Tears streamed down my cheek as I sat, my seven year old on my lap, watching my wife and father break down camp.
We are all dealt cards in life. That’s the mystery of the journey. When things are good, life can seem pretty sweet. But what do we do when we’re dealt cards we don’t like? It’s when we are dealt shitty hands that our character is revealed. When the deck is stacked against us, we must learn to embrace that pesky, yet powerful element that—perhaps more than any other—separates the authentic and courageous from the pretenders and wannabes. Vulnerability.
For whatever reason, I’ve been dealt some pretty challenging cards over the years physically, in the form of my legs. With that said, I like to believe that the pain, overuse injuries and just plain fluke-ish shit I’ve endured have made me a more empathetic man, a more courageous father and a partner willing to embrace the demons of vulnerability. There are pluses and minuses to every hand we are dealt. Our mission is to uncover the positive while learning to accept the negative.
Take last week. After bagging our long-anticipated father/daughter bike tour in June due to an ailing Achilles tendon, I planned an extended camping and floating trip with my daughter, wife and pops on our favorite family waters along the Absaroka front in northwest Wyoming. If there’s one gift that comes from chronic pain and injuries, it’s adaptability. You have two choices: sink into the waters of despair or swim until you find an alternate destination. Our back-up plan seemed pretty damn good: four days camped along our favorite river, at our favorite campground, floating by day and making s’mores amidst the hoodoo goblins and billions of stars by night.
When we arrived to find the river blown out (chocolate milk) by rains in the mountains, we were quickly forced to adapt the plan. For someone without an ailing Achilles, throbbing calf, right hip awaiting surgery and surgically repaired left hip in disarray, adapting would be easy; you’d simply hit the trails. But when hiking isn’t an option, you have to get creative. So we journeyed into the nearest town, rode bikes and dominated the playgrounds. At night, we cooked s’mores and played games.
After winning the opening round of Uno the first night, my daughter begged for a re-shuffle, as she was dismayed by the cards she’d been dealt in the second round. Always looking for opportunities to help her build up her “resiliency scaffolding,” I saw this as a perfect teaching moment.
“Kamiah, this is one of the most important life lessons I can ever share with you. We have to learn to play the cards we are dealt in life, even when they are really hard.”
“But, Dad, I can’t win with these.”
“Maybe you’re right. Maybe you can’t win with the cards you’ve just been dealt. But you still need to play them to the best of your ability. Do you think Dadda likes that my legs don’t work like they used to? No, I don’t, but I have to be resilient and adaptable. Life is going to deal us cards we don’t like. We can’t cash in and call it quits when the cards suck.”
Little did I know “suck” would become my daughter’s new word of the week and that the dealer was about to present us with a truly shitty hand. After a week of calf pain, which my home-town doctor attributed to a broken capillary from the dry needling I do once a week in hopes of healing my Achilles, on the second morning of our family expedition, a red rope-like lesion re-appeared. Following my recent brush with eternity, where a blood clot that formed in my calf following hip surgery led to a massive deep vein thrombosis, eventually breaking off, ravaging my lungs, and nearly taking my life, it’s safe to say that I am cautious about clots. Add to this a surprising diagnosis of a rare clotting disorder and it was clear that a precautionary trip to Urgent Care was in order.
Seven hours after walking into the door and promptly being sent to the hospital, where I spent the day undergoing tests, the Urgent Care doc’s fear was confirmed. I had a blood clot in my calf. What unfolded over the course of the next seven days included daily blood draws, twice-daily injections of an anti-coagulant in my stomach and baseball-size cramps in my calf, making for restless nights and an added hitch in my already off-kilter stride. Nonetheless, upon returning home, on Saturday night I managed to officiate a breathtaking wedding on a massive ranch outside of Helena, Montana, and with the help of my wife, mom and dad, salvaged my week’s vacation with my daughter.
Now, as I sat with Kamiah along the shores of our family waters—in our favorite site, at our favorite campground—watching the tents break down, seeing the disappointment and sadness on her face, I cried.
“Why are you crying, Dadda?” she rightfully wanted to know.
“I know how much you want to stay here and I want to stay here too. But these are the cards we’re dealt. We don’t have to like them. It’s ok to feel frustration, anger, whatever you feel in your heart. But then we have to turn the page and focus on what we can control. I’m sorry you’re sad, Kamiah”
This was a lot to take in. She simply sat looking out on the river she never got to float, a pensive expression on her sweet face.
“It’s ok, Dadda.”
That night, at the urging of the doctor, we checked into the only room available in town—at a dive of a motel near the hospital. It wasn’t site #7 at our favorite campground, along our beloved waters. But it was what it was. And while it wasn’t s’mores in wild country, we made the most of the cards we were dealt. We laughed. We cried. We wrestled. And most importantly, we loved.
Not the trip I’d planned and dreamed about, but in the end, it turned out to be pretty damn special in its own right—and a powerful reminder that teaching our children to embrace vulnerability (and even shitty cards!) is a gift that keeps on giving.
~Michael W. Leach