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.


landon's gift

Again, our day began at three a.m. with the arrival of another focal seizure, the first of two, this one several minutes long. With the help of some extra homemade THCA cannabis oil, however, Calvin had improved by eleven, and so we set out for the Windsor Fair, a town or two away from the fair we went to a week ago.

Calvin did far better this time, even holding our hands and walking, though wonkily, willingly at times. Throughout the day we zigzagged our way between sheds of lounging cows and goats, cages of enormous sows with their week-old suckling piglets, and a raucous avian barn. All the while Calvin seemed to take it in, gnawing happily on his rubber chew toy and nibbling on snacks I'd cut up for him.

Several times I watched children and adults gawk at Calvin as if he were some freak in a carnival sideshow. When this occurs, as it does anytime we're in public, I feel a mix of sadness and anger. Sometimes I'm moved to act spitefully. I'd like to think they don't mean any harm; maybe it's human nature to rubberneck at a spectacle. Still, I often feel like an alien with my sweet little peculiar Martian, orbiting on the margins of things rather than feeling an integral part of the larger world. 

When we had seen enough of the sights, we stood in line to get an ice cream cone. A handsome, dark-haired boy approached us and asked if Calvin might like to have the stuffed animal he'd won in a midway game. I fumbled to answer, fairly certain that Calvin wouldn't respond to such a toy, his go-to playthings being hard plastic and rubber ones. But I was compelled to accept the boy's kind gesture because I remember well what it was like to be his age.

The boy introduced himself as Landon. I suggested we try handing the stuffed animal to Calvin to see how he'd respond. Landon crouched down closer to Calvin offering him the toy, speaking to him directly and asking if he would like to have it. Immediately, Calvin hugged the larger-than-life emoji and began mouthing it with fervor. We were all amazed and happy when Calvin received the gift so emphatically. 

Landon, who is as sweet a boy as you'll ever meet, and worldly beyond his years, told us he'll soon be thirteen. We greeted his dad and grandfather who were at his side, and as I spoke with Landon, his father told Michael that he had no idea Landon had planned on giving away his prize.

I took a quick picture of our newfound friends before shaking their hands and saying goodbye. After they turned to leave us, I looked up at Michael and noticed that he'd gotten quite choked up. Seeing his emotion, I began to weep openly at Landon's selfless gesture.

Random acts of kindness like these make our world go round. No doubt I'll rest my head on my pillow tonight thinking of Landon and how, if things had turned out differently, maybe Calvin would have become as extraordinarily thoughtful, fearless and empathetic as he.

If you are reading this, Landon, I hope you know how deeply you touched us and how much you made us feel welcome, important, and included, while so many others look at us as if we don't belong. You yourself are the gift you gave to us, one far larger than the sideshow prize that left your arms. How very lucky we are.


hope, dread, want

The day began large. Having been the second one in a row of seven that Calvin didn't wake to a seizure, I felt some semblance of hope. But as the day wore on, hope became dread, and dread became want.

Around noon on Sunday, we made our way north to the Union Fair. The hour-plus drive felt long, winding through Maine's back roads where farmland sprouts double-wides and barns, dilapidated antique stores, tractors, graveyards, and at least one shop devoted to selling guns. I tried to stave off a bit of anxiety amid the unfamiliar surroundings so far from home, tried focusing instead on feeding Calvin and thwarting his incessant attempts to stare at the sun.

It was a hot day to attend a fair, but the cloud cover helped for a spell. A nice lady selling tickets from a kiosk let Calvin in for free after she saw him spastically flailing in the backseat of the car. From the get go, Calvin was stubborn when asked to walk, a repeat of the day before. He'd take a step or two before collapsing in our grasp, getting us nowhere. Thankfully, we brought his stroller.

The highlight of our day's adventure was a ride on the Ferris wheel. This was a first for Calvin, for us as parents, and one I'd dreamt of for years. Calvin wilted in the sun waiting to board, and during the wheel's five revolutions, he didn't seem to register much of anything. He squirmed and squinted exhibiting discomfort. While Michael held him in the shade, I took in a bit of my surrounding world. The sky proved spectacular—a mix of puffy white clouds and wispy ones met the horizon. Compared with the West, this small part of Maine, save some rolling hills, is flat, with nary a vista to take in. In this landscape with its tall white pines and oaks, it's easy to feel stuck. Needless to say, at fifty to one-hundred feet, I ate it up.

Because of Calvin, we cut our fair-time short. The drive south felt more relaxed, any apprehension now behind us. Though we were at the fairgrounds just over an hour, and though it was far from Calvin's best performance, we had, I think, accomplished something, and it felt good to be heading home. On the drive, however, Calvin became increasingly agitated and, at one point, he let out a bizarre screech. I knew this was a bad omen, causing me some dread.

Once home, Michael gave Calvin a bath while I took Nellie on a short walk. When I came back, I heard Calvin upstairs crying as if he were hurt. After his bath, our boy had devolved into what I've previously described as night terrors. Calvin was writhing and crying, stretching and recoiling, shrieking and moaning as if he were being tortured. Michael and I guessed he had a migraine, so I gave him an acetaminophen suppository. Lauren stopped by, came upstairs and gave us some much needed tenderness and moral support. I shared my belief that these episodes are latent benzodiazepine withdrawal side effects. I'd read that Stevie Nicks, having withdrawn from years of prescribed benzodiazepine use had said that her detox felt like somebody had opened up a door and pushed her into hell. This is how Calvin sounded and looked.

After twenty minutes, when the acetaminophen didn't seem to be helping, I gave Calvin his nighttime dose of homemade THCA cannabis oil, except this time I gave it to him rectally. Within five minutes he was sound asleep. Half an hour later he woke up enough for me to give him the rest of his nighttime cannabis oil and his Keppra. He slept peacefully the rest of the night.

Unlike most seizures, rarely do I see with any clarity these pain episodes coming. In the past they've been while he's asleep, leading me to think they are night terrors. Now I know they are not. Regardless, they are dreadful. In the moment, I want for nothing but for Calvin to be at peace, to be set free from the torture and misery consuming him. I want for him to feel serenity, no matter how brief. I want him to feel the calm of looking into a sky with tranquil clouds which touch the horizon. I want him to feel hope, not dread, not want.


riding it out

My eyes are aching in their sockets, this morning being the fifth in a row that Calvin has woken up ungodly early to one or more focal seizures. On Wednesday night, he also suffered a grand mal, so it has not been a good month at all. Did I make a mistake in reducing his nighttime THCA cannabis oil, thinking that the THC in it might be causing his evening grand mal seizures and agitation? Does he need more CBD? Both oils have helped him in the past. Question is, what are their sweet spots? Is less better, or more?

However, since I've made a few changes to his regimen already this month, and since it appears he's been going through a growth spurt, I'm going to try my best to ride out this spate of seizures without changing anything else. I'm going to remember that Calvin is taking WAY less drug than in the past—his only pharmaceutical anticonvulsant is Keppra, which is at its lowest dose in years. His CBD is close to its lowest dose and his THCA is still about half of what he's been on in recent past. My gut tells me to raise it again, so I might do that, but not until after this recent storm calms.

Despite the uptick in seizures, I am still amazed and grateful that Calvin isn't doing worse than he is. Always a tiny child, and having made it onto the growth charts only a few times in his entire life, albeit never past the first percentile, he has grown nearly two inches since April; the top of his head now reaches my chin! My gut tells me puberty and growth, especially spurts like these, could negatively affect his seizure threshold.

So I'll keep riding this thing out, grateful that Calvin is having calm, happy days, though lethargic ones, and I'll hope for better, more seizure-free days to come.

Calvin, still looking like a newborn when he was nine months old.


whatever you are, be a good one

Chronically sleep deprived—in general and of late—and despairing of life's various disappointments, including my son's recent spate of focal seizures, I opened a book that Calvin's school had awarded him for being a so-called honor student.

The small book, Whatever You Are, Be a Good One: 100 inspirational quotations hand lettered by Lisa Congdon, proved therapeutic as I flipped through its pages. Below are some quotes which struck me most, particularly considering the state of things in the nation and in my mind, plus other smaller, albeit troubling, goings-on. I hope you like these and find meaning and solace in their wisdom, as did I. If so, meditate on them:

Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.
—Henry James

Life appears to me too short to be spent nursing animosity or registering wrongs.
—Charlotte Bronte

Unselfish and noble acts are the most radiant epochs in the biography of souls.
—David Thomas

Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood.
—Marie Curie

Be curious, not judgmental.
—Walt Whitman

I hold this to be the highest task for a bond between two people: that each protects the solitude of the other.
—Ranier Maria Rilke

Nothing contributes so much to tranquilize the mind as a steady purpose.
—Mary Shelley

I feel safe in the midst of my enemies, for the truth is all powerful and will prevail.
—Sjourner Truth

Hope smiles from the threshold of the year to to come, whispering, "it will be happier ..."
—Alfred Tennyson

Photo by Michael Kolster


when grace goes out the window

Partway through reading my friend Chris Gabbard's recent memoir, A Life Beyond Reason, I came across the word grace, and was emotionally stunned. Chris uses it to describe a commitment he made to raise his son August with as much poise and kindness as he could muster. August, like Calvin, had cerebral palsy and was legally blind, non-verbal and incontinent. Unlike Calvin, his condition was the result of injuries he suffered during a medically negligent and reckless childbirth. Reading the word grace, I felt a deep sense of shame and regret, since too often when caring for Calvin, any semblance of grace I might be able to muster, inevitably goes out the window. And though I can blame any number of reasons for my graceless behavior—sleep deprivation, agitation, resentment, monotony, grief, impatience, anger, frustration—I still feel remorseful of my inability to be wholly graceful when caring for such a pure, affectionate, faultless little kid. 

In the heat and humidity of early evening while strolling alone in the garden yesterday, Michael having gone to Boston for the night, I heard, via the baby monitor slung around my head, Calvin banging the wall behind his bed. I made my way up to his room and was greeted by the stinky news that he had pooped. After unfastening the safety netting and side panel of his bed, I first sniffed his fingers. Yep. He had put his hand down his diaper and into the shit ... again. Exasperated, I grit my teeth. I wiped him up, gave him a new diaper, and spread copious amounts of sanitizer on his hands. All the while, I bitterly and openly lamented the fact that, despite how often this happens and no matter how many ways I try to explain to him why he shouldn't do it, it never seems to sink in. I rubbed his palms and fingers down, cleaning underneath each fingernail with half a dozen baby wipes. I changed his pants and shirt, which were both wet, then put him back into bed. When laying him down, I noticed a brown splotch on his clean sheet and another on the wall above his head. I tried hard to contain my vexation, tried to emulate my friend Chris, and to act with grace. But in my state of cumulative and acute sleep deprivation, plus a certain kind of traumatic stress disorder from fifteen years of rearing a boy with chronic epilepsy who it still a lot like an infant, I lost my head.


I screamed at the sheet, at the walls, at the bed, at myself, at my son. Luckily, Calvin remained visibly unfazed. No doubt, however, with all the windows open, any passersby or neighbors could have heard my ugly distress. The grace I tried to hold in my body's vessel, in my brain and spirit, went right out the window instead.

I apologized to Calvin and to Nellie. I should apologize to the neighbors just in case. I forgave myself for the eruption which came on the heels of a buildup of worry, frustration, pressure and tension. But when I woke up this morning, I was uniquely aware that I hadn't spent the night clenching my teeth.


the terror of decent people

The wind through the trees speaks to me, each leaf part of a collective voice, each a palm, each a map of sorts to a larger world. These living beings know what to do, know what freedom means. Seeds travel on breezes and in the mouths and bellies of birds. Trees put roots down in fertile soil. Geese and butterflies migrate legions of miles. Seas intermingle. Grasses cross natural, manufactured and imagined divides. Rivers breach levies. Clouds rain down quenching all creatures. Nature knows no boundaries. Why should we?

After Calvin's unexpected grand mal at dinner time Saturday night, after we wiped a stream of blood running down out of his mouth, I sat on a stool next to his bed and watched him breathe. I pondering the state of the nation we're in, where blood is shed in massacres which are happening with increasing frequency. Studying my boy's maturing face, I recalled what Frank Borman, Apollo 8 astronaut, said when feasting his eyes on blue Mother Earth from space:

When you're finally up at the moon looking back on earth, all those differences and nationalistic traits are pretty well going to blend, and you're going to get a concept that maybe this really is one world and why the hell can't we learn to live together like decent people.

—Frank Borman, Apollo 8, December 1968

And then, while bitterly lamenting racist despots and White supremacists and the atrocities they commit, I reflected on what the seventeenth-century Dutch physicist, mathematician and astronomer said:

How vast those Orbs must be, and how inconsiderable this Earth, the Theatre upon which all our mighty Designs, all our Navigations, and all our Wars are transacted, is when compared to them. A very fit consideration, and matter of Reflection, for those Kings and Princes who sacrifice the Lives of so many People, only to flatter their Ambition in being Masters of some pitiful corner of this small Spot.

—Christiaan Huygens, The Immense Distance Between the Sun and the Planets, 1698

And yet, on this small spot of glorious planet we share with nature and the rest of humanity, we have an epidemic of Right Wing, White Supremacist terrorism. It's motivated by the erroneous, bigoted and dangerous notion that ours is a White, Christian nation, and inspired by a reckless president bent on maligning People of Color meant  to rile up his base, pitching one struggling human against another while he tweets indignities from his gilded toilet seat.

I think of how these hateful people speak of and treat others who are their mirror image, save what's in their hearts and the pigment in their skin. I hear and read deplorable rhetoric about refugees spewing from fanatical mouths, words like "alien," "animal," "thug," "infestation"—no way to describe decent, loving, striving human beings. Where has our collective humanity gone? It is being poisoned by a fearmonging "leader," a tyrant, liar and thief who preys upon the ignorance and anxiety of people who feel they need someone else to blame.

How foolish to believe that anyone on this hunk of land, one which was stolen from its natives in a heinous genocide, can somehow feel entitled to decide who has the right to call it home.

Yesterday, I watched a video of a Black American with long dreadlocks being harassed by a White police officer in the front yard of his own home. It was a case of mistaken identity. Watching and listening, I heard the anger in the man's voice and the fear in his wife's. History has proven that any false move by the Black man could've resulted in the cop gunning him down. I've seen so many of these kinds of videos I've lost count—White cops shooting decent Black people. White cops and civilians harassing Black men in cars. Black men on sidewalks. Black men picking up garbage outside of their apartment building. Black boys playing in parks. Black men, women and children going to church, having a bbq, entering their own homes, walking across their college campus, sleeping in their dorm’s common room, waiting for a subway, mowing their lawn, entering their apartment building, going home from a pool party, driving to work, crossing a street, waiting for a friend in a Starbuck’s, shopping at Walmart, walking home.

And if you haven't read or seen James Baldwin's, If Beale Street Could Talk, you should; in its words and scenes, you will feel the terror of decent Back people.

These White Nationalist racists have launched an assault on the rest of America, on decent people's freedom to move and to safely exist in our personal and public spaces. They are driven by the fear of being replaced by people who've born the brunt of centuries of White state-sanctioned slavery, family separation, rape, forced labor, harassment, racial profiling, police violence, arrest, incarceration, exploitation, discrimination, marginalization, segregation, disenfranchisement, and demonization.

But as sure as the trees speak to me through the whisper of wind, as sure as the tides flow and recede, the world is evolving, its natural and imagined borders forever changing. Its people put down roots where the ground is most forgiving. We cross divides in search of liberty. We intermingle like the seas. We suffer and triumph and love and bleed the same. Each of us is a leaf on the same tree. We have room enough to shelter one another, and to let each other breathe.

Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times