You Don’t Understand

My name is Art and I’m a rough-and-tough US Marine. Just kidding. I’m a roly poly US Marine. Not so lean, not so mean… but still a Marine. I served as an 0261 Topographic Intel Specialist. We made fancy maps for officers. I loved my job and I was good at it. The Marine Corps was the first place I truly felt like I belonged.

I grew up in foster homes (some abusive, most were not). Foster care did get me into homes that gave me a bit more of a structured life. I was never in one place for too long, especially after my mom passed when I was 9 from smoking complications. My father was a good man when he wasn’t drunkenly abusive, but was admittedly a bit neglectful leaving us home alone most all day every day. In his own way, he still loved us, but I think he subscribed to the philosophy of acting super tough all the time with no room for being a sissy for doing things like showing emotion or hugging your kids.

When I graduated high school, I tipped the scales at 122 pounds. My dad served in the Army at one time and my older sister had served in the Navy, so I had my own interest in the military, as well. The Army wouldn’t talk to me and everybody told me that I COULDN’T be a Marine. I was too scrawny and not built for it.

So naturally, that’s what I did. By the time I completed my 3 months at Parris Island, I had bulked up to an impressive 134 pounds. Calm yourselves, ladies… I’m already married.

After 7 years, I got out. My first EAS from active duty was 11 days after 9/11 and my second EAS was 3 years after re-activating myself in the reserves. I worked selling TVs and repairing computers at retail big box stores. I met my now-wife while finishing active duty. I was accepted to THE Ohio State University and took out school loans to do it. After 1 year of college, I became engaged and picked up roots and drug my butt out to Utah where I am still at today. My amazing fiancée would have gladly left Utah for Ohio had I asked, but since she had just a single year left, that would have been a pretty crappy move for me to ask of her. College was put on hold.

I am forever grateful to the company that hired me for the next 13 years of my life. It was a first-tier tech support job that gave me the opportunity to nail down a set of skills that I continue to use today. I had been working with them for longer than I’d been married to my wife by three months.

Three years into our marriage, she became pregnant with our first boy. He was born healthy and amazing. Any kid that’s as amazing as he is deserved an amazing name. So I gave him mine. 3 years after that, we gave him another outstanding little brother. My older boy got to come to the hospital to meet him, too. We have pictures, video, and all of the other wonderful things that I’ll never forget. Even to this day, they’re awesome friends when they’re not punching each other and giving noogies in the pool. Four years after our second boy was born, we had our third boy. Christian Jack was also born super healthy. Shorter labor at 6 hours, but healthy weight with no complications.

My wife worked as a 7th grade Language Arts teacher. We both worked full time to give our boys a good home and I think we did that very well, and still do. We didn’t make a lot of money, but we made enough to have our own house by this time and a nice yard for our boys to play. With Christian Jack, she finally had found her groove. Life was fitting together and through hard work, we were happy.

While at the doctor’s with one of my boys for a check-up, I got a phone call from my wife who had stayed 10 minutes late to finish up some grading. Christian was not breathing. She went to pick him up from daycare and when she went to wake him from his nap, he was not responsive. The lady who ran the daycare treated, and still treats, our kids like they are her own. They are 100% not at fault and we bear NO ill will towards them. She is up to date on infant CPR and so is her husband, who is a county sheriff’s deputy and was also there at the time. He had just been put down to a nap about 10 minutes prior. This is the first huge gut-punch to my wife. She still feels guilty about staying those 10 extra minutes grading. This began the game of “What if?”.

Our boy was rushed to the hospital via ambulance which is where I first saw him. After about 30 minutes of working on him, they life-flighted him to Primary Children’s Hospital in Salt Lake City. His condition would improve and he would show signs of improvement. On the life flight, he was trying to pull his tubes and stuff out so they had to sedate him. As he came out of sedation, I could tickle him and we could see his heart rate go up more and more. He would open his eyes and look around, however briefly.

This is not something that happens to us. This happens on the TV or in movies. When bad things happen, they just work themselves out and everything ends up roses and puppy dogs.

CT scans showed bad news, however. His brain was swelling from the hypoxia, or lack of oxygen. Our joy at seeing him respond was short-lived. Eventually, the nurse told us, his brain would herniate through the skull where the brain stem goes. When that happened, there was no possibility of recovery. This also meant that we could track his progress, unfortunately. “What are his chances of recovering and having any kind of quality of life?” “None.” So, I then made the decision that when it’s time, they should not attempt resuscitation. I told him that it was OK and if he thought he needed to leave, then that’s OK.

While he was technically alive, our little boy was gone. 8 months wasn’t long enough. He wasn’t able to steal his brothers’ toys. He wasn’t able to annoy them when their friends were over. I commend the nurses for everything they did. They now had to ask us tough questions. Our boy was still alive and they had to ask us about organ donation. He was 50 feet away, breathing, heart beating… and we were now discussing his organs.

When my in-laws brought my boys up for their goodbyes, they didn’t know. My younger son asked me “DAD! Does baby Christian get to come home today?” and I couldn’t respond. I just grabbed his hand and went upstairs. The idea was to draw him pictures of them and him so they could keep it afterward for a keepsake. We got the two boys into a small room and went to find the counselor. Walking down the hall, the nurse came running and said “Get your boys. It’s happening now.” They still didn’t know. We walked/ran to his PICU room and the nurses already had a few small stools they could stand on. “Do you remember what happened to Layla last year?” Layla was our dog that passed suddenly. “Yeah.” “That is happening to Christian. He got brain damage and right now it’s time for us to say goodbye to him.” This. This was the point that physically broke me. How do you tell your little boys that they have to say goodbye to their brother? There’s a barrier in the way, I think. You just can’t do it unless that barrier gets broken down and it’s a small piece of your sanity.

27 hours after his nap started, our little boy left us, but holy hell did he fight. This physically broke me. It’s made me a lot more cynical. As his uncle told us, “We spend our entire lives trying to be more Christ-like, striving for perfection. He didn’t need as much time to get there.” That was three years ago. These things DID happen to us. It’s NOT something that happens to just other people.

My wife and I both have to keep an eye on mental health, both depression and PTSD. I don’t need to tell you guys that mental health is real and is just as valid as any physical injury.

I finished school, graduated with honors, and left the company I worked for. The memories attached to that house were too many and too huge. I now work for a major corporation doing some incredible work that I really enjoy. I just get paid a LOT more doing it. We are beating the mental health demons that hide in there. It’s slow.

When COVID-19 stuff started happening, my wife blew out her knee. She required a total knee replacement, which also involves narcotics because that’s what happens when you cut off pieces of bone and replace it with steel. As part of that process, they ask questions about mental health. “Have you ever been depressed?” Things like that. “Yes” because she HAS. “Have you ever had thoughts about suicide and taking your own life?” Me: “No, she’s been awesome at it.” Her: “Yes.”

My wife, the amazing woman that she is, didn’t even tell ME that she had these thoughts. This scared (and still scares) the hell out of me. I thought we had beat it. She’s just that good at hiding it. This is still a demon that we’re fighting and likely will be forever.

Fast forward to about 4 months ago. My wife is pregnant, about 5 months along, and we get more news. It’s likely that our baby has Trisomy 21, also known as Down Syndrome. Because we’ve already experienced the worst thing that could happen to one of our children, that’s immediately where her thoughts went to because that demon was still biting at her heart. Sunday before last, our Sam was born. “Is there any history of Post-partum depression?” Me: “Yeah, she had it with our second boy.” Her: “Yes, with all 3 of my previous babies.” Holy shit…

Well, he does indeed have Down Syndrome but is fairly healthy. He does have a small heart defect, but I have confidence in the doctors charged with his health. Hey, I don’t have much of a choice, right? He will likely need full-on open-heart surgery in a few months. The big kind. Crack the chest, stop the heart, bypass the blood around the heart, fix the heart, and then hook it all back up again. But that’s a worry for another day. He is currently in the NICU and will be for a few weeks. He has to learn to breathe without oxygen and he has to have an interest in food and we can take him home. Until then, mom and I are both happy and we are beating our demons, slowly, but surely.

Today, we are happy. We’re still a family and we are still kicking. Mental health is real and it isn’t given enough attention. It’s not the military that is the sole recipient of mental health problems. Attention needs to be paid to people from all walks of life. PTSD is not just “shell shock” and “battle fatigue.” It’s so many more things. It’s not being able (as opposed to not wanting to) get out of bed. It’s sitting in front of your computer silently weeping while ignoring inbound phone calls at work. It’s canceling dinner dates with friends because you broke down for no apparent reason earlier in the day and you can’t risk them seeing you vulnerable like that because that’s our lot in life.

It’s a lot of work trying to keep life brighter for everybody. It takes SO MUCH energy trying to stave off the bad thoughts for my wife and two boys. They are still growing and have to deal with their kid issues, real and imagined. They still need someone to watch out for their needs. Sometimes, I even get to do the same for myself.

Happy Father’s Day to you gents. Please understand that I’m not trying to be a wet blanket on this most wonderful of days. I’m far more grateful than anybody knows that you aren’t able to understand. I hope you never understand.

Art Scheel
Father of 4 little boys, even if I’m still responsible for only 3.

Author: Art