire day.

Families spread out around the waiting room to give each other more space and some sense of privacy, even though true privacy escaped us all. A doctor would walk through the room periodically, sit down with family, and explain how the surgery went.

A couple doctors led families into one of the smaller rooms that dotted the edge of the waiting area, and closed the door.

I wouldn’t want to be escorted into one of those rooms.

Celeste’s doctor eventually entered the room, but I couldn’t make immediate sense of his presence.

Shouldn’t you be operating on Celeste? … Oh! You’re done?

I nudged Karen. We both dropped everything, and stood. His smile told us everything we needed to know.

“She’s fine,” he said. “She did great. No problems whatsoever.”

Whew!

Someone would come and get us when she was in the pediatric intensive-care unit, he told us before he left. He walked away as though it was just another day at the office for him, which of course it was.

The anesthesiologist and a nurse came out a few moments later, and repeated what Celeste’s doctor told us.

“Yeah, it was kind of boring,” the nurse said through a smile. Of all the words anyone could say to ease parents’ nerves about their child’s surgery, “boring” tops the list.

A nurse guided us to the pediatric ICU a few moments later, and we found Celeste resting quietly. Her bloated face disguised her natural beauty, but I still recognized her. I suppose a father can recognize his children regardless of their physical condition.

The surgery was over, but the hard part — the recovery — was about to begin. I kissed her forehead and thanked God for watching over her while surgeons fixed her back.

Now here we are, nearly five weeks weeks after the surgery, and Celeste is recovering smoothly. She’s even an inch-and-a-half taller than before the surgery, now that her back is straight.  We’ve faced a few hurdles along the way, but for the most part Celeste’s recovery has been as “boring” as her surgery.

She passed the recovery milestones quickly during those early days: first shower; remove bandage; last prescription pain pill; first failed outing; first Steri-strip falls off; first time standing up on her own; first successful outing; first walk around the neighborhood; last Steri-strip falls off; first tutoring session; and many others I can’t recall this moment.

Many other such milestones remain, but we will count those in terms of months given that full recovery takes a year.

But perhaps the one I look forward to the most is as literal as it is figurative: the day Celeste climbs back on a horse at our local riding club and trots around the ring as carefree and pain-free as she was before surgery.

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Finding comfort during scoliosis surgery

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“Thank you” feels inadequate.

How can the same two words I’d say when someone passes the ketchup express the same gratitude I feel about every kind word, every email, every offer of help, every Facebook like, every prayer, and every everything so many of you have offered Celeste and our family in the last week?

It can’t.

But those are the only two words I can think of as I sit next to her at 4 a.m. the night she endured lengthy back surgery to fix scoliosis and listen to the cacophony of the hospital room.

A constant flow of air hums through the heating vent, setting the tone of the room’s soundtrack. An oxygen mask gurgles above it. The IV drip delivers vital pain medicine into her arm every several minutes, its plunging sound rising above all others like cymbals.

But I tune in to the sound of Celeste breathing. The deeper she breathes, the deeper she sleeps and the more her body heals.

hair band

The hair band Celeste gave to me as the nurse wheeled her into the operating room.

I feel her hair band hug my left wrist. It could have been any of the countless hair bands she has asked me to hold for her through the years, but this one is special.

It was my physical connection to her as surgeons spent nearly seven hours fixing the scoliosis that curved her back. Celeste handed it to me moments before she went into the operating room when we realized her hair was in a ponytail.

She couldn’t wear it into surgery, so she handed it to me and I wrapped it around my wrist like I’ve done countless times in her life. It’s become a father’s reflex. No thought goes into it. You just slide it around your wrist until your daughter needs it again.

But an hour or so into the surgery, I realized the hair band was too tight. It was hugging my wrist and leaving an impression. I started playing with it to loosen it, but a thought occurred to me.

It was as though Celeste was hugging me. I knew she was asleep and doctors were fixing her spine, but as long as I felt the tightness of her hair band around my wrist, I had a small piece of Celeste hugging me.

I stopped trying to loosen it. I wanted to feel her virtual hugs throughout her surgery. I found comfort in it.

All the kind words, prayers, thoughts and moral support of everyone (from both those we know and don’t know) is just as comforting. They were emotional hugs that helped carry us through a difficult time, and left an impression on our hearts and souls.

And as Celeste heals at home through what will be a long recovery, we will continue to find comfort in the moral support you offered when it needed it most.

Thank you.

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Walking the long curvy path of scoliosis

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Genetics can be so random.

In some families it creates a genius who takes human knowledge to places the rest of us never imagined. In others it creates a disease that robs the world of a promising young life.

Most families find themselves between those two genetic extremes, whether it’s a set of green eyes no one can explain, a 6-foot-2 frame in a family of 5-foot-10s, or a predictable set of curly locks on one child but not the other.

by BruceBlaus via Wikimedia Commons.

by BruceBlaus via Wikimedia Commons.

In my family, it causes scoliosis, a condition that causes the spine to grow crooked.

Some curves are mild and require no medical treatment.

Others require patients to wear a full-torso brace 20 hours a day, seven days a week until they stop growing. Depending on the onset of the condition and the age of the patient, that could be months or years.

The most severe curves can only be straightened by a skilled surgeon who fuses the patient’s vertebrae together with screws and metal rods.

Celeste, our 12-year-old daughter, zoomed through the first two curves in less than two years, and is standing just outside the operating-room door of the third.

She’ll roll through that door Wednesday morning, and God willing roll back out some 10 hours later with a straight spine.

During that time, every beat of my heart will whisper a prayer for God’s grace to guide the hands of the nurses and doctors in whom we are entrusting our baby doll’s life.

Bracing against scoliosis

We found ourselves on this path two years ago when Celeste leaned over to touch her toes during a routine physical. The doctor saw a slight curve in her spine, but I thought little of it. While my spine is straight, my two brothers, sister and father all have some degree of scoliosis and lead normal lives.

That’s genetics for you, I thought. No need to worry.

The doctor sent us to an orthopedist, who we saw a month or so later. The X-ray showed a curve even my untrained eyes could see, but it didn’t require bracing. Doctors generally monitor curves of less than 20 degrees, brace curves between 20 and 40 degrees, and consider surgery for curves greater than 40 degrees.

Celeste was a few degrees shy of needing a brace. With two years of growth still in her, the doctor wanted to watch the curve closely and asked us to come back for another X-ray six months later.

We returned to find that Celeste had grown four inches, a growth spurt that twisted her spine well past the point of bracing. The orthopedist sent us to an orthotist, who fit Celeste for a full-torso brace she would have to wear 20 hours a day every day. She could take it off to shower or physical activities, but she had to wear it all the other hours of the day.

And she did.

When the thermostat soared above 90 degrees and kids usually want to shed as many clothes as modesty allows, Celeste wore her brace. When kids at school asked her annoying questions about that “thing sticking out of your back,” Celeste wore her brace.

She understood that even though it wouldn’t fix the curve in her spine, it could slow the progression of the curve and help patients avoid surgery.

“I don’t want surgery,” I heard Celeste say several times.

Neither do I, I thought whenever she said those words. No need to worry, though. You’re doing everything you can.

Turning to Johns Hopkins Hospital

Another six months passed, and the time came for a follow-up appointment with the orthopedist. Again, I wasn’t worried. Celeste wore her brace faithfully, so I was certain it was working.

Only it wasn’t.

Celeste had grown another two inches, bringing the curve perilously close to the surgical mark. I walked away from that appointment questioning everything, certain only of my uncertainty.

The doctor ordered a new brace and physical therapy, but in my mind it wasn’t enough. Celeste was doing everything she was supposed to, but was still losing the battle. We needed another opinion.

Without talking about it with each other, Karen and I both had the same idea: the pediatric orthopedic specialists at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. We took the earliest appointment they had, and in the intervening six weeks did enough research on scoliosis to write a master’s thesis.

I walked in with just one question: What could we do to avoid surgery and prevent the curve in Celeste’s spine from worsening? See a different orthotist to make a different brace? Try physical therapy? Pilates? Yoga?

If anyone could answer my question and guide us on the best path to avoid surgery, I knew it was the world-class physicians at Johns Hopkins. But the X-ray showed only one solution: surgery.

In the six weeks we waited for the appointment at Johns Hopkins, the curve in Celeste’s spine worsened to the point where surgery was the only option. Nothing else would work. Without it, the curve could progress to a debilitating point, and Celeste could face a lifetime of back pain, breathing difficulties, and heart trouble.

Doctors could not predict when the curve would stop, especially since Celeste has not reached skeletal maturity. It was best to operate now than wait for the curve to worsen. The sharper the curve, the more the surgeon has to manipulate the vertebrae and spine.

It’s time to worry, I thought.

Thankful for a surgical fix for scoliosis

We sat in the cold examining room listening to the surgeon talk confidently about the need to operate, but my mind was elsewhere.

We’re not here for this, I thought. I just want to know if we need a different brace or what kind of physical therapy will work. We didn’t come here to talk about surgery.

Only we were talking about it.

The surgeon was telling us how he would fasten screws to Celeste’s vertebrae and attach two metal rods to straighten her spine. She’d be in the hospital for four days and out of school for two months, assuming there are no complications.

But we’re not here for this, my mind pleaded. Her curve isn’t that bad yet. How could it have worsened so much in such a short period of time? It was only six weeks.

The surgeon explained the recovery, a process that could take a year. No lifting anything for several weeks, not even our cats. No twisting. No bending over. No physical activity. No basketball this season. No horseback riding. Her winter chorus concerts are out as well since she won’t be in school. We’d need a tutor. The list was endless.

Celeste sat silently as Karen held her hand. She couldn’t understand the full implications of what the surgeon was saying. She looked at me for reassurance. Children don’t need doctors to tell them everything will be OK. They need their parents for that affirmation, to be their strength in times of adversity.

But as the surgeon continued to explain the operation and recovery, a soft weep cracked my veneer of fatherly invincibility. Celeste heard it, and started to break down as well.

Pull it together, I thought. If Celeste is going to make it through this, she needs you to be strong.

We muddled through that appointment, and the intervening weeks have been a blur of research, paperwork, doctor appointments, sleepless nights, worry headaches, tears, and support.

In fact, the support of family, friends, our congregation, and co-workers has fueled us these recent weeks. It reminded me of how much I have to be thankful for.

I’m thankful we can treat scoliosis. Many parents have children who are fighting fatal diseases or conditions that baffle the world’s best doctors.

When Celeste fully recovers from surgery, her back will be straight and she will no longer need that brace. She’ll even be taller. The only lifetime restriction she faces is a ban on full-contact sports. So football and rugby are out.

I’m thankful to be close to Johns Hopkins Hospital. Some people live hours or days away from world-class medical treatment. Baltimore is a short drive from our house. We can barely make it through a One Direction CD on the drive, assuming traffic isn’t bad.

I’m thankful for the outpouring of support we’ve received. I have no idea how people without help could make it through a period such as this.

I’m even thankful for cracking in the doctor’s office. I felt silly at first because, as we all know, real American men don’t cry, especially not in front of their wives, children and doctors. But I stopped feeling silly after giving it some thought. After all, doesn’t every girl deserve a father who’ll cry for her?

And come Wednesday, as Celeste undergoes a long surgery and we wait impatiently nearby, I’ll be thankful for God’s watchful eye.

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Finding new lessons in ‘Where the Wild Things Are’

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Karen and I started reading to Celeste and Gavin when they were young.

Wild Things - cover

“Where the Wild Things Are” is Celeste’s first favorite book.

Celeste was 3 months old when we began a daily ritual of reading to her at bedtime. We’d grab three or four books and read them to her as she sat on our lap and sucked her thumb.

We read the classic picture books every parent reads to their children: “Goodnight Moon,” “Green Eggs and Ham,” “Oh, the Thinks You Can Think,” “Where the Wild Things Are,” numerous Berenstain Bears adventures, and countless others I’ve long forgotten.

For months I couldn’t tell what she liked more: sucking her thumb or listening to the stories. Or perhaps she just liked sitting on our laps and hearing our voices.

Either way, we dutifully read to her every night if she wanted us to or not. Months passed, and I still had trouble telling if she enjoyed the stories. Then one day, when Celeste was 6 or 8 months old, she pointed to Max in his wolf suit and smiled. Even her thumb couldn’t hide the happiness radiating from her smile.

“Where the Wild Things Are” had become her first favorite book. She liked it so much, she had us read it to her every night for months. She’d pick it out among a hundred other books on her shelf, and point to Max every time.

Karen and I memorized that book. We’d recite it on long car rides if Celeste became antsy, and she’d calm down like one of the Wild Things listening to Max.

We looked all over for a plush Max or one of the Wild Things, knowing that Celeste would love it, but we couldn’t find them anywhere.

Max

Our hand puppet of Max from “Where the Wild Things Are.”

The best we could find was a Max hand puppet from the New York Public Library of all places, assuming I remember correctly. (It’s been 10 years, though, so don’t hold me to that.)

I think of those days now because of a story in The Washington Post about the 50th anniversary of the book. I’ve long admired the work of Maurice Sendak, but know little of the man or of the stories behind his stories.

I never knew, for example, that we can only enjoy “Where the Wild Things Are” as it is because of Sendak’s shortcomings as an artist. And there I thought he didn’t have any.

According to the article in The Post, Sendak was working on a book called “Where the Wild Horses Are,” but he couldn’t draw horses. He could draw “things,” but not horses, so the book evolved into “Where the Wild Things Are.” Children everywhere loved it.

Celeste loved it. Gavin loved it. I loved it, and now I love it more because of what it represents from the writer’s viewpoint.

Sendak took one of his shortcomings, his inability to draw horses, and turned it into an astronomical success by merely focusing on what he could do instead of dwelling on what he couldn’t do.

That’s a great lesson for every writer — and parent — to learn.

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An innocent question about a buzzer recalls school shootings

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I don’t often think about the school shootings that plague American communities periodically.

intercom camera

Not long after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting on Dec. 14, 2012, every school in my county installed buzzers like this one to improve security.

Like most fathers in Anytown, USA, I watch the news when the violence erupts, wonder how anyone could commit such horrors, and struggle with ways to explain it to my children.

I might even shed a tear for the lives lost. But I move on before long as the busyness of life returns, thankful that my community has been untouched by the bloodshed.

Still, I’m sometimes reminded of the tragedies when I least expect it, like one recent morning after taking Celeste and Gavin to the dentist.

When their appointments were over, Gavin and I walked Celeste to the front door of her middle school, buzzed in through the main office, signed her in, and waved good-bye as she walked off to class.

“Your turn,” I said to Gavin on the way out. “Let’s go to your school now.”

“Why did you have to hit that buzzer?” he asked.

“Because the school is locked,” I answered without much thought. “The only way in is through the buzzer. You hit the buzzer like a doorbell, and the secretary in the main office can see who’s at the door through the camera.”

“At least there aren’t locks on my school,” Gavin said.

“Oh, there are locks and a buzzer on your school, Gavin,” I said, again with little thought of where the conversation was going. “They’re on all the schools now. You just don’t see it because the school is open when you arrive. Once the school day starts, they lock the doors and turn on the buzzer.”

“But why are there locks on the school? Is there money in there? Is it to keep out robbers?” he asked.

“No, not money,” I answered, starting to wake up to the direction of the conversation.

“Gold?”

I didn’t want to talk with Gavin about school shootings and increase security on the two-minute drive to his school. “No, it’s much more valuable than gold,” I said, hoping he would drop it.

“What is it?”

Seeing no way out, I thought of a question that might appease him. “When you walk through school, what are the halls full of?”

“Kids and teachers,” he said.

“That’s right.”

“But why does the school need to lock the doors?” he said.

A quiet moment passed as I searched for an easy answer. “Oh, I know,” he said as he buried his face in his lap.

“What?” I asked.

“I don’t want to say it,” he mumbled.

“Say what?”

“You won’t be mad at me?”

“Of course not. Tell me.”

Gavin lifted his face, and looked me squarely in the eye. Innocence beamed out of his pupils like headlights cutting through the early morning fog.

“Murderers,” he said. His lazy R’s stuck to my ears like dusty sweat to my forearm on a humid afternoon.

He was right, of course, but I questioned how much I should tell an 8-year-old about school shootings when they aren’t even in the news. After all, children shouldn’t worry about a lunatic gunning them down while they are learning square roots, the names of the seven continents, and the rules of grammar.

“Where did you hear that?” I asked, knowing that Karen and I never would have used that language to explain school shootings.

He shrugged. “I don’t know,” he mumbled.

I didn’t press him on it, though. My time was up. We had just pulled into his school’s parking lot. We walked silently through the cars and to the front door. I showed Gavin the buzzer as I pressed it.

“See? It’s right here,” I said.

“Oh, I guess I never saw it before,” he said.

“That’s OK. It’s not your job to worry about these things,” I said. “That’s what adults are for.”

I passed the buzzer on my way out of the school, part of me thought how silly they are. After all, a locked door and buzzer won’t stop anyone who is determined from breaking into a school and gunning down innocent children.

But just as that thought entered my mind, I pictured the lock on my front door. I’m sure it won’t stop a determined gang of masked bandits from invading my home and robbing my family of every ounce of security we feel.

But I still lock it.

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Seeing myself in rude people while selling Cub Scouts popcorn

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I learn a great deal about myself as I father my two children, and most of the time I never see it coming.

Gavin selling popcorn

Gavin checks the inventory left to sell.

I certainly wasn’t looking to learn anything a couple of weeks ago when I stood with Gavin as he and another boy were selling Cub Scouts popcorn outside of our neighborhood grocery store for the pack’s annual fundraiser.

But I learned it nonetheless.

Every time someone walked in or out of the store, the boys would approach them and ask politely if they’d like to buy popcorn.

Some people would stop and say a kind word or two.

“No, thank you, boys. I’m not interested,” some said. “But good luck!”

“Thank you, but I have my own Boy Scout, so I have all the popcorn I need,” others said.

Some donated $2, 5 or $10, preferring not to take on the extra calories that come with the chocolate- or caramel- covered treats.

And still others rushed by as if the boys were selling hemorrhoid cream, leaving them disappointed and frustrated.

I hate to admit it, but I saw myself more in that latter group than the previous two whenever I would pass any other child selling anything outside of a store.

I would rush by their stacks of cookies or candy without a thought or word. I was always in a hurry to buy what I came for, and couldn’t spare the 15 seconds it would take to politely decline their cute sales tactics.

I never gave it another thought because I never looked back to see the disappointment on their face.

But I saw it often in Gavin’s face as potential customers couldn’t find it in their busy schedule to politely decline popcorn.

“That’s OK, Gavin,” I said more than once. “No one has to buy popcorn, and you can’t make them be polite.”

“I know,” he said.

“But you still need to be polite to them,” I said. “Even if they say no, be sure to say ‘thank you.’”

Gavin got the hang of it after a while, and routinely thanked people whether they bought popcorn or not. He even sold enough to earn a pocket knife as a prize.

And I saw enough rudeness to two boys raising money for Cub Scouts to make sure I stop and say a kind word the next time I pass a child selling treats outside of a store.

If you’d like to buy any popcorn to benefit Cub Scouts and Gavin’s pack, just click here. If not, that’s OK too. Just politely click on by.

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Can I make it through adolescence and middle school without blinking?

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I want to be the first person to never blink again.

school workSounds crazy, right? Especially for someone who wears contacts and whose eyes dry out in the time it takes a cat to run to you when you open her can of food, but it makes perfect sense to me.

You see, my kids change ever so slightly every time I blink. Add all the blinks together, and they’re off to college before I had the chance to register them for kindergarten.

If I don’t blink, I won’t miss them growing up.

Not so crazy after all, am I?

Of course, it won’t stop Celeste and Gavin from growing up, but at least I won’t miss it. That’s a worthy goal, no?

I think of this on the eve of another first day of school. It’s our seventh so far, so by no means are we new at this, but this one feels different because Celeste is starting middle school.

She and Gavin won’t be in the same school again for six years, when Celeste is a senior and Gavin starts high school.

Damn, I just blinked.

Part of me can’t help but retrace the steps I took when I was her age, and look at these next few years with some degree of dread.

I didn’t like junior high school, which isn’t quite the same as middle school, but it’s close enough.

Elementary school was fine. I had plenty of friends, and did well enough in class to be called a gifted and talented student.

But something changed in junior high. I don’t know if it was the sweaty gym socks, different cafeteria food, raging hormones, or a potent combination of all three, but something ran through the halls of that junior high school that profoundly affected me and my studies.

I started seventh grade in honors classes, but struggled to understand the work, especially math. And when my struggles grew too much, school administrators switched me to easier classes.

Turns out I wasn’t so gifted and talented after all. I was just more mature, which makes sense given that I was a year older than most kids in my grade. (I was held back a year early in elementary school.)

By the time my classmates started catching up with me, any gifts and talents I might have had didn’t look so special anymore. I’m sure I held my head high, and didn’t let on that it the setback bothered me, but when I think back to those days through the lens of adulthood I can honestly say  it did.

I found myself in classes with many kids I didn’t know, and entered a fog of adolescent wandering and delinquency that didn’t lift until after I graduated high school.

Part of me fears Celeste might find herself on a similar path, especially as we try to find the delicate balance between learning, studying, having fun and goofing off, sports and even helping other people.

We talked about it one night a week or so before school started, as she was worrying about the transition to middle school, the amount of increased homework she’ll have, and the pressure she’ll face to excel academically. I tried to tell her that while doing well in school is important, there’s much more to life than studying.

“What good is it if you spend all your time studying, and no time helping other people?” I asked.

“It’s not,” she answered.

“What good is it if you spend all your time alone studying, but you can’t relate to other people and you have no friends?”

“It’s not,” she answered.

“That’s right, because studying is only one side of who you are. I want you to always study hard and do your best. If you earn straight A’s, then good for you. I’ll be proud. But if you don’t, and I know you tried your best, then I’ll be just as proud of you.”

We sat silent for a few moments.

“Do you know what’s more important than book smarts?” I asked.

She shook her head.

“Imagination. What good is it if you memorize every fact in the world, but you can’t think of a way to use them to help solve world problems?”

“It’s not.” She paused. After a few moments, she continued. “I have a good imagination.”

“I know you do, and I can’t wait to see your first invention.”

“I already know what it is.”

“You do? What is it?”

“A jetpack you wear so you can get to work without traffic.”

I smiled. “I’ll be the first to buy it.”

We’re a month into middle school now, and I’m happy to say that Celeste is adjusting fine so far. Perhaps her path through middle school won’t have as many potholes as mine.

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