KINGS MILLS, Ohio – Kelly Howard was ready for the next chapter of her life to begin—moving from motherhood to being a “nana,” who would be able to spoil her newest grandson rotten. But this grandmother’s life would change forever eight years ago. That change was Gabriel.
“He’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me. He made me a better person,” said Kelly. “Some say, ‘He’s so lucky to have you. No, I’m the lucky one to have him.”
The mother of two sons, and now a grandson, who they call “Gabe,” Kelly, a nurse for the VA Hospital in Cincinnati, has a lot of help, including her husband and sons—which is good since Gabe has a rare disorder in which his frontal lobe is malformed. It causes cerebral palsy and epilepsy. Overall, he is non-verbal and has the developmental level of between a 2- and 3-year-old.
Her husband Eric, known as “papa”; Keith, Gabe’s uncle, who can relate with his own seizure disorder; and Eric II, Gabe’s biological father, all help in the care of the fun-loving little boy, who just happens to be in a wheelchair.
“Gabe doesn’t know—he’s the happiest kid,” said Kelly.
During class at 4 Paws for Ability, the 8-year-old scooted and glided across the floor on his hands and knees with nothing but a bright, toothy smile across his excited face. Putting smiles on everyone else’s faces as well.
Although the brown-haired, brown-eyed little boy is non-verbal, he does communicate. Kelly said he talks with his smiles, his noises and by pointing. They are currently working with a “talker,” a speech device for him to communicate easier with his family.
Gabe’s story didn’t start the moment he walked into 4 Paws for Ability, rather it started more than eight years ago when his mom and dad met in college. They met during Eric II’s freshman year at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. His girlfriend became pregnant with Gabe and soon they were married. The expectant couple then moved in with Kelly and Eric in their Kings Mills, Ohio, home.
When Gabe was just 5 months old, Eric II enlisted into the Coast Guard and was deployed. He and Gabe’s mom divorced and the burden of being a single mother was too much for her to handle, said Kelly. Therefore, as Gabe’s grandma, she stepped in and began, rather continued, raising him with her husband.
As a nurse, Kelly said she knew something was wrong. Eventually Gabe was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, a moment for her that was like “hitting a brick wall,” she remembered. It was a wall that she broke through for Gabe.
Everyone always thinks that the best part of being a grandmother, Kelly said, is that you can love your grandkids and then give them back after a visit. Well, not for her.
“I don’t care that I can’t give him back, I never felt that way. I always have had a bond with him,” she said. “I just felt like I didn’t want to give him
back. He needed me and we needed each other.”
It took 5 years, but eventually Kelly and Eric gained custody of Gabe and adopted him as their very own—making them parents to three sons.
“I wouldn’t have it any other way—I’ve loved him since the day I found out he was coming.”
Luckily, everyone pitches in.
“It takes a team to raise Gabriel,” said Kelly, of her household that now includes Gabe’s dad who has returned home from the Coast Guard.
In the morning Eric II dresses his son. Papa feeds him yogurt, gives him his medicine and takes him to school. In the afternoon, papa picks him up from school. Nana comes home after work, and feeds Gabe. Eric and Eric, dad and papa respectively, bathe Gabe; and then Kelly lays down with him in bed to snuggle with him and help him to fall asleep, a task that she hopes a service dog can assist with. That’s why they came to 4 Paws for Ability.
“Every boy needs a dog to snuggle with,” Kelly grinned. Gabe isn’t use to being alone while sleeping—he wakes up frequently without someone by his side. He wants someone with him all the time, she said. A service dog can be his companion, not a babysitter, but a friend, she said. However, that’s not the only thing she wanted a service dog for when it came to her grandson.
Eldora, a Golden Retriever, aka “Ellie” was trained in seizure alert, comfort/behavioral, retrieval/opening doors, drawers/turning on lights.
“On bad days, she can give him comfort by ‘nuzzling’ him,” said Kelly.
She hopes that Ellie can comfort him on good days too, like days when he has to go the doctor and physical therapy, hopefully calming him and distracting him from any pain that he might endure during his sessions. He has at least two doctor’s appointments per week and one therapy appointment, not to mention his hospital visits to have his teeth cleaned. He has to undergo anesthesia, but Ellie will be there, Kelly said, when he wakes up and opens his deep brown eyes to look into the equally big brown eyes of his new best friend, Ellie.
Tasks that, Kelly said, will allow Gabe to gain more independence, so that he won’t be “stuck at 8 for the rest of his life.”
“I just look at [Ellie] as an opportunity for Gabe to be all he can be. Something I can give him to make his life as full as it can be,” she said.
There are times that Kelly thinks about the memories that her grandson will never have the chance to make, like playing catch with his dad, but she said he could play with his dog; ‘walk’ his dog.
“He loves walking his dog,” she said with a giggle. “[Ellie] walks beside his wheelchair” as Kelly walks Ellie.
After 11 days of training with Ellie at 4 Paws, graduation day was finally upon them. But it was a rough start to what was suppose to be a day for celebrating.
Gabe had a seizure that morning, but true to form, Ellie cuddled with him afterward, calming him down. And by the time graduation commenced that afternoon, the little boy, with Ellie by his side, was all smiles. A smile that Kelly said is rare not to see across Gabe’s face. It’s that smile that keeps her going day after day.
His “team” was all at graduation and ready to cheer on their little man with his newest, furry, four-legged best friend Ellie, whom they can now add her to their family, their team… Team Gabe, that is.
For now, this nana isn’t going to be traveling anytime soon as an empty nester nor checking out new sports cars, but rather test-driving vans with wheelchair lifts. And she can’t think of anything she’d rather be doing.
“I can’t imagine not having Gabe. Everything has a purpose,” said Kelly. “There is a reason why we have Gabe. He’s opened our eyes to what’s important, [reminding us to] not sweat the small stuff. It can always be worse.”
-Photos and article by Jessica Noll