I think an important part of knowing someone is knowing their history, where they come from. We are all products of the events that shape our lives. I've been fortunate to have lots of highs and a few very low lows in my life. I'm going to take a risk here and lay myself bare. This post will mainly focus on the lows because I think those are the events that really define you more than the happy ones. I picture them like the pounding of a sculptors chisel. They chip away at your personality, your very soul. One might make you less trusting. Another might make you more industrious. Still another might teach you to be more forgiving. It may not be all that interesting, but it may help you to understand me better. I forgive anybody who can't make it all the way through this.
I'll glaze over the early part of my life because it is pretty nondescript. I still live in the same town where I grew up. In fact I bought my parent's house when they moved to a smaller ranch style townhouse. I had loving parents who provided everything I needed. I had the quintessential boring and happy childhood. I was a good, if unmotivated, student. I was a child of ADD before it was a diagnosed disorder. If it involved music I did it. I was in every choir or band program offered in my school district from about fifth grade until graduation. Then I went to college at a small private school in northeast Iowa.
There are seminal events that shape the lives of everyone. They're markers along the road of your life that shape who you are...who you become. The first of those happened when I was in college. I had lived a very sheltered and mostly obedient life. When I got to college I didn't know how to handle my sudden freedom. I also was ill-prepared for the more difficult homework and discipline needed to survive. So I did what any good ADD riddled smart kid does. I gave up. I drank and partied my way right out of college. My GPA after my freshman year of college resembled that of the Delta Tau Chis of Animal House. Lets just say it started with a "zero point" something.
I received a letter the summer after my freshman year suggesting that I "take a semester off to reevaluate my academic goals." In short I was kicked out of school. I never went back. I was ashamed and embarrassed and I didn't know how to tell my dad. They spent that entire summer thinking I was going back to school in the fall because I didn't know how to admit that I had squandered the future they had handed me on a silver platter. It is my biggest regret in life and I know that it was a crushing disappointment for my dad. I cared what he thought more than anything in the world. I learned from this to recognize opportunity when it comes along and don't let it pass by. It made me a more responsible person.
So I got an entry level job in the business world and worked my way up. I met my wife about a year later and it was literally love at first sight. She worked nights at my company and I worked days. She was working the day shift to make up hours so she could take a vacation with a friend. The first day she walked into the office I turned to my buddy Doug and said, "Dougie, I'm going to have that girl." I didn't mean it at the time with the purest of intentions, but it turned into so much more than that. We were married in 1991 almost three years later to the day.
We had our first son about a year and half after we were married. Four and a half years later his younger brother came along. They were both very well behaved and well tempered kids and I like to think they had the same boring happy childhood that I did when they were young.
About the year 2000 my wife started to feel sick all the time. She was constantly tired and had lots of other systemic symptoms like aching joints and general weakness. Her regular doctor referred her to a string of specialists and it was finally determined that her kidneys were slowly failing. She had a syndrome known as acute interstitial nephritis. They can't pinpoint the cause exactly, but her nephrologist was pretty sure that it was caused by toxic doses of ibuprofen type medicines prescribed following a car accident. One doctor had her taking Advil and another had her taking a prescription equivalent and it killed her kidneys. They were failing and there was no way to stop it. The doctor explained that her kidney disease was like a ball rolling down a hill; there was no way to stop it from reaching the bottom. We'd just try to make the hill not as steep.
In early 2004 she finally was forced to start dialysis. She had to go three times a week for 3-4 hours per session. She scheduled them for 5 in the morning and went to work afterwards and still worked full time even while spending up to 12 hours a week hooked to a huge metal vampire.
On our wedding anniversary in 2004 she received a living donor kidney transplant from her big sister. Three days later it had to be removed because the renal vein had clotted off and her transplanted kidney had ruptured and couldn't be salvaged. It was like a death in the family. She had to go right back on the dialysis.
One of the side effects of kidney disease is high blood pressure. It can be very hard to find the right balance of medicines to control it. My wife's was especially out of control. No matter how many times they adjusted her meds her blood pressure always went up...and up...and up. In the summer of 2004 we were at my 12-year old son's baseball game and Juli was complaining of a very bad headache. On the way home from the game she mentioned that one of her legs was numb below the knee. That night before bed she complained of nausea. I asked if she wanted to go to the emergency room, but she refused. She said she'd be fine.
The next morning I got up for work and checked on her. She said her head still hurt, but she was feeling a little better. I told her to call me if she needed anything. About ten o'clock that morning I got a phone call on my work phone from a number I didn't recognize. I was on a business call so I let it roll to my voicemail. A minute or so later the same number called my cell phone. I excused myself from the business call and answered. It was a police officer from my town who told me that he was at my house. My wife had suffered a seizure and my 7-year old had called 911. She was on her way to the ER in an ambulance and I needed to go there to meet her.
Her blood pressure had spiked at somewhere around 270 over 180. When your blood pressure goes up, one of the ways your body tries to lower it is by dilating the blood vessels. Her body had done just that to such an extreme degree that the membranes of the blood vessels in her brain leaked fluid. It was the equivalent of a mild stroke. She spent about the next week in a coma in the ICU. It took months for her to fully recover all of her mental faculties, but she has no lasting effects. I forgot to mention before, but a few weeks before the seizure and coma happened she was let go from her job because they said, and I quote, "We're concerned for you and think you're working too hard." I'm convinced the stress of not having a job was a contributing factor in this episode. I'm generally not the angry confrontational type, but when her boss called to tearfully ask if there was anything she could do while Juli was comatose I just replied, "No, I think you've already done enough."
In October of 2005 she received a successful living donor kidney transplant from her little brother. She no longer needed dialysis, but that wasn't the end of her medical struggles. Dialysis cleans the blood when the kidneys can't. It's very effective, but not very selective. Your kidneys are very adept at removing what's bad and leaving what's good. Dialysis....not so much. It removes vital things like calcium. When your calcium levels are too low your parathyroid emits a hormone that tells the bones, "Sorry, bones, you don't get any calcium today because we need it for more important parts of the body like the brain." If you're on dialysis for a long time that parathyroid can get stuck on high. Even after your transplant it keeps squirting out too much of this hormone. Because of that my wife's bones at the age of 35 were like that of a post-menopausal 80-year old's. She wound up needing surgery to remove half of her parathyroid glands and then more surgery to repair hairline fractures in both her hips.
The end of my wife's story is a happy one though. She didn't have the opportunity to go to college after high school and I learned that her dream had always been to be a teacher, specifically a history teacher. She is now in her junior year of college and should have her teaching certificate in a little over a year from now.
The last event that defines who I am today happened just a few months ago. My dad passed away on November 9, 2011 at the age of 86. He was, in my opinion, one of the greatest men to ever walk the face of this planet. He was a World War II vet. He was the perfect mixture of stern, patient, and loving.
As some of you may have noticed from my earlier post, I love movies. I especially love movies that can evoke emotion. I'm also a cryer. I get choked up very easily. I always thought I could be an actor because I could conjure up enough emotion to cry on command by just imagining the day my dad would pass away.
The funny thing is that I cried a little on the day it happened, but really not much since then. I've been so caught up in trying to help my mom learn to live in a world without him that I haven't had time to really come to grips with his passing yet. I think it also helped that he passed in the midst of one of my busiest times of the year with my show choirs and at work. In a month or two I'm going to have a lot of time on my hands and I fully expect that in the stillness and quiet of those nights it will drop on me like a ton of bricks.
A few months before my dad's passing my wife and her best friend had a fight over something really idiotic. I won't detail it here, but suffice it to say that they threw away 20+ years of friendship over a petty argument and a few hurt feelings. After my dad's funeral service my family was filing out of the church towards the line of cars that would be processing to the cemetery when suddenly my wife darted from my side back into the sanctuary. I was confused. Where was she going? Then I saw her hugging her best friend who had driven several hours unannounced to attend the funeral. My dad's last act from beyond the grave had been to reconcile them. I know that nothing would have made him happier.
Since his passing I've grabbed every opportunity to reconcile with people from my past. In his passing my dad's final lesson was how to really and truly forgive.
So here I am today. A much more industrious, responsible, loving, and forgiving person than I ever was in my youth.