I couldn't help but write you this letter, and I hope that's okay. I have so much to thank you for, first for being Zoe's ' buddy" at summer camp.There is more I want to share with you too. My hope is that you will tuck this letter away and read it again at different times in your life.
I hope it will help you make sense of your world, maybe inspire or comfort you when words like these are what your heart needs.
Well, technically the question in the packet of papers read “ What frustrates you most about your child?” The questions were typically brief and non-descript and this was the only question that made me pause, put down my pen and sigh. There was less than one line to complete my answer, not anywhere near enough enough space to tell my daughter’s story.
It was laughable really, that someone would ask such an open ended question that sounded so insensitive, at least to a Mom like me. The packet was specifically written for parents of kids with special needs, the question and answer process designed to know my child better.. but frustrates? Typically, when my kid misbehaves there is a “wiring” issue involved in the behavior.. processing, impulsivity, fatigue etc. There is nothing about my daughter Zoe that “ frustrates” me, as in.. “ gets on my nerves, drives me crazy, or really *#**#$* with my day.,..yet really... now that you ask.. almost EVERYTHING about Zoe FRUSTRATES me.
It’s seems like only yesterday I was sitting in a small room, with a desk between Zoe’s Doctor and I - as I ask him question after question- all of them starting with “ Will she ever..? And in that moment, instead of feeling tragically overwhelmed- I was empowered.
Finally, I was getting confirmation on something my mother’s instinct had always known. I was getting answers.
Seven years have passed since then, and for the first time, in a long time- I find myself starting over asking questions again, researching and learning new methods for tackling daily life and Zoe’s physical and medical challenges. Zoe is 10 now , and continues to give her all to everything she does. She approaches becoming a “ tween “ no differently, reaching for more freedom, becoming frustrated at times that she can’t enjoy certain privileges her “ almost teen” sister earns.
I don’t sleep through the night. A good night means I am up only twice. My day starts at 5 and ends by 10, and the mothering I do all day is a physical, eyes and hands-on type that Moms’ of toddlers can most identify with. I am the mom of a girl with special needs, and I have been blessed with the gift of perspective.
It is an awesome gift I have earned. When you hold your child throughout painful or difficult medical procedures one day, and the next she wants a chocolate brownie or to wear her princess tutu to the grocery store.. it’s a no brainer. It’s perspective.
When the bedroom floor is strewn with toys at bedtime, but the sound of laughter still lingers from her afternoon of play, it’s the gift of perspective that allows you to push the mess aside and climb in - to give your girl a goodnight hug, grateful for a good day.
Managing stress is always an issue from me, managing work, home, marriage and mothering. Years ago, I picked up the first edition of “ Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff For Mom’s” and was moved by the poignant, short common sense chapters. I especially needed support with the accepting that I cannot do everything, taking care of myself was mandatory, and sometimes just surrendering was okay.
I am about 12 years into motherhood now.. and like a lot of Mom's I know, I still don't feel like I'm getting it right. Mothering kids with medical issues takes a purposeful amount of focus and attention, the kind that sometimes prevents you from being that cool " chill" kind of mom..yet still I try , and every day I learn.
I have learned that sometimes rolling off the bed as a result of a tickle fight is the kind of good clean fun that all kids need, low muscle tone or not.
I have learned that a smiling , happy faced kid, that got that " 5 more minutes!" in the pool she desperately wanted can help you dismiss and not obsess over-the flushed color of her fatigued face.
I have learned that your sad, crying kid- can break your heart at any age- whether a sick toddler unable to tell you what's wrong or a frustrated, overtired 10 year old that just can't verbalize every feeling she feels.
My day today began like any other, I was up at 5 packing lunches and backpacks, while trying to gulp down some coffee. I have an appointment at the office later, so I spent a few minutes standing in front of my closet sighing, before getting dressed and rushing through the morning rituals to drop my oldest daughter at school first.
Later, it is just Zoe and I in the car. The sun is streaming through the car windows. I put on some music and began making small talk with Zoe about her day.
I am used to the starts and stops in our frequent conversation. Zoe, is almost eleven now, and a thinker- yet she slowly forms her thoughts, chooses her words and processes it into speech. There are pauses as she searches for the word she wants, and fatigue can slow the pace, slur the word . Remembering all the years she could barely even communicate, I wait patiently and am still grateful each time she begins to speak.
Her thoughts come in word pieces and listening carefully, I fit the puzzle together ..
“ Mom, when I grow up and become a Mom, would this be a good car for me to drive and how do you learn to be a Mom anyway?” There it is, her question. And suddenly it’s as if the clouds have pushed the sun away, and my daily “ cup half full" approach to life has been smashed to hell. Zoe can't see my face, and I am glad. I don't want her to know the raw pain that is causing me to to hold my breath .
My girl is growing up, and thoughts of the future, are close , more menacing than when she was 5, and although she is an awesome kid doing amazingly well- she still has a progressive metabolic disease. She still has generalized epilepsy, kidney disease and although she grows more steady with the growing size of her body- she will always use a wheelchair and a walker to explore her world.
What I couldn’t say to Zoe is that with her vulnerabilities I can’t imagine her “ being a mom”- that her physical impairments alone ,will prevent her from ever driving a car. I refuse to even contemplate the complex medical conversations we have had about Zoe’s life expectancy, we just don’t go there.
Yet this reality is what sometimes separates me from other Mom’s. Tragedies that take kids too soon are always unexpected. As busy Mom’s we just forget that we are all fragile. We sometimes forget that the messy room, the lapse in homework , the bad grade -aren’t the important things about mothering.
In the last few months, I have heard too many stories about children lost too soon. Within the special needs communities, the families were fighting, and winning. Their kids survived surgeries, hospitalizations, and the everyday challenges that often come with raising a special needs kid. These parents were managing their kids health, their kids were stable, even improving with therapies. Their parents were seeking refuge in that stability that meant success-until the day their kids weren’t stable. Until one day their physical vulnerabilities were cause for taking their child’s life, and they were just gone.
I am guilty of doing it too sometimes. Getting caught up in the day to day. Zoe is doing well, we are managing , we are “winning” and then an illness comes along, a news story, a medical test, or a conversation like this one Zoe and I shared - and reality comes crashing through, grounding me again to what is really important.
And it’s this reality , that I wish every mom knew. It sounds harsh, I know.. - but it’s a secret that special needs moms have learned along the way. It’s something that I think all Mom's should know, or just think about sometime. That all that other stuff- just really doesn’t matter.
Let your KIDS light your soul and commit to be present in their moment , commit to really love your kids, love like they are the MOST important , love with the heartbreaking pain that comes with it. LOVE your kids, as if they were dying.
It's late, so the house is quiet and the lights are low. My box of kleenex is now empty. I hit the remote to turn off the tv and head first to O's room . And instead of quieting my craving to climb in bed and gather my first born's body in my arms, I instead bend down brushing my lips over the tip of her nose , and then close to her ear whispering.. promises. I love you's. More promises. I move next to Zoe's room, her cheeks are flushed yet she sleeps peacefully. First I gently kiss her forehead, and then each cheek. Finally her lips.There are no words for her. Just questions, questions I keep silently repeating. Am I doing my best? Making the right choices? Making memories? Teaching my daughters enough? Loving and Laughing enough? And the loudest question that is buried the deepest in my mothers soul -now is pounding in my head.." Will I have any regrets?"
I had just finished watching the movie Extraordinary Measures. Through mostly tear filled eyes. A lot of the drama for me was the imagery , the kids in power wheelchairs, the machinery, the illness, the fear, the desperation that was ever present. The emotional and open soul of a special needs mom.
The remarkable true story details a father's fight, and race against time, to not just find a cure, but to make the medicine that will save his children's life. Not a new story- and I had already read both books, mostly because I stumbled on them in my local library and I happen to read a lot. First I read " The Cure" written by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Geeta Anand , the non fiction life account on which the screenplay is based- and then I read John Crowley's personal perspective " Chasing Miracles" .
Sleepy, yet unable to surrender, I lay in bed last night, thankful for the comforting warmth of my husband beside me, thinking... " Am I fighting hard enough? "
I fought hard for the answers and the eventual diagnosis. I pushed and pushed-first fighting for Zoe and then for O. But with a metabolic disease, there is a certain amount you have to accept. With their illness, it is the mitochondria that is damaged all throughout their body. It is on a cellular level that cannot be re-engineered, at least.. not yet.
It is morning now, the next day- and still I am moved and distracted by the difficult answers to all of these questions. I know am trying my best to make the most of everyday with my daughters. I am their best advocate. I support the cause and believe in the future of medicine and scientific advancement- but what is most important to me now is living like a typical family, I know this is best for the health of my kids today - even though fighting the hardest fight might be best for their future of tomorrows.
I thought she was asleep, until her head peeks out from beneath her blanket and she stretches her arms out for me. "Mom, your home! " Zoe says this with such joy as if I have been away for days. Not so. Just an hour, her bedtime hour. She is smiling sleepily " Daddy took really good care of me." I close her bedroom door and move down the hall and find Olivia, in bed, fast asleep with her pile of library books around her. Turning off her light, I go to find my husband, thinking of how lucky my girls are- and of the many kids out there whose Daddy's just don't stay.
My husband and I talked about wanting kids before we were even married. We had lots of peace and quiet then, we sat sipping wine in sidewalk cafes, planning our future . We spent weekends experimenting with gourmet recipes, and relaxing by the pool. He had his own company, and I was a career girl- but still our family felt like the right future for me. We stood in the courtyard at Four Seasons in Santa Barbara and exchanged our vows.
We have been blessed, and lucky and in love. Our vows remain unbroken, and statistically, it is a rare thing. Divorce is at an all time high,, throw in decreased success rates for second marriage, chronic illness/special needs and yes- we have defied the odds. But my heart breaks for those who haven't, for those spouses who messed up, gave up, moved on and out- the ones that literally left- leaving their little ones behind.
Nobody ever sees it coming. The economy has pillaged many happy homes. So has adversity, tragedy and the plain old fact that life is tough right now. I believe in doing what's best for the kids, and I get that sometimes that needs to be divorce.
And when you get married it is hard to imagine you and your spouse experiencing that worst case scenario, that tragedy, loss or life changing event . I hear about it happening more and more now. The hard to manage kids, or the family living with chronic illness or special needs, where one night Daddy just doesn't come home because it is selfishly easier to stay away. Or the spouse, who is always putting their family first and one day discovers that their life was all a lie, unexpectedly untrue.
Sitting across from my husband, I talk about the hour I spent at Olivia's school that night. He tells me about the girls and bedtime. " I know what you mean about Zoe" he says, " she was way past tired tonight. I worry about her... " his sentence trails off and I see the deepened expression settling in his face, hear the pain in his softening voice. I can read the words lodged in his heart, the ones he doesn't let go. I know what he wants, what he wishes for and how much he loves. And I think of all the broken families out there and I wish this was the only kind of heartbreak they ever had. The kind where Daddy's heart is broken by love, by wishes, by a wanting pain.
Instead of all those little children left behind , whose hearts are just broken by Daddy.