Friday, December 3, 2010
Graduation day was the day I thought never would come. It was the day that I have been anticipating for the last six years. It was an event that almost didn’t happen, and it was a turning point for the lives of my husband, children, and myself. I have traveled a long and turbulent road the last six years, and if given a chance to go back, I would do it all over again.
Six years ago, February 2004, I enrolled in Cisco Junior College (CJC) to chase an un-fulfilled dream. From the time I started kindergarten, I would boast to people about my hopes to go to college. I had given up that chance right out of high school for, of all things, a man. Those of you, who know me well, know that it was a relationship doomed from the start. Just the same, I would not change that either, because it gave me the strength to become the person I am now. So, in 2004, after many failed attempts to go back to school, I once again filled out the paperwork for enrollment and financial aid. Just like before, I was accepted and the aid was approved, and just like before, another obstacle fell in my path.
My husband was seriously injured at work. He could not go back to his career because of the extensive spinal damage he had endured. With no income, we slowly lost everything we owned. I gave up my dream to become the breadwinner of the family and took a menial job at a truck stop to pay the bills. After a few days, the depression set in, and I doubted that I would ever get to go back to school. Eventually, we were soon left without a place to live.
Darren had watched me give up school time and time again for my children. The second time I enrolled, I found out I was pregnant with my son, Damien. I developed toxemia and was put on bed-rest, so school was not an option. The next year, my paperwork was once again submitted, and I learned I was expecting my younger son, Dylan. I was immediately put on bed-rest because of the risk and showing signs of toxemia in the first trimester. With two baby boys born a year to the day apart from one another, I knew there would be no time for school.
Several months passed, the boys were getting on the same sleep schedule, and I began to once again toy with the idea of going back to school. That is until something strange had caught my attention. Dylan had begun to talk. Now a baby saying his first words should be a joyous thing, but it struck horror in my heart. I was happy for Dylan, but I quickly realized there was something unusual going on with Damien. He had not spoke a single word. I called Dr. Rhaman in tears, and told her that I was worried about Damien. She fit us into her schedule to address my concerns, and the results were that something was definitely different about Damien. At sixteen months of age, we finally had a diagnosis for Damien. Damien was now part of the highly stigmatized group of children with autism. With therapies starting at five days a week, there would be no time for me to go back to school.
In 2004, my in-laws had graciously opened their home to us to help us get back on our feet. Darren saw that same pained expression on my face that he had seen time and time again when I talked about going to school. He pulled himself from his bed-ridden state, grabbed me by the shoulders, and looked into my eyes as he said; “You have given up school for everyone else. I’ll be damned if you give it up for me.” Darren found the strength to crawl out of bed everyday to search for work. He found the strength to be able to take a job that puts him in great pain every day, so that I could go to school. Darren found the strength to do this all for me, so I was determined to make him proud.
Though I was excited, the first day of the Fall 2004 semester, my stomach was in knots. I was nervous, tense, and shaky all at the same time. I wished to turn around and go back home, but Darren told me, “All first time students are probably just as nervous as you, so go in there.”
For me, CJC was the perfect place to start. The classrooms were small enough that I had the one on one time with the professors I needed to help re-teach my brain how to learn. That fall semester is the longest one I remember having. Not because I was a new student or because I was not adjusting well, I had high marks and found my place in the school. It was a long semester because I started it with five grandparents, Grandma K., Walter, Granny, Grandaddy, and Granny Kinney and was left with only two by the end. Grandaddy was the first to leave us, and I felt overwhelming confusion and guilt because I had not visited since I started school. Soon after, Granny passed away, I am convinced, from a broken heart. This was the third time I had ever seen my Dad cry, and my own heart was broken from losing two dear loved ones in a matter of weeks with one another.
In December, we lost Walter who had been putting up a good fight for several months. Since my return back home from Indiana, Walter and I had grown close to one another. I went home to visit him and my grandmother twice a month. At this time, I would cut his hair as Damien and Dylan would tell him stories. Losing him was hard on all of us, but especially for Damien, who had not yet learned how to adjust to change. He begged Grandma for Walter’s goose down coat, and Damien wore it for the next two years when the slightest chill would hit the air. I had never seen Damien take to a person other than Dad like he did to Walter. Again, my heart was broken, and I was filled with anger and grief from the losses that plagued my first semester of school.
It was Christmas Eve when we buried Walter that year. The wind was a bitterly cold wind that sliced right through me and took my breath away, and there was snow and ice on the ground. Our fingers grew numb from the frigid air, and our holiday was heartrending. I wanted to take the pain away from my both my grandmother and my son, but I knew the only way I could help was to just be there for them when they needed me. I offered them a kind ear and opened my heart to them. When we arrived home, we received the news that my mother-in-law had been rushed into emergency surgery. I was thankful that the news was good, and she was quickly on the mend. I can easily say this was one of the worst semesters of my school career.
Shortly after my Spring 2005 semester began, I learned that my father was very ill and he had to have an emergency triple bypass surgery. My brother and I rushed down to Galveston to be with my mom and dad during difficult time. Dad made it through the surgery fine, so I sighed a breath of relief and began to once again concentrate on my studies. Unfortunately, that semester was filled with sorrow as we lost a few of my Grandmother’s siblings. It was at this point that I finally decided I was being tested to see how bad I wanted to go to college. I felt this way because Grandma is always telling me, “God never gives you more than you can handle.” I decided if this was true, then I can handle anything that I face. I can overcome any obstacle that is set in my path, and I can finish school if I really put my mind to it.
Soon after I finished my semester and due to Darren’s hard work, we were once again in a home of our own. I diligently studied and maintained my high grades. The boys soon began to understand the importance of my education. Damien worked as hard as he could in his many therapies, and all was right with the world.
That is until my Great-Granny Kinney entered Heaven. Granny Kinney and I had become steadfast pen pals since I moved away to Indiana. We continued to write to one another about everything and nothing throughout the years, and when she left, a part of me was taken with her.
Very little time had passed, and Daddy was once again ill. He was scheduled for a MRI. It was at this time that we learned of Dad’s failing kidneys due to an aneurysm in the arteries that fed his kidneys. Unfortunately, the aneurysm was one that the doctors had not experienced before. It was at what they called the ‘y-junction that split off to each kidney.’ He would need more surgery, and more surgery he got. I spent all of my free time visiting my dad. We woke up early every morning and walked across the street to the Sea Wall, where we would sit and watch the sun rise over the Gulf of Mexico. We would talk and laugh as we took in the awesome sight. Fall Semester 2005, began and Dad grew increasingly ill, but he did not let that break his spirit. He still found the strength to laugh, cut-up, and play. No matter how bad he hurt, I still received my daily phone calls from Dad, and Dylan would tell him the joke of the day. The semester ended on a higher note than the rest. Dad had survived another surgery in October, and we still had him with us.
That Christmas, we decided to drive down to Galveston and spend Christmas there since Dad wasn’t cleared to drive yet. Dad had all of his children in his home again for that holiday season. The house was filled with warmth, love, and the laughter of children. There was no bickering or complaining and the Christmas of 2005 proved to be one of the best ones on record. However, it was easy to tell that Dad was still in pain.
Over the next few months, Dad’s personality began to change. He tried to be his same old jocular self, but I could tell there was something wrong. He told me that he was sick with a bad infection from the surgery. The doctors were having difficulty ridding dad of the infection. As the days lead to weeks, Dad grew more and more ill. Every time he had one problem treated, another problem would arise. Dad kept his spirits up and still called the boys and me every day. And every day, the boys sat by the phone waiting for his call.
As my final semester at CJC neared an end, Dad called me and talked on the phone with me for the longest he had ever talked to me. He kept telling me how much he depended on me to be strong for the family. He told me to make sure I loved my kids with all my heart and unconditionally. He made me promise that I would quit smoking and no longer take a day for granted. Dad had me promise to let the kids be kids and not to let them grow up too fast. He asked me to look over Zach, Allyssa, and my mom. All these things he said confused me and didn’t make sense, but I gave my word anyway. Dad finally told me that he was sorry for anything he had done wrong, “And I want you to know how much I love you. Don't you give up on college. It is a dream you've had since you were a little girl, and I want you to promise me you will finish, baby girl.” The words are etched in my mind as a souvenir memory, one that I will always cherish, and one that I’ll never forget.
I received a phone call from Mom at four in the morning. She could hardly speak and was able to let me know between sobs that we, Scott and I, needed to get to Galveston as soon as we could. With only two weeks of the semester remaining, I threw together some clothes, called Scott, and the four of us (the boys included) were on our way. The doctors had to do an emergency surgery on Dad and he was not doing too well. They were contemplating doing another surgery to take his legs or just remove the clamps that were stopping blood flow to his legs when we arrived.
The doctor said they were about to wheel him down to surgery, and I asked if we could see him. To start with she said no, but I explained that we just arrived from Abilene after being on the road for six hours. She agreed to let us see him. Though she tried to prepare Scott and I, there was nothing the doctor could have told us to prepare us for what we saw. The man we saw was not our dad; he couldn’t be. He was too swollen and bloated to be the man I affectionately called, “Daddy.” Scott stopped cold in his tracks as tears filled his eyes. He couldn’t… he just couldn’t. I walked up close to Daddy, and tears streamed down my cheeks. I took his ice-cold hand into mine bent over to give him a kiss. A tear dropped on his forehead as I whispered in his ear, “It’s okay, Daddy. You can go home now. You don’t have to wait on me and Scott anymore.”
Hand-in-hand, Scott and I watched as the nurses wheeled our father down the hall. I think we both already knew, and suddenly everything that didn’t make sense the night before made perfect sense. I wiped my face and put on my best smile for the boys, who I had left with mom. The ‘Nemo’ fish in the aquarium of the waiting room entranced Damien as Dylan watched the starfish’s every move, when the surgeon returned. I knew we had sat there for quite a while, but it seemed that no time had passed at all. I smiled at the doctor, and the smile was not returned, “I’m sorry. We lost him.”
Damien gave me a perplexing look as he asked what she meant. I think the hardest part was trying to explain to the boys that their Paw-Paw had died. The words didn’t come easily, but they understood. We were removed from the room to grieving quarters as the boys clung to one another bawling. I don’t remember much of what happened after that, everything just went by so terribly fast.
The remainder of the year is very much a blur. I had lost one of my best friends. I would no longer receive a daily phone call, I would no longer have someone to calm me down when I got frustrated, and I would no longer have someone to remind me that things were going to come out just fine. I had to be the strong one in the family, and I had to begin to rely on others when I didn’t have strength. I had to put my trust elsewhere and learn to let go of things that aren’t important. Most of all, I had to begin to rely on myself.
Every semester since, I have suffered the loss of loved ones, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends. Each time, I have to remind myself that God will not give me more than I can handle. Every day has been a struggle, but the years have also granted my fruitful rewards. My Bible classes helped me to remember to hand my burden over when times get tough. They have reminded me to forgive those who have hurt me, and that doesn’t mean I have to forget. My education classes have shown me where my passion lies and has fostered many relationships I hope to hold on to. I have learned once again how to laugh when the road gets rough and roll with the punches.
My education has contributed to the well being of my family as well. I have learned how to be a better parent for Damien. I have learned how to teach him to become an advocate for himself and how to give him responsibility for his own education. From this knowledge, Damien has grown into a fine young man that has surpassed every doctor, psychologist, psychiatrist, and specialist’s expectations. He has graduated from his therapies and is in all but one regular education classes. My extensive research on autism has helped me to open Damien up to the rest of the world.
This is a world that Dylan has become a part of. Dylan has been able to understand more about his brother’s difficulties, because I was able to teach him. I have watched Dylan blossom from a wonderful little boy to an amazing young man. Dylan has become my rock, my study buddy, and my friend. He has become an advocate for others with disabilities, and his brother’s biggest advocate. Dylan has learned that there are more important things in the world than material possessions, and he does not complain when things don’t go his way.
Darren doesn’t complain either. He has become my biggest advocate and has pushed me to excel. Darren has taken on many of my responsibilities to give me time for school responsibilities. He has worked in a great deal of pain for the last six years to provide us with a home, food, and other needs. He has opened up to the children and me in a way he was not able to do before. Darren looks forward to family dinners at the table because it is the one time of day we can all connect. He enjoys family game night, when we turn off all the distractions and laugh with each other.
Because of school, I have learned to appreciate all of these things. I have learned to appreciate my family, and I have been given a wisdom that I didn’t know I would ever possess.
So I thank you, God for taking on my burdens when they were too great, my professors for challenging me to think, my classmates for reminding me that I’m only as old as I feel and it is okay to laugh, my friends for supporting me and understanding why many phone calls went unanswered or emails were delayed, my family for having faith in me and encouraging me all the way, my in-laws (all of you) for accepting me in your family and supporting me and helping me when I needed you, my siblings for helping me find humor and reminding me that I may be nerdy, but I am still okay, my grand-parents for telling me how proud you were of me for going to school, my mother for going through school with me and encouraging me to keep going, my husband for believing in me and accepting the fact that nerdy and airheaded is interchangeable, to Damien for teaching me as much and sometimes more than I taught you, to Dylan for filling my heart with warmth and laughter and breaking up the day when I needed breaks, and to my father for making me promise to never give up. I know you’re proud of me; and when I walked, you walked with me.