Birthday Survivor

What a contrast this day is to the same day 20 years ago! Simon’s day of birth couldn’t have been more perfectly planned or organized. His two sisters took us by surprise by arriving a few weeks early, but Simon seemed pretty happy hanging out in the womb until the last minute. So we were scheduled to have labor induced. I had time to leisurely pack my bag, shower, and even put on makeup. The girls made adorable artwork to hang on the walls by the hospital bed so they could cheer me up during the birth. I still have the crayoned happy-faced sun drawing from Emily, with “HAPPY LABER!” (sic) scrawled across the top. Markus and I checked into the maternity ward of the Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula (CHOMP) – no waiting required. It felt like checking into a hotel. I even posed for a pre-birth photo, looking happy and relaxed, knowing my baby boy was only hours away from joining us. The nurses were calm and soothing, gave me delicious drugs to ease the pain, and when the time came for my epidural, the anesthesiologist was right there to administer it. Markus didn’t faint this time around, because he was a pro labor coach by then, and Simon came into this world like a sunrise on a beautiful morning.

We had a few hiccups in the beginning, because Simon was unexpectedly born with syndactyly and ectrodactyly in his left hand. His index finger and thumb were fused, his middle and ring fingers were missing, and his pinky was missing its middle joint. Twenty years ago, there was scant information about the condition, so the first doctor to pop into our hospital room was a slick car salesman-like plastic surgeon from Carmel. “Nah, that’s not a problem, folks! I can just snip off a few toes and transplant them on his hands! Piece of cake!” *record scratch* Markus and I looked at each other with horror and politely declined his assistance. After our initial shock of learning about Simon’s condition, the doctor who delivered Simon referred us to the Medical Genetics department at the University of California San Francisco. Because Simon’s condition was unilateral, there was a lower risk of systemic abnormalities compared to bilateral conditions, but they wanted to check him from head to toe and inside and out. I think by then, he was about two months old – a roly-poly bundle of giggles and smiles. It’s funny – Markus and I had lost our initial alarm about Simon’s hand by then, and although we were concerned about his medical condition, all we could worry about that day was the fact that he hadn’t pooped in a couple of days. Sure enough, after charming every medical professional on the genetics team at UCSF, Simon had a diaper explosion. It was one of those overflowing diapers, so Markus and I were horrified, but the giant grin on Simon’s face made everyone around him laugh while we scurried to clean up the mess. At the end of a long day, the team pronounced him perfectly healthy and we drove back to Monterey with a big sigh of relief. 

When Simon was three months old, we were referred to the top hand surgeon in San Francisco, with the hope that he could advise us with how to best proceed with helping Simon have more functionality in his hand in the future. Would he be able to tie his shoes? Was there a miracle surgery out there to reconstruct his left hand to look like his right hand?  After examining the happy little baby, the doctor sat us down and said the most important thing to us that anyone has ever said to us before or since. He told us that even though Simon’s hand is different than other people’s hands, he will grow up knowing only his hand as it exists and will learn to do things his own special way. Therefore, he wasn’t the one that would need to adjust his attitude toward his special hand; we had to adjust our attitudes. The doctor told us that when Simon grew to be an adult, if he wanted to seek out new technology or innovative surgeries to change his hand, he could make his own decision. He told us to wait and see how Simon developed – he said we would be surprised by how innovative a person with a physical disability can be to adapt to adversity. The wise doctor was not wrong. Simon has led a blessed life, finding ways to overcome obstacles and thrive.

I’ve read about blind people whose sense of smell, hearing, and touch appears to be amplified in the face of their disability. In a similar way, Simon possesses an amplified level of compassion, optimism, and good humor. However, in this, his 20th year, he has been tested in awful ways. He was rolling along in his Freshman year at a school he picked specifically because they offered him a scholarship to throw javelin for their Track team. Because of the Pandemic, the season was canceled, with no great hope for a season in his Sophomore year. Classes were moved online, the border to Canada, where his girlfriend lived, was closed, and he ended up having to move home to self-isolate with us. Then his best furry friend since Kindergarten, Hercules, died suddenly. His girlfriend had no choice but to return to her home in Sweden after her Canadian visa expired. And just when we thought it couldn’t get worse, in June, my nephew died from a drug overdose. Death, grief, heartbreak. We almost didn’t think Simon would be able to regain any sense of well-being, but he slowly pulled himself up. 

We thought the unplanned chaos would come to an end this Fall, as he went in with five guys from school to rent a house close to the university. The plan was for them to all work out together and Simon to train for the hoped-for Track season in the Spring, while attending online classes. That plan was enough to ease some of the pain of his parents picking up and moving down to California. He was so excited to start the school year and to have companionship at his house. It all came to a screeching halt in the first week of living there. Simon didn’t know his housemates very well and started worrying when the consecutive days of all-night parties at the house revealed more than just beer. His housemates were into drugs. When he found that out, he tried keeping to himself in his room. One night a drug dealer came over with a gun. There was a confrontation, the dealer left and returned with friends, and they ended up fighting with Simon’s housemates in the street outside of the house. Understandably freaked out, Simon left the house to wait at a safe distance and saw a cop car approach the large group of young white men. Then, he watched white privilege in action, as the cops did not even get out of their car, and eventually drove away.  Later, he heard one of his housemates say he was going to go out to buy a gun and go after the guys they had been fighting. Knowing that there was nowhere for that situation to go but downhill, and fearing for his life, Simon hopped into his car and drove all the way to Seattle to stay with Hanna, our second daughter. Exhausted, but finally feeling safe after several sleepless nights, he fell into a deep sleep for hours. When he woke up, he told Hanna everything. Not wanting to worry us, they called our oldest daughter, Emily, who lives in Canada now. Together, the three of them talked it out until Simon could figure out what to do next. Feeling stronger, Simon finally called us and told us what had happened. All of this took place just last week.

Chaos. How do you wrangle it and make it your bitch? You call on the Assassin. Hanna, who earned that nickname as a young girl for a variety of reasons, rose to the occasion like the kickass woman I knew she would grow up to be. She welcomed Simon into her tiny studio apartment, and they have been the best roommates to each other for a week, now. This is Simon’s first birthday away from home, so she secretly told all of us to join a family Facetime early this morning, so we could sing our usually wake-up birthday song to him. She stayed up late last night to artfully wrap the presents we sent in several of her long-sleeved tee shirts. This morning, we all sang to him and watched him unwrap his presents. Then she took him out to breakfast and birthday gift shopping for some shoes. When they returned home, balloons and presents from Emily were waiting for him.

I have never, in my life, been prouder of my children. I don’t know about you, but I always used to worry about what would happen if my husband and I died at the same time. You know, flying in an airplane, or *cough cough* driving on a two-day car trip from Seattle to San Francisco, through wildfire-devasted countryside… Who would hold them up and support them during their grief? How would they respond to the traumatic event? Last week, I witnessed what would happen. My children would gather in close and support each other. They would openly love each other and hold each other up. I’ve had a glimpse of the future and I feel so relieved.

So this has been a horrible, chaotic year, all the way through. But that ends today. Today, my beautifully strong young son turned 20 years old. And the Treppenhauers are taking back control of the year. We are all going to return it to the beautiful, soothing, joyful day that Simon entered the world. It started with Hanna and Emily holding him close immediately following the craziness of last week. It continued with our lovely virtual family gathering this morning. It will be finalized by Markus flying out to help him move out of his room at the house, followed by a long drive to San Francisco, where he will finish the school quarter in a home void of drugs and guns. He has a new plan to start next quarter by renting a house with an actual friend – one he knows and trusts. His positive attitude is back in force. The wise doctor was spot on in predicting Simon’s future adaptability. Simon was so smart to steer clear of the dangerous situation he was living in. Sometimes the bravest thing a person can do is to walk away from danger, risking the loss of friendships in favor of Life. He spent so much of the year persevering in the face of adversity but saw the wisdom in accepting help when the burden became too heavy. And that is where our family shines – sharing the burden. We are stronger together and are always there for each other. Happy Birthday, Simon the Survivor. We love you and can’t wait to see you again and welcome you Home. 

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Markus.treppenhauer
    Sep 10, 2020 @ 07:28:49

    Thank you for putting into words what we all feel – he’s a lucky boy to have you as his mom

    Like

    Reply

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