Cindy sent me a text last Tuesday to let me know the son of one of her co-workers had passed away after battling cancer. I knew he was terminally ill, but hearing he’d died still stung.
I had only seen the young man once, in passing last winter at a gathering hosted by Cindy’s employer, and I had never spoken to him. Cindy occasionally would share updates about him when she came home from work, and from time to time I’d ask her how he was doing if I hadn’t heard anything about him for a while. His obituary provided a little more detail about his life. He was a curious young man who was resilient, polite to a fault, and quite the athlete. This was the type of guy who fathers pray shows up on their front doorstep when their daughters tell them, “Daddy, I’ve met the greatest boy, and he’s coming over for dinner tonight!”
But out of all the details about this young man’s extraordinary life, the one thing that feels like someone has taken a branding iron and seared my very being is he was only 15 years old. Fifteen years old. Granted, he squeezed a lot into his way-too-brief stay on this planet, but his life story was barely past the “Once upon a time …” stage. There still were accolades to earn playing varsity sports in high school. Dates with pretty girls, and approving nods from their dads. Success in his chosen field, whatever it ultimately might have been.
His passing hurts me, because no parent ever should have to bury a son or daughter. It’s also had me thinking a lot about my son, Nolan, who turned 15 just last week.
Nolan is a kid with an abundance of energy, a very healthy appetite, a love of music, and an emerging sassy teenage attitude. He also has Autism and is nonverbal. His pediatrician would like to see him drop below 200 pounds, but other than that he’s a pretty healthy kid. Barring any unforeseen circumstances, I’d like to believe that he’ll be around to make us smile and give us grief if or when we’re octogenarians.
If he were to be taken from us prematurely … believe me, I don’t want to even want to think about it.
I’ve told Cindy several times over the last few weeks that even though we deal with a multitude of challenges as a family beyond having a teen on the Autism Spectrum – work, finances, lack of sleep directly related to the aforementioned reasons – what’s important to remember is Nolan is very much alive and here with us. We have the honor and privilege of getting to take care of him. We get to hug him, and sometimes he even lets us! We go to sleep at night knowing he’ll wake up the next morning, ready to face a new day. There is always the possibility he'll be up really early -- say, 2 a.m., as was the case last Friday -- but hey, he's usually happy.
It’s so easy for me to piss and moan and string together expletives because Nolan is wreaking havoc in our house. We’re coming off a weekend that included him wetting two sets of sheets within a couple hours Saturday; staying awake until almost midnight Saturday evening; a handful of number twos in the britches even though he’s demonstrated he’s very capable of relieving himself in the toilet; and a Sunday evening that consisted of yelling almost nonstop for several hours and making Cindy and I both marvel at the strength of his vocal chords and consider putting noise-cancelling headphones on each other’s Christmas lists.
I’ve had my fair share of moments where I’ve mentally channeled my inner Homer Simpson and inwardly yelled, “Why, you little …!” when Nolan is being difficult. But I’d be lost without him. There was a moment when I thought that was a possibility.
Cindy and I decided to take Nolan to a high school girls basketball game when he was 7. We’d no more than unbuckled his seatbelt when he got out of the car, started giggling and doing a sideways gallop into the middle of the parking lot. Then we saw the headlights of a car that was headed straight for Nolan, and while my mind was screaming, “Get to him – now!,” my body froze and there was no way I would have been able to reach him in time. Thankfully the driver was an older woman who hit her brakes with a few yards to spare, at which time our hearts had started beating again. I don’t remember anything that happened at the game – just lying on the couch and staring at the ceiling when we got home, thankful the only damage anyone had suffered was frayed nerves.
As far as Nolan having to stay in a hospital for days or weeks if he had a serious illness or injury, I don’t know if I could hold up.
Nolan has had five medical procedures (MRI, combined EKG/eye exam, removal of the adenoids, two oral surgeries) over the last 12 years that have required him to be sedated, and it’s hurt me to see four people holding him down while the anesthesiologist is putting him under. I came close to running down the hospital hall to the recovery room when I heard him crying as the anesthesia wore off after one procedure. Nolan’s previous dentist struck a nerve when he had his first oral surgery, leaving the left side of his face bruised for a couple weeks. His second oral procedure – with a new, better, and younger dentist who showed he could inject Novocain without inflicting harm upon my son – took longer than expected. Cindy and I were the last two people in the waiting room after what seemed like 12 hours – it was more like three – wondering if something had gone horribly wrong.
Obviously, the challenges we’ve dealt with don’t even come close to those Cindy’s co-worker and her family have faced the last few years, are facing now, and will face in the coming weeks, months, and years as they cope with the death of their son. I hurt for any couple who has lost a child who never really got to truly experience life. I hope I get the chance sometime in the future to tell Cindy’s co-worker how sorry I am for her loss. I hope to tell her that her son was an incredible, courageous, strong young man who lived an amazing life. A young man who truly appreciated every day he was alive.
Every new day brings uncertainty at our house, and there always will be. But we’re appreciative of every moment that Nolan is with us. God willing, he’ll be with us for a long time yet.