Watching our children grow up with great anticipation of what’s to come is a natural part of parenting. With pom-poms in hand, we celebrate every milestone. We experience butterflies when the big learner’s permit day arrives. When we drop our baby off at college, we cry like babies ourselves! And low and behold the day arrives when we find ourselves attempting to embrace the long anticipated empty nest chapter. Dads tend to adjust more easily (and eagerly) to the empty nest chapter than Moms do. Go figure! All of these stages are normal for parents while learning to let go.
Three years ago I found out what’s not a normal stage of letting go. I was faced with prematurely saying goodbye to my first born son at the fragile age of twenty-six while watching my other son fight for his life. Our sons Aaron and Steven were in a fatal car accident. Aaron didn’t survive. Steven sustained a severe Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and was not expected to live.
Bending over Aaron’s casket to kiss his cold tender cheek goodbye was not written anywhere in our parental handbook! Especially not in the chapter dedicated to learning to let go. Neither was being thrust into the unknown world of becoming a caregiver to our twenty-two-year-old son.
In the blink of an eye, with tears streaming down my face, I sat observing my son attempt to learn the basics all over again. I anxiously waited for Steven to speak his first word. My heart wasn’t prepared to hear the three words often taken for granted…“I Love You.” I cheered when he sat up in a chair without assistance. Each baby step of progress was a victory. I didn’t dare allow my thoughts to linger on the predictions of deficits Steven might face. Instead, I focused on celebrating the reality that Steven was alive. His deficits were invisible to me. I had lost one son; I knew I wouldn’t survive if I lost Steven.
Almost four years later, I admit that I was at a loss. I was angry. My heart felt shattered beyond repair. I had a plan for our sons. My plan was tucked away in a beautifully wrapped package safely secured with a big bright neatly tied bow on top. My plan consisted of watching our sons go to college, securing their dream careers. They would get married, have children, and live happily ever after. We would experience the joy of family dinners and beach vacations. Our sons would watch their Mom and Dad grow old together. Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be? On August 13, 2012, my beautifully wrapped package was replaced with a package that held God’s plan for our lives. I had two choices; I could attempt to return to sender, or I could dig in with both feet firmly planted and fight with every fiber of my being for Steven’s second chance. I chose the latter!
After experiencing a double trauma, I was faced with learning how to let go all over again. I wanted to take Steven’s pain away, but couldn’t. I tried to speak for him but got reprimanded. I was told Steven needed to learn how to complete tasks with one hand. I insisted that it was too soon, it would be so much easier if I did things for him. At what felt like a snail’s pace Steven relearned the basics. I thrived in taking care of Steven. Keeping busy was detrimental in those early days. It was too painful to accept the reality that Aaron was gone. Without complaint, I settled into the caregiver role beautifully. I was on a mission! It never occurred to me that everything I was doing for Steven was ultimately leading me down the path of watching Steven live an independent life!
I remember the day Steven’s doctor asked what he thought about driving again. I immediately thought: Stop that! What a ludicrous question! What kind of doctor are you? I have already lost one son; Steven does not want or need to drive. I am taking care of him! Steven was so gracious because he knew his mom was fragile.
Through counseling, I am learning to support Steven through each important step in his recovery, even the ones I’m not ready for. Yes, Steven got his driver’s license. Each time Steven goes out the door, I wait patiently until I hear, “I made it safely, Mom.” Music to my ears! To this day, Steven knows how important it is for me to hear these precious words.
Since the knock on our door, I have earned the title of being an overcomer. Against all odds I have watched my son complete college classes, endure endless hours of grueling therapy, and bravely try every technology available to aid his recovery. When we take time to reflect on where Steven was three years ago, our focus was finding a top-notch rehab facility. The miraculous milestones Steven has achieved were never expected or voiced!
It wasn’t until he was settled in at the Shepherd Center that Steven was told that Aaron didn’t survive the accident. Instead of quitting, he went full speed ahead, dedicating his recovery to bring honor to Aaron’s life! He has certainly gone above and beyond to do that and so much more!
There are no adequate words to describe the pain of losing one child coupled with the fear of not being able to protect your other son. I’m thankful we work together as a family, being respectful of how we each cope and adapt differently. I’m also grateful for our team of counselors. They don’t pretend to know what it’s like, but they dig deep to provide invaluable resources to help us learn how to let go and watch our son spread his wings and soar like a proud eagle. Will he sustain more bumps and bruises along the way? Yes, I know he will. But, I also know he will pick himself up, dust off the debris, and keep on going.
I don’t know what the future holds for us. I have hopes and dreams, but this time I refuse to bundle up what I want our futures to look like in a perfectly adorned package. Instead, I will pray for our son to hold his head high as he continues down this path chosen for him. He has a happy and healthy future in front of him, helping others as he shares his story along the way! I also want Steven to witness his mother succeed at accomplishing every unsurmountable task involved in learning to let go again! Letting go doesn’t mean I won’t always be there for our son, it just means staying behind the scenes watching Steven independently do life. I know he will do it to the fullest, just the way it’s meant to be done! When Steven’s big day of changing his address arrives, and he’s ready to go out our front door; for starters, I will hug him tighter and longer and with proud Momma tears, and I will say all the “Mom” phrases: Be safe son, I love you, and please call when you arrive safely.
We will get through this next chapter of life together, feeling Aaron’s smile of approval every step of the way.