Tough? At 2 pounds, 14 ounces, how could Henry be considered tough?
When I was a young boy I thought I knew what being tough was about. I believed I was tough and that made me a man. I could hang with the best of them on the basketball court, even the big guys that enjoyed fouling me in hopes that I would quit. They wanted to see me wince, see me give up, and even see me do the one thing you didn’t do as a tough young man—cry.
I was proud to tell others that I had broken every finger except one playing basketball, and had even busted an ankle as well. But … I never quit or cried because I was tough. I wrestled one year in high school until a teammate broke my hand in practice. The sound of the break rang through the gym like buckshot from a 12-gauge. Everyone stopped but me. I kept wrestling with my hand behind my back until I noticed my teammate backing up with fear in his face. For weeks, I rehabbed my hand until the doctor released me to wrestle again. A couple weeks went by and I won a couple matches, but once again in practice a fellow teammate crushed my hand with his knee. I never winced, never stopped; I continued to wrestle with anger, with adrenaline, knowing I was tougher than my opponent. I continued until the coach—a former University of Georgia offensive linemen—stepped in, tossing me from the mat. He said I needed to heal, needed to get my head straight, and until I did that “don’t come back, son.”
I was heart-broken, but I was tough and I would not cry. I would show them what they lost so I joined the track team and the cross country team. I became part of the basketball practice squad. I did everything I could to succeed in toughness. A part of me felt I had accomplished my goal when others stopped picking on me and when classmates began touting my athletic successes, but it wasn’t enough. After high school, I became a hard-nosed merchandising rep and eventually manager working in the interior construction of home improvement stores. I walked dangerously across rickety boards 16-20 feet off the ground; I traveled the country working in any town the job took me, and strayed from the basic teachings of my parents (with regards to sex and alcohol). Yet, I was tough and that seemed to make me happy.
But one day I realized I was lonely because I had damaged every good relationship, every good friendship, at the expense of being tough. I wasn’t happy, but I was good at making myself and others believe that. Being what I thought was a man nearly ruined my life.
So what was the true essence of being tough? What was the true essence of being a man? The answer I learned not from a man, but from a young boy that has yet to grow into manhood. His name is Henry and I met him on the morning he nearly died.
You see, Henry is my oldest child and he was born two months early. The doctor explained to me that my son and my wife would have surely died had they not made it to the hospital that scary morning. I was frightened, I was scared. I called my parents and my wife’s parents begging for their help. But I did not cry. I remained tough—for my family I would say to myself—but when the tiny, clear NICU box rolled down the hall toward me and I saw Henry for the first time I collapsed in tears. The doctor put his hand on my shoulder and said, “You have one tough kid there. Take care of him and his mother.”
During the next three months as nurses poked at him, as doctors cut him open to remove and correct internal parts, as tubes protruded from holes that should not have been there, and when he began to breathe again after his lungs stopped … I learned that I had never truly been tough. I cried many times during that time with my wife’s arms wrapped around me for comfort. Often it was Henry’s smile that kept me going. It was Henry’s toughness that gave me hope as I watched every nurse, doctor, and fellow parents fall in love with this tiniest of people.
Henry grew stronger and we eventually took him home, still with some extra tubes hanging from his ravaged little body, knowing he had long-term medical issues. I was a wreck, but I struggled through each day watching this little boy make everything better. In time, the tubes came out and we became better parents who understood his needs, but other medical issues came and we feared Henry may one day leave this earth before us. His neck was bent—crooked as he calls it—because of scoliosis and an extra bone in his neck. He had growth hormone deficiency, making it hard for him to grow, and issues with his esophagus and digestive tract, making it hard for him to eat. We knew how hard everyday activities would be for him, but then he began to walk and talk. He began to surprise us every day.
We found that everyone loved him … EVERYONE. Though we feared how other children would treat him, we decided to send him to school. In kindergarten, he had a group of friends that acted as his bodyguards, protecting him from bullying. The teachers took extra care to watch him at recess, and the principals and janitor went out of their way to make sure he had what he needed to succeed. And Henry loved them all back, making sure to speak to them all each day so they knew he loved them back.
My wife and I worried every day, but that worry began to subside as Henry grew older, as he showed us his toughness and zeal for life. His toughness was in doing what nobody thought he could do—like climbing the monkey bars at school or flying down the zip-line (three times) at scout camp, or lifting heavy tables for a recent family reunion after his grandfather said he wasn’t sure Henry was strong enough to lift them. But Henry did and surprised us both.
I was the worst of anyone in thinking Henry wasn’t tough enough, but still trying to be that reassuring, supportive father I knew I should be. We now have three children, but I’m often unsure of myself as a father, yet those are the times when Henry will give me a giant hug or ask me to throw the football with him or even draw a picture of me that says, “The Best Dad Ever!”
Henry has taught me that being tough isn’t about beating everyone else at the physical exploits of our youth or doing the crazy things in life to prove your toughness. He has instead shown me that sometimes there is a need for being physically tough as he fights through the challenges his medical issues bring or by calmly taking his daily shots. But he does it quietly without fanfare. It is in his ability to bring people together with compassion and quiet leadership that I’ve learned what manhood is all about. It is about helping others when they need it regardless of your own desperate plight, crying with those that need comfort instead of wondering how others may criticize your tears, and turning the other cheek when others would do you harm.
Manhood is about being brave enough, tough enough, to be vulnerable—both emotionally and spiritually. Henry is my teacher of manhood; he is my teacher of toughness.