I’m sitting here thinking, “I don’t really even know what to write.”

My wife would tell me, “Then just write that. Be honest. Other thoughts will come.”

She’s wise.

Today is the fourth anniversary of my dad’s death. I’m not a big fan of using the word anniversary for it, but it is what it is, right?

It also happens to be International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day.

So, there’s that.

Right now I’m feeling kind of like, “Why are you continuing to write? This is NOT helpful. You should be giving information about the ISOSLD thing and how things are better now than they were and all that…”

Here’s the deal, though: That’s not how I’m feeling. I’m listening to Julien Baker and feeling melancholic. And you know what? That’s fine.

I’ve found, without fail, that when I write what I’m actually feeling…it resonates. Even if I’m embarrassed or scared or whatever.

So, here’s what I’m feeling right now. Today. On International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day. On the fourth anniversary of my dad’s death.

I’m feeling like it’s been a tough week, but it’s been bearable.

Thursday would have been my grandpa’s 99th birthday. He died about a year and a half before my dad. I always forget how close after his birthday my dad killed himself. Every year I forget. You’d think I’d remember that.

I remember sitting with my dad while grandpa was in hospice and noticing a little spiral notebook in his hand. My dad wasn’t a writer. I asked him what it was and he said he’d been writing down the things he loved about his dad. He wrote words like loyal and hard-working and strong and brave and helpful…I’ll never forget that.

How are things for me now, four years later? I don’t think about him every day. I don’t feel as devastated as I used to. I miss him just as much and I wish like hell he was here, but it isn’t a constant undercurrent or anything. Certain things still remind me of him. Like, the other day I got a bunch of stuff at the grocery store that I had at his house when I’d visit every other weekend growing-up. That was kind of fun, actually.

Whenever my kids have concerts or Claire has a basketball game, I wish he was there. Not only to see and support them, but those were moments I loved being with him. Laughing together, trying to stifle it so people wouldn’t get mad at us. Talking about the Badgers and Packers and this year especially, the Brewers. Those are the times I’m reminded that he’s gone and wish he wasn’t.

If I’m really honest, it’s just been a tough year overall. So, it’s kind of one of those things where I’m like, “Hey, dad. I love you. I miss you. But, I have a lot of shit to do. And it’s all really good. I’m really excited about it. I wish you were here to watch what happens. Julie is amazing, but you already know that. The thing is, though, she’s more amazing than you ever knew. Sam is taller than me now, but he usually doesn’t rub it in. He’s doing No Shave November and has a pretty good ‘stache going. Julie keeps teasing him about it, which doesn’t go over real well, as you might imagine. Anna is growing up fast and I’m not sure I like it. She’s amazing, though. She has these two great friends from gymnastics, Denise and Joclyn, and they make these cool little videos on Instagram of them doing gymnastics things and TONS of people watch and like them. It’s pretty neat. She also does this thing at bedtime where she kisses Julie on the cheek, but she just lightly presses her lips to her cheek and Julie HATES it and Anna and I laugh so hard we almost pee our pants. I’m pretty sure Julie gets legitimately mad about it. It’s the best. And Claire…oh, Claire Bear. Dad, she’s SO funny. And she never stops talking. The other day she was explaining what dating is like in 5th grade and I almost had to pull over on the way home from gymnastics. She’s playing basketball and is a starter. You know I’m competitive, so when I watch her grab a rebound and then stand there and look at the girl she knocked over to get it, feeling bad instead of clearing it and running up the court, I’m like, “CLAIRE! GO!” Julie, on the other hand, is like, “Oh, my sweet sweet Claire.” Drives me nuts. But it is pretty damn cute. Anyway…things here are good. And getting better. Every day. Ok, I’ll check in again with you later. Love you.”

Well, apparently I needed to do that.

*grabs tissues*

Felt really good, actually. It’s been a while since I connected with him like that.

And maybe that’s the best way to describe how things are with me in relation to my dad’s suicide four years later.

It’s been a while, but it still feels good to connect.

Love and miss you, Dad.

That won’t ever change.

My book, Different Is Awesome!, released in July of 2015.

I visited Lake Highlands Elementary school in Dallas, TX in late 2016.

Yesterday, one of the kids who was in the audience at that school visit decided to be a character from Different Is Awesome! for their Halloween parade at school.

Uncanny!

WHAT?!

This is blowing my mind.

First of all, I love the fact that the book still resonates with this guy. I don’t know the depth of his connection with that character, but the fact that he chose to recreate the outfit Noah wears in the book, out of ALL the characters in ALL the book in ALL of the whole world, and then marched in a parade with his schoolmates…just…dude. Seriously, that’s amazing.

I also love (and I’m assuming here) that his parents were on board and helped him with this. I love that they have incorporated the message into their home and purposely perpetuate it throughout their community.

I also love that he identifies with one of the, for lack of a better term, peripheral characters. Probably the biggest thing I’ve learned over the past few years is how stinking important it is for kids to SEE THEMSELVES in literature. Obviously my main objective was to incorporate a one-handed character, but I put a lot of thought into include a diverse group of classmates. I’m so so glad I did, even though at the time I wasn’t thinking of this aspect of the characters as explicitly.

Noah

I’m really encouraged today.

I’ll be honest and say that I have been tempted to say, “Relax, it’s just one kid,” but that’s the whole point, right? Something I did impacted this kid in such a way that he chose to become a character in a book I wrote. That’s amazing.

And while I haven’t been notified of any other kids choosing to do that (yet! lol), I know that countless kids and families have chosen to include the idea that being different is awesome into their homes and communities. That’s amazing, too.

And here’s my encouragement to you: Find ways you can lend your voice and expertise to help people. It’s worth it. And I KNOW you have something to offer! I say that because I know a lot of you are like, “This is a cool, feel-good story!” but then you’re thinking you didn’t write a book or do anything big or whatever. To that I say, STOP IT. Start small and where you’re at. Hold the door for someone. Pay someone a compliment. Think about your life experience and how you might be able to use it to help others in similar circumstances.

Don’t overthink it. Just look to help others and cool things will happen.

Trust me.

The World Is So Small

August 22, 2018 — 1 Comment

People send me messages on Facebook pretty frequently.

Usually, though, they don’t live on the street I grew-up on.

Let me explain.

The other day I received a message from Maurita. She explained how she and her husband, Kevin, just had a little boy, Colin, who was born with a different little left hand. In the days following Colin’s arrival, Kevin remembered that he had seen me speak two years ago. He works at a hospital under the same umbrella as the company I work for and I had done some events, one of which was in the city he works in. Small world, right?! So, they reached out to me for any insight I might be able to share with them. Since I knew he worked relatively close, I asked if they lived near Madison, WI, which is close to where I live. I thought maybe I could just visit them.

This is where things get fun.

“We are actually in Verona and would love to meet up!” she said.

Verona?? That’s where I live.

Not only that, she then tells me they live in the same neighborhood I grew-up in.

AND THE SAME STREET I GREW-UP ON. I tell her which house I lived in and she totally knows which one I mean.

So crazy!

We make plans for me to come over for a visit the next day.

It gets better.

The next evening I head over to their house and as I’m driving by the house I lived in all through middle and high school, I pull over right past it because I’m voice-to-texting my wife and need to concentrate. A lady pulls up beside me and I motion for her to go around. Instead, she rolls her window down and says, “I’m sorry! I thought you were someone else. Somebody is coming to pick-up my daughter. I live in this house.”

I laugh.

“That’s hilarious. Because I lived in this house for about ten years!”

Then I had to awkwardly explain that I wasn’t stalking her, but that I was going to visit with some new friends down the road. I think she believed me.

Then it was off to visit with my new friends!

Is this the cutest or what??

Colin was upset when I got there, but mom and dad knew exactly what to do. “Is it ok if we go sit on the patio? Colin loves the humidity for some reason,” Maurita told me. Sure enough, as soon as we got out there he calmed right down! So adorable.

We sat on the patio, Colin, mom and dad, and Maurita’s mom, and talked for a long time. We talked about their experience so far, situations we’ve both encountered and how to deal with them, I shared advice I’ve gleaned over the years…we literally laughed and cried together and it was fantastic.

One of the things that really got to me was when they shared their birth story with me. It was difficult. Colin’s difference didn’t show-up on their ultrasounds, so when he arrived the first thing they heard was, “What’s wrong with his hand??” I’m still stunned by that. The doctor then said, “I’m sorry,” but nothing further. The hospital took care of them, but gave them no information about why this might have happened, nor did they direct them to any resources to help them. Everything they knew and learned over the next six weeks came from the internet.

Just a reminder: It’s 2018.

It showed me that we still have a long way to go. The first response any parents should hear when their baby arrives should be POSITIVE. It lit a fire in me to go to somehow connect with hospitals to make sure this doesn’t happen again. To make sure they are trained and prepared for these circumstances and that they have answers and resources available immediately for the parents. I know a book they could give them that I think will help.

It was awesome to connect with my new friends and we had such a great time learning from each other. We’ll definitely be getting together again soon. These types of connections really are everything. If you know of other families near you who are affected by limb-differences in some way, take some time to get to know each other. Go to their house. Hangout at the park. Go to the zoo. There’s really nothing like being together and sharing stories and learning from each other.

So tiny!

And maybe, just maybe, you’ll find out you have some other crazy connection that reminds you how small the world really is.

Last weekend I had the opportunity to attend the Helping Hands Foundation’s Winter Outing for the SIXTH year in a row. It always feels like family. I love that, especially since I’m a Midwestern boy from Wisconsin and all my East Coast friends treat me like one of their own.

One of my favorite moments every year is reuniting with my little buddy, Ella. It’s been so fun to watch her grow and this year she’s missing teeth! As I walked towards her she saw me and threw her hands over her mouth in surprise. I got to her and she threw her arms around me and said, “Hi, Ryan! I missed you so much!” Good grief!

Another highlight for me was getting to meet Mike Alt. Mike lives in Reno, NV, which is nowhere near Las Vegas, it turns out. He founded “Can’t Is Not An Excuse” and I loved hearing him share his story with the teens and the whole group. Mike is a good dude with a great message.

Then there’s Jen Reeves. We don’t get to see each other nearly as often as we’d like, so when we both found out we were going to be in Boston, we kind of freaked out. No exaggeration, Jen is one of my favorite people on Earth. The work she does with Jordan and Born Just Right is incredible and it was so fun to hear them share their story and watch them interact with everyone.

I also got to meet Meghan Rose and hear her share her story with the group this year. Meghan is an actress in NYC and I loved seeing her share her confidence with everyone, especially the teenage girls. They LOVED her and righty so! Love that they had her as a role model and she was so open with them. (Meghan is in the middle and Kristy, another AMAZING roll model is on the right)

And of course it’s always a blast to hangout with my biological son (not really), Nick Newell, and his new bride, Danielle! Nick is also one of my favorite people on Earth and I love watching him interact with all the kids over the weekend. They think he’s so cool (he is) and he loves them. It’s fantastic.

I’m also grateful for the adult mentors. Every one of them brings something unique to the group and the fact that they give of their time to speak into the lives of kids who are still learning about themselves and life is so impressive. I spent time with the high school kids this year and it was SO great to hear them having deep discussions about issues that affect them and sharing common experiences. I’ve watched some of these kids grow for the past six years and the maturity, the ability to see beyond themselves was amazing.

Of course, the weekend doesn’t happen without all the amazing volunteers and especially Patti and Dayna. Two of the coolest, kindest, most selfless people I know. I think most people would be shocked if they really knew what these two do behind the scenes to make everything work. Thank you for everything you do to make sure all of us have an amazing weekend together!

What was also great about this weekend was that for the first time I came a day early so I could give a couple presentations at a school. I stayed with the Rovedos on Thursday night and spoke at their little guy Cam’s school on Friday morning. Everyone at JFK Elementary was amazing and I loved meeting Mrs. Reilly and Mr. T! I very rarely speak at schools where someone else has one hand, so this was a blast to see the kids already kind of know what’s up, but still be excited about my visit.

Had an amazing time out east and already can’t wait until next year!

A couple weekends ago I flew to Boston.

I boarded my flight with my usual gear; my Tom Bihn backpack and my carry-on suitcase on wheels. As I walked toward my seat in the back of the plane, I heard someone ask, “Can I help with anything?” “Oh, I’m good,” I replied. Then another offer for help. Then another. “With what? I’m literally just walking!” I thought to myself, all the while smiling and thanking them for their offers. I wasn’t even close to my seat yet, so I though that I must have looked extra pathetic.

I finally made it to my seat and…you guessed it, one more offer to “give me a hand.” “No thank you,” I smiled.

Then I looked at the overhead compartment and thought, “Dude, you better not eff this up.”

I didn’t, in case you were wondering.

I sat there thinking about what had happened and honestly, I was kind of annoyed. I told a friend about it and she said, “At least people were being nice.”

Busted.

See, that’s my philosophy 99% of the time! I appreciate that people are trying to be kind even though their assumption that I need help could be taken as an offense. I’d rather spend my energy being thankful than offended. It took me a long time to get to this place, honestly. When I was more immature I just wanted to prove everybody wrong and it was always about me and the assumption that people were trying to put me down. I think it’s very rare that someone is trying to offend you or question your capabilities when they offer to help; they’re simply trying to be kind. And that’s good.

I was actually flying to Boston to attend the Helping Hands Foundation‘s Winter Outing and I was able to tell the parents this story and try to encourage them. As parents, we really want to try and figure everything out and do things “the right way.” And for parents of kids with physical differences, there are even more situations at play. How do we deal with people staring? Name-calling? Unwanted offers of assistance?

I’ve been at this living one-handed thing for nearly 40 years and I don’t have the answers to those questions figured out yet. And honestly, I’m not so sure that’s even a good goal. The best we can do, I think, is what we think is right and be patient with each other and ourselves the rest of the time. Most of the time offers to help don’t bother me a bit. That day, on that flight, for some reason…did. And that’s ok. There are times when getting stared at still bothers me, too. It’s part of the experience.

If you’re a parent and you’re worried about how to help your kid navigate these sometimes tricky waters, here’s my encouragement:

Be gracious. Be patient. With yourself, your child and with others. You’re doing an amazing job. Just keep doing your best and when those times come where things don’t go according to plan, learn from it and move forward. You got this.

And if you need any advice, I’m happy to give you a hand.

But, just one.

The other morning I saw MedFlight in the sky while I was driving to work.

It jogged my memory of when my dad was in the hospital recovering from heart surgery in July of 2014. Not because he had to be MedFlighted there, but because we got a special tour of the helicopter and landing pad on the roof of the hospital while he was recovering. He needed to get out of his room, so one of the RNs arranged the excursion. And of course he knew somebody who was part of the MedFlight team, too, so up we went.

It was pretty awesome. We were shown every nook and cranny, inside and out, and got to walk out on the helipad to look over the city.

helipad

The other morning, though, as I thought about it, other thoughts crept in. Did dad really think it was awesome to be up there on the roof in a wheelchair getting some fresh air? Or was he just acting like it so the rest of us would be ok? Was he struggling that far back with the perception of this new life he thought he’d entered? And then I started crying. Because I don’t know the answers to those questions and I never will.

About four months later – two years ago today – my dad committed suicide.

Life for the rest of us has moved on, but I still think about him a lot. I do believe he thought it was cool to be up there, too. I recall how desperately he wanted to be out of that god-damned recovery room. The morning they discharged him he called me and I could hear the relief in his quivering voice. “Ryan, they removed that damn thing from my arm and I just…I got all emotional. What the hell?” he confessed to me. I told him that was completely understandable; he’d been through a lot! Physically, emotionally, mentally…”feeling emotional” was an understatement as far as I was concerned. I’ll always treasure that moment we had.

I’m not sure if I’d say things are easier or better two years later, mostly just different.

I still get sad a lot and I’ll admit that sometimes I still get upset. Every time one of my kids has a birthday. Every gymnastics meet. My son Sam received his black belt in karate last weekend after working hard for more than four years and Papa wasn’t there to see it and to celebrate and to tell Sam how proud of him he is. That kills me. It kills me. And I know people mean well when they say things like, “Oh, he was there watching, too!” and “He IS so proud of Sam!” but the truth is, it’s not the same. It’s not the same at all. He should have been there smiling and clapping and shouting and cracking inappropriate jokes with me in the stands. He should have been there to shake Sam’s hand and give him a big hug and be in the picture pointing.

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My brother Joey got engaged last weekend, too. He NAILED the proposal. Had his friends hold homemade signs and play music at the Wisconsin Badger football game! Just perfect. Now, I’m not speaking for him because I know he handles this all in his own way, but for me…I’m devastated my dad isn’t here to congratulate Joe. I know he’d be proud of him. But, he won’t be at the wedding. And if they have kids, they’ll never meet him. It just sucks.

What’s so difficult about suicide is that the person is doing what they think is going to help everyone. My dad wasn’t trying to hurt us. He apologized and still did it. It was the only other solution he could come up with that made any sense…to him. In so doing, though, he left a hurt in everyone who loved him. And a lot of people loved him. That wasn’t his intention, but it was the result.

On a personal level, his not being here is hard because I’m learning so many things about myself that I want to talk to him about. My parents divorced when I was four and the fact of the matter is that both his presence and his absence in my life while I was young had a profound impact on who I am today.

Years ago a homeless friend of mine, Al, told me his story about his relationship with his dad. Al’s life crashed and burned because of his addiction to alcohol. One day he got a call that his dad was dying and he should come right away. Instead, he went on a week-long bender and never got to say goodbye to his dad, even though he had the chance. “If your dad is alive, talk to him. If there’s stuff you’re afraid to talk to him about, talk to him about it anyway,” he told me. I vowed I would and to a certain extent I did, but there’s so much more I know now that I want to talk to him about than I even knew back then. And trying to figure it out without him is hard.

So, what now?

Sure, there are times that are more difficult than others and grief still sits for spell, but by and large life goes on with only his memory now. Julie and I are both busy with the things we’re passionate about and the kids are probably busier than we are. We work, we relax, we do our best to focus on the future and the good things lying in wait for us there. It sucks that he won’t be here to see what happens next, but that’s the reality.

Dad, I miss you. I love you. That won’t ever change.

If you or someone you love is struggling with depression or thoughts of suicide, please get help immediately. Call 911, contact a counselor, contact the Suicide Prevention Hotline, call a friend…I know you might not believe it, but people love you and are there to help. There are other options.

If you’ve experienced loss, you probably already know this, but the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention is a wonderful resource to help us heal.

*SPOILERS…PROBABLY*

I didn’t really know anything about Dr. Strange when my son and I went to see it in IMAX 3-D the other day.

I’m not into comic books or Marvel, so it was really just to have a good time with Sam. In fact, most of the time I was sitting there thinking, “I wonder when he turns bad?” I thought he was a bad guy. By the end of the movie I was like, “Huh, they must really be playing the long game here. Guess he turns bad in the second one!”

I’ve heard that people have had issues with the movie on a number of fronts, but we enjoyed it. Cumberbatch was great and I loved Tilda Swinton. But, if you’ve seen it…you know who made me cry.

For the unfamiliar (like I was), Dr. Strange is this incredible surgeon whose steady hands have lead to fame and fortune. His hands are his livelihood. So, when he crashes his sports car and destroys both of his hands, it’s all over. His identity is lost, no matter what those around him say. He goes to great lengths to try and repair his hands, all to no avail. Finally, he is told he needs to go see “the Ancient One” who will show him how to harness his spirit/energy to repair his physical body.

Basically.

Once he starts, part of his training consists of a lot of hand movements to create portals to other dimensions, as well as shields and weapons.

He’s self-conscious of his hands and blames his struggles with these tasks on them because they are in such disrepair. He’s told, though, in no uncertain terms that the issue isn’t with his hands. And to prove her point, the Ancient One asks a gentleman near her to perform the task. He pushes his robe aside to reveal his arms and…

He’s missing one of his hands.

He performs the task perfectly and I start to cry instantly. Not sob, but an immediate welling of the eyes. Why? Over the past couple of years I’ve come to understand the importance of seeing someone who looks like you on the big screen. In this case, the message was powerful, too. Your physical condition does not have to limit you. Dr. Strange reminds me of so many kids and adults I’ve come across. He was more focused on his physical difference than was anyone else around him. It was a process for him to get to that point where he accepted his hands for what they were and realized he was strong regardless.

I’m not sure I’d say that was the main theme of the movie, but it was the one that most resonated with me.

I’m hopeful it will resonate with others, too.

Especially those finding their strength despite their physical difference.

I need you to do two things right now:

  1. Think of the names of three people in your life that have made a positive impact on you.
  2. Tell them you appreciate them and why.

Text them. Call them. Write them. Email them. Visit them in person. I don’t care how you do it, I just need you to tell them and to do your best to make sure they understand the difference they’ve made in your life.

This is weighing on me heavily today.

A co-worker sent me a lovely email about a talk I gave a few weeks ago. She was so kind and encouraging and toward the end of her note she shared that she lost her father to lung cancer a little over a year ago. “He was very humbled by all of the people in his life that reached out to extend their concern and well wishes. He got choked up (which didn’t happen often) when he would say, ‘You never know the impact that you have on people,'” she said. “I was grateful that he was able to see that, as I think many people never do. It is really touching to know what an inspiration you have been to the world and I can understand why you, too, got choked up speaking about that.”

When she said that “many people never do,” I thought of my dad. I lost my dad to suicide at the end of 2014. Today I’m struggling with it more than I do most days. Shortly before he took his life, he was celebrated by hundreds of people who came to show their appreciation at a retirement event. He worked hard for his city, making it beautiful for 30+ years. He knew everybody. He was also a baseball coach for years and impacted boys who turned into young men who then waited in line for hours to pay their respects at his wake. The line at his wake was embarrassingly long. The number of people who came was overwhelming.

He wasn’t perfect, but he made a positive impact on so many lives and I hope he understood that to some degree.

Honestly, I’m still learning how to accept compliments, too. I frequently get messages thanking me for Different Is Awesome! and my talks and school visits and the website and I promise you every one of them makes me smile. Even so, I still struggle to embrace them, which I think happens to a lot of us. We’re insecure. We’re a little embarrassed, maybe. We deflect. We even forget the good notes and instead remember any negative ones we’ve received!

So, the challenge here is two-fold. First, make sure you’re actively thanking the people in your life who are affecting you in a positive way. Often. Chances are they need to hear it more than you know. Second, let’s learn how to embrace compliments and kindness appropriately. When you help others, feel the warmth and gratitude when they thank you. Remember that you are valuable and that it’s not arrogance to think so.

It’s the truth.

My children’s book, Different Is Awesome!, has been out for less than a year.

I always had high hopes that it would affect people positively.

I even had this crazy notion that it could change the world.

Some people told me that expectation was ridiculous.

I begged to differ.

And continue to do so.

The first print run was a touch over 3,000 books (they forgot to shut the printer off).

I’m happy to announce that it’s already time for the 2nd printing of Different Is Awesome!

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There are still, like, 30 copies left in the warehouse, so I’m hopeful that if you’ve ordered a copy recently or plan to shortly, you’ll still get one of those. If not, the wait shouldn’t be too long as the 2nd edition is set to be completed by late June.

Thank you SO much for all of your support and for sharing your pictures and stories over the last year. Every single one makes me smile.

And here’s the deal…this is just the beginning.

Let’s keep making the world a better place!

Sincerely,

Ryan

I like to smell good.

Which is kind of a win-win situation for me and whoever is near me, right?

The other day Andy sent me a message, saying, “I’ve got a question for you…. As my son (LBE) is getting older (he’s 10), he’s needing to start wearing deodorant. How do you apply deodorant to your armpit?”

First of all, I LOVE THAT I GET QUESTIONS LIKE THESE. For real.

Secondly…watch this video to see how I do it. Parents, you especially will enjoy this.

What about you? Have you discovered any tips or tricks that have worked for you? Certain brands or types of deodorant that work better than others? Share your experience in the comments below!