Little Bricks And Shaky Hands

When I was young, I loved playing with Legos. At my grandparents’ house, my favorite toy was a box of loose bricks. I would turn them into houses, or animals, or fighter jets. I remember “upgrading” to the more advanced Technic set when I was about ten. It felt like a right of passage. You’re born, learn to walk and talk, play with kid Legos, then hit that milestone of playing with Technic. From there, it’s all downhill and the only things left are to do are learn to drive, marry, have kids and,¬†finally, die.

My son has developed his own affinity for the little plastic toys. Late last year, he needed less of my help to assemble the kits. It’s one of those moments that both made me proud for his accomplishments and sad for my loss of usefulness. Now, he is putting more complicated sets together mostly by himself. He’ll spend hours working through the instructions until he reveals his masterpiece.

Sometimes he’ll still ask for help with some of the smaller bricks because he has a hard time taking them apart. When I go to him, I see his little fingers struggle to grasp the tiny pieces. Especially when he is tired, his ataxia is more noticeable. His hands shake and make tasks that need fine motor control almost impossible. On his face, you can see the attention he is trying to give to his efforts. But his body’s instability wins out over his mind.

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It’s frustrating and sad to watch. Compared to the occasional seizure or handful of pills he takes twice a day, the shakes are always there. They’re visible playing with Legos, trying to use a fork, and coloring and writing. They make learning new tasks difficult and they make playtime harder than it should be. I can’t imagine the mask he wears and how frustrated he feels inside when he tells me “I’m just a little shaky.”

Those words cut through me. I can’t fix it. It’s hard to watch him struggle. These are some of the same activities he works on in therapy and the more he does them, the better he will get at them. But many of these tasks will never be easy for him. It’s hard to watch my son have a hard time with such basic tasks like using a fork. It’s hard to let him struggle through and not do something for him or let him take a shortcut and eat with his hands.

I want to encourage that mindset of pushing through because I hope it will get better. He already has such determination and I want him to keep it. Even when it’s hard. Even when it’s unfair. Even when there are easier options. Why? Because that’s what is going to help him survive and succeed with the challenges he has ahead of him. My job as his father is to prepare him for what is ahead. Even if it means watching him struggle and shake. But I also want him to know that I am there for him should it get too hard. I want him to know that he is not alone.

I’m struggling to find the right balance between helping and letting him keep trying. When is it helping and when is it cruel? It’s cruel what this disease has done to him. I worry that I’m being cruel too when I watch him suffer its effects when I could step in to help.

How much of this is me hoping he’ll struggle through it and that there will be another side? What if there is no other side? What if it gets worse? What does that mean for when my wife and I are gone? I try to focus on the positive progress he has made since his condition was worse. But it’s hard to do when I’m looking at my child struggle because of his condition. The thought of this being the rest of his life is too much to think about with a seven-year-old.

And there aren’t any answers, at least for¬†now. His condition changes, his medicine changes, his body will continue to change. I try to remind myself to take each day as it comes and to take my son wherever he is that day. Doing that is one of the hardest things I have ever had to do in my life. But when I can do it, I see a little boy smiling as he creates something out of bricks. I see that sense of accomplishment on his face when he shows us what he made. And sometimes, I think things are going to work out okay.

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Windows, Light and Hope

The last few months have been all about change. After a long search, I found and started a new job. We sold the house that we lived in when my son was born back in Colorado. And next month, we’re leaving the apartment we landed in when we moved to Philadelphia.

This is the apartment we lived in when my son’s seizures and side effects were at their worst. The couch by the front window is where we held him for hours during his mood and behavior. I would sit on this couch and stare out the window at the street as he spat, and hit, and screamed terrible things. I would watch the people walk by, normal families with normal lives doing normal things. I wondered if that would ever be us again.

I felt like the world was watching us from the other side of that window, too. We were in full view of the passersby who could see how ill-equipped and unprepared we were for what was in front of us. They saw us sitting on the couch reacting out of fear and desperation. They saw every mistake my wife and I made dealing with our son and with each other.

The way our apartment is laid out, the window by the couch is the only source of natural light. In an otherwise dark apartment during a very dark time, there was no other place to go. So we sat in view of the world outside so that we could see it and let in whatever light we could. We traded agony and exposure for light.

But sitting on that couch and in that light also gave us hope. No matter how dark our apartment and our life got, we could see that there was more. As our son fought against us, we could close our eyes and feel the light on our face and hope.

After a seemingly endless struggle, hope won out. Our son came back to us. He was weathered, as we all were, and different, and stunted in some ways, but he was our boy. Instead of holding my son on that couch to protect him, he would sit next to me reading or playing on his tablet. Instead of me staring at the people walking by with envy or feeling judged by them, I felt like we could join them.

Eventually, we did join them. And now, we’re taking the next step in our journey. We’re not moving to a new place with a blank slate. Our son still has seizures. He still suffers from the side effects of his medicine and the damage that they and his seizures did. We’re bringing our scars with us. But we’re bringing his progress, too. We’re bringing the lessons we learned and the closeness we feel from having survived it. And we’re moving into a place that is full of windows, and light, and hope.

The Long Run

My son stood on top of the first obstacle at the start of the race. He had just given an interview and talked about having seizures that had the crowd let out a collective “aww”. In his hand, he held the blowhorn that would signal the start of our wave. The emcee counted down then helped him push the button on the horn. It called out with its loud sound and the crowd cheered in response. The race had begun.

By the time I had climbed the first obstacle to reach my son, he was already on to the next one. He thought he needed to lead our wave for the entire race, so I sprinted to reach him and told him to slow down. “It’s a long race, buddy,” I said. “This is only the beginning.”

That is how my son approaches most things…head on and at full speed. It’s inspiring to see but also nerve-wracking. He’ll push himself beyond his limits without considering the consequences. For him, the consequence of physical exhaustion is seizures. My wife and I take on the role of the governor to regulate his unstoppable, unrelenting engine. That puts us in the middle of his desire to conquer the world and our desire to keep him safe. It’s an impossible balance and one that I rarely feel successful at. But I tried my best to pace him but also let him open up a little and have fun.

He tackled each obstacle with a determined attitude and a beaming smile. There were people who saw his interview that ran by to cheer him on. He would wave in response as he eyed the next challenge. Another person came up and told him that she had epilepsy, too and that it wouldn’t stop either of them. I was proud of him, for how he was tackling the race, for talking about his epilepsy, and for that smile.

If there were ever a metaphor for our life, it was that race. There will be obstacles that we need to face. There will be times that we need to be brave. There will be times we need to lean on and be grateful for the support around us. But there will also be fun and the sense of accomplishment that comes from doing things that are hard.

As he came down the slide on the last obstacle, I could see a huge smile on his face. He put his completion medal around his neck and told everyone how he made it through each obstacle. Then, on the way home, he said he wasn’t feeling good. He went straight in for a nap and I could tell his body was shutting down. During his nap, he had a cluster of seizures, more than he has had in a while. That was the gut-wrenching part where I questioned whether I let him push himself too hard. I know that uncertain feeling too well, and it’s heartbreaking.

As his body contorted against his will, I wondered whether it was worth it. The sense of accomplishment, the fun, and the experience. Was it worth what was happening to him? The lives of the people he touched when bravely stood on top of the first obstacle and told his story. The awareness he brought to epilepsy. The support he received from the people around him. Was that worth it?

I used to think that was an impossible question, but maybe the answer is simple. What makes it worth or not it isn’t measured by finishes or medals or seizures. What makes it worth it is that feeling that, in spite of his epilepsy, he can do amazing things. What makes it worth it is knowing that we are in this together, for the good and the bad. What makes it all worth it, in the long run, is filling his life with moments that make him smile.