Grit -- noun. Courage and resolve; strength of character.
Grit has buzz these days. TED talks, bestselling books, countless seminars and currency in the lingo of our conference rooms. Despite the possible nuance of the originators of the current Grit Movement, at this point Grit is mostly understood in a lowest-common-denominator sense, as "that which doesn't kill you makes you stronger." Grit is thought to be synonymous with hardness in the face of tough events. Well... maybe it isn't.
Today marks the second anniversary of my son's colon removal. He had a complete colectomy due to severe Crohn's disease when he was 19 years old. But surgery is not a cure. He will always have this debilitating illness until a cure is found.
This anniversary of the stolen colon has forced me to look back on four years of experiences that have forever changed my family's life. I don't host pity parties, and I certainly am not a fan of poor me's. I'm more of the "bring it on" type. A "let's just conquer this shit and move on" woman. Still, nothing really prepared me for the last four years.
Year 1 of 4
My son (with colon still intact, but secretly preparing to explode), was transitioning out of a rehab in Malibu and into a sober living home in Santa Monica. This was not how I imagined he would spend his 18th year on the planet. I envisioned college dorms, rigorous but enlightening courses, perfect grades, a great social life and girls lining up to date him. I was THAT parent before he took his own, special detour down the dark road. It was an excruciating time of self-examination, mending relationships and forgiving him and myself for the chaos leading up to this. Unlike most parents who feel a sense of loss when their kids pack their bags for college, I felt like a complete and utter failure. Worse, actually. But we trudged through these events, visited his sober self in Santa Monica, and watched him bloom into a more spiritual, responsible, wise young man. I allowed myself to say, "Okay we got through this, we're safe now." Not so fast, Michelle, remember the Jewish phrase, "humans plan and G-d laughs." Not that I believe that G-d had anything to do with these events.
Year 2 of 4
My son was hospitalized 17 times in five different hospitals this year. He was put on steroids that blew up his face the size of a basketball, he contracted two hospital borne infections, one of which was C-Diff, which can live in the gut without causing symptoms, but attacks when your immune system is weakened. He was pumped with unknown amounts of chemicals, was forced to fast for over 10 days at a time, endure colonoscopies, endoscopies, blood tests, stool samples, shots of Humira in his legs, fecal transplants and the ever present button that controlled his Dilaudid pain meds. I remember asking if they had a Diluadid equal for the parent going through this, but they frown on that, apparently. I moved up to LA to be there with him and fight with the doctors to try to find out how to save my son. He lost immense weight, was pasty white, and had little strength. His intestines were literally eating themselves from the inside, and these doctors had nothing to stop this beast from ravaging his body. Enough! I signed him out of the last hospital and brought him back home to San Diego to try to find the solution. There isn't one.
Sidebar -- Did I mention that I planned and executed my wedding during this same year? Yeah, I got married. One minute I was dealing with the crap of picking out the color scheme for the reception and the next minute I was dealing with the crap coming out my son. Literally. Looking back, I am astonished that a wedding happened at all. What was I thinking? But here's the thing with Crohn's -- it can go into semi-remission complete with what looks like good health. And my son was experiencing a little health. But it didn't last long, and he was once again in the hospital on wedding day and even though we tried to Skype him in from his hospital room it didn't work. He missed the wedding. We all were heart broken. Hospital stay number 16 down!
Completely removing his entire colon was the only hope of giving him some relief. It would leave him with a colostomy bag, but would hopefully slow down the progression of the disease. And so out went the colon. Another hospital stay in the books. Total now 17 stays.
Just as we were dealing with understanding how to live with the bag of shit attached to his right abdomen (which we affectionately named Fred), enter year three.
Year 3 of 4
"I have cancer," my best friend said to me. "Breast cancer." I was speechless. Emotions, tears, chemo, hair loss, side effects, surgery, more surgery, and fear dominated this time. As anyone who has gone through or knows someone who has had to fight cancer, it's a time of uncertainty, and a re-evaluation of one's life. My son lost his colon, my best friend lost her breast. It seemed to me like a DMV line of loss. But we kept on going. What choice did any of us have? To this day I regret not being as available to my best friend as I could have been. My son needed my time and energy. He needed daily care to do the most basic of things.
He was slowly on the mend, living with Fred, his bag, and starting to get back into a somewhat normal routine. My best friend continued most of the year enduring chemo and surgeries but keeping a positive energy and outlook. A little weed helped her too. I thought, "Okay we got through this, we're safe now." Not so much.
My kid was now six months out from the stolen colon episode. He was hanging out with friends a bit and enjoying the relief that the surgery provided him. And then I get the call. It was his best friend on the line telling me that my son had a skateboarding accident and that they were heading to the hospital. Annoyed, thinking that he sprained something, or twisted something, I drove to the hospital. And there I saw my kid, covered with blood from head to toe, not moving and not talking. He looked dead. It's a sight I wish on no parent, ever. They immediately transported him to the trauma center at a nearby hospital. He suffered a traumatic brain injury from a severe head meets concrete event. And no, he was not wearing a helmet. About eight trauma specialists came running out to meet the ambulance and wheel him into the trauma room. And there he lay, covered in red, and non-responsive. They cut open his clothes to assess the injuries. And I just stood there, blankly. No emotion. Numb. All I remember is being escorted out and told to go home, that there was no waiting room in the trauma area and that someone would call me when he woke up. My husband got me home but I have no recollection of the drive. Another hospital stay in the books. Total 18.
He did wake up and he did recover, but it took some time. He ended up losing his senses of taste and smell. Permanently. Loss, once more. He suffered massive concussion leaving him with lingering nausea, migraines and mood swings. With no colon, no taste and no smell, and Crohn's that can be triggered at any time, my son at 21 years of age would have a difficult road ahead of him. But what more could possibly happen to my family? Enter year four.
Year 4 of 4
"I have cancer," my mom said. "Breast cancer..."
The last four years forced my family to develop some serious grit. Contrary to some popular research which states that people either have it or they don't, I believe that having grit is a choice one makes -- or, in many cases, a long series of choices. You can certainly choose to crumble, give up and lose hope or you can chose to persevere, endure, have courage and carry on. Every member of my family and my friend chose grit. Grit enables us to persevere despite obstacles over a long period of time. Grit does not mean that you are constantly strong. It means that despite your lack of strength, you will endure, because you have the courage and the resiliency to see the end game. I do not believe in the saying, "That which doesn't kill you makes you stronger." I think that which doesn't kill you makes you softer. What I learned and am still learning during these past four years is that with every challenging event, I softened to the human experience. I released all expected outcomes. I realized I know nothing and am in control of nothing. This type of knowledge softened me to the world. It opened me up to the miracles of existence. I developed more compassion and empathy. I just let go. So, can you possess grit and soften at the same time? Yes. Yes, I believe you can. And for some of us, we must.