Finding Our New Pace
"What if adopting Nathaniel means you can no longer do the things you enjoy doing as a family or individually?" asked the adoption case manager during our staffing interview.
Rich has just finished explaining his and our older boys' involvement in Boy Scouts of America, including three backpacking trips to Philmont High Adventure Camp. There were fourteen individuals sitting around the table participating in our interview. They had interviewed other couples before us. They were charged with the task of selecting Nathaniel's forever family. Prior to this question, they had described Nathaniel's medical conditions and the many concerns physicians had for his future. The adoption case manager had explained that it was uncertain if Nathaniel would ever walk. "What if he can't hike and go backpacking with you?" she pushed Rich a bit more. Unknown to anyone in the room, Nathaniel would take his first steps nine months later, just a few months after we finalized his adoption.
"I'll carry him," Rich had responded to the adoption worker's question, "we'll find a way to make it work." Conversation about Nathaniel's airway was fairly brief during our adoption interview. Physicians, case managers, foster parents, everyone expected a reconstruction surgery sometime after he was two or three years old. But Nathaniel's airway abnormalities has been and will continue to be the most significant limiting factor for his life and ours. Fourteen months ago we had never left the St. Louis region with Nathaniel. We had roughly two minutes to intervene if Nathaniel's airway was compromised. We stayed on the grid and close to home where first responders could easily get to us. Since airway surgery in February, we have slowly started to envision a different life for Nathaniel. A life that is new to him, but is a return to our family's old life. A life that this weekend did involve carrying Nathaniel. Rich and Josiah are scheduled for a twelve day backpacking trek at Philmont next summer. The scout troop with train with regular local hikes through the year. Rich and I enjoy hiking together too. We recently purchased a Lowepro Fastpack to carry medical supplies and a Thule Urban Glide so Nathaniel can join us. We explored a wonderful, new to us, trail very close to home Saturday morning.
We encountered a handful of other groups the first mile of walking. We were already familiar with the trail conditions. It was peppered with numerous small boulders, tree stumps, and exposed roots. It had steep rocky descents, and muddy, pitted, slippery, stone creek beds. All who crossed our path expressed concern about having the stroller and a small child on such rugged terrain. One man warned of a tree across the path ahead that hikers had to climb through as the branches were too large to move. "Maybe you can find a way around it..." he said. A woman walking alone with her dog mentioned a steep rocky incline ahead. "I don't think a stroller is going to make it; it's pretty rugged." Their comments reminded me of a few friends' comments prior to Nathaniel coming home. "I hear private duty nursing is horrible and very inconsistent. You can't depend on it," one friend had warned. She, like the hikers, were right about the hazards in our path in parenting Nathaniel and on the hike. But the problems faced on either course did not demand we turn back; only that we adjust our expectations of the journey. We went over one branch and under the other when we encountered that downed tree. There was not just one steep rocky incline, but many. I logged twenty-four flights of stairs while on the trail, we carried Nathaniel up all of them. Rich at the front wheel picking our path; I lifted at the handle only able to see the ground as it appeared under the stroller. I learned to place each foot exactly where Rich's foot had just left so I did not slide. Like parenting Nathaniel, we went slow and rested often.
The obstacles along the trail reminded me of the difficulties we have faced in Nathaniel's journey. We were able to navigate some things that seemed big and foreboding, like a large rock, with ease. Some barriers, like a succession of small roots, were more difficult. How tough any one particular roadblock was to us was more determined by the angle we approached, the momentum we had, and how recently we had overcome the last obstacle. At one point in the hike, I came upon a tree root with the front wheel turned slightly to the right. It hit the root and stopped. The left rear tire slid off the trail embankment, pitching the stroller and Nathaniel to the left and requiring enormous force on the ride side of the handle to keep everything aright. The small root should not have required so much energy to overcome, but it did. I suspect this interconnection between the obstacles and our skill at steering through them is why family, friends, therapists, nurses, and others who work intimately with our family are sometimes confused with our ability or inability to manage challenges. We are frequently waylaid by small root sort of problems - too many therapy sessions in a week, a two day hospitalization for a minor virus, a canceled nursing shift - while we sometimes sail past big complications, surgeries, and diagnoses with seeming ease. Our pace is not determined by the individual hurdle only.
A father and son came up from behind as we broke into one of the many glades. They were jogging and quickly overtook us. The father mumbled some comment about "that being burden and slow" pointing to the stroller. We smiled and lightheartedly said, "No, it's not bad." What I wanted to say is that unlike him, we did not start our journey that morning expecting to run. We knew from what we had read about the hike that it would be difficult. We knew it would challenge us. We expected the three miles to take hours. We packed a snack and water. We paused to take photos. We admired countless varieties of mushrooms. We let Nathaniel hike, which was even slower than carrying him in the stroller. We finished, just like the runners, but at our own pace. It is good to reclaim the activities that are at the core of our family culture. It is good to invite Nathaniel into those activities. He, nor his stroller, are a burden, they just helping us find our new pace.