When Your Warrior Kid Faces a Challenge

About a month ago, we got some devastating news. And by we, I mean Gavin. He will be fine and is expected to make a full recovery. We will be fine. I should probably start with that. But we were not prepared for the emotional rollercoaster we have been on this past month. Since Noah died in 2015, we have not had anything significant happen in our family. But then again, when your barometer for “a big deal” is losing a kid and brother, your perspective is slightly skewed. We’ve gone on with our lives, working, going to school, and starting a non-profit. We’ve endured painful milestones like the first year, senior year, graduation, etc., and we’re still standing. We’ve struggled but survived, and in some ways, we have even thrived.

For those of you who don’t know, Gavin is extremely athletic. He has also been hurt over and over and over–especially in high school. I’ll never forget his first “serious” injury on the football field when he didn’t get up right away. He was nine, and my heart stopped. Since then, Gav has been plagued with injuries the doc attributes to his growing 6’1″ frame and high activity level. But a few months ago, Gavin called me from lacrosse practice saying he hurt his knee and was carried to his car. I didn’t think much of it, honestly. Just another injury. He usually recovers quickly. But when he got home, his reaction was severe, and over the next few days, we realized this wasn’t just another injury. Sitting in the orthopedic surgeon’s office a few weeks later, we learned he had torn his ACL along with many other structures that hold his knee together. The doc called it “the unhappy triad” injury. Option A: do nothing and never be athletic again, an unlikely option for a 16-year-old. Option B: a knee reconstruction with a 9-month recovery time that will carry through his senior year.

I’m sure you can imagine how Gavin took the news, the same way any athlete would. And I don’t blame Gavin at all for feeling like high school just sucks. This was something else to “endure.” It crushed him, and he knew it was big the night it happened. It just took us a minute to catch up. But what I am still struggling with is how hard we took the news as his parents. Allow me to vent for just a moment:

Just once, I would like ONE of my children to have a normal high school experience. Is it too much to ask for Gavin to go to prom and dance or work a summer job with his grandpa? Is it too much to ask for him to shine on the lacrosse field or wrestling mat without getting hurt? Can we go one school year without a move, death, or some other injury? I mean, seriously? Selfishly, as a parent, can WE experience these things with our kid–with ANY of our kids? 

I realize how insane that must sound, but as a parent, you have hopes and dreams for your children. You want them to take a nice girl to prom, to do well in school, to be happy. And Gav is happy. But it seems like nothing is easy. As a parent, we wanted Gavin to have normal, uneventful junior year. That’s all we wanted, knowing we’ve asked him to move his senior year. But that’s just not happening. And yes, I’m angry. I’m angry for him and us as parents. Our job for the remainder of this year is not about spring break or college visits. Instead, it’s about physical therapy, continuity of care during a PCS, and taking rehab seriously. There will be no spring lacrosse, working for Papa this summer, no day hikes on our cross-country PCS trip, no fall lacrosse at our new duty station, which oh, by the way, is always how he has made friends. It will be a whole lot of building quad strength and getting back to an “active lifestyle.”

Gav’s surgery was on the 13th. The stress and anxiety for all three of us leading up to that day, our first day back in a hospital since Noah spent his last week in one, was palpable around the house. The triggers started the moment we walked in: being handed a number to watch on the surgical screen, the alarm bells and monitors, the nurses rushing around, the bag to put his clothes in, seeing Gavin in a hospital gown, the IV, the waiting. All of the triggers were an assault on the senses. The procedure was meant to take three hours. I knew something was “off” when the doc came out at hour three. Of course, the damage was more extensive than expected. Why wouldn’t it be? That’s how we roll. He would need our consent to do the additional repair. It was like Deja Vu. Waiting, watching the board, and more waiting. In the end, the surgery took six hours. They repaired his ACL, ALL, and both meniscus.

In the recovery room, I felt feverish and physically ill. As he laid there with his eyes closed, I just kept seeing his brother, and when recovery was harder than expected, because he was under anesthesia for six hours, and we were five minutes from the deadline to admit him for the night, they finally decided to let him go home. That day led us to a breaking point we didn’t think we’d have to go through again–at least not anytime soon. They next day, we were all exhausted.

For two weeks, Gavin recovered at home in our guest room, equipped with care packages, ice, XBox, TV, and pain meds. Every day, he has made progress. Every day, we all feel a little more hopeful that he will be okay. Yesterday, he went back to school, on crutches again, in his rigid brace. This week, he starts PT. The experience has taught me a few things:

  1. Defining something as a “big deal” in comparison to the catastrophic loss of a child is just stupid. It is okay to be upset about things that have a significant impact on your life, regardless of what they are. It’s okay to have feelings about bad things, even when they aren’t “that bad.” Losing a kid doesn’t make us immune to reacting to other tough situations.
  2. Gavin is titanium. This kid has been knocked down more than I can count in the past two years. He gets up, dusts himself off, and keeps going with a positive attitude. He’s my hero.

For those of you with advanced warning of this post, thank you again for always supporting Gav and being part of his tribe. You make all the difference.

With much love,

Choosing to Be Happy

When I look back at this past three years in our life–the tough deployment, the rapid-fire move across the country, and then losing Noah–I can see how one might struggle to find happiness every day. I’d like to think that we Graingers can handle just about anything. But I admit that being happy is hard, flipping work for me lately.

Right now, we are in the midst of a journey. We are building a non-profit from scratch that I know with ever fiber of my being will change people’s lives and I’m so excited! I know it’s what I’ve been called to do and my husband, Gav and my tribe are behind me 100 percent. I believe in the mission. With the help of my tribe, we have refined our focus. We are confident we can deliver. But some days the fear of failure keeps me down. What if we build it and no one comes? What if our strategy is flawed? What if we aren’t cut out for this? The prospect of believing in something with your whole heart knowing it could fail is terrifying.

We are also preparing to say goodbye to this duty station and we could not be happier about moving closer to our “people.” But at the same time, we are facing a very difficult goodbye in this place where we were a family of four. I have the added challenge of saying goodbye to these mountains and hills that are part of me. I know it’s just geography, but they are in my DNA and I’m sad to leave.

For the first time, we will rejoin our military community as a family of three. I can’t predict what it will be like to be around people who have not been a part of the daily grind of our learning to live again. I’ve changed a lot in the last two years. I’m sure others have, too. I’m hopeful it will be amazing. But fear keeps me from fully believing things will work out. Will I be able to relate and reconnect? Will I be able to adapt after essentially spending time in a very insulated bubble with my tribe? What does the new me look like in our military community? How will what’s happened change how I interact with people who knew us “then?” The idea of sorting that out makes me sick to my stomach.

And then there’s the life in general. Life is so. stinking. good right now. In general, I am profoundly happy. For the first time ever, I have an ideal work/life balance. I am back home where I want to be. I am working part-time and going to school. I have no work drama. I have time to put energy and passion into The Beat Goes On Project. I have time to write. Dan is ridiculously supportive and my being home brings a certain amount of peace to our family dynamic–trust me. The three of us each have wonderful friends and are excited about our future.

Yet, fear keeps me trapped by the idea that it can come crashing down. The last time we were this excited about our future our son died and in an instant, our entire world was shattered. I live with constant worry every time Dan travels for work or when Gavin drives more than 10 feet from our house. The idea of one of them not coming home…let’s just say it’s been my experience that when life feels like too good to be true, it’s a matter of time before something horrible happens.

I have to remember what I believe. I believe that out of tragedy comes great purpose. I believe that it’s okay to change and do things differently. I believe that’s it’s okay to be happy, even when you’re also sad or scared. I believe that if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing well.

What happened to Noah has taught me that trying to control everything I’m afraid of is pointless. If something bad is going to happen, it will happen whether I want it to or not and I could very easily have my heart broken all over again. This nonprofit could fail for reasons I can’t predict. Our move to Virginia and our leaving here could be a disaster. Dan, Gavin, or anyone else I care about can be hurt or worse. I don’t kid myself into believing that because we’ve had the proverbial “worst” thing happen that we will never face another challenge. I’m a realist. Shit happens. Life. happens. It’s not for me to decide the next big, bad tragedy. But it is for me to decide how I live, now. The other day, a good friend reminded me:

Happiness is a choice.

I have a choice to be happy or let fear be my keeper. I can choose to live my best life full of purpose, love, and happiness or I can pack it in and go back to going through the motions. I choose happiness. I choose LIFE and whatever that looks like. Fear is not my keeper. Fear is normal. Fear makes me human. Fear reminds me that living my best life does not mean living an easy life. I will not give in to my fear. I will not be afraid to walk the path that is harder. I will not be afraid of my purpose. I will not be let fear keep me from being happy. I will not be afraid of change. I will not be afraid to return to the fold of our community. I will not be afraid to fail.

Noah, I thought about you today–about your fearlessness. As you got older, you stopped being afraid of being you. You were fearlessly happy. You knew what you wanted. You chased it. You lived it. You put your heart and soul into what made you happy. I promise you that I will do the same. I promise you that I choose happy. I miss you, baby. Until next time. ~Ma