It Can Always Get Worse

We finally got a second opinion. Not because we didn’t think the doctors at our hospital were doing everything they could. But because that’s what responsible parents do.

I wasn’t expecting a miracle. I wasn’t expecting someone to tell us we missed something that would cure my son’s epilepsy. We were looking for another perspective or treatment that we missed. We hoped that someone out there had another case like ours and could provide some insight. We wanted a little more hope. We wanted a little more of something to hold on to.

The hospital sent the report to my wife. That night, she tried to tell me what it said, but I didn’t let it in. I nodded as she spoke the words but I put my guard up and those words bounced off me and fell to the floor. For the rest of the night, I stepped over them as I distracted myself with other things until it was time to go to bed. But I didn’t sleep.

The next day, I started to feel the effects of the night before. Not only the report but how I reacted. How I tried to ignore it to make it less real. How not facing it doesn’t make it go away. And how I left my wife holding that emotional weight by herself.

When I got home from work, I hugged her and apologized for leaving her stranded. I asked her to send me the report, and I read the pages of detailed notes that the doctor had put together. It was a thorough summary of the last three years of our lives. It included confirmation that our doctors are doing the right things and that there wasn’t anything we missed. Then, towards the end, I saw what I didn’t want to see the night before.

What should we expect in the short and long term? Is there any other information you feel would be helpful for us to know?

I do worry that his clinical picture has raised suspicion for a myoclonic epilepsy that may be progressive, in which case, continued difficulty in treatment and learning decline can be seen.

It wasn’t the first time we heard that. We’re three years in without seizure freedom, and it’s feeling like a more elusive goal every day. Our doctors alluded to the possibility but kept us focused on stabilizing what we can now. The near-term goals were a welcome distraction from the long-term possibilities. But I also don’t think about it getting worse because I can’t think of anything worse than what is happening to him now.

That night I laid next to my son as I put him to bed. I told him that I loved him. That I would always be there. That I was sorry that his life was so hard. I was trying to communicate my feelings to him. But he’s eight and doesn’t understand the words we use to express those very big feelings.

Somedays, neither do I.

But I feel the need to get them out and hope that he will someday be able to understand. I worry that there will be a window between now and if things get worse where he is able to grasp the meaning in my words. I don’t want to miss that window. Even if it only cracks a little, I want to get something through. Because if things do get worse, I need to know that he will have something to hold on to.

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.

One Thing

Lately, my wife and I have started a new routine. We sit next to each other on the couch, flip open our computers, pull up our calendars, and look at the week ahead. Even though it’s all digital and we share our calendars, it gives us a chance to get on the same page. We can add any events that we miss or decide who is picking up dessert for dinner at a friend’s house later in the week. But it also gives us a chance to create a manageable week for our son.

Fatigue plays a big part in the frequency and severity of my son’s seizures. If he gets too mentally or physically taxed, they break free from their confinement. Instead of happening only in the morning, he’ll have them during his nap or after he goes to bed at night. The more seizures he has, the less rested he is, which causes more seizures. It’s a cycle that we work very hard to avoid.

In most cases, that means we only plan one activity a day. While other kids his age go between team practices, play dates, and birthday parties, he’ll do one thing. Instead of “and”, our lives involve a lot of “or”. A birthday party or a movie. The museum or the park. A play date or a baseball game.

Some days, that one thing is school. Other days, that one thing is therapy. Those activities are so draining to him that, if he goes in already tired, he can barely function. We see that, too, when he leaves school early to go to one of his appointments. But on those days, we don’t have a choice. He wills himself through it but then he stays exhausted through the next day. If that happens, we adjust his schedule to try to prevent those demanding days from adding up. If we can’t, or if we miss the signals that he’s running on fumes, we lie next to him in bed, watching him pay the price.

We had a few of those nights in early summer. School was ending and we tried to juggle therapy and baseball practice. He loved baseball, but it broke my heart to see what the physical exhaustion did to him at the end of the night. It was all too much, but deciding what to cut and when was impossible. School is important and provides social opportunities. Therapy helps rebuild those skills that he lost and reinforce those that he will need. And baseball…baseball made him feel like he was part of a team. And that he was a normal kid.

I wanted to take this post in a positive direction. I wanted to say that “in lives packed with activities and distractions, having to choose what to do helps clarify what is important.” I do believe that, but I also hate having to decide what to take out of my child’s life. I hate having to limit him in any way. To have to pick one thing. For every day. Every week. Every month. With no end in sight. There is no positivity in that.

But as conflicted as I am, it has inspired me to try to make that one thing amazing and special. And I try to be mindful, present, and grateful for that one thing. Because I know that, no matter how much it hurts, one thing is better than nothing.