Tapped

My son does this thing where the muscles in his face loosen. His cheeks look chubbier as they drape softly down to his jaw. His mouth separates a little, and I can see the tip of his tongue pushing through. Sometimes he’ll swallow slowly, which at the same time seems automatic but also like it takes all of his concentration and energy.

That is one of the signs we see that lets us know when he is tapped.

There are other signs, too. He has an even harder time with his executive functioning and memory than he normally does. It’s more difficult for him to regulate his emotions. He gets angry and frustrated. But that look on his face is the look of someone who has given everything they can for the day. It’s how we know he’s done.

This isn’t something that only happens occasionally.

It happens every day.

There are days when it happens sooner, usually around this point of the school year or when we did such things after a baseball game. There are days when it happens later, like on a lazy weekend. And there are days when it happens more than once, usually once before and then later on after a nap. But it always happens. Every day. Every day, my son gives everything to get through the day.

Every day, my son gets tapped.

The other day, I sat on the edge of the bed with my son and studied his face as he leaned against his pillow, watching his iPad. I tried to be present with him. I asked him what it felt like and if there was anything I could do for him, but even asking a question forces him to try to muster enough energy to think and respond. He’s such a good kid that, even tapped, he tried to find enough energy to process my question and think of an answer. It felt cruel. I felt terrible. And so I didn’t ask any more questions, and I sat with him and rubbed his head and let him tune out.

Unless you knew him, you wouldn’t know that anything was going on. He might just look like a tired kid. Its invisible nature is one of the many curses of epilepsy. His doctors, who have seen the same in other patients as they see in my son, understand it. But it’s harder to convey to others because they don’t know him and because they don’t have a reference for that level of exhaustion.

“Imagine climbing a mountain. Now, imagine if everything you did felt like climbing a mountain. Now, imagine if that is what you felt like every day. “

Every day, my son climbs that mountain. Every night, he falls asleep only to find himself back at the base of the mountain when he wakes up. Then he starts to climb again. He pushes, he grinds, he stumbles, he gives everything he can until his body, and his brain can’t do anymore.

Every. Day.

He’s eleven years old.

Wall Of Limitations

This summer, my son participated in a week-long baseball camp. We knew it would be physically demanding so we spoke with the coaches before we registered him to make sure that he could rest and leave early if he needed it. It’s a phone call we have made before and will likely make many times in the future that serves two purposes. First, it helps us make sure that our son will be safe. And second, it identifies any places not willing to make accommodations for people who need them, which is not a place we want to be.

My son’s nanny took him on the first day and the coaches welcomed him to the camp. He managed to stay for half the day but then took a three-hour nap when he got home. But he had fun and he made friends. The second day was much the same with a long nap after a shortened day.

By the third day, he didn’t want to go. He was noticeably tired but he managed to make it out the door. His nanny coaxed him on to the field and, after almost thirty minutes, one of the coaches managed to finally get my son to participate. He left early again that day.

On the last day of camp, we planned to let him stay all day because they were going to play a game. His nanny made sure he took frequent breaks and he made it through the day and finished the camp with a smile.

The end of the camp coincided with the Little League World Series. I watched the grueling tournament and wondered, given how the camp went, whether my son could do anything like that. By now, I don’t have any grand vision of him playing in the major leagues, but I do want him to continue to play something that gives him joy and that makes him feel like a part of a team.

It made me think that someday we’re going to run into a wall of limitations. We’ve faced small ones before, but we’ve managed to pass them mostly by watching our son climb over them. We’ve managed to keep our distance from larger walls by adjusting our path. We swapped hockey for baseball. We learned to work around his physical and endurance issues. But we haven’t been faced with consciously confronting the difference between possibility¬†and probability. Potential versus practical. Fantasy versus reality. We haven’t faced the wall that was once on the horizon but is now uncomfortably close.

And every day we are moving closer. It’s starting to block our view to the world behind it. I’m beginning to wonder what we will do when we reach it. Will it be too big and stop us in our tracks? Will it be too overwhelming and send us back the way we came? Or will we do what we have always done and follow our son as he finds a way to climb it, even though we know there will be an even bigger wall behind this one?

Paying The Toll

We were coming off a good weekend. We celebrated my wife’s birthday on Saturday, and we ended Memorial Day visiting friends, having a swim lesson, and staying up a little later to see part of the first game of the hockey finals. We put my son to bed tired but happy.

Just after midnight, the first seizure came. I heard the sound come from my son’s room a second or two before the sound came through the speaker of his monitor. By the time I got to him, it had passed. He was sitting up in his bed disoriented, so I helped him lay back down and waited for him to fall back to sleep.

The next seizure came a few hours later. The next one an hour after that. And the next one an hour after that. It was like aftershocks after an earthquake, except each of them was just as intense as the one before it. He had at least four that I saw, but we learned during the overnight EEGs that we don’t see them all.

When he does anything that exerts an effort mentally or physically, a nap-time seizure or a collection of seizures during the night is likely to follow. We bowled for an hour and he had a seizure during his nap. After a morning baseball game, a seizure. Even though he only goes to school for a few hours, he’ll often have a seizure during his nap.

We tried to explain it to his school. It’s not just about what he can handle in the moment. The exertion carries beyond the activity itself. It show’s up as more seizures, which set him up to be more tired the next day. That lowers his seizure threshold for the next day, too, making him more likely to have seizures or requiring him to spend more energy regulating his emotions or attention. It’s downward spiral that ends with the husk of a boy too tired to function.

It feels like the universe collects a toll from my son based on how much he gets to actually live his life. It imposes a penalty to knock him back down and remind him of his limitations when he tries to exceed them. Someone with uncontrolled seizures shouldn’t play baseball. Seizures. Someone with uncontrolled seizures shouldn’t be progressing in school. Seizures. Someone with uncontrolled seizures shouldn’t be going to the skate park, or an amusement park, or a hockey game. Seizures.

Every time it happens, I question whether we did too much. But I gave up wondering if we should be doing anything at all, because that’s having no life. That’s letting epilepsy win. That’s not giving my son the life and the world that he deserves. So we’re careful and we’re calculated in deciding what to do and how much to do. We do our best to protect our son but let him be part of the world. We introduce as much downtime as possible so that we can distrupt his pattern of exhaustion and let him do the things he loves.

The universe seems committed to collecting its toll, but we’re doing everything we can to minimize how much my son has to pay. Because we’re going to keep on living.