The bravest girl I know, Ariana Valerie Combs, entered the world on September 30, 2011, and by all appearances was a normal baby for the first three weeks of her life. On October 23, 2011, she went from being a normal baby to one whose life would be forever changed.
She began having seizures and was taken to Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis. We would later learn that she had suffered at least fifteen strokes. It was touch and go for a while, but we finally got to take our granddaughter home two days before Thanksgiving, but not before we were offered a list of long-term care facilities for when we got tired of caring for a baby that would, according to the doctors, never walk or talk.
As we celebrated the holidays and welcomed 2012, it became increasingly apparent that Ariana was not a normal baby. She wasn’t hitting age-related milestones, but she was always a joy to be around. In February 2012, Ariana’s mother, our oldest daughter, unable to cope with the rules of our household and the demands of a new baby, decided to leave home. Wisely, she decided to leave Ariana in the care of my wife and I.
Life in our house continued, with everyone pitching in to care for Ariana. Eventually, she went from not moving on her own to pulling herself along with her right arm, her left leg bent awkwardly behind her. Finally, she started walking with the assistance of a hard plastic brace on her left foot and ankle that keeps her knee from hyper-extending.
Not knowing if she would ever talk, we worked to teach her sign language. She hit her second birthday, a joyful, gregarious toddler who didn’t need words to express what she was feeling. The light in her eyes and the smile on her face spoke volumes.
Her walking improved, and eventually she stopped pulling herself across the floor with her right arm altogether. Her third Christmas, in 2013, was a joyous occasion. Though reluctant to open her gifts, she eventually got into the spirit, playing with her new toys, and oohing and ahhing over her new clothes. She even helped others with their gifts, and seemed content in the joy that others’ gifts were bringing them.
2014 brought renewed hope for all of us that were involved in her care and upbringing, including my parents, who watch her two days a week while my wife works. She was progressing well in her multiple therapies, including occupational, developmental, physical, and speech therapies. She bonded with her therapists, and they bonded with her. They challenged her on a daily basis, and most of the time she responded positively, working hard. She had her bad days. Don’t we all?
Sadly, I don’t remember the exact date, but sometime around Memorial Day 2014, it happened. It was as if someone flipped a switch in her little brain. Ariana uttered her first word, which, according to me, was Papaw. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. We were overjoyed. A little girl that was neither supposed to walk nor talk was now doing both! Now, there are times when we can’t get her to be quiet!
In July, we rented a cabin on Black Lake in northern Michigan. As always, it was a relaxing vacation. It was also a week of firsts for Ariana: she played in the sand beside the lake, she was pulled in an inner tube behind a boat (safely in the arms of her Aunt Riley), and she caught her first fish. To see her revel in life’s simple pleasures warms my heart.
Because she is such an inspiration, I like to share her story with both acquaintances and strangers. I used to tell people that she was a stroke victim. One day, as I was telling her story to someone, saying that she was a stroke victim, it hit me. She has never viewed herself as a victim. Why should I? I immediately corrected myself, and said that she was a stroke survivor.
She has moved far beyond the feeble, disabled, bed-ridden child we were led to believe we would be taking home from Riley Hospital in 2011. She has her challenges, but she hits them head-on like the true conqueror she is. When she sets her mind to do something, she never gives up until she’s accomplished her goal. This trait will serve her well throughout her life.
She has become, for the most part, a typical toddler. If you ask her to do something and she doesn’t want to do it, she’ll let you know she doesn’t want to do it. However, she is polite in her defiance. Just yesterday, I said, “Ariana, it’s time to put your books away.” She looked at me, smiled, and said, “No thank you, Papaw,” and then sauntered out of the room, in her mind putting the issue to rest. To say she is a little bit independent and headstrong is like saying habanero peppers are a little bit hot and spicy.
That defiance, which is normal for a child her age, is balanced with a sweet personality. She genuinely cares about how others feel, and is not afraid to give a friend or a stranger a hug or a simple “Hi.” In short, she is developing characteristics that will allow her to continue to be successful throughout her life.
If I’ve had a bad day, I can be reasonably sure that when I walk through the door at home, Ariana will look up, see me, and run to me, yelling, “My Papaw!” No matter what kind of day I’ve had, this always puts a smile on my face and warms my heart. You can’t put a price on that!
I would like to dedicate this to everyone who has had a hand in helping us raise Ariana, especially my wife Carla, my daughters Savanna and Riley, my parents, my in-laws, family and friends, all of Ariana’s therapists and doctors, and the wonderful people at our church – South Meridian Church of God. We can’t do it without you.
Most of all, I dedicate this to my wonderful, inspirational granddaughter. Ariana, as you turn three today, please know that you care about others and are cared about, that you value others and are valued, and most importantly, that you love others and are loved.