Saturday, May 30, 2015

Happy Graduation, Wonder Boy!

Last night my little one-pound, six-ounce 24-weeker graduated from high school! This kid, who was put on an IEP for attention-deficit disorder and math, ended this phase of his life with excellent grades and a rich, full high school experience--receiving two letters for band and drama, serving on student council for 3 years, working as a "peer helper" for 2 years, and doing over 100+ hours of community service in the past year. Last year he received his school's award for academic achievement in Algebra 2. And he's a warm, happy, resilient, outgoing, and considerate person--the best success of all!

Even though it was a financial sacrifice, I'm so glad we made the decision to send him to Edison High School, which is geared toward students who have learning differences (mostly ADD/ADHD and dyslexia). The magic is in the incredibly small class sizes and amazing, gifted teachers. Chris also took great advantage of the opportunity to participate in activities and take classes at sister school Jesuit High School. During his senior year, he took three classes there--band, drama, and pre-calculus. In the fall, he's off to study theater and English at Pacific Lutheran University, my alma mater.
Edison's graduation is also special--with a class size of 23 (one of their most accomplished and largest classes ever), each student made a graduation speech and was introduced by one of their favorite teachers. My eyes were constantly flowing, not just through Chris' speech!

Each student also received a bulging packet of letters and cards, called "palanca." Palanca is Spanish for “lift” or “to rise,” and denotes a lever used to lift and move heavy things…so these words of encouragement have the power to lift him as he moves into this next phase of his life. I was lucky to have this opportunity when I attended Episcopal Youth Encounter in high school. Here is the letter I wrote to Chris.

Dear Chris:

Welcome to palanca, Chris. I received palanca when I was in high school, and I will never forget the deep glow in my heart. You have so many people who love you and cherish you.

Early in your life, milestones became important to me. But we celebrated different types of
milestones than most parents. While they celebrated taking their babies home from the hospital, giving first baths, and visiting friends and family, we celebrated each week you survived. Every Sunday, I made an anniversary sign to put in your isolette, and we bought a new balloon in the hospital gift shop. By the time you left the NICU after 17 weeks, the nurses joked that you would float away with your 17 balloons!

So here we are with an enormous milestone: you’re graduating from high school. Of course I think back to those NICU days full of crises, fears, and joys as you overcome so many obstacles. I recall how I went into premature labor at 24 weeks gestation and my obstetrician offered me a choice: I could have an emergency c-section and you’d have a 50% chance of survival…if I chose to give birth the regular way, you would die. I didn’t miss a beat, and I chose the c-section. I knew in my heart that you were meant to live.


When I woke up from surgery, your dad told me that you were alive and you were a boy! I couldn’t believe you were alive and couldn’t wait to go visit you in the NICU. You looked like a tiny, fragile bird, with translucent skin and bruised eyelids, and with multiple wires and probes attached to your body. Your whole body was shaking because of the high-frequency ventilator breathing for you. But I thought you were the most beautiful baby I’d ever seen.

The medical staff tried to prepare us for what could happen. They said you had a 50% chance of dying in the first few days, and a 50% chance of having major disabilities if you survived. A normal life seemed beyond what we could hope for…we were just hoping for survival. But still we had hope, and we held on to it with all our might.

A few days later, I was released from the hospital. As we boarded the elevator near the maternity ward, a young couple joined us with their baby in a carseat…going home. I tried not to feel angry and jealous, but it broke my heart to leave the hospital without you…it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Even harder was not being able to hold you until you were five weeks old. When you were finally placed in my arms, I felt so at peace…and so did you.

In your first four months, we prayed and sang to you each day and night. You received prayers from around the world…from people at church and your wide, extended family to people in England and even people you have never met. We prayed for your survival, your growth, and your thriving…and I imagined you as a healthy toddler running along the beach. That vision sustained me through the dark times. You almost died too many times to count…with breathing problems, infections, cerebral edema (brain swelling), and low flow to the brain.

Bringing you home after 117 days, we were terrified. You were on about seven different medications (which we had to mix up!), and you were hooked up to an oxygen tank, an apnea monitor, and a computer for a medical study. The apnea monitor told us if you stopped breathing. Can you imagine taking home a tiny baby knowing that he could stop breathing and you’d have to revive him? But at the same time, we were so happy to take you home right before Christmas in 1996. It was one of the happiest moments of our lives. When we got you home, all I wanted to do was hold you. All the time.

During your first months and years at home, it wasn’t always smooth sailing. You were such a good-natured baby, so sweet and easy-going, but you had some challenges. An MRI identified a mass of veins in your cerebellum, and a neurosurgeon told us you needed brain surgery or you would have a stroke. But when we asked for a repeat MRI six months later, it was gone. Then we had projectile vomiting, a few times a day…all over us, yourself, and our sofa. Poor you: your tummy just couldn’t handle food well enough. I remember my first Mother’s Day, trying to feed you, and we were both crying: me, because I was afraid you weren’t gaining enough weight because you kept throwing up, and you because I was forcing you to eat and it didn’t feel good. That was a hard time!

As you grew, we saw some delays in your development—mostly in speech. You didn’t talk until you were three years old, but we knew you were smart. With the help of good physical and speech therapists, you eventually got it! From the start, you did things on your own schedule. When you started wearing glasses at age three, you took it in your stride. When you had the grand mal seizure in third grade, you recovered far more quickly than I did! You began struggling with math in second grade, but last year you received your school’s Algebra 2 achievement award! With each hurdle along the way, you have leapt over it and become stronger in the process.

I am so excited to see where your life leads. I know you’ll be under pressure to decide what you want to do with your life, but here’s my advice: let life unfold. When I went to college, I thought I wanted to be a teacher. But when I actually worked in a school during my sophomore year, it was disappointing. When my Advanced Comp professor encouraged me to major in English (in my junior year), I realized that writing was my strength. But when I graduated, I had no idea what I was going to do with my English degree. Then I got the chance to teach in Japan. When I applied, I said to myself, “If I get this job, I am going to go.” I was scared, but I decided to take a leap of faith. And guess what happened? It was the best decision I’ve ever made. I had a grand adventure and met the love of my life (leading me to have you)!


In Japan
After I came back to the U.S. and married your dad, I still didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life…so I started temping and working at CH2M HILL as a receptionist and administrative assistant…then I learned about the editing department and applied to work there. After a few years there, my manager told me I’d be a good leader and made me group leader, even though I was the youngest. Then a few years after that I got another big opportunity, to manage a whole region of publications staff. I was intimidated, but a few mentors pushed me because they had confidence in my potential. Over and over again, opportunities have arrived and I’ve taken them. Success doesn’t always come in the form of a clearly marked path. Sometimes we need to follow the breadcrumbs in front of us.

Chris, I am so proud to be your mom. When you were little I called you my “wonder boy.” You are my hero. You are the most resilient and forgiving person I know, with a heart full of compassion, kindness, and enthusiasm. My heart is bursting with pride as I look back on your birth and childhood and see where you are now…graduating with excellent grades, a fantastic high school resume full of extracurricular activities, and a spectacular scholarship to PLU!!

After your last Jesuit play
Last month at your senior conference, your teachers all talked about what an inspiration you are—both to them and to other students. I believe this is a calling for you: to inspire others. You have done that from the day you were born. Your photo on the NICU wall continues to inspire families who fear for their babies’ futures. Anyone who hears your birth story, and sees who you are now, is inspired.

My hope for you, next, is that you have a fantastic experience at college. I know you will. Be open to new experiences, work hard, take chances, and continue to be full of wonder. Take advantage of all the great benefits available at PLU—the opportunity to make new friends, soak up culture and learning, and dabble in many academic areas until you find one that fits you best. How can you use your beautiful soul and enthusiastic spirit to continue to inspire and help others?

We are all going to miss you so much when you leave, but I’m excited for you. This is another huge milestone, and I want you to imagine me and your dad handing you 988 balloons (one for each week of 19 years). Let them lift you off to your next exciting stage of life, but always remember that the strings on the balloons lead back to us…your family, who love you so much and are so proud of you. Get ready to fly!

I love you, my wonder boy!

Mom

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