— Babies can find ways to make us feel better. Matt Keil may be paralyzed from the waist down, but his daughter knows the path to her dad’s heart is through his thumb.
She was teething on the one hand that Matt, who is quadriplegic, can move. “You wake up thinking you're having a bad day,” Matt said, talking around the tiny fingers trying to touch his lips, “and then you come out and you see all those beautiful smiles.”
At the moment those smiles were bright red from the bits of strawberries spread around their faces; Matt’s babies were eating breakfast. Red is the last vivid image their dad remembers from the day he stopped walking — the day an Iraqi sniper shot him in the neck.
"Felt like somebody kicked me right in the back,” Matt recalled. “I fell forward."
The bullet ricocheted off his spinal column, collapsed his left lung and exited through his left shoulder, paralyzing him instantly. He didn’t feel a thing.
War before honeymoon
“Is he coming?” a woman asked the day Army Staff Sergeant Matt Keil came home, straining to see above the crowd of friends and relations gathered to welcome him. Each hand waved an American flag; each loved one wondered what he would he look like. They’d been told his wound had left him barely able to move.
One member of that crowd was especially concerned — Matt’s wife, Tracy. He’d gone to war before their honeymoon. They had been married just six weeks when he was shot on Feb. 24, 2007.
“I almost passed out when I heard,” Tracy recalled. “My mom caught me when I got weak in the knees.”
Strong arms cradled Matt too, as he was lifted down from the plane. They placed him on a stretcher and rolled him through the crowd. He was wondering about his new bride.
“I asked her if she still loved me,” he recalled. “She looked me right in the eye and said, ‘Of course I love you. You're stuck with me.’ ”
Tracy and Matt were determined not to let that war wound limit their lives. They longed to have a baby, but were told that might not happen. They tried anyway, even as Matt battled back to health.
One day their doctor showed them three tiny hearts.
“Girl?” Tracy asked, looking closely at the grainy gray ultrasound.
“No way,” Matt kidded.
“It’s a girl!” Tracy cried, smiling.
The doctor nodded. Tracy’s smile became a giggle. Matt stared at the screen, mesmerized. Doctors had implanted two embryos; one split. After their first attempt to have a family, Tracy was pregnant with triplets.
“Oh my God!” she exclaimed, slapping her head. She turned to face Matt. Their eyes met, sharing the seriousness of the moment, and then they dissolved with laughter.
Struggle to survive
They were still laughing 29 weeks later when Tracy went into labor. Matt was in the delivery room with her, doing a play-by-play on home video for the kids to see one day. “I’m really excited,” he said to the camera. “That’s Aunt Chris behind the lens, and your mom in the window back behind me….”
The shot wobbled to find Tracy’s face. “That’s me,” she said, waving.
The picture popped back to Matt. “I already love you kids and I can't wait to see you."
The triplets were born seven weeks early, as the country prepared to remember Veterans Day. Matt would face another fight, and a casualty: One boy died. The other weighed just 3 pounds; their sister an ounce less than that. Like their father, they would have to struggle to survive.
Tracy bent over an incubator in the intensive care unit, watching her babies, who seemed to disappear in a tangle of tubes. “Every scary small detail that you could imagine a tiny person being put through, they were put through,” she said.
Tracy caressed a small foot trying to kick free of a cord. Quieted a weak cry. “Oh, I know,” she cooed. “I’m sorry.”
Tracy picked up their daughter and placed her on Matt’s chest. He stared at the little one for the longest time, then looked up. “It’s hard,” he said simply.
That’s why they named the girl Faith. “You making funny faces at your daddy?" Matt asked Faith, beaming.
Faith was stronger than Matt Jr.; doctors released her from the hospital seven weeks later. Mom carried her out in a car seat. Down a darkened hall. Tracy paused. Leaned against a wall, sighed and looked back at Matt.
“I can't believe they won't be together."
Her baby boy would remain hospitalized for two and half months. He finally came home on a cold winter day. Out front, American flags snapped in a stiff wind. Veterans built the house on a beautiful acreage in Parker, Colo. Gave it to the Keils mortgage free. Inside, everything was crafted to help a dad in a wheelchair care for his kids.
"Say nighty-night, Dad." Tracy put Matt Junior down for a nap. His father nuzzled his sister, who was strapped to dad’s chest, listening to his heart.
The babies were nearing their first birthday, already veterans of a veteran’s life. Seven years after that sniper’s bullet interrupted their parent’s dreams, both children were finally doing well. Matt stroked Faith’s hair and grinned.
“Life would be boring if it were perfect and easy.”
“Did you ever lose hope?” I asked.
Tracy turned intense. “Never. No!”
“Did you ever regret?”
“No. No regrets. Not at all.”
Life no longer intimidates Tracy. She’d beaten bad times before. “My house burned down when I was 13. My parents divorced.”
“Do you ever wonder: When is enough, enough?”
“There have been moments when I’ve thought, ‘OK, God, what’s going on? What did I do?’ But there is no option of not being successful. So I figure it out. Make it work.”
Matt’s eyes filled with emotion.
“I know without her, I wouldn’t be where I’m at. She was there when I came home, when I was injured. I knew I had to be there for her.”
“What are you going to tell your children about life?”
Matt paused. Thinking. Watching his kids crawling on the floor. Finally, he had his answer: “No matter what you’re going through, it could be worse. I know that being a quadriplegic in a chair is not the worst thing that could have happened to me.”
“But when is enough, enough?”
“We don’t dwell on the bad moments. We find ways to tackle them and move on.”
Matt rolled toward the front door. Both kids were now strapped in for a ride.
“Whee! Bumpy, bump, bump….” he shouted as they bounced into the yard. The babies beamed. Their dad does not dwell on what he cannot do. He finds the fun in what he can.
Tracy watched them go. “Matt’s here; that’s all that matters. He’s part of this family. He’s part of our lives. And he’s the same guy that he was when he left. He’s just got cleaner shoes.”
There’s an old saying: “If you want to see God smile, tell him your plans.”
He’s got to be grinning now.