“Every day we make deposits in the memory banks of our children” – Charles R Swindoll
Welcome to the 18 Summers Adventure Blog!
Read tales from our travels, road schooling and family experiences. Come along on the adventure with us.
We could not decide what to title this page. It is a travel blog? Kind of. Family life blog? Maybe. It’s a compilation of our journeys as a family. It’s stories from different turning points in our lives, captured in pictures and thoughts as we experienced them in the moment.
A journey can take many different shapes, teach us many different lessons. How to share an RV with four kids, three adults, one dog and seven chickens. How to prepare for donating a kidney to save your father’s life. How to say goodbye to a woman at the end of her life.
Initially, we wanted a place to share our travel tales…
We’ve always loved traveling as a family. It gives us a chance to disconnect from life’s distractions and RECONNECT with one another. Warm destinations by plane have always been our favorite. Our passion for life on the road grew even more when we rented a 32-foot RV and packed our family of 6 (and 7 chickens, yes, really!) into it for a maiden voyage. On that day, we further advanced our game.
Our life as an entrepreneur family allows us to work from nearly anywhere, but our children couldn’t just skip a month or so of school every time we felt wanderlust….
So, we developed an alternative learning system that is a fun and effective way to learn while traveling. We call it Road Schooling. Our version of Road Schooling combines curriculum tools from online virtual school and homeschooling with hands-on learning opportunities while traveling. Some teachable moments can be planned, but many come to us organically as we explore new things and places. Our family loves that we can learn and share at our own pace in this way, and it’s a wonderful way to make learning fun and diverse.
Our teen son, Leland, says Road Schooling teaches patience and kindness because of all the togetherness. Check out his perspective of our adventures in the post, “Street Smarts: A Student’s Take on Road Schooling.”
After reflecting on these travels we did as a family, we realized we had other experiences, adventures to share. Jim donating a kidney to his father. Jamie navigating hospice care and the end of life celebration for her grandmother. Experiences that – just like travel – taught us lessons, brought us together, opened our eyes and made us think a little differently about the world and our place in it.
Enjoy the journey!
-The Sheils Family (Jim, Jamie, Alden, Leland, Maggie & Sammy)
Gone out West: From Georgia out to Utah, Yellowstone and Beyond
Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore! Well… we might be. Most of the time I have no idea what state we’re in, just that we’re headed West and having fun! We’ve been so full on in our “adventure van” as Maggie calls it. Time with Paw Paw, Atlanta Aquarium, St. Louis zoo, panning for minerals outside 135-foot underground caverns, seeing our first gopher ever (SO stinking cute!), driving all 31 feet through major cities full of great architecture catching lightning bugs at midnight in a cow pasture, lots of laughs during the late night grocery runs — lots of goodness. And then… the not so goodness… the RV that can’t get over 45 climbing a mountain, leaks profusely from multiple areas when it rains and OH BOY has it rained. Rained so much that we had to evacuate a campground at 3am from eminent flash floods. What?!? Yes. We picked up a new ride late yesterday and are now making serious tracks. I’m tired, super tired. And there’s no coffee in middle America, incase you were wondering. Although so tired, I am so blessed and soaking in each moment. #18summers #imnotmissingout
Date night & The Dead Show. A throwback to over 25 years of concerts with friends, my wife and I’s 2nd date. We made a promise that we’d never stop going to see live music together. Glad we’re keeping it! Little Sammy (Samson) was all smiles but they didn’t play his song #18Summers #showyourwork #datenight #liveMusic
Awesome first day of our Powder Mountain Family Board Meeting retreat! Team building, archery tag, the incredible Dr. Shafali, kids’ dreaming room and Maggie led her first yoga class. We’re making memories and not missing the important lessons. So grateful for the families joining us here.#18summers
We’ve now been on the road for over a week. I only managed one post! Ack! Hands full. All. The. Time.
After the flash floods and underground caverns I bet you think we couldn’t possibly find more excitement. Wrong, of course. Day 3 started fairly uneventful as we made our way to the St Louis Zoo. Driving through the big city was incredible with the children. The zoo grounds were lovely and very easy to navigate with the whole crew. We decided to make our way a little below Cheyenne for the night, which would be about 3 hours. Our big afternoon adventure included corn fields, giant thistle and Walmart in Nebraska- jealous, I know. Maggie just can’t believe the size of the “gardens”.
So, as mentioned, we start toward our 3 final hours of the day to end below Cheyenne, WY. At about midnight, we finally find the campground we’ve already called and paid for. We pass it twice because we just can’t believe THIS is where we’re supposed to stay the night. It looked abandoned and was attached to an even creepier motel. We all agreed NO — GPS on to Cheyenne it is! Well, Siri is not my friend at the point in which she sends us down a dirt road to get back on to the interstate. We’re a little creeped out. That feeling intensifies as we end the dirt road at a cemetery. Yup. Around 1am, dark, creepy motel (remember), just too much creep for us. We make it to the highway and commit to another hour to Cheyenne. About 10 miles from our stop the RV catches on fire. We thought it was at least. Awful burning smell. We wake all the children to look for the fire because, well, no way we’re stopping after motel, cemetery, 2am etc… we decide to keep going and ended safely in Cheyenne.
Now 3am, we’re all delirious and someone forgets to close the poop chute thing before trying to attach to the septic at the campground. Insert poop fight at 3am. We all laughed SO hard. Around 4am I finally discover the burning smell was our floor heater and we would not be burning to death or poisoned by CO2 (my other irrational concern) in the middle of the night.
Our final leg of the trip was to be from Cheyenne to Powder Mountain Utah. A 6 hour day – woohoo! Again, Siri, not my friend. Our 6 hours turned to 8 when Siri realized our time zone difference. Ouch. And I had a hot date planned for 7pm. We were road warriors. The children were incredible. And we made it just in time for the Grateful Dead concert in the mountains under a full moon. This is living! And loving! #18summers #justdoit #dontmissamoment
Over 20 years ago I saw my first grizzly bear in the wild. I swore someday I’d take my family into the back country to experience the same magic. We struck gold on our private tour today with Verlin the bear whisperer in Teton National Forest. A momma grizzly and her 2 cubs. A day to remember. – Jim #18summers
We started to head further North on Tuesday morning after our Family Board Meetings retreat (it was awesome!). Siri, once again a total louse, mislead us with an attractive 4 hour drive to Jackson Hole Wyoming. 6.5 hours later we decide to take the long(er) way around and NOT risk our lives by driving over the Teton Pass at 11,000ft in pitch black midnight. Safely arriving at the campsite (at midnight, remember?), the board says “NO VACANCY”. Jim falls asleep literally on the wheel while I try to figure out where we will park for the night. The closest available campsite is 149 miles back. Luckily, the operators of this amazing campground found us a spot. The next morning on the way to grab bagels the RV is shaking and making awful noises. This is already our second unit- remember the flooding?!? Long story short, we’ve been homeless the last 3 nights. The wonderful people at the campground put us up for the first 2 nights in a sweet cabin and last night we had to find another place (they were all sold out Friday). The only place that would take 6 of us and our dog was a stinky, dirty Motel/cabin situation. We ate Thai food on the floor and drank wine from plastic cups. After hours and hours on the phone with Cruise America – NEVER USE THEM – we now have our 3rd RV in 14 days. In spite of all of this craziness we threw cares to the wind and spent the entire day in the Teton forest. We saw a mama grizzly bear and her 2 cubs, ate a picnic in the rain, made a lot of new friends and created more memories than I could’ve planned for.
We’ve talked a lot the last few days about “looking for the helpers” in times like these and to respond instead of react when things are uncomfortable — both words or situations.
Thanks to our pals, Jen & Phil Randazzo (American Dream is an incredible organization) all of these moments have been caught on GoPro.
We will be fishing and hiking around here a few more days then up further to Glacier National. Alden wants to learn fly fishing and Jim can’t wait to share the beautiful sky with us. After that we’ll start heading through South Dakota, to Mt. Rushmore and then Kentucky. Some great friends and sights along the way!
My man making deals from the Montana Walmart parking lot. No shower, no shave: no problem! I’ve been in more Walmarts the last 3 weeks than in the last 8 years. We’ll do a full trip update this evening. Been out of service and fully engaged the past 2 days getting to our most northern point for the trip — Glacier National. Thankful to live life just the way we want: engaged, inspired and grateful. #18summers
10 second clip of pure joy. Sammy Smile’s first summer solstice festival, Big Sky, Montana.
Yellowstone was amazing and we all loved it. A bit crowded and over commercialized but we enjoyed the 2 days we spent there. Enjoyed, other than the one night our campsite with full hookups was accidentally given to the wrong person and we had no electricity and froze in the 32 degree weather.
The boys have read 6 books each in the last 48 hours. Tonight they cooked our dinner (hotdogs, cauliflower, broccoli, corn and smores) over the campfire. Alden is learning all about freshwater fishing and will have a chance to try fly fishing on Sunday. He’s also been our resident filmmaker, documenting each moment of the trip via GoPro.
Maggie picked out her first bike AND fishing pole — loving both! She’s also been practicing picking up and laying down Sammy (gently).
Leland has emotionally grown: he’s faced some fears by jumping off a high dive, he mentored younger children in corn hole (an all afternoon event in patience), he’s stepped up as my laundry helper and plays tirelessly with Maggie (another event in patience).
I think Jim and I both are finally decompressing after all the instability of switching RVs twice in 2.5 weeks.
We’ve enjoyed skipping stones, picnics, fires, lots of laughs multiple ice cream stands and incredible stargazing. We’ve seen a ton of buffalo, and some elk, deer, bears, marmots and groundhogs.
We’ve eaten elk and buffalo. Drank water from a pipe straight out of the side of a mountain and driven through a mountain pass in heavy snow (my bad). I was homesick while writing the last post, this one I’m reflecting on how I could do this another 4 weeks.
Heading South – South Dakota! 11 hours complete of our 42 hour trip home. We spent the last of the week in Glacier National, Montana & along the Canada border. The most beautiful and wild place I’ve seen yet. The stars are incredible. If you’ve yet to explore this area of our country, I highly recommend it. We saw lots of wildlife on our late night adventure drives hunting bear. Jim is obsessed with bears (and mountain lions, really, but mostly bears). And he believes in bear spray. Apparently a lot of folks believe in bear spray because it is the #1 sold product in all of Montana (I actually just made that up). Either way, I may need your help spreading the word about my new business venture when I return home — Shark Spray.
One interesting thing I never knew about this region is the intense amount of time the sun stays up. My children usually go to bed when the sun does and wake up when the sun does. In Montana, that makes for an 11 pm bedtime. Mind you, when we return home, this will translate into a 1 am bedtime. Oh. My. Goodness. These long days allow lots of exploration time. Tonight we’ll see Mt. Rushmore after our day of UTVing through the Black Hills. The teachable moments have been innumerable. We’ve seen various weather patterns and experienced storms we never have before. We’ve seen new constellations and even milky way dust (I think). Talks on why the Native American reservations are in poverty. How a town becomes a “ghost town.” Animal migration, reproduction, hunting laws and lots of first person encounters. We’ve also had the opportunity to be real and raw with one another. Falling apart and coming back together. Next stop, 19 more hours to Kentucky!
#18summers #ploughshare #happycampers
This post is about 4 days late so I’ll just pretend like we’re entering Kentucky opposed to leaving it. We spent 2 days in South Dakota with Uncle Chris doing all sorts of fun stuff from jumping on a giant air pillow, to water slides, panning for gold (we’d starve if we had to make a living from it), campfire stories and even Mt Rushmore at night. Hearing the ideals of our country through the quotes of 4 influential men was moving. Watching my children not only experience the giantess of our geography but also the vastness of our history over the last 5 weeks has been invaluable. Standing there in awe I just couldn’t imagine the amount of people showing up daily, climbing high on the mountainside to work on the masterpiece I was witnessing. The monument also boasts the best ice cream, original Jefferson recipe.
We’ve had some great QT with people in our life this trip. People a little off the beaten path. Not family God gave us, but family we have chosen. It’s been a really nice surprise to see that we have “family” everywhere we go.
The decompression of being away from all usual comforts and familiarity has been incredible. The simplification beforehand and during will carry through no doubt. When we decided on this trip we decided to rent our home on VRBO to off-set some costs and teach the boys about using resources available. Alden and Leland were involved in preparing the house and animals as well as the numbers. All pets had to be temporarily housed by friends or boarding, the house had to be “rental ready” and it all had to make financial sense. Leland was hesitant to have a stranger sleep in his bed but lightened right up when he learned that 3 nights rent paid for his beloved boxer’s camp for the month.
The financial lessons kept presenting themselves. We miss our creature comforts of heat/ac, cooking in an oven, baths, using the restroom without 4 people commenting on how they can all smell you… and so on. But I love the acceptance for one another that we’ve reached. The fact that no one really comments anymore when someone does stink up the whole 100sq ft from using the bathroom. Or that Jim climbs into a (tiny) bed at night and says “I love being together” (truth be told I was debating elbowing him in the eye while he slept — because, well, driving — until his sweet reflection). Or that we’ve had space to think and appreciate all around us but especially US.
We’ve slept in parking lots and eaten gas station meals (neither more than once — maybe twice — but we have officially done it).
I need a mani/pedi like a troll and I can’t wait for date night when we get back home. But, for now, Kentucky and the house on The Hill! #18summers#thehill #crazylove
Side note — an article on Mt Rushmore from a Native American POV http://www.lakotacountrytimes.com/news/2008-06-12/tim_giago/018.html
WE MADE IT HOME!
12 loads of laundry so far. We’ve been home 30 hours. It was surreal as we pulled back up to the house. I cried, so overwhelmed with the feelings and adventures with my family over the last 30 something days. An incredible gift for all of us to see our country and each other. Saddened that is over. Regretful I didn’t “do it better”, which is such a useless thought — mom guilt.
Our last adventure was in the blue hills of Kentucky. On the way we stopped in Kansas City for BBQ because one MUST eat BBQ if ever driving through Kansas City. The kids humored us but didn’t understand why “if it’s the best BBQ place, why are there bars on the windows?!?”. Yeah, well, good BBQ. Shortly after lunch we began smelling something awful. We all blamed each other but couldn’t figure out where the smell was coming from. Long story short, we realized someone had accidentally turned on the propane on the stove and it was leaking into the RV. We evacuated on the side of the road until it aired out and dr google convinced us we weren’t going to have lifelong effects from the 5 minutes of intense inhaling trying to find the culprit. Jim wouldn’t let us cook for the remainder of the trip.
We didn’t realize that we would be crossing 2 time zones on the way to our host so our 3 pm arrival turned into 5 pm. Perfect time for more BBQ! We had 6 dogs and 6 children having the best time playing together. Long talks with homemade wine watching the sunset and fireflies with lots of space to roam. This stop was more like luxury than camping. The showers were amazing! It was great to hear the boys appreciate the shower so much.
The small things. I think there’s a quote that says something like “one day you’ll realize the small things were actually the big things.” I wish I could bottle up all the moments. These tiny people are incredible and so is my husband. Well worn now, they trusted me with this crazy trip. I feel different. Good different. – Jamie
East Coast Adventures: From St. Augustine to Nova Scotia
T-Minus One Day Before Launch:
Less than 24 hours we leave for 5 WEEKS up the East Coast from St Augustine FL up through Canada, to Prince Edward Island. Squeezing in some last minute work loose ends and looking forward to lots of magic. We’ll be hitting a beach where we fell in love with wild horses and great surf, family masterminding in Delaware, visiting a shore Jim grew up on with an iconic boardwalk & spending the 4th of July with friends, then a ferry ride even farther north into Canadian beaches. Can’t wait to share all the adventure. Have I ever told you how much I love my tribe?!? #18summers #dontmissathing #familyboardmeetings
Lots of moments so far on our 18 summers adventure. One of my favorites: Action packed night on the Tether ball court! Have not played in years. Me & Sammy vs. Alden…serious trash talking by Sammy. – Jim
Front porch sitting, kids in the pool, laundry washing, dad working. Getting it all in. We try to follow the Waldorf “breath in, breath out” flow. A typical day for us on the road goes something like this:
Jim Sheils & I up at 6, prayers, lemon water, meditation, sunrise and sometimes exercise (sometimes surf, some times exercise comes later).
Children up around 8, beds and linens put away for the day, “house” swept, all dressed & breakfast cooked-with helpers, all while Jim checks in with work and gets things moving forward in business.
Always in the pool or beach by 10am… for hours! Sometimes we get to surf or swim laps (exercise), sometimes it’s all play.
Before 1 we return “home” for lunch and re-set with showers and journaling or reading books (the boys are both dyslexic but once they began reading they became unstoppable, summers they read 3-4 books a week). Then we decide on an adventure for the day. Today, we’re headed a little north to try a shop called Beans and Beads. A craft-ery and coffee shop. Make some art, drink some Joe (buy a mug, I buy a mug everywhere we travel- great reminders of fun times).
Once we return from that adventure, around 4ish, we’ll prob do a quick second beach or pool trip before dinner, Jim will tell some bad jokes then he’ll check in again with work while I prep dinner and ground with the kids around 6.
After dinner tonight there is a “movie on the lawn” and live music at a local kite shop.
We’re all always exhausted at the end of the day.
Once everyone is asleep, Jim & i sneak in a few hours of work and creative masterminding, then crash.
It’s a lot. A LOT. – Jamie
#18summers #toofast#makeithappen #fullhandsfullheart
18 Summers Adventure continues.
Exploring the Outer Banks and finding fun.
One of many moments of Leland…being Leland!
#18summers #familyboardmeetings #carpediem
Last night ended with Açaí bowls. And a little patience for a good mess! #18summers #familyboardmeetings #carpediem
The adventure continues! Just checked into a hotel in Rehobeth Beach for the next few days. Wasn’t easy finding parking for the RV! #18summers #familyboardmeetings #carpediem
18 summers adventure update: July 4th in Long Beach Island with the Keltz/Mack clan. Epic day with multi generation surf sessions and fireworks. #18summers#familyboardmeetings #carpediem
Meanwhile in Portland Maine… older brother was not impressed #18summers
Nova Scotia Lobster fest with some old Florida friends. Thanks Karen! #18summers #familyboardmeetings #carpediem
Look for the “Helpers”
THIS GUY, RIGHT. HERE. Do you know who he is?
On any adventure we take — whether starting a new business or embarking on a cross-country trip (with 7 chickens) — we look for the helpers. Fred Rogers’ mother would always comfort him in times of fear or transition by telling him, “Look for the helpers. You can always find people who are helping.” Jim and I work hard to BE the helpers. To offer love, support, inspiration of any and every kind. We truly want to help others, whether it be through our time, talent or treasure. Often times, we need help ourselves. This past week, after we celebrated crossing through the Bronx and the GW Bridge (OMG) through Manhattan — in our RV with all the kiddos — we came into a super sketchy situation. A little above Yonkers (seriously.) we noticed the bridge passings over the RV were lower and lower in height and offering “warnings” for low clearance. We went under 2, slightly afraid we had miscalculated our height (I was in the passenger seat frantically searching for our specs on the vehicle), when we came upon a third bridge that we KNEW we could not pass. Quickly, we escape the only highway (maybe it was an interstate… not sure) we knew of to travel into Maine. We wandered through a residential community before coming out into a rough neighborhood ending in us turning around, defeated, in a parking lot. As we try to (64 tries) back out of this parking lot, a young man yells to us “do you need help?!?”. We look over to find THIS GUY, standing under a UFC training facility sign.
He wasn’t smiling but we could tell (through the head wrap and death-muscles) he was friendly and wanting to help. He asks where we are going and offers to take a run while we follow him through the city to the correct interstate. WHAT?!? Is he serious? This New Yorker (one of my best friends is a New Yorker so I’m not making any prejudice here – she’s badass awesome), UFC fighter is going to go for a run, as I follow him through the city to the interstate so we may continue our crazy adventure into Canada? Yup. He knew we were crazy too. He was patient and waited for us at each stop, he made sure we understood which direction to turn after we reach the interstate. He was a helper. I’d love to find a way to thank him, even if just to cheer him on in a fight. Or maybe it’s just to let YOU know that he’s great and to send him some good juju today.
Nova Scotia Lobster fest with some old Florida friends. Thanks Karen! #18summers #familyboardmeetings #carpediem
Amazing adventure. Blessed roads. I couldn’t imagine a better view for my birthday. – Jamie #luckygirl #amazing #blessed #adventure #18summerstribe#travelwithkids #cabottrail #capebreton
We just had a tire blow out on I-295. And, I got thrown up on at dinner. Twice. I should play the lotto tonight.
Last stop was a success! Surprise birthday celebration for “Machine Gun Granny” … She could make you dinner from the garden, sew you an outfit and tell you to go f**k yourself when needed. My home making, friend making, food making inspiration. She has the strongest spirit I’ve met and yet a gentle soul. Although her mind isn’t as strong, her wit never fails. These are the days.
Nova Scotia & Cape Breton have the most stunning views I’ve seen. Their people are diligent to keep it pristine and preserved. They have 4-6 recycling options when you go to throw something away — even at the McDonalds (don’t judge, they serve lobster at McDonald’s up there!).
Our trip had many ups and downs, moments where we just wanted to go home. There were moments we said words not worth repeating, or acted in ways not worthy of imitation. Yet.. Overall, it was a success. We’re safely home reveling in the beauty and adventure that was 5 weeks on the road with a limited plan and lots of love.
STREET SMARTS: A Student’s Take on Road Schooling
Street Smarts…. No, I am not talking about looking both ways before you cross the street or how to avoid a dangerous neighborhood. Instead, I’m talking about an alternative learning system that’s a fun and effective way to learn while traveling. We call it called Road Schooling.
It started a few years ago when my parents went through a midlife crisis and decided to buy a 35-foot RV and pack the 4 of us kids in it. Of course, they wanted to go for a test drive but you could say they got a little carried away, because they ended up driving us all the way to Nova Scotia, which took around a month. But I couldn’t miss an entire month of school! So, instead we decided I wouldn’t need to miss even a day. We came up with a way to take our schooling on the road while traveling all across America and Canada: Road Schooling.
What Is Road Schooling? For our family, it’s a combination of Florida Virtual School (FLVS) and homeschooling, and the travel destination of our choice!
An example of my daily schedule: first I would wake up any time I pleased within reason… say around ten (but that rarely happens because there was a 4-year-old and 2-year-old on board) after that I would have breakfast and log onto FLVS see if one of my papers have been graded, or if I need to complete an assessment, read a lesson, etc. Then after my work is complete (from 10 minutes to 2 hours depending on my assignments) I would either go eat lunch or go back to sleep, also maybe look out the RV window and take in the scenery. Then we would hopefully go see a landmark or somewhere interesting like that, and if I wanted to get ahead in my classes I could go back on to FLVS for however long I wanted, then the rest of the day is for whatever pleases me.
Some of the many benefits of Road Schooling are you get to learn interesting things in amazing places. and not stress about what other kids think about you, mean teachers or of course endless piles of homework. You can also work on things your passionate about while getting academic work done. You get to stay with your family and work at your own pace. The number one best thing is you get to have the wisest, best tutor of all to help you: your mom.
One drawback to Road Schooling is that it is easy to get distracted. That’s why it’s important to develop a rhythm that works and stick with it. I personally get a lot out of Road Schooling, and it’s the way to go if you are interested in seeing awe-inspiring places and traveling as a family.
Donating a Kidney to My Father
In 2012, I donated a kidney to the best man on the planet, my father. Below is the physical process and mental journey I followed, as chronicled in social media posts my wife (fiance at the time) and I shared.
After going through months of testing at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, I have finally been approved to donate a kidney to my father. The transplant surgery will be November 6. I feel so lucky that I can help my Dad. Thank you to all my family and friends that have been so supportive through this emotional time, especially the love of my life, Jamie Lee, who has been there for me every step of the way.
The Decision to Donate:
This is not something I planned on writing about. This is not an experience I thought I would be sharing in great detail. But, after a surge of inspirational notes, phone calls and the standing ovation at my last talk of the year at Joe Polish’s annual event, I realized I would be cheating my father, our tribe and the scores of other people that have come forward with support and have also urged me to talk more about the decision to donate a kidney to my father next month.
First, although I announced this decision very recently, the process has actually been going on for almost two years. I’ve kept it hidden, even from most of my closest friends and family. Over the next few weeks, I‘ll try to share why I did this and also answer some of the questions I’ve been asked, like:
- How did this all happen?
- What does this mean for you and your health?
- What is the process?
- Do you have a good relationship with your Dad?
- Did your Dad ask you for a kidney?
- How will this affect your business?
- What does your family think?
- What are your biggest fears about doing this? How did you handle them?
- How are you preparing for the transplant surgery?
- What has been the hardest part of all this?
There’s a fine line between fear and courage, and I’m definitely not the guy to tell you where one starts and the other ends because I found myself crossing over into both of these emotions for a long time.
However, I can honestly say that with faith, close relationships, and one undeniable fact, I found the strength and conviction to move forward. The one undeniable fact was this:
A lot of my close friends and family lost their own fathers too early in life and they had to sit there helplessly wishing there was something they could do to help, but could not. But not me, I had been given a great gift. I COULD HELP. I could provide the solution needed to help cure my Dad. How lucky was I….
Next, I’ll share how this whole journey began….
Strep throat can do what!?!?
This all started back in the early 1940s when my Dad was a young boy and suffered a few bad cases of strep throat. Antibiotics were not well known back then and my grandmother, an Irish immigrant, did her best to cure my Dad with old Irish remedies like dry toast and orange juice (my grandfather had recently died of complications from fighting in WWI).
When strep throat goes without antibiotics it can cause people to develop a kidney condition later on in life. Who the hell would ever of thought strep throat could affect your kidneys?! Not me. Neither did my father until he was diagnosed with this rare condition in the early 1990s. However, being in good health (my pops still did his Army calisthenics almost every morning), doctors believed the condition could be controlled with medication. And it was, until April of 2010.
In April of 2010, almost out of nowhere, my father took a sudden turn for the worse and was admitted into the hospital with close to complete renal (kidney) failure. I was shocked. My Dad was not your typical guy in his 70s. He was built like a vibrant little leprechaun and people always guessed him to be younger than his age. He was extremely active, surfing with his grandkids in the summer and playing Irish music in the local pubs, which was one of his biggest passions and talents. But now, in front of me lay a man I did not recognize and if I was being honest with myself, it didn’t appear he would have long to live. As my mother and I drilled the doctors with questions, they explained the severity of the situation and I began to have hot flashes going through my chest.
“The best option we can hope for is for him to be able to begin dialysis; however, this can be a grueling process and will change his quality of life forever,” the doctor said.
Not knowing anything about the process, I quickly challenged the doctor, “What about a kidney transplant?”
“We’re a long ways from that… also, please remember your father is in his 70s now and….”
I cut the doctor off.
“He has strong family history of living into their 90s and higher, what about a kidney transplant?”
Next came the response that kept me up half the night……
Did I just say that!?
“If your father is healthy enough to pass the transplant recipient testing, he can be added to a donor list. However, making the donor list gives no guarantees and it can take years to find a match.”
The doctor was actually a really nice man but there was no easy way to deliver all this information (I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes giving painful truths to people every day). He ended the conversation politely, having to move on to another patient, by simply stating “Let’s work to get your Dad back to a stable health and look forward from there.”
After the doctor left, my parents and I sat there in silence for a few minutes. My mind was racing and I finally spoke up. “He didn’t mention anything about a living kidney donor. I could donate. I’m sure I’d be a match.”
Immediately, my parents went on the defense (which I expected).
“Now hold on,” My mom said, putting her hand up. “We are getting way ahead of ourselves.”
And my father (the stubborn Irish work horse) suddenly regained a burst of strength.
“Absolutely not! Jimmy, forget it. Out of the question.”
He continued on saying something about having had a good life and he was not going to jeopardize my future.
Driving home I was gripping the steering wheel with full force and letting out some deep breaths.
- Would my father live?
- Did I really just offer him a kidney?
- What would that mean for me?
- Would that cut my life short?
- Would it affect my health forever?
- Could I still surf?
- Could I still have children?
- Would a kidney transplant really help my Dad or was it just a short-term band-aid?
- Maybe I was being too emotional, maybe this situation was out of my hands.
I got home, patted my boxer on the head, opened my laptop and Googled “kidney transplants.” I sat there and read for hours. The more I read, the more I discovered there was justified hope in all this.
Here’s what I found out…
The Facts Behind Donating A Kidney Revealed
Sorting through endless information on the Internet, I read until almost 4 a.m. My eyes were burning by the time I went to sleep, but I felt better than I had a few hours ago.
I discovered that kidney transplants had started back in the 1950s and there was more than 50 years of research to support them.
In a nutshell, with the exception of a short recovery window (which I will explain later), my life was likely to change very, very little, if at all!
I would NOT have to give up surfing.
I would still be able to work out, do yoga, etc.
Donating a kidney would have no effect on me having children.
It would NOT alter my life expectancy. (In fact, I read two different studies showing that kidney donors actually had a longer life expectancy than the average. The main reason being, you had to be at an above average level of health to donate and pass a very intense testing process.)
Also, donating does NOT increase your chances for kidney disease or other disease.
The only potential warning a lot of medical experts made was to try to avoid certain “extreme” contact sports after donating (bungee jumping and football for example were named). With that said, I also read studies that showed very little connection between kidney injuries and contact sports (like football). There were even a few guys playing in the NBA after receiving a kidney transplant and the recipient is more fragile than the donor.
Needless to say, I was comfortable with the possible risk of not becoming a bungee jumping expert or football star. I had already spent enough time on the bench in high school to prove that anyway 😉
Bottom line, medical experts were telling me, “You have two kidneys, you only really need one.” I was good with that.
As far as my father went, his life would improve dramatically as a result of a transplant. He would regain an energy level that most people with kidney issues say they hadn’t felt in years.
Once the new kidney took hold within them (which usually happens right away) reports said people literally wanted to jump out of their hospital bed. Why? Because toxins were finally leaving their body properly!
To give perspective, dialysis gives a person about 15 percent kidney function (which is just enough to keep a person alive). A kidney transplant would give more than 60 percent kidney function, which was higher than what is required to have great health. And to give some troubling perspective, my dad was presently at 9 percent kidney function.
The biggest issue was my father would have to pass the transplant tests and his age could be a factor if they did not see a certain longevity left for him. The testing process would determine that. It would also search every part of his body and make sure he had nothing else potentially wrong with him. If he did, he was out.
Still, I knew there was a chance. And if the medical experts tested us and saw this as being a good move for my Dad and relatively safe for me…why not go for it?!
The next step, giving these facts to my Dad and letting him know he was worth it….
How the hell did you get your Dad to accept your kidney donation?
My father finally got out of the hospital about month later. He was weak and his energy levels were low. Even still, he held off on starting dialysis in hopes that his kidneys would start functioning again. After a few months, the doctor and my mother gave him a clear message, “Go on dialysis or stop living.” He started the following week.
I give my pops a lot of credit for trying to recover without dialysis. The doctors had told him that kidneys were temperamental and sometimes they could just start working again. And they had also told him that once he started dialysis, he would probably be on it for life.
Dialysis is no picnic. I’ve heard some people who don’t understand the process say (in not so many words) “What’s the big deal? Just go on dialysis.” As if dialysis was similar to getting a back massage three times a week. Let me tell you, dialysis is far from a back massage or a day at the spa. It is taxing to the body and to the spirit. You have not only shear exhaustion to contend with, but also you have a tube permanently stuck in your arm and it makes it very hard to travel.
It might sound trivial but the thought of my Dad not going to Ireland again was enough to keep me focused on the potential of a transplant. That, and the fact that dialysis can start to have adverse effects on other parts of the body within a few short years. Dialysis was NOT a permanent fix. The good news is once dialysis started, my dad regained a better level of health and became more motivated about the potential of a transplant. He was not one to complain (and he didn’t), but it was obvious that he could not stand dialysis.
Still, there was the issue of accepting a kidney from me. The medical facts helped ease my father’s conscience, but I think there were two other things that actually helped him gain peace of mind to move forward.
First, my dad and I started spending more time together. I believe the key to any relationship is quality time. We worked through past issues, recalled fun times together and had discussions we had never had before. It was even during this time, sitting on a desolate beach together, that my father and I designed an exercise that my book, “ The Family Board Meeting” uses today as a core pillar to help other parents develop a better relationship with their children.
The second breakthrough came when my mom set up a phone call to my Uncle Bill. Uncle Bill was a highly respected cardiologist and someone to whom my Dad has always been close. My Dad asked him directly, “If you were in my shoes and one of your children offered you a kidney, would you take it?” Without hesitation, Uncle Bill gave his answer of, “Yes, absolutely.”
Knowing Uncle Bill would not bullshit him, especially when it came to medical conditions and his kids, my Dad was ready.
It took several months to get an appointment at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, but it was worth the wait. After scores of tests and follow-ups, the results came back: my father was approved! His vitals showed younger than his years and with a new kidney in place, the future looked longer and brighter.
The choice was now mine. Two more years with my father or possibly 12 years or more?
That was a no brainer for me.
Time to get approved and prepare to donate.
Here’s what I did to get prepared…
The Ups and Downs of Getting Approved to Donate A Kidney
Mayo Clinic is the best in the world, so it can take months to get things rolling as a donor candidate. I finally started the first rounds of testing in mid-June. Along with an in-depth interview, the hospital does a full physical to grade your overall health and then performs a special blood test in which they mix my father’s blood and mine to see if we are compatible.
Some people’s bloods will have natural antibodies against one another and if this is the case, donation would be out of the question. If I passed these tests, there would be one more round of in-depth testing. From what I had been told, the blood mix test was a very big step in getting approved.
The head nurse was really nice and when I finished up, she said, “Ok, we’ll have the results of the physical and blood test within the week. I’ll call you with the results. Don’t worry!”
Easy to say but not easy to do….
I left a few days later to head down to Nosara, Costa Rica, a favorite spot of mine to spend a week at the Surf Simply Resort, a great surf camp that I’d been wanting to try out. It was my hope that I would get the test results at the very beginning of the trip and be able to “surf off the news,” no matter what it was.
The resort was a lot of fun, good surf with really nice people. Unfortunately, by mid-week, I still hadn’t heard anything and I was starting to ask myself some big questions,
“What happened? Did the blood mix fail? Is there something wrong with my health?”
Finally, getting back from a sunrise surf one morning, there was a message on my phone from Mayo Clinic. I called them back right away with my heart pounding. The nurse quickly delivered the news, “All looks great, would you like to proceed with the final round of testing?”
I called my fiancé and parents right away and I was in a happy daze for rest of the trip. Every wave I caught was more fun than the next. Surfing had been a huge therapy for me through all of this and I am sure it will play a big role in my recovery.
I returned home ready to finish the approval process. By this time, I had mentally arrived with my decision and was saying to myself, “Alright, let’s just do this.”
My sister Carolyn kept calling and leaving messages asking me for my main contact at the Mayo Clinic so that she could try to get approved as well. I conveniently ignored the messages and refused to give her the information. I asked my parents to do the same. Carolyn had six children and a husband in the military that was often deployed overseas. I was extremely grateful for her courageous act of support but there was no way I could let her (or anyone else) do this. I would be taking this one for the team.
Like before, the final tests were delayed and stretched out until the end of the summer. It was six full days of testing and they were a lot more in depth than the first round. For someone like me, who is VERY uncomfortable with needles, I looked forward to it being over. I would have to look away every time I was pricked or injected with something. Finally one of the nurses asked me, “You really don’t like needles, huh?”
I calmly replied, ”No, not really, I’d prefer a punch to the face.”
She laughed hysterically.
Amazingly, comments like that and they didn’t fail me in my mental evaluation. 😉
I thought I would have to wait a week for my results, but, to my surprise, I got called into a final appointment on my last day. It was with the head doctor of the transplant team.
She gave me the news, “I’ve already had the chance to go through everything and all I can say is keep surfing and doing yoga and whatever else you’re doing because the test came back great and you are a prime donor, congratulations. We’ll make it official next Tuesday but if you want to give the news to your Dad and family, go ahead.”
I walked out of the hospital and immediately called my fiancé Jamie, my best friend and supporter through this. She knew it was supposed to take a week to get my results but she answered the phone with almost a sixth sense saying “Hey Sweetheart! Did they already give you an answer?”
At that moment it hit me like a ton of bricks. The whole situation had finally caught up with me. I had been strong up until that point but at that moment, I broke down into tears and could only whisper, “Yep, we did it.”
Today is the day of our kidney transplant surgery and it reminds me of a story about a 6-year old little boy from the Bronx:
Many years ago, a 6-year-old little boy was standing alone in the living room of his tiny apartment staring at his father who was wrapped up in blankets sitting quietly in a rocking chair.
His father was very sick and did not have long to live.
When the dying man saw his son standing there alone in sadness, he called him over to his side at the rocking chair. Speaking in a thick Irish accent, the man explained to his son that he loved him very much but he would be going away soon. He didn’t want to and he would miss the little boy very much but there was nothing anyone could do to stop it.
The father then asked the little boy to promise him that once he was gone, he would take care of his mother and help watch over the rest of the family. Without hesitation, the little boy promised that he would.
This would be the little boy’s final conversation with his father.
Of course he was sad after his father’s death, however, he soldiered on and always kept the promise he made that day.
(And he NEVER used the excuse “I didn’t have a father”)
The little boy was there for his mother her entire life and as a direct result, she lived a full life well into her 90s.
He helped watch over his nieces and nephews after his only brother and only sister both died unexpectedly at young ages.
And once he grew up and had a family of his own, the little boy carried his promise forward into their lives as well…
Dad, as you know, you were the little boy in this story and this is a memory that you’ve shared with me only once. Still, it is something I have never forgotten.
You stood alone at the age of 6, you made a promise, and (whether you realize it or not) you’ve kept that promise. This defines your character, your strength and your integrity. No doubt your father would be very proud of you.
There is nothing in this world that could have stopped us from standing by you today in your time of need.
You need a kidney? I got your back.
We love you,
Jimmy & family
All is well! Dad is out of surgery in record time and doing great. The doctor said Jimmy gave a beautiful kidney and it is ALREADY producing urine!!! Both are resting well. Thank you for the prayers and positive thoughts, we feel them all!
My Dad and I are overwhelmed with the love and support that has poured in over the last few days. Thank you! It has been extremely uplifting.
All is looking great. The kidney started functioning right away and toxin levels have already adjusted down to healthy levels my father has not seen in a long while.
This was definitely a team effort of family and friends so I thank everyone again for their support, especially my beautiful Jamie Lee who was there for me every step of the way, and my mom, who has barely left my Dad’s side for the last four days.
1 Week Transplant Success Updates:
We did it!!! Jimmy and Grandpa Sheils are beginning to heal at home and doing incredibly well. The kidney has taken and is doing good work. These men are amazing and have kept such a positive and excited attitude through it all. We appreciate all the extra love this past week. I’m so proud and thankful to be a witness to this miracle!
1 Week Transplant Success Updates:
We did it!!! Jimmy and Grandpa Sheils are beginning to heal at home and doing incredibly well. The kidney has taken and is doing good work. These men are amazing and have kept such a positive and excited attitude through it all. We appreciate all the extra love this past week. I’m so proud and thankful to be a witness to this miracle!
Two weeks after the transplant surgery and all is good! I’ve been given a clean bill of health with some temporary exercise restrictions. My father is doing great too! The kidney has taken to him like an Irishman to a Guiness 😉 Seriously though, this success has brought incredible peace of mind and I am so grateful.
Thank you again for all your notes and calls, they are priceless. Happy Thanksgiving!
“Rainbow Bridge” is a term we like to use in our house during times of significant transition — both happy and sad.
At each of our children’s birthdays, we honor their “Rainbow Bridge” to commemorate their birth and celebrate them passing into a new year (You can read more about this Waldorf-inspired tradition here).
At the end of a life, we use the “Rainbow Bridge” to refer to an other-worldly place consisting of a sunny, green meadow and multi-colored, prismatic bridge that a person eventually crosses that leads to heaven.
Here is the story of Mabel (also known as Nanny and Granny), Jamie’s grandmother, and her “Rainbow Bridge,” as told by posts Jamie, Jim and other family members shared during this time.
A profound experience starts today for our family. Jamie Lee Sheils’ grandmother has been given only a few weeks to live. She’s coming home to live with us for her hospice care and final days. She’ll be surrounded by children, animals and plant life. An environment she thrived in years earlier. The hospice director told Jamie he couldn’t think of a greater gift than this. Proud of my wife and the values she lives by.
Today is moving day! Nanny enters hospice care in our home.
I’ve been quiet for a few weeks now. Lots of adulting going on. Contemplative in my decision making. Seeking confirmation from spirit that what I’m doing is the “right” decision for me, for our family. What spirit keeps YELLING at me- a hundred times a day, “IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU, it’s about HER.” And it’s all going to be just fine.
This yelling started outside of me but quickly became my peace, my mantra. A mantra for myself, for my children, for anyone that has ever cared for this woman or met her or met me.
And now it’s for you. It is not about me or you, it’s about her. Whoever her is in your life, let me tell you now, it’s about HER.
People keep asking me, “Are you sure?” and, “Can you handle this?”
And the honest answer is no and no and more no. But HER and YES.
I had no idea what I was doing when I arrived home with my first (or even the fourth) baby, and they’re all doing just fine. Nanny will be just fine as well.
This is a gift we give freely and will no doubt receive in return. I’m excited to see the expansion of compassion this will bring into our hearts and our home. This experience, to care for someone that cared so diligently for us all, will change us forever.
For once, today is about HER.
“In a napping house where everyone is sleeping…”
Except when the sun goes down and it’s bedtime.
Granny gets a solid case of sundowners. When the sun goes down, her mental state changes drastically and she howls in fear and pain. Yesterday, it lasted 12 hours.
Tonight, after a few hours, a kind friend pushed me to call for help. A nurse arrived with new meds and perspective.
This journey is not a straight clean path. But, I’m learning. Maggie lays with me as I watch over Granny through the night. We talk of the rainbow bridge and whether or not you have to adopt the animals there. Alden lingers long and we discuss Granny’s passing as a floating away not a sudden event. Jim holds me and we cry, not for sadness but for overwhelm of the gift of this process.
She is the first patient I’m not able to heal. She is in my home to care for, but not to be made better. Only to become whole upon departure. All the bone broth and essential oils in the world can’t bring this train back to the station. It is such a disconnect to my brain.
We are tired. Newborn baby tired, except more because I can’t co-sleep and nurse this baby. Holding vigil, making comfort, guiding. Knowing – just like my newborns – this won’t last forever.
We flow in and out with our hellos and handholding, our singing and household duties. It’s loud at times, she doesn’t mind. It is life. Every bit of it, and it’s embracing her and telling her she’s lived it all.
We’ve had friends stop by to meet and celebrate Granny. Some stay for a moment, some linger and play with their children as I know she loves the laughter and mischief of little ones in the background. Some friends bring music and art, others food. A beautiful dyed silk in the mail. An outpouring of love and support. A celebration. One night, house full, imagine a campfire sing-a-long, but the light in the room was Nanny. We were gathered around her, singing, dancing, laughing, sharing, crying. When we sang “Blackbird Fly,” she had the biggest smile on her face.
With her still-plentiful hair of black, she is my blackbird.
She has stopped all food and water intake. She is slowly drifting farther and farther from “here” and closer and closer to “there.”Maggie asked if we would be able to see the Rainbow Bridge also as Nanny crosses it. Could you imagine?! I bet Maggie is imagining. And what an image to behold! I was so concerned that this would be traumatic to our children but, instead, it is a beautiful time of humanity and learning.
Jim and the boys are hurrying back this morning from an event in the Keys to be here for Nanny’s final moments. It’s funny how children have a way of changing up plans.
Many many happy memories with this Granny, Mabel Leitheiser. If there is such a thing as a “beautiful” death, this is it. Thanks to her amazing granddaughter, Jamie Lee, my daughter. She moved Granny from a Georgia nursing home to spend her last week around Jamie and her beautiful, loving family. Jamie was her caregiver until hospice took over. I had the opportunity to share in a little of all that and talk about our happy memories and how she was like a mother to me. Jamie says it’s all about her (Granny). Can’t express in words how this touched my soul ❤️. This truly was a beautiful experience for everyone. Bless your heart Jamie Lee, I love you.
How do you tell a life in a few lines?
The obituary is written and, honestly, it’s lame. It’s proper and covers all the bases that Google says to cover and, yet, I still feel as though I’ve failed her. Failed her essence.
But this photo, this moment right here is her legacy. A child that loves her, adoring her even after her last breath. Wondering what incredible magical thing she may be doing next.
Much gratitude for the visitors, food, love and sharing of stories. My life is so full after this experience, even if I can’t begin to express it.
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