The Bravest Girl I Know

338095_2445138454498_3411664_oAriana Valerie Combs came into the world on September 30, 2011, born to our oldest daughter , then 17 years old and still in high school.  It wasn’t the ideal situation.  I didn’t want to be a grandfather at 43, and my wife didn’t want to be a grandmother at 37.  However, it wasn’t as though our daughter was the first high school girl to get pregnant either.  As unhappy as we were with our daughter for getting pregnant at such a young age, we fell in love with Ariana the moment she was born.  She had beautiful blue eyes, a devious smile, and a bottom lip that would quiver whenever she was about to cry.

319671_2447192985860_1284876174_nThings went nicely for the first three weeks.  My wife and I were able to enjoy spending time with Ariana, but we really didn’t have to change diapers or get up for middle-of-the-night feedings.  We made sure that our oldest daughter, the baby’s mother, shouldered the bulk of those responsibilities.  After all, Ariana was her baby.  My wife and I had our last baby in December of 2000.

On Friday, October 21, my wife, along with our two oldest daughters and Ariana, went to visit my wife’s parents 2 hours south of where we live.  Our youngest stayed home with me because she had two basketball games on Saturday.

On Sunday, I received a call from my wife.  She said that she thought the baby had a seizure, and that she was going to take her to the hospital.  A short while later, my wife called me to let me know that Ariana was indeed having seizures, and that she was being transported via ambulance to Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis.

My youngest and I hopped into the van so that we could go to Indianapolis to meet them, and to bring our middle daughter home for school the next day.  I knew my wife and oldest daughter would stay at the hospital with Ariana.

The next day and a half was touch and go.  Ariana continued to have seizures, despite a heavy dose of Phenobarbital.  An MRI was ordered, and delayed for a day and a half for unknown reason.  When it was finally completed, my wife called me, in tears, with devastating news.  Ariana had suffered at least 15 strokes, caused by, as we would come to find out, viral encephalitis.

326275_2540433956826_1636852671_oThe next several days were filled with tears and uncertainty, hope and disappointment.  Ariana would have periods of time without seizures, raising our hopes.  Then she would seize again, shattering our misconceptions that she was improving.

Riley Hospital for Children is a teaching hospital.  During rounds, I heard the attending physician say to her students that she had never seen brain damage as severe as what Ariana had suffered.  Needless to say, this hurt my wife and I to our very core.  The attending physician went on to tell us that we would not be taking a “normal” child home.  There were times when we weren’t sure we would be taking a child home at all.  It was all very heartbreaking.  It was especially hard for me to watch my wife through all of this.  I think that she really bonded with Ariana during her hospitalization.

About a week and a half into her stay, Ariana began to improve.  The Phenobarbital started working to control the seizures.  Eventually, Ariana strung together several days that were seizure-free.  She was awake and alert, and finally the feeding and breathing tubes were removed.  Then came the words we had longed to hear: Ariana would get to come home.  She was discharged two day before Thanksgiving, providing us with something to truly be thankful for during the holidays.

For the next several months, things returned to “normal” at our house.  We were unaware of the extent of Ariana’s disability because babies her age typically don’t do much but eat, sleep, and poop.  She had no problems doing any of those things.  She seemed alert and happy, though not particularly active.

In February 2012, our oldest daughter, unable to cope with the rules of our house, announced to us that she was moving out.  Thankfully, she chose to leave Ariana with us.  She signed a temporary custody form.  Within a short time, my wife and I met with an attorney to file for permanent custody.  To her credit, our oldest daughter did not contest us having custody of Ariana.

202432_4311313187700_1837240207_oAs Ariana got older, we noticed that she was not hitting normal milestones like crawling and talking.  It became evident that she had very limited use of her left side as a result of the strokes she suffered as an infant.  We got her assessed and linked with a local service provider, and she began receiving occupational therapy, developmental therapy, and physical therapy.  In 2013, Ariana also started speech therapy.  She works hard in all of her therapy sessions.  Between therapy sessions, my wife works diligently with her, as do my daughters who are still living at home, now 12 and 14.  Her rehabilitation has truly become a family affair.

Ariana is two now.  As I reflect back on the last two years, I am amazed at my wife, and at my two daughters who still live at home.  My wife should be sainted immediately upon entry into Heaven.  She  is unfailingly patient with Ariana.  My two youngest daughters, Ariana’s aunts, are always willing to help change Ariana’s diaper, feed her, or get her dressed.  They have been a real help to us in raising Ariana.  Some might be inclined to think that having custody or Ariana takes our attention away from our children who are still living at home.  Instead, having Ariana has united us, given us a common purpose, and drawn us closer as a family.

Most of all, I am amazed at Ariana.  As I’ve watched her grow, I’ve come to realize that she’s a fighter.  She pushes through therapy that is sometimes painful and frustrating.  If she’s determined to do something, she will find a way to do it.  If I tell her “no,” she’ll look at me and smile, showing all her teeth, and sometimes I give in.  She seems to know when someone needs a hug, a reassuring touch, or a kiss on the cheek.  And she’s not afraid to let you know if she needs a hug, a reassuring touch, or a kiss on the cheek.

1025363_10201452406378744_29630859_oShe knows she’s different from other kids, and it doesn’t matter to her.  She still has only limited use of her left side, but she moves through life any way she can.  If she’s having a good day physically, she’ll spend a lot of time on her feet.  If not, she’ll still get where she needs to go by scooting on her butt with her right leg out front and her left leg sticking awkwardly backwards, using her right arm to pull herself along.

Ariana isn’t talking yet because, according to her speech therapist, she is using the pathway in her brain normally reserved for speech to accomplish something else.  She is, however, learning sign language so that she can communicate with us.  She does understand what we say to her, and she sometimes gets frustrated at her inability to speak.  But she pushes forward like she always does.

Ariana is the bravest girl I know because despite being dealt a pretty bad hand when she was three weeks old, she has never felt sorry for herself.  Maybe it’s because she has just never known any different, but I don’t think so.  I think she is an old soul, and that deep down, she pushes through her difficulties because she knows that she serves as an inspiration to others.

20130928_185644Ariana is the bravest girl I know because even when she has a bad day physically, her left arm and hand stiff from the effects of having multiple strokes, she almost always has a smile on her face, attempting to lift the spirits of those around her.

Ariana is the bravest girl I know because, unlike most people I know, she gives and receives love unconditionally.

Happy 2nd Birthday, Little Angel!  You make me proud every day, and you fill my heart with love!

Book Review: A River Moves Forward by Selena Haskins

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A River Moves Forward, the debut novel by Washington, DC novelist Selena Haskins, tells the story of Connie Morris, and her time growing up in, and finally escaping the crime-ridden housing project Cabrini-Green.  The book is filled with tragedy and heartbreak, broken and repaired relationships, along with a measure of redemption.

There were times, however, when I felt as though I was reading a history textbook.  Historical events were often presented with all but the vaguest, general connections to the story.  The author would have been better served weaving these events directly into the story line, using them as a means of indirectly enhancing the struggles of the main characters, and of African Americans of that particular time period.  In other words, she could have had the main characters discussing and interacting with these issues as they related to the current times, and to their own struggles.  There were also numerous instances when the author also chose to tell the reader that something happened, rather than showing it happening, perhaps through the eyes of a main character.  One example of this is the main character Connie’s descent into alcohol addiction.  Readers mostly hear about how bad her drinking is becoming, rather than being shown the disastrous effects of her drinking through her eyes, and the eyes of those closest to her.

There were also lots of issues with the basic mechanics of composition.  The biggest of these was the author’s use of paragraphs that quite literally went on for pages, containing expository passages and, very often, dialogue between multiple characters.

Additionally, there were numerous instances when words were misused, mistakes that should have been identified and corrected during the editing process.  One example that came to mind was the use of the word “descent,” when the author meant to say “decent,” as in “Their mother allowed them to go to descent parties…”  Another example was the use of “riff” (defined as a short musical phrase) instead of “rift,” as in “Because of this, a riff ensued between Connie, Billy and Upper management.”  These simple, fixable errors really detracted from the story.

In spite of the aforementioned issues, A River Moves Forward is a somewhat compelling, multi-generational story.  The book’s dialogue had an authentic feel, and the author did a pretty good job of developing the main characters.

*****

Recovery Glass: An Enduring Symbol of Hope and Recovery

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September is National Recovery Month.  According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), recovery from mental illness and substance use disorders is defined as “a process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live a self-directed life, and strive to reach their full potential.”  For many people suffering from mental illness and/or substance abuse disorders, the prospect of trying to recover from can be overwhelming.  Aspire Indiana, a comprehensive community mental health center,  subscribes to the philosophy that recovery is possible for all the individuals with mental illnesses and substance use disorders that the organization serves .

In 2012, a client came to Aspire with an idea about something that accurately and beautifully symbolizes recovery.  It’s called Recovery Glass.  The concept is really quite simple.  Recovery Glass is made when pieces of glass and broken bottles are discarded in the ocean.  Over time, this glass becomes smooth by tumbling against rocks and sand.  There are times in the lives of behavioral health consumers when they feel like they have been discarded, when healing and recovery seem like they are out of reach.  Recovery Glass is symbolic of a life that once seemed broken and lost, but through the storm, the rough edges became smooth, and the soul was healed.

Aspire Indiana began manufacturing and selling Recovery Glass necklaces earlier this year.  Much to Aspire’s surprise, Recovery Glass has been wildly successful.  Aspire thinks the success is due to the fact that a Recovery Glass necklace is not just another piece of jewelry.  A Recovery Glass necklace symbolizes hope and recovery, things that are often in short supply for those with mental illness and/or substance use disorders.

Book Review: The Last Child by John Hart

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The Last Child, John Hart’s second novel, is the story of Johnny Merrimon, and his relentless search for his twin sister Alyssa, who disappeared a year earlier on her way home from the library.  Johnny braves bad neighborhoods, sex offenders, and his drug-addled mother’s abusive boyfriend to get to the truth.

Clyde Hunt, the lead detective on Alyssa’s case, has a soft spot for Johnny and his mother, tempered by immense guilt over not having kept his promise to find Alyssa.  His determination to find her cost him his wife, and very nearly his job.

When a second girl is kidnapped, everyone is convinced that she was taken by Alyssa’s abductor.  What is finally revealed is a truth that is much worse than anyone could have imagined, touching several families, and tearing at the very fabric of the town.

Filled with beautiful prose, rich, southern dialogue, and complex characters, The Last Child brings to mind the writing of James Lee Burke.  The plot’s twists and turns will keep readers guessing until the very end, making it a hard book to put down.

Bottom line: The Last Child is a great book with compelling characters, blurry lines between right and wrong, and a surprise ending that will leave readers speechless.

*****