9.20.2019

empathy and betterment

Though the grass is green, this dry spell has the shrubs curled up and thirsty. In their withering, I see myself, stressed and brittle. This journey as the mother of a child like Calvin—a teen who is legally blind, incontinent, nonverbal, physically and cognitively impaired, beaten by seizures and the drugs meant to thwart them—is a hard one both physically and emotionally. I'm chronically sleep deprived, burdened with worry, at times gripped by fear, anxiety and the shadow of devastation and despair. I wish I could somehow flee this reality. My mind is constantly buzzing with dour, unanswerable questions:

when will Calvin's next seizure be? will he choke on a piece of food? will he trip over a chair, run into a wall, fall down the stairs? do his bones ache from growing so fast? will he ever be able to tell us yes and no? will his various caregivers love him, keep him safe from harm? will he get good therapy at school? will he suffer another pain episode? will he ever be calm again? will he outgrow his seizures? will he die from one?

It appears that these burdens and worries most people don't fully understand. I see evidence in the scowls and puzzlement of strangers, in the way some folks avert their eyes when passing us, in the ways we have been dismissed or patronized by smug doctors, hospital nurses, and a handful of school employees over the years. I've little doubt that in my assertive, hypervigilant, helicopter mama-ness, I have haters and eye-rollers. There are those who don't take me seriously, think I'm oversensitive, inflexible, overbearing, unhinged. There are those who run when they see me coming, or who regularly assume the conspicuous and irksome cover-your-ass posture and pose. I wish all of them could walk in my shoes.

As is true with most of this nation's disenfranchised, misunderstood communities—the Disabled, People of Color, LGBTQI people, Muslims, asylum seekers, immigrants—Calvin and I are sometimes regarded with caution, mistrust and fearfulness, even perhaps contempt. I attribute this mistreatment to ignorance and a resulting empathy gap, an inability by some to more fully understand the struggles those on the margins of majority straight-White-Christian-able-bodied society endure, though all it really takes is openness and humility, to listen well and put oneself in other's shoes. But perhaps it's easier to avoid doing that, to stop short of admitting privilege, and less upsetting to avoid acknowledging ugly truths. But denial and indifference to the hardships of others gets us nowhere—as individuals, as communities, as a nation—on the path to betterment.

Wednesday morning, over coffee and a tasty blueberry scone at our favorite Dog Bar Jim cafe, a friend and I discussed the wave of asylum seekers from Angola and The Democratic Republic of the Congo whom our town has recently aided and absorbed. She recounted a conversation she'd had about the African soccer players who have joined the high school team, some who are quite good. Apparently, some parents are bemoaning the amount of playtime the asylum-seekers are getting (I can't help but wonder if their reaction would be different if the students were from Italy or England). When my friend's own soccer-playing son questioned it, she offered him an analogy: if he were to transfer to a new school with weaker players, he might get lots of playtime, too. A thoughtful kid, he understood.

My friend and I went on to discuss how helping asylum seekers is not the zero-sum game some purport is true. For example, we can also help our homeless neighbors and veterans, and we do. Furthermore, asylum seekers, once they're cleared to work, often fill the grueling, dangerous, tedious jobs many Americans don't want—harvesting crops, packing meat, caring for the elderly in nursing homes. My friend told me of a refugee physician who is driving a taxi just to make ends meet.

After our coffee date, I imagined the asylum seekers playing soccer with my friends' kids—one of a million things my son will never be able to do. Some of them speak four or five languages, having picked up Spanish and English on their journey north from Brazil. Many, if not most, traveled thousands of miles through South and Central America having escaped life-threatening circumstances back home. On their trek they survived beatings, muggings, hunger, thirst, and five months of travel on foot, at times through dense forests dark as night, stepping over the dead bodies of other refugees who would not make it to the USA. The ones who made it here are strong, tenacious survivors who likely have what it takes to make the best Americans. And yet, because of fearmongering and ignorance, they are sometimes met with animus and contempt, perhaps even envy and hatred. With this thought I imagine Calvin and the folks who seem to see him—without understanding his purity, love and struggle—as a freak, aversion or contagion.

I wonder what would happen if asylum seekers had the chance to tell their stories. Who would listen? Who would understand? Will these refugees, like Calvin, inspire some of us to become better people, better members of society? Will some of them give rise to other, better soccer players? Who, upon hearing their stories, would feel empathy and embrace them? And who would stand their ground, unmoved?

Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times

9.19.2019

spooning

This morning at three-forty-five I crawled in bed with our son Calvin for the umpteenth time in his fifteen years on this earth. He had suffered a tonic-clonic (grand mal), and when it was over I slipped into the small space between him and the back panel of his safety bed. There we spooned, my hand resting on his ribs feeling the rise and fall of his chest, his knees tucked up in fetal position. I stay awake as long as I can to ensure he doesn't stop breathing and die from SUDEP (sudden unexplained death in epilepsy). His risk of dying from SUDEP is greater than 1 in 1000 in any given year because of the nature of his seizures (uncontrolled tonic-clonic) and cognitive impairment.

Our first time spooning was when he was breech in utero, before I'd ever met him, before the dreadful sonogram revealing his brain's enlarged lateral ventricles and substantial lack of white matter, before the emergency cesarean, before the subsequent seven-week stay in the hospital. I'd rest my palm on my gravid belly on top of a bulge I was certain was his little head. Since then, when he sleeps with us, he loves to touch and press heads, and will pull us toward him, his hands around our necks.

When he was an infant and toddler, we'd regularly nap together. He'd curl up into me like a little bird in a nest. He used to be so calm, but since having to take antiepileptic medicines—particularly benzodiazepines—his body has a hard time quieting; he is so very restless. Still, at times, usually when he is sick, he settles enough to nap next to me or in my lap.

I've spooned with him in the hospital after ten-, twenty-, forty-five-minute seizures. I've spooned with him on the floor, on the couch, in his and our bed. Tiny for his age, he's getting bigger fast, but he still loves sitting in our laps for a spell, embracing us, clinging to us in bed.

2007

9.14.2019

unease

Again, I lie awake hours before daybreak. The dark of night seems to magnify my angst. When for various reason I can't sleep, I worry about whether Calvin will seize. Under the covers, I flinch when Nellie yelps in her sleep. I fret about the list of things I need to get done that I don't seem to have the time to do, the things that have piled up during the five-and-a-half weeks that Calvin didn't go to school—sweeping, mopping, dusting (what's that?), writing, reading, researching, filing, calling. I lie in bed, my mind racing, pondering the troubles of the world: war, famine, genocide, waste, poverty, pollution, misogyny, racism, corruption. I think of the human impact on climate and the havoc it is wreaking on our gorgeous Earth. I consider refugees desperate to find better lives for themselves, whom the people of our town and nearby ones have graciously—and some begrudgingly—received.

The other night, after I heard the rain begin to fall, I laid there on the brink of exhaustion and yet buzzing, lamenting the plastic microbeads, bags and bottles choking the ocean, the single-use plastic caps and containers washing up on beaches, the straws and swizzlers and six-pack holders, the syringes, balloons and latex gloves—you name it—that sacred sea life is ingesting and strangling on as we dream. I pondered the tons of toxic materials being released into our rivers, air and seas, and the sleazy politicians who are making that more possible. I grieve the burning of the Amazonian rain forest, the flushing out of its creatures and native peoples. I consider the rabid appetite of greed.

Yes, I lay awake in a warm bed in an ample house having filled my belly with delicious food my husband cooked, thinking about Yemenee people starving to death, and Rohinga refugees being forced back to their tormentors, and hurricane victims having just lost loved ones, homes and belongings. I consider how effing lucky I am, and wish I had the means, like a handful do, to fund everything. I lament that, in this nation of abundance, our fellow humans still live under cardboard boxes or on cold sidewalks while billionaires and certain politicians continue to enrich themselves at the expense and exploitation of everyone else.

While scrolling through my photographs yesterday, feeling weary of the world and of all-things-Calvin, I came across some I'd taken at last year's Bowdoin student art show. The small, framed piece that hung on the far wall of a room where my husband taught a class called Art and Time, was titled, Receipt for a Sunday and the Things Carried There, by a talented and ambitious student, Blanche Froelich, class of 2019. Rereading it reminded me to be grateful, humble, thoughtful, and generous to others; none of us live life without our own struggles, big and small. And the night is not the only time we feel unease.

Detail, Receipt for a Sunday and the Things Carried There, by Blanche Froelich

9.09.2019

regarding calvin

As my boy sleeps in my lap, in his bed, in our bed, on the couch, I hear the birds chirping outside. I feel the rumble of passing motorcycles and cars, see students strolling down the sidewalk. A week of school has come and gone, yet my boy remains sick at home. In my arms, we rest and pass the hours.

Yesterday, while on the couch together, Calvin looked right at me. This gift is rarely granted, and I found myself luxuriating in his pool-blue and yellow-flecked eyes. I did not take his gaze for granted; it's so rare that I see him look at me—almost never, it seems. But sometimes, when I put my face smack-dab in front of his, he does regard me. As a baby, if memory serves, he used to do it more often. I remember the day he got his glasses when he was a tiny eleven-month-old. It was like I could see the world flooding into his eyes—eyes which before had likely seen only shapes and colors.

Now, for whatever reason (autism, visual fields, seizures, drug side effects) Calvin usually disregards or looks at me peripherally. His eyes jerk and rove from his nystagmus. One eye often turns in, a phenomenon that, vexingly, his former ophthalmologist regularly denied, explaining it away as an optical illusion. No matter how confident I was of my son's eye-drifting or tugging-in (I'm the resident expert in observing Calvin closely) the doctor still rebuffed me.

Tomorrow, hopefully, Calvin will attend his first day of high school. He'll be greeted, fed, diapered, and escorted by a teacher and a staff who have rarely, if ever, worked closely with him. My anxiety is high, afraid he'll choke on food he doesn't chew well, fearful he'll fall off balance on the stairs or run into a door jam like he did this morning. Michael and I understand that Calvin, due to his poor vision (which glasses don't fully correct), his lack of coordination, and caregiver overconfidence or undervigilance, is a walking disaster, an accident waiting to happen. My hope is that the folks at school will regard him closely, will see what he sees and what he doesn't.

Calvin's first day with glasses when he was eleven months old.

9.05.2019

breathless

The sun, readying to set above smoky embers, kicks up a cool breeze. Gusts skip across the fields, flipping skirts like flags and ballooning blouses in a kaleidoscope of oranges, blues, reds and ochres. Ties fly sideways. Hats tumble off backwards. The diners, this year's college students, are dressed in their late-summer best—vibrant frocks and jumpers, slim sport jackets and slacks, suede loafers and strappy sandals. They arrive in clusters on the heels of convocation. Some run and hug each other. One squeals and jumps piggy-back onto another. Others stroll hand in hand, in pairs and trios. I feel their joy quite palpably, and it makes me smile ... and wither.

As I lead Nellie away from the flock, shielding my gaze from the sun's glare and from the unabashed gleam of hardy kids in their teens and twenties, I bow my head and cry. I weep lamenting my son Calvin's misfortune and his inability to one day experience such pomp and circumstance, such brotherhood and sisterhood, such revelry. I pity myself, too, lamenting my first few years of college which were so very different from this—the enormity of the university, the lack of good council, my disconnectedness, my disappointing swimming career, my disorientation in a sea of forty-thousand students, my lack of forming lasting deep connections.

I watch as these eighteen-hundred youths commune at rows of tables amid a sunny field, some of the best and brightest, these lithe and curvy, stout and muscly, black, brown, pale and white bodies speaking with various accents from around the nation and world. I want so much for things to be different. I want Calvin to suddenly speak and read and write and philosophize. I want him to look up into the night sky and wonder, want him to gaze across a sea, yearning for distant places to visit. I want him to hear and speak different languages, take risks, dream. Thinking of all these lost possibilities makes me breathless.

On our way home we walk against what seems like an endless stream of dapper students. Seeing them, I waffle between delight and despair. Out of the strolling throng pop two familiar faces, J.P. and Nate, two of Michael's former photography students. They each embrace me, smiling, before disappearing back into the crowd. For a moment I glow, knowing were it not for Michael's job as professor I'd never have met these worldly, kind and gifted souls. Then a young man walks past who reminds me of our friend-brother-son who took his life this time last year, and the one who lives nearby and yet has vanished, and I wonder where the others will go. And as I unleash Nellie to run the last few yards toward home—her understanding and ability seemingly far surpassing Calvin's—I remember his limitations and the ones which tether us to him so tightly, and my breath is whisked away once more.

Photo by Michael Kolster

9.02.2019

shadowcasting

On the last night of August, as we sat with new and old friends around a fire in the dark garden, Calvin was burning up in his bed. From the baby monitor in my palm, I heard him rouse. When I went to check on him, his skin felt hot. His thermometer read 102.4 degrees. I stripped him down, gave him an acetaminophen suppository, then, as I brushed my teeth, I quickly went outside to wish our guests goodnight. Soon after, in bed next to him, I felt the embers of Calvin's fever subside over the hours.

I'm grateful that August is behind us, and with it its five grand mals, ten focal seizures, one pain episode—eleven days of this misery in all. Today, I feel autumn, and I wonder what September will bring. Tomorrow, if Calvin is feeling better, he'll be off to the high school to traipse bobble-headed up and down its halls. He'll be mingling with students almost twice his weight and nearly half as much as tall, kids who are light years ahead of him developmentally, kids who can speak and read and reason and judge.

As I listen to the crickets, the early evening sun casting its long shadows on a garden which, due to my inability to control Calvin's condition, I've worked so hard to control, I am cautiously optimistic about the year to come. Calvin will have a new teacher and new ed techs at school. The administration and staff have already gotten off to an impressive start, meeting with me and Michael for over an hour, professionally and compassionately addressing each and every one of our concerns.

Meanwhile, the college students are returning. We see them in the field behind our home, hear their riotous joy through our open windows at all hours. Their presence is bittersweet. While I bask in their youthful glee, their physical and mental prowess ablaze in stark contrast to Calvin's, I am reminded that Calvin will never enjoy the autonomy of cleaving. Michael and I will never savor that chapter of parenthood. Instead, our son will forever exist in our and other caregivers' shade and shelter, much like an infant or toddler, no matter how big he'll grow.

But as I lie with him, his skinny arms around my neck pulling me in, I tell him how sweet and dear he is to me. And like a dark August behind us, I hope one day his epilepsy sunsets, casting only shadows, leaving only traces and faded memories of unpleasant events.

8.27.2019

letting it out

My dear friend Elizabeth Aquino, whose adult daughter Sophie has epilepsy, writes the exquisite blog a moon worn as if it were a shell: where parenting, disability, politics and poetry intersect. In 2018, Elizabeth expanded her reach, becoming co-producer of a podcast called, Who Lives Like This?! The Grit and Grace of Caregiving, in which she and her co-host, Jason Lehmbeck, interview caregivers. It's a compelling venture in which Elizabeth and Jason ask thoughtful questions and offer their own insights on caregiving, which are often humorous and sometimes sorrowful and bleak. Last week she and Jason interviewed me about my experience raising Calvin and writing about it. They titled the podcast and corresponding blog, Letting it Out. I hope you'll tune in and share.