A shorter version of the following appeared in C&K’s August 2013 issue, earning our letter of the month award (a brand new NRS Zen PFD).
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The author, finally paddling with his granddaughter, Alexis. Photo: Mike Hough

The author, finally paddling with his granddaughter, Alexis. Photo: Mike Hough

My Happy Thought


It happens every time she comes over and it breaks my heart into a thousand pieces.  My 9-year-old granddaughter Alexis walks out into the garage and looks wistfully at the kayak that I bought her last winter, the one that has yet to be christened by a wave.

I'll never forget the look of surprise and delight on her face when I gave it to her—the first Old Town Heron Jr. in the state, shipped in before any of the dealers in town had them yet. She had a great time outfitting it with the stickers that were included, frogs, butterflies, etc., making it uniquely her own. She even blinged my boat up a little while she was at it so they'd sort of match.

Now it just sits there gathering dust.

I know exactly what's she's feeling: Your first boat always holds a special place, just like your first love. I still have the faded and battered red Coleman canoe that my wife bought me when we were first married 35 years ago (I never use it and it takes up precious space in my garage, but I just can't part with it). Lexi never says anything though, sadly at her tender age she's already learned to quietly accept the vagaries of fate that she cannot change. It was that look of resignation in her eyes that hurt me the deepest.

We had planned to take her new boat out in the spring as soon as it was warm enough. But schedules and commitments, for both of us, kept delaying the much-anticipated maiden voyage.

Then my world suddenly imploded. On the Friday before Memorial Day, I was helping an old friend take a load of garage junk to the dump. While unloading, I lost my balance and took a nasty fall from the back of my truck, landing hard on the concrete. My wrist swelled up, turned an ugly dark shade of purple, and the nagging pain in my side that had bothered me for months—and which I had wrongly attributed to a pulled muscle—was suddenly excruciating.

After enduring it as long as I could (which is what guys do, right?), I finally gave up and went to the emergency room, where my legs slowly became numb, with the sensation of being "asleep." I stood up to use the restroom and fell headlong to the floor. That was over three months ago, and the last time I walked normally on my own.

After running me through pretty much every damn machine they have in the arsenal, the doctors determined that I had a large tumor wrapped around my spinal cord at the T-7 vertebrae. It was the result of malignant Stage 4 prostate cancer that had metastasized to my spine and a few other places in my body. Let's just say it was a whole lot of really bad news all at once. The surgery left me with two grotesquely swollen legs that I couldn't feel and that would no longer respond to even the most basic of commands. I was broken in every sense of the word: physically, emotionally, spiritually. Happy thoughts were pretty scarce at that point, Peter Pan and his whole flippin' crew were firmly grounded.

But grandpas fix things. That's what we do. Every busted-up toy, Christmas ornament, and do-dad finds its way to my house for repair. I fix them up good as new (usually) and send them home. My 5-year-old grandson Luke understands that well, having utilized my services extensively. He even helpfully suggested duct tape and crazy glue when I explained to him that grandpa's legs were broken and I was trying to fix them. I figure if he has those basic repair skills he pretty much knows all he ever needs to know.

So that's what I've been doing these last three months: fixing myself. It hasn't been easy by any stretch, progress being measured by inches instead of yards. I've come close to giving up more than once in that time, settling down into the wheelchair that had become my home and resigning myself to my fate.

But the one thing that drove me on was that look in my granddaughter's eyes, the one that caused me more pain than all of my injuries and ailments combined. It's what made me push for five minutes on a new exercise when the therapists asked me to try for one. It's what made me reach over and add 50 more pounds to the leg press when they weren't looking and bump the speed on the treadmill to 1.5 mph when they wanted me to walk at .7 mph. It has become a running joke with all of my PT staff when the sweat is pouring off of me and they ask if I want a break, my consistent response being, "Hell No!" And yeah, I've hurt myself a few times in the process, but it's not pain when it's progress.

My physical therapists chuckled all the way through the checklist on my goal evaluation last week. In most points, I'm well beyond what they'd hoped to see by now and have actually realized stretch goals they had mapped out months down the road.

I have Lexi primarily to thank for that. Not discounting of course all of the incredible help and support I've gotten from more people than I can begin to mention: family, friends, medical staff. But it was the thought of making that little girl's eyes sparkle with joy again that kept me going.

You see I was the only one that could take my granddaughter out for that first voyage in her new boat. It's our point of connection, our bond, and no one else can fill that role. Not while I still have a breath left in this rickety old body.

The water is where the world touches my soul, where I feel the most at home. There's nothing like it, the feeling of the paddle in your hands as your boat moves across the water like a bird gliding through the clouds. To me, it's the embodiment of freedom. It's also the one legacy that I wanted to share and pass along, just as my own grandfather had passed his lifelong love for the river down to me.

On the Sunday before Labor Day, Lexi and I finally put our boats in the water with some help from a few of my kayaking buddies. We were able to enjoy that time paddling together with her new boat because I found my happy thought in my granddaughter's eyes. I held onto to it with every scrap of strength I could muster through all those months of therapy and pain, and now I can fly again. I can fly!

Thank you Lexi. You gave your grandpa his wings back.


Bruce Tomes earned the American Canoe Association's 2009 Joe Pina Volunteer of the Year award for his work introducing paddlesports to the community through various events. "At the national conference that year I had the honor of meeting Janet Zeller, a world-class paddler who literally wrote the book on adaptive paddling for people with disabilities," Tomes said. "I was so inspired by her that I started an annual Day on the Water event in conjunction with the local Ollie Webb Center for people with developmental disabilities (i.e. Down syndrome). With the help of the state of Nebraska, U.S. Coast Guard, my paddling club, and many other volunteers we have held the event the last few years and brought a lot of smiles to a lot of faces … as karma goes I am now in need of those same skills and assistance."