Early Morning

Lying in bed, I opened my eyes in the early morning and stared at the ceiling. My son’s arm was draped across my chest and his head rested on my shoulder. Ahead of our move, he’s been sleeping with us. The chaos of our lives and the distance to his room has become increasingly problematic. Until we move into our new place, it’s a concession we made so that we can all be together and so we can monitor his seizures.

I brought my free hand up and rubbed his head. Usually, my wife is the recipient of his slumbery affections. I get the other end with a face-full of feet as he turns horizontally on the bed. But not that morning. That morning, I looked down to see my the beautiful face of my boy sleeping peacefully. I remember smiling as I made minor adjustments to my position and was once again comfortable. I closed my eyes, my hand still rubbing his head, and enjoyed the moment.

It’s in these early morning hours that I’ll catch my son talking in his sleep. Sometimes the words are decipherable. He has had unconscious conversations about baseball and hockey. Once he talked about his iPad, which I’m pretty sure is a sign that we let him use it too much. Other times, his voice is too low or the words are too jumbled but it’s still clear that he’s having a conversation.

Sometimes, his hands or legs will twitch. It’s like watching a dog dream of running and watching its limbs move in response. We had a cat once that would dream of drinking and we would watch him lap at the air as we laughed quietly so as not to wake him. It’s impossible to tell what activity my son was trying to do in his sleep, but it still made me smile. Dreaming at seven looks very different from dreaming at forty.

That morning, though, a different and unfortunately familiar sequence began. It started with a tensing of his muscles. As he laid at my side, I could feel his body start to stiffen and elongate. I adjusted my position to give his body room the room it needed. The room went quiet. The only sound was me telling him that everything was going to be okay as I kept my hand on his head.

At its apex, his body is rigid and long like a piece of wood. His body continued to squeeze, forcing the air from his lungs. The audible moan also started as his body expelled air past his vocal chords and out his mouth. His body relaxed before tensing up again, the rhythmic jerking of a myoclonic seizure. Every pulse of his body made me feel more and more helpless, but there was nothing to do but wait it out. So in the early morning darkness, that’s what I did.

A few seconds more and the seizure was over, but the postictal state began. Like he usually does, my son sat up, smacking his lips and looking at the world through squinted eyes. I continued to console him and let him know what he was safe until he gathered enough of his faculty to know where he was. Then I helped him lay back down and get comfortable. I draped his warm, green blanket over his shoulders and pulled it down to cover his feet. He put his two fingers that he likes to suck on in his mouth, closed his eyes and drifted back to sleep.

I could not go back to sleep. I struggled to not have my thoughts drift to all the negative possibilities. I should have gotten up to distract myself but I wanted to be near him in case he had another seizure. So, instead, I listened to his breathing and returned my gaze to the ceiling.

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.

Wherever We Go, There They Are

Whenever we go to a new place, in the back of my mind I want that place to change my life. It seems like a tall order, which may be why it hasn’t happened yet. I want to go to a place and be so inspired that I start writing that book that I’ve been thinking about. I want to leave a place a better person, having a better relationship with the people in my life. But mostly, I want to go to a place where my son doesn’t have any seizures.

My son didn’t show any signs of having epilepsy until we moved to Philadelphia. I was only partially joking with the doctors when I asked them if it could be Philly causing his seizures. The first time we went back to Colorado, I was ready to move back if he was seizure-free during the trip. But he wasn’t. I had the same thought when we visited Florida. Maybe Colorado was at too high of an elevation and he needed an ocean breeze. But he had seizures in Florida, too. And in New York. And in California. Wherever we went, there they were.

Even so, when I stepped off the plane in Hawaii, I had that same thought. That maybe this was going to be the place where my son would be seizure-free. If it was going to be any place, Hawaii wouldn’t be terrible. Before we even picked up our bags, I convinced myself we could make it work. I could find a job, even if it meant working remotely. I was sure the children’s hospitals would be fine, and we could make regular trips back to the mainland for care. But we wouldn’t need to, because he wouldn’t be having seizures. It was the perfect plan. Until it wasn’t.

In our first early morning in paradise, the sound worse than every other sound filled the hotel room. His seizures had found us. Across the continent, across the ocean, to an island in the middle of the Pacific. In a place we’ve never been before, hidden from the world. Wherever we go, there they are.

In a way, I was grateful that the seizure came quickly because it lifted the pressure that I had put on our vacation. The longer I carry that pressure, the less present I am and the more I miss of our life. But instead of worrying about that seizure around the corner, it had already come.

It was freeing.

It allowed me to focus on having an amazing vacation with my family in spite of our stowaway. It allowed me to be present and to be grateful for the moments that we have. I saw the beauty of the island. I saw the smile on my son’s face. It reminded me that it’s not a destination that is going to change my life. It’s that feeling that I get when I see his smile that makes my life better every day.

epilepsy dad wherever we go