Endurance

My son just turned 8 years old. It’s been amazing to watch the changes in him over the last few years. He’s reading more on his own. He put together a 500-piece Lego set by himself. He’s doing more things by himself that he used to need our help with. This stage of life and of development has continued to surprise me.

Many things have not changed, though, too. He’s still having seizures in the morning. He’s still juggling medications and side effects. He’s still on the strict ketogenic diet, which means he still can’t eat what he wants. He still gets constipated. He still feels different. He is still having a hard time making it through the week and sometimes through a school day.

We’ve been on this part of our journey for more than three years. More than two years on the diet. More than ten medications. Hundreds of doctors appointments, tests, and therapy sessions. We’ve seen countless seizures, and they keep coming with no end in sight.

Earlier this year, I read Endurance about Ernest Shackleton’s journey to Antartica. It’s an incredible tale of a failed overland expedition to the content. The title of the book was taken as much from what the explorers went through as it was from the name of their ship. They survived the loss of the Endurance, treacherous conditions, and a lack of food in an unforgiving part of the world. Along the way, groups were left behind to establish camps while others continued the search for help. Imagine the feeling of watching your best chance of survival disappearing in the distance, hoping they will return.

I called to the other men that the sky was clearing, and then a moment later I realized that what I had seen was not a rift in the clouds but the white crest of an enormous wave. ~Ernest Shackleton

Some days I feel like Shackleton, pushing through, fighting for my son, stopping at nothing until I can save him. We’re trying to function, to get up every day, to go to work, to try to live a normal existence. Because we have to. Because there is no alternative, even under the siege of enormous waves. Because, like Shackleton believed, there is too much at stake.

Other days, I feel like the men he left behind. Stranded on an island, waiting, and hoping that someday we will be rescued. Every day, they woke up, walked down to the shoreline, looking for a ship. For months, that ship never came. Like them, we’re afraid. Every day, we wake up and look to see if we will be rescued. Instead, we watch our son lose control of his body. Every day, we see how hard he fights. Every day, for three years, with no end in sight.

Most days, I fluctuate, rising and falling like the cold waves crashing on to the frozen shore. I am not brave enough or strong enough to face every day like Shackleton. It tears me up to see what is happening to my son. To see him struggle every day in so many ways. It strips away my courage and leaves me wanting to be rescued. But the unbounded love I have for my son and my family forces me to soldier on, to fight for everything we get, and to not let epilepsy take more than it has.

Eventually, Shackleton’s journey came to an end. After more than a year of impossible challenges, Shackleton and his team found help. They went back and rescued the rest of their men. One day, those men that were left stranded make their way to the shore and looked out on to the horizon to see their captain returning for them. To see their lives returning to them.

I can only imagine the glory of that feeling. We are standing rocks, piled together on the shore looking in the expanse before us. I long for the day when I will look out on to the horizon and see a different life than the one we have been leading. A life where my son doesn’t have seizures. A life where he doesn’t struggle to do what so many others take for granted. A life where he can be free.

The World Outside

I’m lying in bed next to my son who I haven’t seen all week. With my right hand on my laptop, I reach my left hand over and rest it on his back, making sure he is still there. I can feel his breathing, my hand rising and falling with each of his breaths.

On the other side of him is my wife, who I was also missing. The last few weeks have been a whirlwind. A new job. A new house. A new school year for my son. A new medication for his seizures. A new outlook. A new focus.

With so many changes going on, I’d been so consumed with my life that I hadn’t looked up to see the world outside. When I finally did, I wished I hadn’t. The world kept turning. Things kept happening. Hurricanes, mass shootings, fear, and hatred. Human beings being cruel to each other and using their power to silence their victims. It seemed that the world had been uglier than usual in the time that I’ve been away. I felt both selfish and grateful to be away from it. To not experience it. To not get involved. To focus on my life and to shut out the world.

But that couldn’t last. The world seeped in, overflowing an already stressed situation. The combined strain tested the strength of that connection to my anchor. Our stressful lives during a chaotic time in an especially cruel world. Survival became about pursuing the path of least resistance. It was easier to hide from the world than it was to be a part of it. It was easier to not write than it was to write. It was easier to use the excuse of being too busy in life to avoid being a real part of it.

I pushed myself away from the world but I had nowhere to go. My family is my anchor, and I was thousands of miles away in every meaning of that phrase. A cross-country trip that followed added physical distance to the emotional. But on the plane ride back, I could feel the weight of the last few weeks lifting. The world in conflict sped below me as I looked out the window from a familiar, distant perspective. But it wasn’t the world I was eager to get back to. It was my family that was pulling me back, and I couldn’t get to them fast enough.

And so here I am, restlessly lying in bed next to my family in our new home. My obligations to our new life and the workday ahead steal my focus. But my son’s breath serves as a metronome that brings my attention back to this room. The cadence of his breathing and the rising and falling of my hand on his chest connect me to him. I find my wife’s hand in the same place, so we’re all connected together once again. The world outside and my insecurity conspire to keep the attention of my head and my heart. In this moment, though, I know that it will be my family that gets me through.

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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