Tears to Cheers: A Dad’s Journey

 

By: Scott Reistad

“Every adversity, every failure, every heartache carries with it the seed of an equal or greater benefit.”  Napoleon Hill

I’m sure many have either heard, or even used this quote; however, I find it to be a bit incorrect.  For me, a more accurate version of this quote would be, “Every adversity, every failure, every heartache carries with it the seed of equal or greater benefit…IF YOU LOOK FOR IT.  If I don’t actually look for the benefit, many times it remains hidden.

I know many people who have dealt with adversity, failure, and heartache, and instead of growing from it, are mired in sorrow, regret, fear, and anger.  Unfortunately, this quote can also be used as a balm that good-hearted people say tritely when they don’t know how else to respond to life’s difficulties and unfairness.  And most challenging of all is this:  It is easy to say to others, but when life has sent bad things to you, it is a much harder pill to swallow.

And so begins a journey into my thoughts and feelings as to how I have had to work through tragedy and heartache in my own life.  With one of these being the tearful journey I have had to struggle through when my son Aaron, lost his vision to Leber’s Hereditary Optic Neuropathy (LHON).

I am a firm believer that one chooses their attitude at all times.  (I know…I know…there are chemical conditions that can arise in a person’s brain where they are predisposed to being depressed, or anxious, and that is not some thing that one can “choose” to not have without medical help.)  However, I do believe in the quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln, “Folks are usually about as happy as they make up their minds to be.” I also believe that you get what you look for.  In other words, if you are looking for bad in the world, you will find it; but if you look for good in the world, you will also find that.

It’s kind of like when you buy a new car, and then suddenly you see that same car everywhere.  Why?  Because suddenly you become aware of that style of car, so your mind notices cars similar to yours, even though before you never saw them and now suddenly you see them everywhere.  These quotes all seem simple when one is merely talking “theory”, but when it comes to “real life”, it becomes much more difficult.

Little did I know, two-and-a-half years ago, that all this “theory” would come crashing down on me. I was forced to find my way out of the darkness that had enveloped me with the news of Aaron losing his sight.

As a dad, I always wanted to be the person who could help my three boys (Aaron, Nathan, & Caleb) through the “yuk” of life:  The things we find ourselves in the middle of, and aren’t sure how we got there.  I believed I was supposed to be the one to help when there were issues at school with other boys, or teachers, or girls. I believed I should know the answer that would help them move through some of their pain.  In fact, I prided myself in being able to not get overly emotional when they felt their world was crashing down.  Instead, I would be the one to say things like, “Have you thought about doing this?” Or, “What if we looked at it from this point-of-view?”

Oftentimes, I would be able to chat a bit with my three sons, and they might be able to see a little bit of hope that was possible, and then I could follow it off with a hug and tell them that “It’s all going to be ok.”  Oh, sure, there were times where my advice and perspective didn’t do anything to make the situation better, but I walked away feeling that I had done my best as a dad. And many times, if my sons simply knew that I was proud of them and that I loved them, that that alone helped a little bit.

Yet when I was sitting next to Aaron as the neuro-ophthalmologist told him he was losing his sight and that there was no cure, I had no advice to give…no quick wit…no fatherly solution…nothing.  It was as if my heart had been ripped out of me.  I don’t even remember what I said to Aaron as we walked out to the car, but I do remember hugging him tightly and telling him over and over how much I loved him.  But I still wanted to be able to “fix” it somehow, with medical technology, or prayer, or anything!

How can I describe to you my pain? I’m guessing that many of you have been in situations where there is nothing to do but sob and hug everyone around you and just hope that it somehow isn’t real, that some error was made and this is just incorrect. But then you wake up the next day, and the situation has not changed.

I remember having to tell my wife and younger son, Caleb, of Aaron’s diagnosis when we got back from the clinic visit. How do you soften information that cannot be told in a way that makes it “all better”?

The first few days were overwhelming.  I couldn’t think of anything else. I kept hoping I would wake up from this awful dream; but the nightmare went on and on.  I knew what I had been told by the physician; but I was in denial as to wanting to believe that it was true.  Each time I had to share with friends and family what was happening with Aaron, it was as if another little piece of me was ripped away.

The only way to describe the situation would be when a person has a loved one die and yet that person repeatedly catches themselves picking up the phone to call them. In other words, you know the situation, but at the same time, you still can’t believe it is true.

I’m an emotional person and I can easily cry-like-a-baby watching relationship-type movies (The Notebook, The Green Mile, Ghost, etc) or movies of overcoming (Rudy, Hoosiers, Dead Poets Society, etc.)  But the days/weeks/months after the diagnosis of LHON, I truly was somewhat of a basket-case.  I would only think about how it was unfair…and how I was mad at God…and I was asking myself, and God, if this was punishment for something that I had not done right in my life.

But all I got from all of my questions was silence.

I had friends that were amazing blessings to me.  I had wonderful co-workers in my boss, peers, and staff who were wonderful, and many of them cried with me, and for me.   So many of my friends and colleagues came along side of me by offering their thoughts, hugs, and love.

As Aaron was finishing up his commitments for a summer internship, before he was to begin the final year of his Master’s degree, he asked me what I thought he should do about returning to school. How was I to answer a question like that?

I agonized over what to say…what to do…and how to treat him as my son; and yet, also as an adult. I wanted him to know that he could still do everything he wanted to do. I wanted him to know that life is what you make it. That we always have choices.  But how could I do that?  It was then that I realized that I had to go back to when I was a child and draw on the wisdom that my parents and doctors had shared with me.

Let me share a bit about my childhood, as it was far from typical. I grew up with severe asthma symptoms and was hospitalized about 30 days per year from about age 5 to 14.  Unlike today, where there that are many treatments for asthma, in the mid 1960’s and early 1970’s those were not available.  I was so sick that I actually failed to grow properly; I was emaciated and very short. I lived on a farm and it seemed as if I was allergic to everything there, but since it was my parent’s livelihood, we simply couldn’t move.

When I wasn’t in the hospital, I was at home, but that doesn’t mean I was well.  My sister regularly brings up stories from our childhood, and most of the time I can’t remember them. I was so sick as a kid that my childhood memories are mostly blocked out; which is probably a good thing, as most of the memories probably weren’t pleasant.

My grandma was always worrying about me because of my frequent hospital visits. Along the way, as a typical kid, I sometimes used my sickness as a manipulative tool to get my way with things. My very insightful pediatrician saw this happening, and he sat my parents down and “laid down the law”.  He told them they had to “let me be a kid” and that they couldn’t be “helicopter parents”, watching my every move, making sure I was safe, telling me constantly what I could and could not do, and ultimately worrying all the time.

He told them that I had to learn to be responsible for my health. And he told my mom and dad this very difficult advice: “You must let Scott make some of his own decisions as to what he should and should not do…EVEN IF…you know he is making a mistake. He has to learn. He has to be responsible. If you don’t do this he will become an emotional cripple because you will make him so with your actions.”

Kudos to my folks for taking action and accepting this difficult advice. They did let me make mistakes. I did a lot of stupid things that earned me a bed in the emergency room and hospital.  Yet because of these learned lessons, I was able to grow up a little more “normal” (Some of my close friends might dispute this!  J ). I learned that I could do things. I could even do things that my parents and grandparents thought I couldn’t do. And I even did things that they told me that I shouldn’t do too!

Oh sure, I made lots of mistakes, and I was held accountable for those; but over time I learned that many people put limitations on themselves that are only “phantoms” and truly not real at all. But because they believe that they are real, they actually become that person’s version of truth.

I agree with the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche when he stated, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. Oh, but wait!  I mostly believed that when it pertained only to me. So if someone told ME that I couldn’t do something, I would more than likely work my butt off to prove them wrong.

Yet here I am trying to answer my son’s question as to what he thought he should do.  Do I tell him to come home? Do I tell him to continue school? Do I tell him to take a break and finish school later? Should I express my fears in him being away from home? All answers seemed hollow and inadequate. After much praying and talking with my wife, Marie, I felt that I might be able to say something that could be helpful.

I said, through many tears, that he has a choice to make. Everyone faces things like this in their life that may not demand an immediate decision; it’s just that you are being forced to choose right now versus having the luxury to consider it in the future. I said, “No one would blame you if you moved home.  In the game of life, you’ve been dealt a “bad hand”. In fact, no one would even think it out-of-the-ordinary if you became bitter, angry, depressed, or maybe even started drinking a great deal, or doing other destructive things. This absolutely sucks!

But this is not the only option you have. You could be a person whom others look to in amazement as to how you have overcome such a hurdle. You could be like Stephen Hawking, unable to move and talk for more than 40 years, yet the world’s greatest theoretical physicist. You could be like Amy Purdy, the woman who has no legs yet was still a contestant on “Dancing with the Stars”. You could be that person who seems to overcome the greatest amount of adversity and yet still comes out a hero. But just know that whichever choice you make, it will be the right one. No matter what you decide, I will support you 100%, and you will always be my son who I love dearly. But YOU decide; no one else can do that for you.”  (It would have been a much greater speech if I hadn’t sobbed all the way through it! J )

For those of you who know Aaron, you know which path he chose.

A few days went by, and Aaron called me saying that he was thinking about climbing two of Colorado’s “14-ers” (mountains over 14,000 feet) when he came home in a couple weeks. He was unsure if he could do this, so he asked me what I thought. I had a flashback to the message my parents had been told by the doctor. And I relayed the same advice: “Sure, you can do that! In fact, you should do that!” And though I may have sounded completely confident, I wasn’t.

Ultimately, Aaron decided to hike them, and he summited those two 14ers with the help of his friend. It was in that moment of accomplishment that I felt as if Aaron was going to be ok. What I learned over the next few months was that I was going to be ok too. Sure, there were difficulties, and I still cried a lot, and worried, but each success that Aaron had not only reaffirmed that he was still very capable, but also allowed me to let go of my fear, anger, and depression that had invaded my heart and soul.

Over time, I came to realize that all of what others saw as “bad” things in my childhood actually shaped me into the person that I am today.  What if the “bad” thing is just what we need to become the best person we can become? How can we really judge if it’s a bad or good thing?

I recently watched a very thought provoking movie entitled, “The Arrival”. Here is the quote that is the crux of the film:  “If you could see your whole life laid out in front of you, would you change things?” It’s so easy to say, “Oh yes!” because we have all done a lot of bone-headed things that hurt us….hurt others….and have negatively affected our life.  But the question is not so easy because what one does not realize is that the so-called “bad” things shape and form us into the person we are today.

At the time in my life when I was young and ill, my parents/grandparents would have done just about anything to make me well so I would not have had to suffer and so I could be like any other “normal” kid.  But then who would I be today?  Definitely not the person that I am.

And that is the question that haunts not only me and Aaron, but also you too.

What if the so-called “bad” thing is just the thing that we need to become the best person that we can become?  How do we know if it is a “bad” thing or not?  For example, how do we know that when we have a flat tire that because this happened, we missed out on being involved in an accident down the road?

My parents helped me develop an attitude that I can do anything despite the adversity that I had to overcome.  Was it easy?  Absolutely not!  In fact, I missed a lot in school, was not really popular, was not athletic, was a bit of a loner, and yet this shaped me into the person I am today, which seems to be a good thing.

So, was my “bad” thing in life really bad?  Great question.  And this is the question we all struggle with when we lose a friend/job/etc. and think our world is ending.  We wonder if we will survive.  And yet to those who choose to look for the seed of equal or greater benefit, remarkably many times they do find it.

I knew that Aaron had found this seed about 15 months after being diagnosed. He received a call that he was chosen to be a part of an LHON research study where they were doing breakthrough research that could dramatically improve the eyesight of those with LHON.  I was overjoyed at the possibility that Aaron might gain his vision.  But Aaron seemed to be hesitating.  He then asked me if he should participate. I asked him, “Why not?”  He answered with the most astonishing reply: “Dad, I’m a totally different person now. I’m a better person.  What if I get involved in the study, gain my eyesight back, and then I go back to being the person I was before, who is not at all who I am today?”

It was then that I realize that my “bad” break as a kid with all of my health challenges had allowed me to become the person that I needed to be to be able to share my heart-felt thoughts with Aaron. It was through these experiences that I was able to help him choose to see how what might initially seem a “bad” thing could instead be a platform to vault forward and to be able to become a person who is an inspiration to the world.

Here’s the great news:  We can all become an inspiration to those around us when we speak honestly about our shortcomings, successes, failures, and triumphs. These make us not just human beings, but instead heroes.

And then I cried a whole bunch more.

 

2 thoughts on “Tears to Cheers: A Dad’s Journey

  1. Thanks you Scott (and Aaron) for sharing these inspirational thoughts! Especially the one about it being ok for men to cry:). Your writings really do inspire others to look for the good in everything!!

    Like

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