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Challenge: Life Changes

Dinosaurs and Stairs and Miscarriages and Slot Machines

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[In recognition of Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month, this is a rough draft of the 1st chapter of my new book that’s in the works]

Dinosaurs & Stairs & Miscarriages & Slot Machines

by Russell Clark

Hyper mode: activated.

My curly-haired, independent daughter is doing circles around the living area with her scooter at ludicrous speed – giggling all the way – while our dog, Crowder, barks in frustration at the ruckus she is causing that doesn’t include him.

This is the daily routine right before bedtime to activate hyper mode. It’s the last-ditch effort to prove she’s not tired by doing laps with her scooter or having a dance party or treating me like her own personal trampoline.

“Kennedy, two more minutes until bedtime,” my beautiful, strong, perfect, wants-just-five-minutes-to-herself-before-bed wife, Shannon, proclaims.

“Ten more minutes, mommy.”

“Two.”

“Ten, mommy. Pleeeeeeaaasssseee.”

“You can have ten if you go potty right now.”

“But I don’t need to go potty!”

“Then, it’s time for bed.”

The kid jumps off her scooter in protest and falls to the floor, going limp.

“Go! Now!” I chimed in.

She slowly stands up and heads in the direction of the bathroom. She is distracted after two steps. She stops to properly examine the toy she found on the ground like a scientist finding a ground-breaking discovery.

“Bathroom! Now!”, my wife states as she pauses to finish her glass of wine, “What does Daniel Tiger say?”

“If you have to go potty, stop and go right away! Flush and wash and be on your way!” we all sing, like an embarrassing, annoying family that sings kid’s songs together.

Kennedy sighs as she walks like a sloth to the restroom and loudly opens the toilet seat.

“I got this feeling inside my bones! It goes ‘lectric baby when I turn it on!”

All potty breaks require renditions of the complete Trolls soundtrack.

“I did it! I went potty!”

“Good job!” Shannon and I say in unison.

“Now, wipe really good. Flush and wash and be on your way,” I remind her what Daniel Tiger says. “And hang the towel up!”

My daughter stops in her tracks and goes back to hang the towel up.

“Tell mommy night-night.”

She has to come my direction and plow herself down on my stomach on her way to give mommy a hug.

“I love you this much…” my wife joyfully tells our daughter as she holds her hands tight together.

“I love you this much…” she adds getting louder and opening her hands wider.

“I love you THIS much!” she smiles as her arms are open wide and she gives Kennedy a big hug.

Kennedy giggles as she is embraced in her mother’s arms. I smile knowing this moment never gets old. Even though it’s twenty minutes later from the time we were arguing with her about having two more minutes before bedtime.

Shannon secretly whispers in Kennedy’s ears: “Ask daddy if he’ll be a dinosaur.”

For a kid who never wants to go to bed the dinosaur is the secret weapon.

“Daddy, will you please be a dinosaur?”

Even when I’m engrossed by the baseball game or something mind-numbing on my phone, the dinosaur is the cue.

I pretend I don’t hear her.

“Daddy, will you PLEASE be a dinosaur?”

I shorten my arms slowly and stand up, ready to attack.

“You better hurry before Daddy Dinosaur gets you!” my wife gleefully insists.

The 42-pound four-year old sprints up the stairs, giggling all the way as I run behind her with my dinosaur roars.

“Roar! You better hurry! Roar!! I’m going to get you!” my deep dinosaur voice screamed.

We used to be so nervous about her going up and down the stairs. As soon as she discovered the stairs when she was barely crawling, she could be halfway up before we realized where she was. The baby gate only created a bigger challenge for her to escape and find her way up.

Crawling. Walking. Sprinting.

A lot has happened in nearly five years of going up and down these stairs being Daddy Dinosaur.

Before our daughter came into this world, I remember running up a different set of stairs to find Kennedy’s mama.

//

“Whatever you do – don’t forget where you left me.” Shannon begged her directionally-challenged boyfriend, as I was running back to our room on the cruise ship for a minute to secretly grab her engagement ring.

“I won’t.”

I did.

After I nervously changed into nice slacks, a button-down shirt, and tie and stuffed the engagement ring in my pocket, I became more and more nervous running up and down stairwell after stairwell trying to find where I left my girlfriend. It was a big cruise ship, dammit!

“This is the most important time in my life and I can’t even find her!” I said to myself as I began sweating profusely, frantically searching the ship.

The sun had gone down completely by the time I found my way back to her.

I shocked her standing behind her in the dark.

“What are you doing?! Why are you dressed like that?! What took you so long?!!”

As I tried to calm my girlfriend down (and myself), I honestly don’t even remember what I said in the next few minutes. It was probably something mushy that I’m sure I planned out in my head over and over.

Shannon wanted me to give her a good story to tell about our engagement. I knew I wanted to propose to her on the cruise. Her parents took us on this cruise for our Christmas present in 2004 with her sister, Kacie, and her boyfriend, Chad.

A year earlier was when I met Shannon through Chad and Kacie. Chad was my best friend in college. Kacie wanted Shannon to meet Chad’s “crazy friend Russell” to “show her a good time.” Shannon had been dating someone in college who she found out was engaged to someone else, and both of her paternal grandparents had passed away earlier that year. She was coming home for Christmas break so we all arranged to go bowling one evening.

I actually got lost the first time I was going to her house. I guess I tend to get lost at important moments in my life before I find my way. I went the wrong way on the highway for about 10 minutes before I realized I was going the wrong direction.

Chad and I were wearing Fred and Barney Flintstone Bowling shirts and fake mustaches the day I met Shannon. Chad and I taught the girls “speed bowling” where it’s not about your bowling score, but how quickly you can get up from your seat, bowl, and make it back to your seat. We laughed until our cheeks hurt that day.

We even went back to their house and watched mine and Chad’s two-hour road trip video to South Dakota. This is the most mind-numbing video ever – like an old Jackass show on steroids. It was full of insane antics, crazy hats and outfits at Mount Rushmore, and a dead bird’s burial.

As I reflected on our first evening together, I couldn’t stop smiling. She wasn’t looking for a boyfriend, and I wasn’t looking for a girlfriend because I had just ended a relationship with an on again/off again girlfriend. But I guess because we weren’t interested in dating that we let loose and just had a great time.

I thought, “If this girl likes me after seeing me at my absolute craziest, she must be the one!”

Two days later Chad and I were at a college event when the girls called us to go to the zoo. I practically did flips I was so excited. I think I did do a flip and injured myself.

Shannon and I spent every day together the rest of Christmas break. When we weren’t together in person, we were on the phone for two or more hours. After two weeks, we professed our love for each other. It was definitely love at first sight.

Shannon and I are complete opposites. She’s the “crazy business lady” who follows all the rules and is realistic about limitations in day-to-day life. I’m the laid back dreamer who always thinks we can do more than we can. We are the perfect balance. I’ve taught her to be more spontaneous and she’s taught me to think critically.

I fell in love with her because she was so independent and strong. In my previous relationship, my girlfriend needed me to be her minister and support system. Shannon had such a strong head on her shoulder she didn’t need me for anything.

She chose me.

Back on the cruise ship a year later, I was down on one knee professing how I want to spend the rest of my life with my crazy business lady.

She said, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” and we embraced and spun around. We didn’t know that people were watching on the deck above us and started clapping for us. We found Shannon’s parents and Chad and Kacie and told them the good news. Chad had a few drinks on the cruise ship already so he was telling everyone on the ship: “Did you hear the good news?! These two just got engaged!!”

He sometimes told the same people the good news two or three…or four times.

This was the first day of a seven-day cruise so we were pretty well known for the rest of the cruise.

And I think I gave Shannon a good engagement story to tell.

//

About seven years later, we were on another cruise ship. This time we were with Shannon’s father and his girlfriend (soon-to-be new wife), Lynn.

We had been married for six years. We wanted to spend some time on our own, earning our bachelor’s and master’s degrees and traveling some before we had kids. When we decided to try to have a baby, Shannon had three miscarriages.

Miscarriages.

It’s like a taboo thing to talk about. I never knew how many people have had miscarriages before we went through it ourselves.

It’s probably because people say the most God-awful things when you tell them.

“It wasn’t the right time to have a baby.”

“God needed an angel.”

“This happened because something was wrong with the baby and God is preparing something better.”

“Everything happens for a reason.”

Someone even said, “You’ll get over this.”

F--- you.

Don’t tell people that experienced such a loss any of those things. Just don’t tell them anything. Just cry with them. Just hug them. Just be there.

There’s no reasoning or logic or pithy statements of faith that will explain the pain of losing a child, no matter how early in the pregnancy it was.

With Shannon’s third miscarriage, she had to have an operation. I was a pastor at the time and I was thinking, “I sit with people during times like these. Who will sit with me if I’m the pastor?”

My lay leader, Jim Stroup, and my mother-in-law, Trish, flew from Texas to Florida to be with us at the hospital. Our friends, Tom and Michelle Christmas, both worked in the medical field and they were our listening ear when we were completely broken. They spent the most time crying with us during each of the miscarriages. For this, we will forever be grateful.

Let me tell you this pain is not something any parent ever gets over. It stays with you.

A mother never forgets what it felt like to have that baby inside of her. A father never forgets the joy of becoming a new daddy. To have that stripped away just once is unbearable.

Three times was unthinkable.

Being a dad had always been a dream of mine – a destiny I felt like I was called to at a young age. Like girls dream of the perfect wedding day, I dreamt of one day being a dad. My mom was a preschool teacher and I was always helping her care for kids at our home growing up. In college, I was a youth minister and I adored working with youth and children to believe in God and to believe in themselves.

Shannon and I did all the genetic testing to find out what was wrong with us. Nothing was wrong with us. Every test said we were perfectly healthy. All we found out was I have an extra chromosome. I call it my superhero chromosome.

We were considering adoption or doing IVF (In Vitro Fertilization). But I told Shannon we need a break because we are too stressed and grieving to know the right thing to do.

It was after Shannon’s 2nd miscarriage that we were on this cruise with Shannon’s dad, Kip, and Lynn.

Shannon had a couples massage scheduled for us the first day of the cruise. The massage was double-booked and Shannon couldn’t get the massage she desperately needed. Everything hit her like a ton of bricks and she broke down crying.

“Why the f--- can’t anything go right for us?!” I thought.

Kip took Shannon gambling for a while. I took a minute to cool down and get a drink. Later I met them at the casino and sat down on my own at a slot machine.

I remember thinking, “This slot machine can’t bring me joy. I just want things to go right for myself and my wife. We just want a baby.”

After three quarters, the slot machine hit the jackpot! I won $1600 the first day of the cruise!

Lynn’s daughter, Jen, and niece, Lisa, were on the cruise with us too and I was buying everyone’s drinks the rest of the day!

We went to a comedy club that evening and got Kip plastered. He was hilarious as we were eating late-night drunk pizza. That was the best part of a cruise.

At the end of the cruise, I sarcastically told Kip, “It’s just wrong leaving the cruise with more money than I came here with.”

“Oh, shut up,” he replied with a jealous grin.

//

It was a year later from this cruise – after going through our third miscarriage and giving up hope that we would ever have a baby – that Shannon became pregnant for the fourth time.

With three previous miscarriages, Shannon was doing everything the doctor told her – taking prenatal vitamins and staying as stress-free as possible and avoiding anything that was unhealthy for the baby.

We climbed a lot of stairs to become parents. When all seemed lost like we were going the wrong direction, we found our way.

Our story is one where joy and pain, laughter and grief, hope and loss all happen simultaneously.

//

As I ran up the stairs roaring like a dinosaur, I always caught Kennedy at the top of the stairs. I picked her up and tickled her and kissed her neck.

“Daddy dinosaur got you! Let’s brush your teeth now…”

Typically we would sing songs and making silly faces in the mirror as she brushed her teeth. Shannon would yell from downstairs, “You two are having too much fun when you’re supposed to be getting ready for bed!”

“Daddy, be a dinosaur again!,” Kennedy would proclaim as she ran to her bedroom and we both ignored mommy’s plea from downstairs.

“Roooooaaaarrrr!”

One of our favorite things has been for her to stand up in her bed and I act like I’m “using the force” from Star Wars and she fearlessly falls backwards on to her bed.

“Do that again, daddy! Do that again!”

After a few (fifty) times of using the force, I would lay down with her in bed to read her a book.

Then, it took her forever to pick out the stuffed animal she wanted to sleep with. She would change her mind and pick a different one. Then go back to the original one. Then want more than one. Then want every stuffed animal she owned in bed with her.

“Let’s say your prayer now.”

Shannon and I have said the same prayer with her at bedtime since she was born.

“Lord, thank you for our baby. Help her to keep growing and learning and talking. Help her to know she can be whoever she wants to be. And we will love her no matter who she becomes. Amen…

I love you sweet pea. Now go to sleep. Puh-lease.”

“I love you daddy.”

I hit the jackpot.

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