Saturday, January 16, 2016

When a Two Year Old is Called To Keep Moving Forward

I have often said that I have found myself in the role of the underdog since the beginning, and I've meant that in a very literal sense.  Today, I wanted to share some things about my childhood that had a very significant impact upon my life, my development, my outlook, and in many ways who I am today.

At the age of two, I endured a traumatic head injury.  Court cases later involving myself and several other children who were seriously hurt brought to light that this was the result of a violent and abusive daycare worker.

The back of my skull was crushed and I was rushed to an emergency surgery.  I was told by my folks later that I nearly died that day.  The back of my skull was essentially shattered to the point that even part of the brain was exposed.  Following a very extensive surgery and craniotomy, involving the use of a slew of tiny clamps, I made it through and even still could smile as the photo shows.

Of course, this was a hellish experience for my folks to go through and the beginning of a very long road.  I can't even imagine what it must have been like for them.

At the age of two, because of the vulnerability of my skull, I had to begin sleeping in what was a small hockey helmet at night.  I had to sleep in a helmet for a few years, in fact, as well as wear this helmet all throughout the day.  Literally, except for when I had gentle washing and baths, I had to wear that thing 24 hours a day.

Obviously, being on the playground, or at pre-school and later, in a helmet tends to bring you a lot of unpleasant attention from other kids.  The only good news was that I did not get beat up as even the bigger kids were savvy enough to realize that punching a hockey helmet would not benefit their hands very well.  But I did get called names quite a bit, and even to the kids who were my friends I was a curiosity.  I endured a lot of rapping knuckles like a door knock on my helmet and things like that.

It was a very difficult process to go through as I was very aware of the attention I attracted. I became very self-conscious and wondered what was wrong with me quite often.  Thankfully, I did end up having some very good playmates who more or less stuck up for me out on the playground and elsewhere, and teachers tended to keep a good eye out for me.

I learned to live with it and did not shut down.  The overwhelming amount of that credit goes to my folks who were absolutely amazing parents to have and who fought for me anytime any organizer had an issue about me participating in something while wearing a helmet.

They made sure I was in social activities with my peer group, supported my interests, and really were there to help me hold the line while I was struggling during that time as a three year old, four year old, five year old, and on up.  They didn't shelter me or coddle me, they encouraged me to engage, to participate, and to do anything any of the other kids were doing.

The doctors overseeing my development determined that my head was more or less normalized except for one very small zone as I entered my first years of t-ball and small fry baseball (like little league).  My mother's godfather, a wonderful man named Fritz Gassman, who we affectionately called Uncle Fritz, had an autobody shop and worked with materials like fiberglass.  He took it upon himself, on his own initiative, to create a baseball cap that had snaps in the back, into which a curving fiberglass plate could be fitted.

At long last, I did not have to wear a helmet anymore, and was able to shift into a baseball cap.  By that time I had been able to go to sleep at night without wearing headgear, so this enabled me to enter a much more normalized state of existence.  Since I went to a school that required uniforms (Catholic school), being able to wear a ballcap actually became a cool accessory that some kids were jealous of!

By the time that I moved on to Babe Ruth League my head finally reached the point where I was able to go full time without protective headgear.

Nevertheless, the experience, looking back on it, had a profound effect on my lifetime.  It instilled within me a sensitivity to those being bullied, and to anyone that had something that caused them to stand out a bit from the crowd.  It gave me a special respect for anyone saddled with some kind of health or physical-related challenge.  It gave me a passion for the underdog in any sphere of life.

I think in many ways, since I was singled out all the time because of that helmet, it caused me to think in terms of individuals and not groups.  To this day, I view each person on an individual level and shun labels and categories in my personal relationships and interactions. Truly, if there ever was a lesson about the importance of tolerance, then this was a big one that I took forward with me across the years.  I credit this in a big way for the fact that I have had wonderful friendships with individuals coming from all walks of life, no matter what culture, ethnicity, religion, level of education, sexual orientation, or any other area typically used to define groups.

It required me to be resilient, to believe in myself and that I could still walk tall even if I was being made fun or being stared at.  I really did learn to march to my own drummer and be able to stand alone.  It toughened me in a lot of ways, and prepared me better for the interior self-esteem battle I would fight soon after putting on a lot of weight due to being hypothyroid just as I was entering my high school years.

In a matter of a few violent seconds, a two year old's life had a shadow cast over it that lasted many years.  Nevertheless, that two year old did keep moving forward ... onward and upward.


Terry W. Ervin II said...

Something I did not know about your youth. I agree that your parents had to have made a huge difference. Although certainly inadequate, a double thumbs-up to them and to you!

sgzimmer said...

@Terry Thank you for the comments. They were amazing parents, something I come to appreciate more and more with each day forward in the adult world. This is a story I held back on sharing for awhile, but now I am at a point where I am fully comfortable with talking about it. Appreciate you reading it. :)

deedeeking said...

We all have so many obstacles we are faced with thorough our lifes and some handle it well and some do not.
You were able to make a tragedy into a positive, not only because of the loving parents and family and friends that surrounded you, but because of the person who you are at your core.
When good people are faced with tragedy and difficulties they take those and make themselves better and the world around them. You are a shining example of this.
You know I have read all of your EPIC FANTASY SERIES well except( you know the one) but maybe you should write another book. An Autobiography.
Your journey could give hope to others who have been put in situations that have sent their world in a dramatically different direction then they planned. Just a thought.

Thanks for sharing with all, I knew the story already but it's always nice to hear a positive story that is still being written.
Dee Dee King

Marian Allen said...

As a mom, I can just barely imagine the courage it took for your parents to support you in participating in ordinary kid activities. The impulse would be to wrap you up in soft blankets -- or, as we used to say back in the day, in cotton wool -- and carry you around on a pillow! You're right: this experience, your response, your parents' response, and everything that came from those must have played a HUGE role in your being who you are today. I only hope the other kids that monstrously broken child "care" worker hurt came through half as well as you did, you awesome guy! <3

Patricia Wilson said...

As a mom i want to keep my kid in bubble wrap to protect him against the world, but i know he has to fall sometimes or he will never learn to get back up. All i can do is make sure he has a soft place to land on. It is amazing and terrifying loving with your heart running around outside your chest. I cannot imagine what your parents went through. What amazing love and courage they had.

Patricia Wilson said...

As a mom i want to keep my kid in bubble wrap to protect him against the world, but i know he has to fall sometimes or he will never learn to get back up. All i can do is make sure he has a soft place to land on. It is amazing and terrifying loving with your heart running around outside your chest. I cannot imagine what your parents went through. What amazing love and courage they had.

Julie F. Fink said...

Stephen, I am very close to you at this moment! You and I do have more in common than 'i thought! "you know most of my history, it is different but some of the effects are the same! know that I love the person you have become! This helped shape you and thatn is a good lesson to take from it, but you have always been strong! From day one of your exsistance! you were dedicated to greatness and your parents knew that and fostered that! They ARE proud of you! "i know that for a fact!

Your Friend always!