Children’s book describes dad’s recovery by 4-year-old daughter – Herald-Mail Media
June 17, 2022
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Hagerstown’s David Butts wins the Loudoun Street Mile in 4:03.8 in Winchester, Va., on Memorial Day to capture a pair of national titles.
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Come Father’s Day, Todd McElwee will celebrate with a nice, big cake.
It’s not the traditional kind enjoyed by most families. For the Hagerstown resident, his will be more symbolic but worth savoring.
McElwee is reaching the final stages of a four-year recovery from a brain injury that hospitalized him on Christmas Day 2018. Later, it caused a return trip on New Year’s Day.
“It was the timing of the situation,” he said. “Going to the hospital on Christmas and then on New Year’s, my wife joked, ‘We will never celebrate another holiday. Particularly my birthday … just stay in bed.’”
Celebrations are back in order now.
McElwee is now living close to a normal life again. He has gone through different levels of physical therapy to get back “with a lot of help from a lot of great people.”
At the front of the line stands his wife Angela and the two oldest of his three children, daughter Evie and son Declan, who helped in the only way a 4- and 2-year-old can — being around with love and unwavering support.
The whole experience inspired McElwee to write his first book about his recovery as seen through the eyes of Evie. She is the narrator in “Mission: Get Daddy Better,” illustrating the different ways the two children tried to help their father through recovery.
“Fast forward to now, I tell people that I’m about 90%,” McElwee said. “I still don’t have all the sensation in the left part of my body … I’m not really limited in anything I do. It’s hard for me sometimes to do stuff with my left hand. I can’t really play guitar anymore. I wasn’t Jimi Hendrix, but I was a decent enough guitarist. I can’t run as fast as I used to — I was never that fast of a runner.
“I can be with my kids — ride bikes and we (recently) went on a 5-mile kayaking trip on the Potomac. That’s my cake. I’m just missing a very little bit of the icing.”
Through a child’s eyes
On Nov. 14, 2018, McElwee was diagnosed with a cavernous malformation, abnormally formed blood vessels in his brain.
“My vision started to go blurry,” he said. “I started having a headache in the back of my head, right around my neck area. I got an eye test and an MRI and they said I had (the malformation), which is a bleed in the pons section of my brain. It’s the nerve center, essentially the brain of the brain.”
There was a question of its severity, but by Christmas everything went haywire.
The turn of events put the McElwee household in turmoil. Todd was hospitalized for the first time and eventually entered therapy for more than a month. The routines for Angela, Evie and Declan were altered dramatically.
“At the time, Declan was only 2 … He didn’t comprehend what was going on,” Todd McElwee said. “He followed the lead of his older sister. (Evie) was obviously sad that I wasn’t there and It was the longest I had gone without seeing them. They definitely knew something was wrong and it was hard for them because my wife would come to the hospital and they were staying with grandparents.”
After the extended hospital stay and therapy, McElwee got back to 90%. As he improved, the writer in him started to come to the forefront. McElwee is a former sports reporter, who is presently the associate publisher and associations editor for a weekly newspaper for associations, convention and visitor’s bureaus and hotels.
“I was trying to think of a way to turn this into a positive. I thought about maybe I should write an ‘adult’ book, but could barely type out a 400-word story at the time,” he said. “Then I thought I should do a podcast, but I don’t want to be talking about this every day.
“So I just started writing. If I’m going to do a children’s book, why don’t I write something from my daughter’s perspective. A lot of children’s books are written from a child’s viewpoint. This way I could have a little more fun with the language. I could make it almost like a journal so it’s not adults talking. It’s kids talking to other kids.”
Thus, “Mission: Get Daddy Better” was born. Although it’s a children’s book, there was a message for adults on the dedication page.
“To the adults: This is Todd’s personal story about his children sending love to Daddy while he was healing in the hospital. And while situations and outcomes differ, he hopes the love and positive energy exhibited within these pages can be embraced by all and applied in each’s own unique way.”
“I wanted to make sure it was relatable to what a 4-year-old would say,” he said. “I wanted it to be clear about the process but didn’t want it to be like Charlie Brown’s teacher talking to the kids or like Sally talking to Charlie Brown.
“I wanted to be somewhere in the middle. It’s something that isn’t as intellectual. It’s more emotional and off the cuff.
Accepting the assignment
They say the resiliency of children are amazing.
Evie and Declan proved it during this chapter of the McElwee’s family story.
“Overall, their positivity and how they tried deal with it really helped my wife and I,” McElwee said. “How they reacted to my illness was … I don’t know if great is the right word but I don’t think a parent could ask for anything more.”
He started to find that out on that Christmas Day.
“It felt like the entire left side of my body went to sleep,” he said. “I went to the hospital here in Hagerstown and they said it was bleeding more. I got taken by ambulance to Georgetown Hospital and was there for a few days.
“I came home and then woke up New Year’s morning, got out of bed and couldn’t walk. … I just fell over. My entire left side of my body, it didn’t feel numb, but I had no sensation, no control over it.”
McElwee returned to Georgetown to start the extended stay. From there, he was admitted to Shady Grove Hospital in Rockville, Md., then more therapy, which continued at Meritus Hospital upon his release.
“Mission: Get Daddy Better” begins with Evie and Declan finding out their father is hospitalized and the youthful emotions.
Once it all sinks in, Evie tells Declan that they are going on “a secret mission” to “get Daddy better.”
It starts with the kids making and sending cards and posters in green — Dad’s favorite color — before getting to see him on video chats.
Eventually, they get to visit him in the hospital and get to have lunch and bring him treats.
From there, the kids’ job becomes a mission of goodwill with laughs, hugs and hijinks that McElwee said brought him back to normalcy. It got even better when he got home.
“It’s hard to put into words how much it meant when they walked into the room,” McElwee said. “The kids being there were the highlight of my day, my week, my month. Even when they came to therapy a few times again it made the process really easier and put your goal right in front of you.
“My kids weren’t careful with me, which I liked. It probably wasn’t the best thing for me, but they jumped right on me. My wife was about to have a heart attack, but it didn’t matter. There, I’m just Dad.”
A star was born
Evie was truly a ghost when McElwee began ghost writing the book.
“To be honest, she didn’t actually know about it until I showed it to her,” McElwee said. “My wife knew about it. My bosses knew about it, and that was basically it.”
The finished product was a 54-page book, which was illustrated by Meagan Healy. Healy, a multimedia artist from Silver Spring, Md., embraced the crayon-and-sticker filled coloring-book theme that a 4-year-old author would probably present. Each page looks like refrigerator art taped to a scrapbook journal.
The time came for some consumer testing.
“I got a proof of the book a few months ago,” McElwee said. “(Evie) is a veracious reader. She got it out, started reading it and really liked it.
“I said ‘Did you look who wrote it?’ She looked and then looked at me. I said, ‘What’s the character’s name?’ And she just yelled, ‘I’m gonna be famous!’ She’s very proud. When we gave copies to my grandmother, her teacher or whoever, she has to sign it.”
Mission made possible
Things are starting to get back to normal for the McElwees.
Well, maybe as normal as being 90% recovered from a serious brain injury can get.
Still, Todd McElwee notices and embraces some differences.
“What happened to me was awful, but not compared to what a lot of other people have had to go through,” he said. “The whole thing … The whole journey gave me more confidence. I had a good attitude — not to pat myself on the back — but it certainly didn’t change my perspective, but it altered it.
“I definitely don’t let things bother me as much as I used to. Unless it’s something terrible, it’s something myself and my family can get past. I hope a positive perspective comes through in the book and people take it that way.”
It hasn’t been lost on Evie, who can be found rereading “her” book often.
“One of my friends (recently) posted she got the book with a photo on Facebook,” McElwee said. “She wrote something along the lines of ‘You get lemons and Todd wrote a lemon-drop martini.’
“I kind of broke down. I’m really proud that this has not only connected with people, but more importantly, that my kids like it. It’s cheesy to say, but hopefully, it gives somebody a little of hope at some point in time. But my kids like it. My wife likes it … I’m really proud of it.”
But then the reality sets in.
“You always hear people like Mick Jagger asked, ‘What do your kids think of your music?’” McElwee said. “The answer is, ‘They don’t care at all. I’m just Dad to them.’ The kids came to the hospital and they were so entranced — ‘Hi, Dad. We love you. We’re glad to see you … Your bed moves… really?’ Not only their love and their attitude, that little bit of normalcy helped incredibly … incredibly.
“I didn’t put this in the book, but on my bedroom wall, I typed up a list of goals for me to have — walk mile, give Daddy (piggyback rides), coach my daughter’s soccer team. Thankfully, I have been able to do all that. Their spirit and being there … I couldn’t have done it without them.”
And on this Father’s Day, that takes the cake for Todd McElwee.
Where can I get the book?
In “Mission: Get Daddy Better” 4-year-old Evie, and her 2-year-old brother, Declan, embark on a covert operation to help their father recover from a brain injury. Beautifully and touchingly illustrated by Meagan Healy, and narrated by Evie, the book highlights how positivity, laughter, cooperation, thoughtfulness and love can guide a family through challenging times.
The book is available at missiongetdaddybetter.com. Print editions are sold at Politics and Prose in Washington, D.C., along with the Washington County Arts Council Gallery and the Bookshop in Boonsboro.