I don’t think there’s anything more terrifying than to have something wrong—seriously wrong—the kind of wrong that takes your breath away and stops your heart for an eternity—there’s nothing worse than that kind of wrong with your child. The fear grabs you in the gut and just suspends you in a vice hold that won’t let go. Your mind rushes into panic mode and there’s a crushing pain in your chest that overpowers everything—you can’t think, you can’t move, you can’t push away the horror you’re going to lose this child you love so much.
I’ve met that fear twice in my life and I will never forget it. I will never forget how for just a moment I was forced to think about the gaping hole that would be left in our family. I will never forget the horror of going through life carrying the burden of that loss; forever a prisoner to that emptiness. Even now, decades later, I can still taste that fear in my mouth and shudder from its cold embrace.
Ted was only two the first time this fear and I became intimate strangers. He was about as perfect as a little boy could be. Soft white blonde curls framed his cherubic face and with his deep blue eyes and sweet smile he stole the heart of almost anyone around him. Even as a toddler there were glimmers of Ted’s strong will and his tenacity–traits that define him as an adult today. One memory more than any other captures the drive that so defines the man he would someday become.
Two potted plants sat on the front porch of our home and Ted could be entertained for hours picking up a spoonful of dirt from one pot and carefully carrying it to the second pot a few feet away. He would dump the dirt in the second pot and then pick up a second spoonful of dirt from that one and carry it back to the first pot where he would purposefully dump it. We never understood the quest driving his actions. But we would watch both amused and bewildered as we tried to imagine just what he was thinking; just what he was trying to do as he’d make his way back and forth from one pot to the other.
The day my world almost stopped spinning was pretty much like any other. We were missionaries living in a very remote area of Zaire. Situated not far from the equator and high in the mountains we led a rather simplistic life. No malls, no paved highways, no corner grocery stores to run to to pick up a forgotten jug of milk or a loaf of bread. Indeed, our daily lives were much more reminiscent of the 19th century than the 20th in which we lived.
We didn’t often have electricity so maybe we were lax in our efforts to childproof our homes. In retrospect it’s so easy to see what we should have done to protect Ted from the harm that came his way. But at the time currents and sockets and wires and plugs just didn’t seem to be any great risk. But they were and on one sunny morning Ted innocently picked up a cord that put 220 watts of electricity ripping through his tiny body, throwing him to the floor in paralyzing spasms and burning his hand beyond recognition. But luck was on our side and although horribly burned he survived.
Although Ted’s injuries to his hand initially consumed our attention it soon became apparent that the speech and language delay caused by damages to the part of the brain that controls language development also affected in the accident was equally as damning. His attempts to talk ended the day of his accident and it was years before he was able to easily communicate with those outside the family. But his tenacity and determination were always there to help him along. And so were his fathers.
Shortly after his accident I had to return to the US with Ted to seek medical attention for him. Concerns about infections that might forever ruin the chances of successful reconstructive surgeries on his hand forced us to leave him with my parents so I could go back to Zaire to help pack for our permanent return to the States. My sister, a school teacher in a nearby school district, arranged for Ted to attend daily speech classes where the speech pathologist painstakingly helped him relearn how to talk. So, every day Grandpa VanBelle drove him across town to the school where Ted had his sessions.
A series of train tracks crossed their path about halfway to the school. It didn’t take grandpa long to discover that the daily treks to Ted’s lessons were met with shrills of delight if by chance a train were to stop them along the way. Grandpa VanBelle would sit in the car counting the train cars as they sped by—one, two, three, four….day after day grandpa counted them as Ted delightedly watched full of joy to see the trains he soon grew to love. Armed with this information grandpa began to leave in time to make sure a train would cross their path. It was not a great surprise then when several months later the first words Ted said were “train” and the numbers one through ten. No surprise maybe but a considerable source of rejoicing that Ted was talking again nonetheless. And so was the first of the gift of his fathers.
If Grandpa VanBelle helped give Ted back the gift of language it was his Grandpa Prouty that gave him the gift of working with his hands. Grandpa Prouty was a master of innovation. Nothing seemed beyond his extraordinary skills. One of the first stories I recall hearing about his prowess was when just a young boy he needed a replacement bolt for a nut. Seems he couldn’t find the correct one so he got a piece of plain metal that was just the right size and painstakingly filed it by hand to make the bolt he needed.
In so many ways Grandpa Prouty mentored him and taught him to use his hands and his head and in all things to give it his heart. More than anything Grandpa Prouty taught Ted to face challenges that seemed insurmountable with patience and to cautiously work at a problem until you found a solution. And so was the second gift of his fathers.
And then there was Bob. Despite Ted’s initial difficulties from his accident residual problems made lots of things difficult for him. One thing in particular was reading. It didn’t come easily to a boy that struggled to talk. And so it was challenging to get Ted to find the joy in picking up a book and reading it just for fun. His father decided to bring books to life to him. But not just any books—the classics. The best there was to read. In the evenings long after the sun had set on the activities of the day you would find Ted and his father and as often as not his sister and brothers huddled together reading and talking about a book they were reading.
They deconstructed the stories together and discussed the nuances of the language—unwrapping the meaning of words and context much like one unwraps the layers of an onion—smelling, tasting, savoring the essence of the stories, giving substance to places and times far away and long ago. They memorized passages getting into the characters and the periods—Romeo and Juliet, Don Quixote, A Tale of Two Cities. When other children were listening to stories about the Bernstein Bears Ted listened to stories about jousting with windmills, undying love, and grave robbers. Through his nighttime stories with his father Ted’s imagination grew and his capacity to use words powerfully, passionately, personally grew as well.
And so as the years passed and the scars from his accident lessened the gifts from his fathers grew stronger. Today when you are with Ted and engage in a conversation with him, or watch as he patiently fixes something that seems broken beyond hope or listen to him roar with laughter as he catches all the embedded meaning in some twisted tale—you can see the traces of the men who went before him. The men who shaped him in so many ways. The men who mentored him and loved him. More than anything you see the gifts of his fathers.