Sometimes prayers get answered in the best way possible

Parents have differing ambitions for their children, one supposes. Everyone wants their kids to be happy, to live fulfilling lives and to avoid the mistakes that they themselves have made.

However, one also harbors the suspicion that those with more temporal aspirations for their offspring – riches, marrying “up,” political ambitions – are more likely to keep such objectives to themselves, their spouses or a tight-knit group of friends who think along the same lines.

My hopes for my six children have always been the same: good health, happiness and holiness (I like alliteration). That’s been my prayer for each of them every night. If they can achieve a modicum of those three, their lives will be rich beyond measure.

For daughter No. 3, who I will refer to as Caroline, since that’s her name, my prayers have already been answered many times over. Not only is she a happy young lady and goes to church on her own, but she has overcome a host of early health issues that left her life in jeopardy from the moment she was born.

Caroline was diagnosed with a congenital cystic adenomatoid malformation before she was born. Because she was a twin, there was no chance of doctors performing surgery while she was still in the womb. The congenital cystic adenomatoid malformation, or CCAM, prevented one of the lobes in her right lung from developing, leaving it instead a mass incapable of functioning like normal lung tissue.

Daughter No. 3 in action earlier this year. And, yes, she will exact revenge upon me for using this photo.

Fortunately, she was delivered at one of the best hospitals in the Southeast, the Palmetto Health Children’s Hospital. Within moments of her birth, she was whisked to the neonatal intensive care unit. Almost immediately, because the CCAM was preventing her from getting necessary oxygen, she was placed on a frightening piece of equipment that provided extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, called an ECMO machine.

ECMO is a heart-lung bypass that oxygenates the blood. It is described as “advanced life support technique used for patients with life-threatening problems.” It is used “only when all of the standard treatments for those problems have already been tried.”

The goal is to support the patient while doctors try to treat the underlying issue. Unfortunately, the longer a newborn is on ECMO, the greater the chances of bleeding in the brain, which can cause brain damage or even death.

My then-wife, having given birth to twins by caesarian, was recuperating and understandably unable to visit Caroline in the hours after her birth. I was able to see my daughter within an hour after she’d been born, and she was already hooked up to the very large machine, with oxygenated blood being circulated into her body through a cannulae in her neck. Standing there alone, with just a nurse monitoring her, as machines beeped and blinked over my tiny baby was very sobering experience.

Even more difficult was what occurred a short time later, when a nurse asked if I had a priest I wanted to call. She knew we were Catholic and that if things didn’t look good for Caroline that we would want her baptized immediately. I said yes, and made the call.

The priest showed up a short time later and not only baptized my hours-old daughter, but also gave her extreme unction, better known as last rites. Caroline had been born at 1:01 p.m. and I distinctly remember more than once praying that she make it until at least midnight, so that no would think she had been a stillborn. It’s odd what one dwells on in times of crisis.

My mother had flown out from California and my ex-wife’s parents were on hand, as well. As excited as everyone was about the second baby, who I’ll call Abby, since that’s her name, there was a definite sense of foreboding as we watched little Caroline struggling while hooked up to the ECMO.

We would visit her regularly, and I was there one day by myself when she opened her eyes for what I believe was the first time. She was looking directly at me. I have no idea if she could focus on me or even knew of my presence, but it was a positive development. It was on that day that she was able to grip my finger with her tiny hand for the first time.

However, attempts to take her off ECMO weren’t progressing. Because of the danger of brain bleeds, the maximum time a newborn is allowed on the machine is three weeks. As we passed the two-week mark, Caroline’s compromised lungs still were unable to take the strain of her breathing on her own. Doctors had removed the mass, but each time they tried to take her off the machine, she wasn’t able to get enough oxygen into her bloodstream on her own and would have to go back on ECMO.

Walking outside the hospital one late spring day, I distinctly remember asking my mom if we would have to look into organ donation. She said we should wait and see what happened.

As the third and final week of Caroline on the machine came to a close, things were not looking particularly good. But just as we were preparing for the worst, Caroline’s lungs improved enough that doctors were able to remove her from the heart-lung bypass and she was able to breathe on her own. It seemed like a last-minute reprieve.

There were more challenges ahead. Did she have brain damage from her extended stay on the ECMO? (no, fortunately); she had had so many surgeries that she had become addicted to morphine, which she had to be weaned from; she would spend more than three months in the neonatal intensive care unit before she could come home and join her twin and older sister and brother, and she needed physical therapy because her neck muscles hadn’t developed, leaving her unable to hold her head up, because she had had to lay in the same position on the heart-lung transplant machine for three weeks.

Why do I write this today? Last night Caroline attended her high school cross country team’s annual banquet. The girl born without the middle lobe on her right lung spent the last five years running cross country, and another four years running track.

She wasn’t the fastest, but she worked hard, didn’t complain and developed a love for a sport she will likely enjoy her entire life. Ironically, it was eight years yesterday that she went for her first run, with her stepmother – my wife – who took her and her sisters out for a jog to introduce them to the sport.

Over the past few years of attending my daughter’s cross country races I’ve seen parents yell at their children for not finishing as well as the parent would have liked. I’ve seen parents say how disappointed they were with their kid’s performance, turn their backs on them, walk away from them and even make them cry.

Me? I was grateful for every time Caroline got out there and ran. She made some wonderful friends, was part of a good team and learned lessons that will serve her well through life. Many a time as she ran past me I thought back to that spring when all I wanted was for her to live to the next day, or to open her eyes just once so she could see me.

Needless to say, many times over the past five years I’ve thanked God for giving me the chance to see my daughter run, and last night, when she walked up and received her school letter from her coach, culminating years of hard work, I said another prayer of thanks that she has come so far.

She is a good person with a good heart, as are all of her siblings.

It is said that we often don’t know what we have until we’ve lost it. Having nearly lost a daughter at birth, I’ve long recognized and appreciated what I have with my children.

Jesus: Apostles needed; Goliath need not apply

the last supper

I’ve occasionally pondered a blog dedicated solely to the religious adventures of Daughter No. 3. For one, there’s definitely no lack of material. She’s the one who most recently expressed interest in looking into the church role of “crucifier” (rather than “crucifer,” the individual who carries the processional cross into and out of church at the beginning and end of mass).

But as much as I chortle at some of her misguided answers to basic Christian history, I often find even better her attempts to explain her lack of knowledge.

Last week, for some reason (perhaps simply because I decided it was time for a little levity), I asked Daughter No. 3 what term was used to refer to the men closest to Jesus.

“UH, UH, UH, I KNOW THIS! I KNOW THIS! – The Twelve Disciples!” she shouted, proud as a peacock.

“No, not quite,” I replied. “You got the number right, but you missed on the title.”

“What?!? 12 Disciples! It’s disciples, I know it’s disciples!”

“No, I’m sorry, it’s not,” I stated. Then, looking at her siblings, I asked, “Anyone else?”

In unison I heard, “The Twelve Apostles!”

Daughter No. 3 was less than impressed. “Disciples, apostles, what’s the difference?”

After explaining that any follower can be considered a disciple, but the 12 specific individuals who were Jesus’ closest followers were his apostles, she seemed less than convinced.

So I followed up with, “All right, how many of the Twelve Apostles can you name?”

This, of course, is where the fun began; Daughter No. 3 began racking her brain for biblical names.

“David … Jonah … Adam … Abraham; how about those?” she asks.

“Well, you seem to be on a decidedly Old Testament bent, sweetheart,” I told her. “Think New Testament.”

She paused, then blurted out, “Matthew, Mark, Luke and John!”

“I’ll give you credit for two,” I replied, figuring that then was not the time for a discourse on who the actual authors of the books of Matthew or John might have been, or that the authors of Mark and Luke are not known. “That means you’ve got four more to go to get to 12.”

She paused, then reverted back to the Old Testament: Daniel? … Noah? … Moses? …. Did I already say David?”

“Yes. You need one more.”

“Uh, Joseph,” she said.

“Which Joseph,” I asked. “There are several in the bible.

Goliath, who didn't make Daughter No. 3's list as one of the Twelve Apostles.

Goliath, center left, who didn’t make Daughter No. 3’s list as one of the Twelve Apostles.

She stared blankly back at me in the rearview mirror. I tossed out a name: “How about Joseph, Jesus’ father?”

“Yeah, that’s a good one.”

I looked at her incredulously. “If your brother was, heaven help us, a religious figure of some stature, do you think he would want me as one of his apostles?”

That brought a round of laughs.

Still, she wasn’t budging from Joseph, the father of Jesus.

“Congratulations,” I said in my best game show host’s voice. “You just named two out of 12 of the apostles. And to think you completed a two-year confirmation course just two weeks ago.”

“They didn’t teach us anything,” she blurted out in semi-disgust.

“Oh, I have a feeling they taught you plenty, you just weren’t learning,” I told her.

With that, I got a wave of the hand and a laugh. She knows that since I teach in the same faith formation program, I have at least a slight idea what was going on in her class.

I did give her credit, though. For once she didn’t go to her safety answer for all bible questions. Typically, the first name blurted out, no matter what the question, is “Goliath.”

Progress is coming in very, very small baby steps, but it is progress nonetheless.

(Top: Leonardo’s Last Supper, showing Jesus and the Twelve Apostles.)

Dad ‘stunned’ to learn teen apathetic about religion

simpsons church

As my four younger daughters and were I were en route to the local library last night I asked Daughter No. 3 how her most recent Sunday evening religious education class had gone. Three of the four are preparing for confirmation and are in the first year of a two-year program. They are about as enthusiastic as any young teen would be about having to spend 75 minutes every Sunday evening learning about religion.

Daughter No. 3 was quick with her response: “We didn’t learn anything.”

Me: “What do you mean, you didn’t learn anything?”

D3: “We had a party because we won’t have another class until after the holidays.”

Me: “Well, that must have been nice, right?”

D3: “Oh, yeah.”

I then decided to see how much or – more likely, in her case – how little she was enjoying the class. “How about I ask you some questions about what you’ve learned this year?” Her sisters, sitting in the back seat, and likely hoping for a repeat of this memorable Q-and-A session, immediately voiced their assent.

“Dad!” Daughter No. 3 broke in. “No! You always ask me hard stuff. About the bible. You know I don’t know bible stuff!”

Now, to be fair, Daughter No. 3 is an exceptionally bright young lady. She has a very good chance of finishing the current semester with straight A’s and just last week learned she had earned recognition as a South Carolina Junior Scholar.

That said, she is not on the fast track for a doctorate in Theology.

“Okay,” I relented, “how about if I ask you about the sacraments? I’m sure you’ve gone over those, right?”

D3: “No.”

Me: “Really? You haven’t gone over the sacraments?”

D3: “Dad, we’ve only been to class a couple of times.”

Me: “You’ve been going since October, so it’s been more than a couple of times. Just name the sacraments. I’ll give you a hint: There are seven of them.”

D3: “Um, marriage, baptism, communion … confirmation … “

And then the fun began.

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Fifty years of good fortune, deserved and otherwise

tredagar iron works

I have absolutely no recollection of the event, but I know exactly where I was 50 years ago today: In a Catholic hospital in San Luis Obispo, Calif., being born. At least, that’s the story I’ve been fed over the years.

Since I don’t put much stock in the idea of changelings, I’ve gone along with this line and must say the first five decades have been interesting, perhaps even more so for those who have found themselves forced into extended proximity with me for an extended period.

The old phrase “Some are confused, others bitter” often seemed to best sum up the effect one was left with after a stint with yours truly. It might be added, however, that with the confusion and bitterness nearly always came no small amount of entertainment.

Highlights over the first 50 years (none of which are recommended):

  • A narrow escape from Mexico after trashing a hotel room with friends, ala The Who. It would be nearly a decade before I returned South of the Border, for which Mexican authorities were likely quite grateful;
  • Getting my first and only tattoo in North Hollywood, Calif., the night before the 1994 World Cup final, without telling my then-wife. She learned about it when I got home and found a small pamphlet titled “How to Care for Your Tattoo” while cleaning out my travel bag. There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth afterward, all of it on my part;
  • Shooting out the back window of a fraternity brother’s car with a pistol because I wanted to see “if the gun worked.” Fortunately for me, the vehicle was DOA anyway and ended up being towed away. Overall, the less said about college the better;
  • Catching a cotton rat, and then losing it in my house for a week before finding it in a pile of dirty clothes;
  • Spending a night in a Durham, N.H., hoosegow after having been “overserved” at a local drinking establishment, then sitting in said jail cell between two knuckleheads who spent the better part of two hours yelling at each other about who was tougher. Talk about an experience that made me particularly proud of my life choices; and
  • The “Hull, Quebec, Incident,” details of which will remain unspecified for the sake of all involved.

There are others – too many to detail, sadly – but you get the drift.

Fortunately, for all the dozens of stupid, inane and half-witted decisions I’ve made, I’ve gotten a few things right.

Some were out of my control, such as being born of loving parents. Others were blind luck, such as after my divorce I stumbled upon a wonderful woman who is now my wife. And then there is the good fortune that one can only chalk up to Providence, such as being blessed with wonderful children, whose goodness and love helps me to realize that no matter how difficult things can be – and they have been very difficult at times – there is always something for which to be thankful.

So, while I’d wager that the next 50 years will almost certainly contain far few hijinks and shenanigans, I’ll also guarantee that they’ll be more fulfilling and rewarding.

As the old saw goes, “Even a blind hog finds an acorn once in a while.” The good news is that this blind hog has finally wised up to the fact that he’s got a pretty good deal.

(Top: Photo of Daughters 2, 3, 4 and 5 at Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond, Va., last summer on a vacation arranged by their history buff father. Not surprisingly, they were good sports.)

Love of learning not an innate quality

colliers encyclopedia yearbook

A wise man once said “Teachers believe they have a gift for giving; it drives them with the same irrepressible drive that drives others to create a work of art or a market or a building.”

I am not that wise man; I have enough trouble trying to shepherd my own children in their studies.

Because my kids are products of a divorced household, my time with them is limited and the lure of video games, television and iPods at their other house has proven, more often than not, stronger than dad’s admonitions.

In fairness to them, had I spent the majority of my time as a youngster in a house essentially filled with children my own age and stocked with more games and toys than a small retail department store chain, it’s likely that reading and studying would have been well down on my list of priorities, as well.

Heck, growing up my home featured neither an army of co-conspirators nor a legion of amusements and I still avoided studying whenever possible, usually hightailing it out the door for the closest fishing pond or ball field.

My one saving grace was that I loved to read. Pretty much whatever I could find I would at least pick up and attempt to peruse.

This proved particularly useful when, as a youth, I would find myself banished to my room for various transgressions. (As I got older, my mother finally tired of wearing out her arm wielding the “spanking spoon” and decided exile a more suitable punishment.)

When I was around the age of 9 my parents received a collection of Collier’s encyclopedia yearbooks, years 1955 through 1973. They’d probably received them from friends who had relocated and didn’t want to lug the large, heavy tomes. My guess is that we must have gotten them in 1974, judging from the date of the last issue.

These were set up in a small bookshelf in my room, which proved convenient during my expulsion.

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Parenting: You’re doing it wrong

bad parenting

The following is in no way is meant to make light of child abuse, but sometimes you just have to shake your head in amazement at the poor decisions made by some parents.

The mother of a South Carolina middle school student who was being suspended has been arrested after authorities said she walked into the school and slapped the wrong child.

Tyshekka Collier, 36, went to Fairforest Middle School in Spartanburg County Wednesday morning to pick up her son.

When Collier walked into the office, she saw a boy sitting in the office with his head down. Mistaking him for her son, she slapped him in the face, according to Spartanburg County sheriff’s deputies.

However, the boy Collier struck was sick and was sitting on a couch waiting for his mother to pick him up, according to Fairforest Middle School Principal Ty Dawkins.

Dawkins said once Collier realized she had slapped the wrong boy, she apologized, and then walked over to her son and began to slap him for getting in trouble, hitting him in the head and face and knocking him to the ground, according to a Greenville television station.

Collier was charged with disturbing school and assault and battery. It wasn’t known if she had a lawyer.

Her three children are in protective custody, according to the Associated Press.

Daughter No. 3: Bible scholar in the making

read-the-bible

As anyone with more than one child can tell you, each has a distinct personality, no matter how much they look alike or how close they are in age.

Among my five girls I have a set of twins. The younger twin is much like her father: loves to read, enjoys the outdoors and everything agriculture-related, and likes catching critters. The older twin is much more of a “girl-girl,” big on hanging out with friends, keeping up with what’s cool and is easily embarrassed by dad’s antics.

Two other big differences between her and me: she has yet to “inherit” my love of history, and she has a gift for gab of which I could only dream. Those two characteristics were in evidence earlier this week.

While driving my four younger girls (ages 12, 11, 11 and 9) to their other house recently, I employed a David-and-Goliath metaphor to describe a situation, to which Daughter No. 3, the older twin, responded, “What does that mean?” I said, “You’re familiar with David and Goliath, right?” She said she was.

Knowing this one pretty well, I pressed her. “Okay, tell me something about David and Goliath.”

“Uh, one of them killed the other.”

“Which one killed the other?” I asked.

“Goliath?”

“Goliath what?”

“Goliath killed David?” she offered.

I tilted the rearview mirror down so I could look at her. She had a sheepish grin. “Are you telling me that after eight years of religious education you don’t know the story of David and Goliath?”

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