Riding Her Coattails to Heaven

Riding Her Coattails to Heaven

by Sheryl Wilde

At last count, she’d had 24 operations in her 38 years on this planet. And he was waiting there, in the hospital recovery room with a warm blanket, after each one.

“They would never let me into the operating room,” says Jeff Barnson, father of Mountain Shadows resident, Brittany. “They didn’t want to let me into the recovery room either. But I told them, ‘This is my little premature girl, and she’s scared.’ And they would always let me into the recovery room.

“They always have the warm blankets in there. So they’d bring a blanket out of the warming cabinet. And, when Brittany would come in after surgery, I would have this warm blanket and I would lay her in my arms.

“So Brittany would wake up in a warm blanket and see her dad. And she’d say, ‘Dad. Dad.’ And I’d say, ‘Brittany. Brittany.’ That was our thing.

“Every time, every operation, Brittany would say, ‘I’m a little scared about the operation. But, dad, you’ll be there with a warm blanket, right?’ So I’m always there with a warm blanket when she wakes up. It kind of helps her get through the day.”

Jeff recalls one surgery in particular. “Brittany had really bad curvature of the spine, scoliosis. She was 12 or 13 at the time. She’s about 5 feet, 7 inches tall, but she’s so thin and lightweight. She weighs about 90 pounds. The doctor said, ‘We have to operate and straighten her back out. You can’t say no, because if we don’t operate, within 2 years, it will crush her internal organs and she’ll die.’

“Out of 24 operations, this was one of the major ones. The doctor said, ‘She’ll be on the operating table 8 to 10 hours. We’re going to have to take bones out and put in metal rods.’ But it had to be done.

“Brittany prayed about it and said, ‘Dad, I need to have this operation, but I’m afraid.’

“We were trying to be strong for her, but we were concerned too. We started having feelings she wasn’t going to make it.”

Jeff continues, “A couple nights before surgery, Brittany said, ‘Dad, I need you to pray for me.’ So I did a special father’s blessing for her in the prayer. I didn’t have a clear picture, but I knew that whatever happened, she would be cared for, whether it was here on earth or in heaven.

“So I said this beautiful prayer. It wasn’t coming from me. It was coming from God. And we were all just bawling. It wasn’t clear that she was going to come through the operation fine. It was just that she would be okay, either here or in heaven. I was crying tears because of the possibility that I would not see her again in this life. I was crying for myself.

“On the day of the operation, it came time to wheel her into the operating room. Obviously, they won’t let me go past a certain point. She’s in a gurney and she starts crying and I start crying. I started wheeling her down the hall. And Brittany says, ‘Dad, I will always love you.’ And I said, ‘I love you too.’

“And I went into a restroom and just bawled my eyes out again.

“Ten hours later, she came out of surgery. She was in a lot of pain, but I was there with my warm blanket. And she said, ‘Dad, I knew you’d be here with my warm blanket.’

I said, “That’s what your dad is for. I’m always here for you.”

“I didn’t choose this,” adds Jeff.  “I didn’t choose to have a special needs child. God decided I needed this experience to make me a better person. I’m still a work in progress. I tell people I’m hoping to ride Brittany’s coattails to heaven. I say to myself, ‘You’re not so good, Jeff, but look at Brittany. She made it.’  So I’ll just try to sneak into heaven behind her.

“Please don’t make me out to be a hero. I’m just a dad.

“The people at Mountain Shadows, the staff, Wade, Stacy, everybody there, they choose to be involved with special needs individuals. They are my heroes, because they choose to make a difference in the residents’ lives. They choose to help those who can’t help themselves.

“Brittany wouldn’t be who she is today without Mountain Shadows. She’s grown so much.

“And though Brittany has faced many challenges, she says, ‘I just want to help people, dad.’

“Brittany is very spiritual, and there are times when the veil is very thin – times when the angels call and pass information to her that she couldn’t possibly know. And I say to her, ‘Well, ask your angels what the winning numbers for the lottery are.’ And she says, ‘It doesn’t work that way, dad.’

“But, just recently, we had a family gathering. And my wife’s brother, he’s had a really rough life. Brittany said to him, ‘I need to talk to you.’ And she told him some things about his wife who had passed away a couple of years ago. Things she couldn’t possibly have known.

“And Brittany said to him, ‘Sometimes I feel like I’m trapped in a box. My body can’t do anything I want it to do. Some days I don’t feel like living.’ That’s hard to hear. But then she says, ‘I just want to help people.’

“My brother-in-law, he’s a big, lumberjack kind of guy, really rough, tough. Well, he starts crying and he says, ‘You know, Brittany, my life hasn’t been easy. There have been many, many days when I’d wake up and think, what do I have to live for? Then I would think of you, Brittany, and your smiling face. And I’d think, here’s this little girl, she’s been trapped in a wheelchair her whole life. Yet, she’s always thinking of others and trying to help others. And I think, what do I have to complain about? And I get up out of bed and I do it all again for one more day.’

“Then he said, ‘Brittany Barnson, you have saved my life.’ It’s not the first time I’ve heard that. I’ve known my brother-in-law for 40 years. I’ve never seen him cry before. But he started bawling. And I did too. So, Brittany has an impact on people’s lives.”

“I served in the U.S. Air Force, and I used to take Brittany to March Air Force Base on Christmas Day, and we would feed those who had to work. A few years ago, Brittany was looking for opportunities to serve and she asked, ‘Dad, can I do something to help the military?’

“So, we made arrangements for Brittany to visit the San Diego Naval Hospital. She was in her electric wheelchair, and they would take her into a ward – the guys were amputees. They had lost arms or legs.

“Every Thursday, she would go down there. And I asked her, ‘What do you do when you’re there?’ She said, ‘Well, I drive around in my wheelchair and I go up to every one of them, dad. And I say, ‘God loves you and I love you and thank you for your service.’

“And I asked her, ‘What do they do?’

“And she says, ‘They usually cry. But it’s a good cry, dad. I usually speak to them about you, dad, and about how you served your troops, your country, your family. And I say I want to be like my dad. And this is a way I can do that.’

“So, it’s a good cry, dad.”

“Brittany’s not perfect,” continues Jeff. “We’re all imperfect. But I’ve learned a lot from her. I’ve learned to keep on going when you’re feeling sorry for yourself. I’ve learned you can help others, no matter who you are. No matter who you are, you can serve. I’ve learned to trust God. And, I’m still working on this one – unconditional love. Because that little girl, she loves everybody.

“To raise a child who needs total care … well, it’s a great blessing to have a special needs child. There are also great challenges and a lot of tears. There are many great learning moments. Hopefully, it makes you a better person in the process.

“I always feel a little uncomfortable on Father’s Day, because I think mothers are way more important. But to see a man that steps up to his responsibilities, a man that cares for his family, a man that makes sacrifices for his family – but who doesn’t walk into his home and say to his family, ‘This is such a sacrifice! I’m making such a sacrifice for you!’ That is a good man, a good dad.

“It’s not a sacrifice. I tell my kids all time – I’m investing in your future, because my future is to see you do better than I did. I want to see you succeed. That is what is going to make me happy. That’s what I would consider a success – when my children are happy, productive, loving adults.

“Brittany sometimes says, ‘Dad, I’m sorry this is so hard.’ And I say, “Honey, this is my opportunity to serve you. To be with you. I love you.’ And she would always smile.

“So that’s the point. It’s not a sacrifice. It can be hard sometimes. But she has given me more than I’ve ever given her. That’s what being a dad, a parent, is all about.

“Brittany says I’m her hero. That makes me feel good. I like to think I’ve done some good things in my life. But when people say to me, ‘You fought in all of these wars, and served our country, aren’t you a hero?’  I say no, but I flew with some people who were.

“It’s like that with the Mountain Shadows staff. People ask me, ‘Are you a hero for taking care of Brittany?’ and I say, ‘No, but I know some people who are – the people of Mountain Shadows.’

“But as for me … well, I hope to sneak into heaven behind Brittany.”