We all have that one kid. You know, that kid. That one who causes you to have your blood pressure checked. That one where your doctor tells you it’s ok to day drink. That one that has you googling what the age limit is for dropping them off at your local fire station. That one that makes you shake your head and squish your face. That one that makes you wonder if they were switched at birth. That one that makes you type in all caps. That one that makes you bang your head on the wall until you black out, who challenges your own existence, and who makes you question whether or not you will look good in black and white prison stripes. Oh yes, that one. Now listen, I know there are some of you out there cringing right now and yelling from the proverbial mountain top about how ‘blessed’ you are and how perfect your kids are. I think that’s fantastic. Good for you. But for the rest of you – the moms and pops who are real and honest, I know you feel me right now. I know you get it. I know you understand. And if you’re still in the middle of practicing Lamaze breathing every time that kid does something, I am here to tell you – there IS hope.
My son. Yes, my beautiful son. Oh, how everybody loved him. His teachers thought he was brilliant. My friends thought he was funny. Every-single-animal-on-the-face-of-the-earth adored him. They all saw his greatness. I did, too, but at the same time, he was the oil to my water. He was the nails to my chalkboard. The salt to my wound. I don’t know if we were so different or so much the same, but we clashed. Loudly.
My first inclination that he was going to be difficult was, well, the day he was born. First of all, he was born on his own timeframe and just the way he wanted to be. I remember his first cry. I remember it so vividly. I remember exactly what it sounded like. Why? Because it lasted for seven years. Yes, seven. I remember that my mom and I had to walk him and his sister on opposite sides of the street because God forbid her stroller got too close to his and if it did, the whole neighborhood had to hear his malcontent.
He was brilliant from the start though, I will give him that. After all, by the time he was four he figured out how to get out the front door to go swing on his friends’ swing-set down the street in 5 a.m. Of course, we all would have preferred he wore clothes during his adventure, but whatever. It wasn’t until he was in first grade that I knew he was actually gifted, though. Because after spending an entire, torturous night making up all of his missing assignments, I thought for sure he would never get behind on any work again. I was so proud of myself for doing some actual parenting and holding firm to making him do his work, so much so that I actually tooted my horn with the teacher the next day. It was cool until she told me that he must’ve figured out the system because that day, yes that very day, he did all his homework in class, yet none of his classwork, because he knew he couldn’t bring it home as he needed resources from the school to complete it. And, while he made me want to scream, he made me laugh deliriously when he and his buddy were the only kids with their Santa hats actually covering their faces during the school holiday performance. The entire-damn-time. And even though they couldn’t see, it didn’t keep them from dancing. Arms out and butts in the air.
I always knew he was sweet. I always knew he was caring. But I spent so much time chasing him around that sometimes, I missed it. I was so stressed and so tired and so focused on making sure he was doing what he was supposed to be doing that I wasn’t paying enough attention to the things he was already doing right that had nothing to do with conjugating verbs or multiplication.
On a random day in the spring of his second-grade year, I walked him into school like I always did, but on this day, I had to stay at the school just a little bit longer than normal. I didn’t know why he insisted on standing at the gate before school started or why he was choosing to miss out playing with the kids on the playground before they lined up. I thought something might be wrong and I encouraged him to go run free before the bell rang. But, no, he told me he had to wait, and wait he did. I stood to the side to keep my eye on him, in case he had a plan to escape.
In the flurry of all the before school chaos, I saw something that mesmerized me. I couldn’t take my eyes off of him as I watched his heart actually leave his chest and crawl onto his sleeve. He stood there less than five minutes before it happened, and it took literally took my breath away as I caught a glimpse of a boy his age being pushed up the ramp in a wheelchair. To this day, I don’t know for sure what his affliction was. I don’t know if it matters. He was paralyzed from the neck down. And as he came to the gate, my son ran to him and picked up his hand to give him a high five. I didn’t even have time to blink before the tears fell from my eyes and while I tried to wipe them before anybody saw, his teacher made her way to me, put her arm around me and simply smiled and said, ‘Every day.’
‘What?’ I was still fixated on him.
‘Every day. He waits there every day for him. He gives him a high five. And then Shane takes him to the basketball court to make him feel like he’s playing with the rest of the kids.’
I nodded. And, for the next 10 years, I did my best to smile and nod every time he did something that made me want to pull my hair out. He still drove me crazy. He still made me scream into my pillow. He finally got his act together in school, but it didn’t keep him from falling through the ceiling, or sneaking out, or hiding in the grass in the dark of the night with a voice changer trying to scare us. And while #Shaneisms became one of my favorite things, nothing kept him from saying things out loud that made me shake my head. Even as he got older, I still worried. I still stressed. I still wondered if he would ever become a responsible, productive member of society. I felt like, no matter how sweet he was, I was still constantly trying to pull him to the finish line. And then this moment came where my son turned into a man without me even knowing. It should have been a big moment. It should have included fireworks and an announcement. But, it didn’t. It was quiet. It was subtle. It was without fanfare and without the quest for reward.
After my husband was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer, life changed. It was hard to navigate. Things were perpetually busy. I couldn’t keep up. Between traveling for treatment, trying to keep the kids in order, getting my little one to gymnastics and everything else, I was drowning. My husband didn’t really want anybody to know, so my help was limited. When my husband and I traveled back East for his surgery, my mom flew in to help with my youngest daughter. My two older kids had already moved away and my sweet son, Shane, was in the middle of his senior year. I didn’t want to bother him. I wanted him to have fun. I wanted him to experience all the things he should during the last year of his school career. After all, we had taken him kicking and screaming into high school, cleaned out more lockers looking for missing work than I ever thought possible, and spent more time emailing his teacher making sure he had enough credits than I did sleeping. He earned it. By God, we earned it. I wanted him to have the experience so badly, and we were so close. We were so close to seeing the cumulation of all our hard work. But Chad’s diagnosis changed everything. We tried not to let it suck the joy of living. We tried to attend all the kids’ events anyway. We tried and tried and tried to let them just be. But, one day, I had to ask Shane for a favor when my mom was visiting with them. Just simply to make sure my mom knew how to get the little one to gymnastics. His response was simple. ‘Whatever you need me to do, I will do. Do not worry about a thing.’
The boy who I worried about more than anybody was now a man telling me not to worry about a thing.
Several months later, right after his graduation, that sweet son of mine joined the United States Navy after my dying husband encouraged him to do so. He did not want him sitting around worrying about him. He didn’t want him feeling badly. My husband didn’t want my son to be responsible for the life he knew he could no longer be responsible for because he was going to die. Instead, he insisted he go live his big, beautiful life and see the world and give back and do the right things, in spite of the fear of all the unknown we were living.
My husband couldn’t go to my son’s bootcamp graduation. He was four months into chemotherapy, and he just couldn’t go. My mom and I went, and you can imagine my relief that he survived it. Of course, he did mention that after growing up with me, the yelling and screaming by the Commanders in boot camp was a breeze, and my heart filled with pride that some of my parenting actually did help his future.
It’s funny though. When your kid graduates Navy Boot Camp, there are two things they want to do. 1. They want to go see that big steel structure in downtown Chicago, and 2. They want to go to the mall. Don’t ask me why, but if you show up at the local mall the day after graduation, you are bound to see a sea of sailors. And mixed in the crowd of recent grads, you have the civilians, who cannot wait to thank each and every one of them for their service. It might as well be organized like the end of a little league game where each line moves the opposite direction with high fives all around. At one point my son did tell me he appreciated the random ‘thank you’s,’ but at the same time he felt bad because he didn’t think he had done anything, yet. I tried to explain that just joining was enough. I don’t think he bought it. After looking at a few more stores and center kiosks, we made our way to the food court, and once again, I saw that heart of his push its way through his chest. I stood and watched from afar again, just like I did when he was 7 years old. He found the one man in the mall that he felt deserved recognition and a brief, ‘thank you.’ A man wearing a Navy veteran’s hat, still enjoying the sights and sounds of the mall. Without hesitation, he respectfully stood before that man who came 50 years before him, and told him that he could rest easy, and that his generation would take it from there.
All those sleepless nights, all the times of worry, all the shaking of my head, all the times I was afraid to answer the phone, all the missing homework, all the screaming in my pillow, all the tears when I thought it would never go right – just magically disappeared. In the blink of one, random magical moment, all the turbulent years just went away. Every fight, every piece of sarcasm, every single crazy shenanigan suddenly became worth it.
Don’t give up, friends. Keep doing what you’re doing. Keep trying. Keep forging ahead. Keep on keeping on. Because at some point, all the craziness in your life right now is going to become a laughable memory. I promise you this is going to get better. I promise you the chaos is going to become calm. I promise the you ‘that’ kid is going to be ‘that’ adult and that adult is going to make you prouder that you can possibly imagine. Because the most stubborn kid – that wild, impossible, stressful kid is not meant to be tamed. He is meant to be loved. And when they feel that love from you, they are going to hand that same love out time after time, after time after time, again. Take deep breaths. Take hot baths. Splurge for the massage. But above everything, just love them through it. I promise you, one day, they will love you back.
This story was submitted by Diana Register of Meridian, Idaho. Her book “Grief Life” is available in print and kindle. You can find more of her books here, and her podcast here. Connect with Diana on her author Facebook page, and Instagram.