Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Calculated Risk

Rachel has a great post about risk taking behavior by children, particularly boys. The type of risk being discussed is performing stunts on purpose that can cause bodily injury. Being a mom of five boys and having a baby on the way (sex to be found out at birth!) this is an issue close to her heart. But it should be close to every mother's heart regardless of the sex of her children, number or ratio of boys to girls.

But it's an issue, that for me, has implications far beyond the fact that I have two sons. A stupid stunt gone wrong by a young male, nearly cost him his life and by extension nearly cost me my family.

In June of 1980, shortly after graduating from high school, my husband, Jeff, went with friends to cliffs around Goldsboro, NC to go diving one night. They had been drinking (18 was the legal age to purchase and consume alcohol) but with my husband's personality, alcohol could not have been a factor and this still could very well had happened. NC was going through a drought that summer and the level of water in the Neuse River had fallen. Jeff had to be first and race up to the top and yelled he was the "King of the World" long before James Cameron asked Leo DeCaprio to say it while his best friend was trying to tell him to wait while they checked the water. Jeff dove. He broke his C5 vertebrae (his neck), his humerous (the big bone in the arm), and his clavicle (collarbone). He also had massive cuts on his scalp and hands. Immediately the others knew something was wrong. Very wrong. They raced him to the ER and called his parents. He walked into the ER on his own power. Once an x-ray was done (doctor's initially expected a skull fracture) and it was discovered his neck was broken he was raced to Pitt Memorial Hospital in Greenville, NC part of East Carolina University's School of Medicine. He endured the long hot summer in a "halo" that used bolts screwed into his head to hold it in place, he could not turn his neck. His vertebrae were fused and metal was put in to hold his spine together. His arm had to be set and a bone graft from his hip was needed to repair his collarbone. It was a long and grueling physical recovery and rehabilitation.

Today, Jeff is not wheel-chair bound. He is not paralyzed in anyway. He has pretty much normal range of motion and unless you see the scar on the back of his neck, most people have no idea. There are still physical issues though. Pain in the arm at times and of course, a stiff neck that you or I could not imagine at times. And there are still psychological/emotional issues 30 years later. And not only for Jeff.

Jeff is quick to point out to me the tell-tale scars of a halo. The actor Oliver Platt has them, for example. It's a pretty select club that has these scars; a type of brotherhood no one wants to belong to. And Jeff acknowledges that God spared him. For whatever reason he lived through this and without major disability. But he acknowledges it with both reverence, thanks and guilt. Friends of his have died, why was he saved? And for those that lived through the accident with him, there are also a range of emotions. I had someone ask me once, "Why didn't I try to stop him?" Other friends who now have teenage children tell them frequently when kids are going out Jeff's story. This isn't a person in a book they read about, it's someone they know. Someone who lived to tell when so many didn't. For some, this was the first experience they had seeing mortality up close and they are still shaken by it.

Then there is me. I didn't know Jeff when this happened meeting him almost twenty years after the fact. But for the last eleven years, I have lived it every day. I have never forgotton that God did spare Jeff, and if He had not, I would most likely not have a husband at all. Not to mention my children.

My kids will live every day of their lives with this reality as well. And their experience with it will be different from all of the others. As the children of someone who made a mistake and paid dearly for it (although not the ultimate price) they will learn somethings and probably be subject to some restrictions other kids are not. Every parent tells a child at some point, "don't do that, you'll break your neck," but not every parent can say that with the gravity my children's father can. And it does play heavily into our parenting. Jeff and I both know and readily acknowledge that we cannot prevent our children being injured physically. To some, in light of what he has been through, Jeff seems fairly casual about it. But inside, it tortures him. For me, I have to resist seeing my children, especially the boys and ESPECIALLY JOSEPH (who looks just like his father and has the same personality) as Jeff's children in the risk-taking respect. I have to remember that I am their mother and maybe they will have inherited a little bit of my balancing brain that weighs those risks. I also have to make sure I don't overreact both in my punishment for dangerous behavior, setting limits and reaction when an accident does happen. My kids will learn nothing of how to live life if I put them in a bubble and force them to sit still all the time. And, don't forget, some risks are worth taking, that's why we have things like flight, space exploration, and open heart surgery.

When I had children, I was taking a calculated risk, a risk that my health would remain good enough that I would be able to care for them, a risk that they would be healthy and not require years of medical treatments, a risk that I would be able to provide for them. I took a risk that God was going to give me the tools I needed to take care of and raise them. I thought a lot about this before getting pregnant, while pregnant and even now. And ultimately, I know that there will come a time when my own children will have to weigh the pros and cons of many things, including taking a chance at injury for whatever gain. I'm just glad, for now, that I might have another year or so before I have to tackle that time head on.

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