A Minority at the Age of Majority

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As the school year begins, there is excitement in the air with many “firsts” and “lasts.” The first day of a new school, the last first day of school, and everything in between. For me, there is a tinge of sadness. My second child is a high school senior, with a twist – it is his first senior year, as the plan is for him to complete high school in five years instead of four. How exactly would one word that on a Facebook post?

I look around and see my son’s peers who I have known since he was little, finishing up their college tours, getting ready to start the college application process, like my oldest son did two years ago. I feel profound sadness that my second son is not sharing this experience. He has a genetic disorder called Familial Dysautonomia, which has many health and cognitive ramifications. He was diagnosed when he was one, so I have had his lifetime to adjust to his “normal,” and accept his non-traditional lot in life. Fortunately my glass is usually half full, so I can enjoy what I do have without focusing on what I don’t. I always think of that saying about “if we all threw our problems in a pile and saw everyone else’s, we’d grab ours back,” which I generally feel to be true.

My son recently turned 18 and I am proud of all that he has accomplished in his difficult life. The fact that he is a senior on the diploma track, even if it takes two years, is a huge accomplishment. He learned how to tie his shoes last year, a difficult task when you have poor fine motor skills. While he eats by mouth, which is something else he has learned to do as he’s gotten older, he has a feeding tube and has learned to feed himself independently. He plays piano. He learned to kayak recently on a family trip. He has an excellent memory, is very sweet and friendly, and loves his screens – be it a computer, Iphone, television, movie screen, or any hand-held device/game – often all at the same time!

When most people turn eighteen, the world opens up for them. They can vote, join the military, serve on a jury, get married, get a credit card and apply for loans. When my son turned eighteen, I had to apply for guardianship for him. What exactly does this mean? Basically, a court will determine that our son “is incapable of making decisions because of severe disabilities,” and that he is in need of protection. The court will then appoint someone to act on his behalf, namely us.

While I am well aware that my son is “disabled,” these are painful words to see in black and white. It feels like a punch in the gut to read the forms completed by two physicians which state that his disease is permanent, progressive and fatal. I know these things to be true but they do not rise to my consciousness on a daily basis.

Not one to fret too much, I generally let life unfold organically, guided by my inner voice and values. I know my son is fragile but I do not focus on his life expectancy, instead cherishing each day and year. I have come to learn that none of us know what the future holds, so other than living a reasonably healthy life, why worry about it? As someone wisely suggested to me years ago, I try not to borrow worry from the future.

It is at these milestones when my grief for the loss of a typical child rises to the surface, gently rolling over me in waves. Intellectually, I know that guardianship is in the best interest of my son and that it does not really change the day to day care and future planning that we already do for him. Being his guardians allows my husband and I to continue keeping him safe while encouraging his growth and independence. It just does so in such an official manner, unlike our other children who will hopefully all go off to college and make their own decisions about their lives with only occasional consultation from their parents.

The adult future that always seemed so far away during his difficult youth has arrived for my son. I am grateful that he is relatively healthy, happy and has reached the age of majority. He is a delightful young man who enjoys the simple things in life, being content and happy spending time with his family. We will deal with this legal task, mindful of the huge responsibility of being someone’s guardian and then go back to just being his parents, leaving the sadness behind for now and seeing what each new day brings.

 

 

Navigating with Grace

If you’re tired of reading my essays, take a listen to this interview I did with Jana Panarites on her podcast, Agewyz, where she gives voice to the struggles of caregivers. After all, we all are, have been or will be caregivers at some point in our lives. I hope you’ll take the time to listen and share with others. Maybe you would like to share your story with Jana too? Click HERE to listen.

Better Late Than Never

There are many things parents teach their children—toilet-training, personal hygiene, shopping, food preparation, shoe-tying, bike-riding, and swimming to name a few. I have had the pleasure of teaching one of my children to feed himself through his gastrostomy tube.

This 17-year-old son, the second of my four children, was born with a Jewish genetic disorder called Familial Dysautonomia (http://www.familialdysautonomia.org/facts.htm). He walks, talks, and is cognitively with it, but he is medically and physically fragile. He eats some food by mouth, but gets much of his nutrition through a gastrostomy tube in his stomach.

He was diagnosed with this disease when he was 1-year-old, but he had feeding trouble from birth. A g-tube was placed at 6 months, once the doctors figured out that the formula from a bottle often went into his lungs instead of his stomach. Speech therapists encouraged us to feed him by mouth in the hopes that the tube would be temporary. As desperate young parents, we spent hours and hours feeding our son by mouth although he was often uninterested and somewhat averse. We had one other child at the time who was only 16 months older. We were discouraged but accepted the tube feedings as part of our life, at least for the short term.

While it was hard to accept this fate, it was much quicker and efficient to tube-feed him. Sure, we still had to feed him several times a day, but it only took a few minutes each time. We grew accustomed to the stares and questions from curious people. We just wanted to feed our kid and hoped that he would continue to grow and be “normal.”

Like many parenting tasks, the feedings soon turned to drudgery and felt like a chain around our necks. Every couple of hours we had to drop what we were doing and spend a few minutes feeding our son. Yes, we had to feed his siblings as well, but with them we could put the food in front of them and walk away. The feeding tube felt more like a tether as we had to stand there and pour the liquid into the syringe, connected to the tube that went into his stomach.

As he got older he could at least hold the syringe so we could dash around feeding the other kids and return frequently to pour more formula into the syringe. But that too became cumbersome. What to do? How could I make my son more independent with this task?

Perhaps divine intervention led me to find a funnel underneath a sink in a newly renovated bathroom in my home. Hmmm, what the heck was this? Some piece left over by the plumber? A light bulb went on over my head, as I could envision this funnel sitting in my son’s feeding syringe, giving him a wider opening into which he could pour the formula, given his less than optimal gross and fine motor skills. It’s not called the “mother” of invention for nothing.

He resisted the idea at first but quickly got the hang of it. Freedom, at last! And the funnel? Turns out it was meant to fill the soap dispenser that is built into the counter-top. You can imagine the reaction I got when I called Kohler to order 12 of them!

So maybe we were remiss in teaching our son some of the other self-care skills. He can’t ride a bike, but not for lack of trying. He’s safe and comfortable in the pool, but he can’t actually swim strokes—again, not for lack of lessons. Those things weren’t in the cards that God dealt him.

But he did recently reach a momentous milestone. He learned to tie his shoes. We have tried to teach him over the years without success. His frustration, and ours, was too great with the return benefit just not seeming worth it. Sure, I knew he was too old for his mom to still be tying his shoes, but somehow it just didn’t make it to the top of the “things to worry about” list. His health is always number one.

Recently I took my son along with my 11-year-old daughter who wanted to get a new pair of Converse All Star sneakers. While at the store, he decided that he would like a pair as well. Given that he rarely shows any interest in fashion I happily agreed to buy them for him. He was very pleased with his new shoes, which inspired me to raise the dreaded issue of shoe-tying. We tried the bunny ears technique first which was too cumbersome. Somehow, when I showed him exactly how I tied my shoes, it clicked and his fingers were able to do what his brain told them to!

He is super proud of his new skill as he walks around in his new Chuck Taylor’s. And as his mom, I couldn’t be happier. Better late than never.

 

Discluded

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The topic of inclusion for people with special needs has been on my mind lately. In particular, I’m focused on my seventeen-year-old son who recently auditioned and was selected to be in a two-year conservatory program for students with cognitive and/or developmental disabilities. It was a group audition with a one minute solo opportunity of the actor’s choice. Our son told a brief story about his beach vacation, complete with his amazingly good animal imitations. I wasn’t there, but I can only imagine that he brought down the house.

To be included, or not to be included? That is the question.

It is especially pertinent to the parent of a child with special needs. My son has a genetic disease, Familial Dysautonomia. He walks and talks, but his balance and gait are not great. He has a feeding tube, through which he can feed himself and he also eats by mouth. He has no behavior problems and is sweet with an innocent personality. We encourage him to be as independent as possible.

I recall a holiday dinner with friends a few years ago when my then eight-year-old daughter and her friend came to complain to the adults that the big kids weren’t playing with them.

“They’re discluding us,” they announced to our amusement. We did what adults do – told the big kids to be nice and tried to persuade the little ones to give them some space.

But really, must everyone be together all the time? Sometimes I like to hang out with people like me, sometimes I don’t.

When my disabled son was younger, I was very focused on inclusion and mainstreaming. I was so hopeful that he would fit in, make friends, and lead a typical life. Why shouldn’t my child be included? I was his advocate and tried so hard to focus on the parts of him that were like everyone else, rather than the things that made him different. He goes to a large public high school where he is mainstreamed and manages amazingly well with a lot of loving support.

As he’s gotten older, however, my acceptance of his differences has evolved. I can embrace the wacky, fun, quirky things about him. When he aged out of day camp and their wonderful inclusion program, the next option within the camp was with a self-contained group of disabled kids. At first I bristled at the idea of him being with a group of disabled kids – what about typical peers and role models? But, I had no other options, the camp had been great for my son since he was three-years-old, and it was better than him spending the summer playing video games in my basement.  We decided to give it a try.

I learned that my son didn’t mind being in the group at all – in fact he liked it. Even if I perceived that he was higher functioning than many of the other kids, he enjoyed making his friends laugh, helping out and hanging out with the counselors. It was the beginning of my being able to watch him move into and out of inclusion with fluidity and grace.

The campers went on a field trip to an improv place. The counselors told me my son loved it, which gave me the idea to pursue a theater class. While the theater program offers both inclusion and self-contained classes, we opted for the self-contained ones since he had no previous “training.” He took two classes last year. We went to the end of the semester observation. My husband felt that our son seemed so different than the other kids. I, on the other hand, saw him as belonging in the group and was so happy to see him shine. Apparently, inclusion is in the eye of the beholder.

I am thrilled that my son has this opportunity to learn some new skills, have fun, make friends, and be part of another nurturing community. As Shakespeare said, “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players.” These kids hit their marks, sing mostly on cue, and exit stage right and stage left, albeit slowly. They may have different abilities, but their performances are no less sweet.

 

A Pleasant Surprise

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We drove our remaining child at home to his sleepaway camp last week, five hours from home. The first few hours were pleasant but around the halfway point it turned into a tense drive. Our 16-year-old son with Familial Dysautonomia, a genetic disease, had one of his episodes where he feels nauseous and retches to the point where he needs medication to stop it. The medicine helps him to sleep so his body can reset.

As he rested in the backseat, my husband and I were each in our own head, hating our son’s disease and the extra stress it adds to our lives. One minute, we were on the verge of dropping him off for twelve days, anticipating a festive trek to New York City before returning home. The next, we each wondered silently if our son would be okay for the drop-off. Fortunately he drifted off to sleep so we were relieved and optimistic that the day, and our vacation, would be salvaged.

I suggested to my husband that we make a pit-stop before getting to camp so upon arrival I would be calm instead of frantically looking for a restroom. It was a cloudy day with a bit of drizzling rain. We pulled off the road at a dismal looking gas station, wondering if they even had a bathroom as the building was so small and we didn’t see any bathroom doors on the outside.

It had been a long drive so I forged ahead. I walked through a tiny market and found there was a clearly marked “Womens” bathroom on the right and a “Mens” on the left. Channeling Julia Louis-Dreyfuss (Elaine) from the airplane episode of Seinfeld, I steeled myself and tentatively pushed open the bathroom door. Instead of the usual dirty, smelly, disgusting public bathroom, I walked into Nirvana – a brightly lit oasis of loveliness. Was I in the Twilight Zone? There were two stalls, and a counter with two sinks. A granite counter, or something that looked like granite. The whole room was extremely clean, almost as if I were in someone’s home who had cleaned especially for company. There were decorations and a sign saying “With God’s Help, Anything is Possible.” Even a clean, gas-station bathroom apparently.

The joy and gratitude I felt was immense. I almost did not want to leave my little slice of paradise, but life was outside that door waiting for me. Giddily, I asked my husband if he had as pleasant a bathroom experience as I had. He said it was the nicest gas station bathroom he too had ever been in. In the men’s bathroom there were antique car parts, highly polished and displayed as artwork on the walls, with plaques underneath them noting what make, model, and what part of the car it came from. We picked up drinks and were rung up by a man we assumed to be the owner. I gushed over his lovely bathroom and thanked him for his efforts. He modestly thanked us and wondered why most other gas stations don’t take the time to keep their bathrooms in decent shape.

This man’s establishment gets the gold-medal of gas station cleanliness in my book. For the rest of the trip, that bathroom became the benchmark against which all other bathrooms were measured, possibly going forward for the rest of my life.

I was in a bad way—tired, worried about my son and hoping my vacation wouldn’t be ruined. This pit-stop in rural New York was a beacon of kindness and caring that I apparently needed at just that moment. Its fresh scent, cleanliness and bounty of toilet paper, soap and paper towels gave me a big cosmic hug, restoring my faith that people are kind and considerate. This was the trip’s highlight, and we hadn’t even made it to Manhattan yet. Start spreading the news.

 

 

 

A Glimmer of Hope

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Something unexpected happened while we were in Israel recently. We were having a Passover Seder in a banquet hall with several other families from our Jewish day school. There was a lull in the evening as people were eating and going back and forth to the buffet. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed my sixteen-year-old son with special needs sitting on a sofa talking to someone. Not just a family member or a family friend, but a girl, and a teenage girl at that. A lovely younger sister of my older son’s classmates, with health challenges and issues of her own. What struck me was that they actually seemed to be engaged in conversation – something that is generally difficult for my son to sustain.

It was so adorable – it almost made me weep.

“What’d you talk about?” his siblings and I grilled him afterwards.

“We actually had a lot in common,” he said matter of factly. “We talked about tv and movies.” Ah, that made sense as these are some of his favorite things to discuss.

Still, I was touched at the sweetness of the interaction which allowed me to see my son in a different light – as a young man with the possibility of courtship. I felt as if I was channeling my mother and grandmother when I described what, to me, was a momentous event to my friends…”It was just darling,” I gushed.

The evening passed and the moment faded into a warm memory. Until I received an email from the young lady’s mother saying that her daughter wanted to go see a movie with my son. Be still my heart! I was elated. His life is rich with family, family friends, friendly professionals, and lovely volunteers. But it is rare that he gets invited to do something socially with a good old-fashioned friend.

“I want to go,” he eagerly stated.

“Do you know how to behave like a gentleman?” I joked with him.

He assured me that yes, he did. I was giddy with anticipation of the big “date,” although my son did not like to be teased about it and of course viewed it for what it was – going to the movies with a friend, who happens to be a girl. I showed restraint around him, spilling over with excitement to my sister, father and girlfriends.

It turned out to be a lovely, uneventful outing. After their dads helped buy the tickets, the two friends sat and watched a movie while happily munching on popcorn. Truth be told, my son hogged the popcorn, his companion reported when we picked them up.

“It was just so delicious,” he sheepishly admitted.

So much for his gentlemanly behavior. He acted like a typical teenager – rather than being thoroughly annoyed by this fact, I was overjoyed. Next time we’ll spring for the jumbo tub of popcorn. I can’t wait.