On Giving Up Control

For some, this post may be a little too much information about a depressing time in my life. For me, it’s a very important time and something that’s therapeutic to write about. Read at your own risk.

Today is the 1-year anniversary of the longest day of my life. It was supposed to be the first day of the rest of my life, and it was, but not in the same way I had thought.

I had been living in a hotel for the past week, having recently started my new job. And on June 4th, 2011 my wife and kids were flying in to meet up with me in our new city. It was an exciting time, the beginning of our new downsized life in a beautiful city sitting in the shadows of the Rocky Mountains. As I saw it, life couldn’t get much better. I felt I had finally understood everything, I knew what I wanted, and everything was in my control. But then, without warning, it wasn’t.

My wife and kids flew in around noon. We had some lunch, played in the hotel pool, then drove by our new house to show it to our kids for the first time. Then we drove to a park near our new house, where we figured we’d be spending many days over the next few years. It was a sunny but cool afternoon, and it was pure bliss having only recently exited the hot humid summer climate of central Texas. Both kids were having a blast, excited about all the new experiences. I was over by the swings with my son, and my wife was on the other side of the playground with my daughter.

I was pushing my son on the swings and joking around with him. But then I looked up, and I saw a look of panic in my wife’s eyes. She told me something was wrong with our daughter, and to come right away. I could see in her body language this was serious, so I grabbed my son and ran over to my daughter. Her body was limp, her eyes staring through me, and she was gasping for air. We ran to the car, asking a stranger how to get to the nearest hospital. My daughter sat in my wife’s lap as I rode recklessly to the hospital, and as we approached the emergency room entrance my daughter’s eyes had rolled to the back of her head. My wife and I both remained calm up to the point when the doctors took over, then I’m pretty sure we both broke down in fear amongst the chaos of the emergency room.

Minutes seemed like hours, but after a short while the doctors said they thought she was having a seizure. Unfortunately, they couldn’t seem to control it so they gave her heavy sedatives that required her to be put on a breathing tube. Additionally, they didn’t feel confident that they had the pediatric expertise to treat her, so they would need to fly her by helicopter to Denver. My wife would fly with her, but I would need to drive. Fortunately my in-laws were with us, so my mother-in-law could stay with my son and my father-in-law could drive me since I was in no position to be driving.

The next hour was the longest, most gut-wrenching time of my life. My 16-month old daughter was unconscious and not breathing on her own, my wife was unable to update me by phone while in flight, and I would just need to give up all control and sit and wait while we sped up to Denver. I don’t remember many of my thoughts during that drive, but I remember one very clear thought:

I would give up everything I had to have my daughter back in my hands, smiling and laughing as she had been doing just a few hours ago. Without flinching I’d give up all my money, all my possessions, my job, my house, everything.

This concept may seem obvious to many people, but for me it was the first time I ever thought that way. I had never really faced such a tragedy, and in retrospect I know now how it changed me for the better.  Although I had shunned the consumerist lifestyle for something simpler, it wasn’t until this time that I became aware of how worthless all the FI-enabling money truly was compared to the important things in my life.

That night in Denver, I didn’t sleep. I sat with my daughter in the PICU, staring at her vitals on the monitor – almost trying to control her heart rate with my mind. The next day, as the meds started to wear off, she would be tested for the first time to see if her seizures were over and whether she could breathe on her own. Since no one knew exactly what had happened, we still had no clue what damage had been done. So i just sat there next to her all day, talking to her, convinced she could hear me.

Finally, as the meds wore off and she showed the ability to breathe on her own, the doctors said they would be taking out her breathing tube. By this point she was moving her body a little, and she was occasionally opening her eyes – all positive signs. When they pulled out her breathing tube, she woke up fully, screamed a terrible hoarse cry for a few minutes, then went back to sleep. The doctors said it was a typical response, and her progress was a positive sign.

Over the next few hours, she would occasionally wake up crying, then go back to sleep. When she finally woke up enough to be conscious, I still remember her first word: “Dadoo.” (That’s what she called me back then). Of course, it was probably just because I was the first person she saw, but I like to think it was more. I like to think that she knew I would be a new and better dad from now on. Not just a financial provider and occasionally fun guy – but a really loving dad that would always be there for her unconditionally.

Over the next 2 days, I watched my daughter grow so much. In 48 hours, she grew from a belligerent baby that couldn’t hold her own head up, to a clumsy little toddler as if walking for the first time, and finally to the fun little girl I remembered. In a way, it was a blessing to get to see her grow up again in fast forward.

Today, my daughter is the prettiest little 2-year old girl, and by all accounts appears to be both happy and healthy. My wife and I have the unfortunate burden of always living with a little fear that it could happen again, but we’re hopeful that she’s grown out of whatever it was that caused the seizures (she did have a second seizure 8 weeks after the first, but none since). And in a very strange and reluctant way, I’m thankful that my daughter taught me the sobering and humbling lesson that I can never be in complete control. Instead, I will just do my best to be a great dad, husband, and person – and hope for the best.


18 Responses to On Giving Up Control

  1. Shawn says:

    I am so glad she is better. Some of the best lessons are unfortunately the toughest.

  2. Wow did you just strike fear into my heart – my baby is almost 16 mo. old. Do they have any idea what caused the seizures or how common this is?

    • Sorry, I certainly wasn’t trying to create fear in the eyes of parents everywhere. Instead, I was hoping to share the benefits of my learning with others who are fortunate eniugh NOT to have to go through an experience like that.

      Her condition was never diagnosed, which it turns out isn’t all that uncommon for kids her age. As it turns out, no positive diagnosis is the best news for this, because all the things they can test for are really bad conditions (tumors, etc).

      I don’t know the exact percentage of kids that have this happen but its pretty low. Its actually extremely low below 2 years old, and a little more common from 2 to 5. For kids that do experience it, most tend to out grow it for whatever reason. I wish we knew more, but its not a well understood phenomenon according to her neurologist (and the internet).

  3. I’m so glad to hear she’s okay — goodness gracious what a scare!

  4. chris says:

    Wow, talk about bringing back memories. Six years ago my wife and I had the same type of event happen. Hence the reason why I’m interested in the FI topic. Having that happen sure does put things in perspective. Foe me, Now it’s all about the freedom to watch my kids grow and not miss out on that. Great post. Thanks.

  5. J.C. Reeves says:

    Very good message, BNL. I recently found your website after watching David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech for a post over on my own blog. All too often, we think we’re in control of everything. Hope your daughter continues to be healthy!

  6. Frugal Stoic says:

    Best wishes for your daughter’s health and congratulations on deciding on what is important in life.

    Have you read Epictetus or the Stoics on what is in our control by chance? I started reading them thanks to the ERE forums initially but I can’t remember if you were one of the posters that read Irvine’s book.

    • Yep, I read Irvine’s “A guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy” last year. I enjoyed it because, for the most part, my take on life is mostly consistent with the Stoics.

      However, I can tell you that their was nothing stoic about my attitude during the event played out above, and some of the stoic theory on giving up control gets thrown out the door in times of emergency (at least for me).

      On the other hand, I do use the concept of negative visualization and remembering events like the one described in this post to help achieve more joy day to day.

      • Frugal Stoic says:

        On the contrary, I think you behaved stoically when you did what was in your control and recognized the things that were not in your control. I don’t think Stoicism demands that we be unemotional in times of stress, but rather serves as a way to understand and deal with those emotions when they come up and in the aftermath.

        You responded by doing everything you could for the health of your daughter, and committed yourself to being the best father possible in the future (I think you were probably already doing a great job even before this).

      • Irvine’s book changed my life, probably because I read it during a dark period.

        As a father of two daughters, this story struck a chord with me. I remember as my first daughter was born early, driving to the hospital, unable to keep up with the ambulance that was taking them 50 miles north. I remember not knowing what was going on, but trying to keep it together.

        I’m glad this turned out okay for you guys.

  7. i have a 3 year old and i cant imagine what i would do if she was going through a similiar situation. we all have much to be thankful for. too easy to get caught up in the mundane trivial stuff to forget about what is really important.

  8. I’m glad she didn’t have any more seizure since the 2nd one. Hopefully all that is over with. I’m staying at home with my 16 months old son this month and I’m really thankful that he is relatively healthy.

  9. Daisy says:

    Wow… that’s so scary! I am so glad she’s ok.

  10. Carrie says:

    I’m glad your daughter is well. Thanks for sharing this great message. We could all use a little reminder of what our real priorities are in life. For me, the timing couldn’t be better.

  11. […] Brave New Life has a touching reflection on the anniversary of a life-changing event. […]

  12. Evan says:

    Wow! I have an 18 month old and there is nothing I wouldn’t give that boy! I am glad she is alright. Were there any changes you made in your life after those 2 HORRIBLE days?

    • I didn’t really make any life changes, but I gained a new perspective on interactions with my kids.

      As an example, at that time she was regularly waking up crying at 4:30 or 5am. Prior to that event, I would get annoyed and frustrated as I hobbled over to her room to get her up. Now when that happens, I literally smile and appreciate the fact that I get to spend another day with my kids.

  13. TrekMan says:

    My little sister used to have seizures when she was a kid back in the 80s. She’s fine now. I remember a few incidences where my mom rushed her off to the hospital. She mostly grew out of it by age 12. Being two years older than her it was pretty scary to watch.

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