Ten years ago when my son was born, I knew that my life would never be the same again. It was not only because I had become a father for the first time, but also because it looked as though I was going to lose both my newborn son and my wife.
My wife’s blood pressure dipped dangerously low right as she went into labor. She lost her sight, and the nurses lost our son’s heartbeat. Thankfully, both were temporary. Still, they were in a dangerous situation. After our son was delivered, he was silent, purple, and still. My wife was delirious and bleeding uncontrollably. I was confused and touching the edge of grief. Because of how our son looked, I initially thought he was dead. The nurses rushed him away. I stayed with my wife while the doctor struggled to stem her bleeding.
We all made it through that unfamiliar difficult time. We faced many challenges along the way. My wife ended up having four surgeries as a result. Our son was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. Yet, we are a normal happy family. (Not incidentally, the meaning of our son’s name is “Happiness”). In retrospect, I know that somehow the three of us discovered a degree of inner strength and happiness to have made it through that challenging period. I also know that we are not alone in that regard.
I recently met Habtom Abiyoto while traveling in the U.S. Habtom is originally from Eritrea, Yemen (close to the Red Sea). He and his wife moved to the U.S. 25 years ago. Ten years ago, Habtom’s wife had a stroke right after she gave birth to their fourth child. She became completely paralyzed. Imagine the shock, stress, and fear he and his family experienced. Some of us don’t have to imagine it. We know it from our own lives.
The way that Habtom handled his family’s situation is nothing but remarkable. He chose to take care of his wife. And I don’t mean by only taking care of the bills. She was admitted to a top hospital in their state. He moved in with her. After a year, against the advice of many professionals, family, and friends, he took her home. Habtom said, “The therapy was just not working for her. I know this hospital was topnotch. They were expert therapists. However, I saw that physical therapy, speech therapy, etc, were useless without mental therapy.”
I remember shortly after our son’s diagnosis, my wife and I decided that we would treat him as a normal little boy. We will have normal conversations with him, read to it, eat with him, and play with him (he is a UNO and board games master). We called it normal. Habtom called it mental therapy.
“At the hospital, they told my paralyzed wife, ‘turn your head, lift your arm, move your feet’. Those things did not work for her. I took her home and helped her understand why she had to laugh. She had to have her own reasons for laughing, walking, and talking again. I cannot just tell her to do those things. That is mental therapy.”
During the 10 years Habtom spent at home taking care of his wife, he treated her as a perfect person.
“I don’t see her as ill, or broken. She is perfect,” he told me. One day after she recovered her ability to speak, she asked him, “Why do you treat me like a perfect lady?” He told her, “Because you are.”
Habtom told me that the experience was not easy. It was a big process. There was a time during his wife’s recovery when she fell down the stairs and broke 11 ribs, one almost puncturing her lung. That was scary, but he was not deterred. He sold their mansion in NJ and bought a single level home in Maryland so she would not have to climb stairs. They still live there today.
After many years of taking care of her at home – helping with therapy, playing with her, and telling her her favorite jokes – Habtom’s wife is doing exceptionally well. He described her as the happiest person he knows. Ironically, Habtom was one of the happiest person I have ever met. I asked him why he is so happy. He said,
“I am happy because I decide to be happy. I am my own reasons for being happy.” Spoken like a true guru. Except, Hampton is no guru.
Habtom does not attend church. He described himself as being very spiritual.
“God is all,” he said. “When you believe in something, it gives you a lot of power. It gives you strength. You know, I never asked God for anything in my life before my wife’s stroke. Since then, I only asked for one thing: that my wife be able to kiss and hug our children again. It took a long time, but it happened.”
Like me, you are probably wondering why and how did Habtom discover the strength to take care of his wife and four sons. He himself admitted that it was difficult at times. I know I was tired while my wife and son were going through their medical challenges. Many times, I doubted myself and my ability to take care of them. Other times I wanted them to hurry and heal.
Habtom’s story inspires me in many ways. I mentioned earlier that he and his wife moved to the U.S. 25 years ago. What I did not mention was that they moved there without a single penny. He found a job for $6/hour, and worked part-time while sending himself to college. Two years after graduating, he started his own company and eventually became a multi-millionaire. He said, “I did all this with my wife. We moved to the U.S. together. We went through a lot together. That is why I cannot let her down – she has become a part of me. The mother of my kids. She is me. I cannot disown her. We are one.”
And aren’t we all one? We are certainly stronger together. But we must first discover our own inner strength and happiness. If there is a challenge, know that there must be a way. There is a solution for every single problem. Not only one, but multiple solutions. We only need to choose one. We do not have to succumb to anything.
We have the strength.