The Importance Of Scoring Goals

Coming out of the womb, all my son wanted to do was play hockey. He started skating before he was two, and we played floor hockey almost every day, even when he had a broken foot. When he was five, before we left Colorado, we signed him up for an “Intro To Hockey” class. Watching him step on to  the ice (and fall) for the first time in full hockey gear was one of my favorite moments. I remember him skating around during warmups as if he was preparing for an NHL game. His energy was electric. Every time he made eye contact with me, I saw the look on his face that, as his father, I’ve strived to replicate ever since.

The onset of his seizures changed our lives in many ways. Huge ways. Profound ways. But one of the hardest things for me to accept was taking away that look my son had when he was on the ice. When the seizures started, he would ask when he could get back to playing hockey. When he was at his worst, he stopped asking altogether. It was like taking air from him when he desperately needed to breathe. He needed to feel a connection to something to take away the fear and uncertainty. We couldn’t play floor hockey. We’d watch hockey on the television but I didn’t know if that was helping or hurting. They were pictures of a lost love that stayed just out of reach.

After a long recovery, but amidst continuing seizures, he picked up his hockey stick again. Our epic battles of floor hockey returned. He skated, but it was inconsistent and only as his endurance, balance, and ataxia would allow. We found a coach to work with him off the ice on hockey skills. It was good to see him back in the world that he loved, but those activities were only parts of the whole. As he was able to do more of these activities, he started asking about ice hockey again. Every time he did, I still didn’t have an answer. It broke my heart.

For two years, that question stabbed me every time he asked it. Finally, though, after grueling rehabilitation, we did something I thought was impossible. We signed him up for another hockey class. Granted, the first class didn’t go as planned. As I mentioned in a previous post, that first time back on the ice include a handful of seizures. But he stuck with it and he’s been going as much as his body and mind will allow. There were a few sessions he missed because he was too exhausted. But he kept going back, even when the drills were hard and as he struggled to control his body. He falls a lot, maybe not more than other kids, but every fall takes its toll more on him. Physically and emotionally, after practice he is spent, wasted and unraveled. But during class, he’s so, so happy.

Last week, they set up nets and let the kids move the puck from one and to the other and shoot. Unless you’re a goalie (or even if you are), scoring a goal represents one of the defining moments for a player. Watch a young player in the NHL score his first goal and you can see that lifetime of waiting finally end. I felt the same way watching my son push the puck across the ice and take a shot. It seemed like a lifetime had passed since that class in Colorado. But after he took a shot, and after the puck slowly crossed into the net, he made eye contact with me. I saw the look that I wondered if I would ever see again.

epilepsy dad hockey fatherhood

During the car ride home that night, we watched the videos I took of him on my phone. “Did you see me score a goal on the backhand?” he asked. “Of course, ” I replied and restarted the video. We watched it over and over. Every time, I was more grateful than the last.

Backhanded goal and celebration…

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We All Make Mistakes

When I was growing up, there was a family across the street from us that had two boys. One was my age, the other a little older, and they were both part of our neighborhood pack that would play baseball and football in the street, ride around on our bikes, or simply hang out in one of our yards. The younger boy and I, being closer in age, also shared an affinity for computers. His powerful Amiga had better games, so we would spend time at his house playing them, often for hours at a time.

I remember their dad being really strict. They would address him as “sir” and had to ask his permission for everything, from a can of coke to going outside to play. I could often see a look of fear on their faces when they interacted with their father, and I never knew what that was about until one day when my friend took a soda without asking. We were in the front room on the computer, and his father dragged him to the back of the house. As I sat there, I could hear my friend apologizing through the muffled sobs that echoed down the hallway. I heard the unbuckling of a belt followed by the crack of a whip and then more cries. After a few minutes, there was silence. My friend returned to the front of the house and told me that he couldn’t use the computer anymore and that I had to leave. His eyes were still wet. I couldn’t see him, but I knew my friend’s dad was listening, just out of eyesight. I stood up and left quietly.

I was probably thirteen when that happened and, in the years that followed, I watched as my friend continued to wrestle with his relationship with his dad. I could see it worn on his face, but he often shared how he desperately tried to please his father but always seemed to come up short. It was his failure, he would say, and not the unrealistic or inappropriate expectations of his father. I could see him starting to respond more with his own anger. His grades went down, which only made things worse between him and his father. He started to pull away, hanging out with different friends, until I stopped seeing him altogether.

After I moved away, my mother would occasionally give me updates. Unsurprisingly, my friend turned to drugs in high school. I’m not sure if he graduated, but this bright kid who could have done amazing things with computers burned out and gave up. My mother would see him every once in a while, usually at his father’s house after another stay at rehab. She said he was always polite, calling my parents “Mr.” and “Mrs.”. Each time, I would hope that he had finally sorted his life out, even as I wondered why he kept returning to the place that likely was the catalyst for the direction his life had taken.

As much as I hoped his life would take a different path, it never did. He was 33 when he died of an overdose. I couldn’t help but think that his death was the finally, unforgivable mistake that he would ever make and that it was the last in a long line of disappointments to his father. My friend spent his life never feeling like he could please his father. And then it was over.

I haven’t spoken to him since, but I sometimes think about my friend’s father. I wonder if he feels any responsibility for what happened. I wonder if he would change the past and how he treated his son. Sometimes, I wonder if I am making my son feel the same way.

The other night as I was putting him to sleep, my son said that he was sorry for making so many mistakes. It was a gut punch that came out of nowhere. My chest tightened up. I thought of my friend and his dad and I didn’t know how to respond. His comment was like an arrow that struck the bullseye of my greatest insecurity.

I feel like I’m always riding my son. Sometimes, it’s for normal mistakes that kids are supposed to make. Other times, it’s for things he can’t control because of the side effects of his medicine or seizures, or other complications caused by his condition. He struggles with attention and impulse control issues every day and, as hard as that must be for him, it must be even worse because I am constantly saying “no” and making him feel like he is always doing something wrong. I push him towards perfection because I think it will make his life easier if he can overcome his obstacles, but I am setting extremely unrealistic and unachievable expectations and setting him up for failure. And so I found myself lying next to my six-year-old who is apologizing for being a kid…and human. I don’t need to raise my hand like my neighbor’s father did to do the same type of damage.

I reached out and put my hand on my son’s shoulder. “We all make mistakes, buddy. It’s a part of learning and growing. If we didn’t make any mistakes, then we wouldn’t learn anything new. I make mistakes all the time. I must have made a hundred mistakes today.”

He rolled over and turned to me. “You did?”, he asked. “Like what?”

I laid down next to him and draped my arm over his shoulder. “Well, ” I said, and then I told him about the mistakes that I made during the day. I told him about what I learned from making them and that I was happy that I learned something new. We talked for a while (there were a lot of opportunities to learn and grow that day) until I saw his eyes get heavy.  As he drifted off to sleep, I hoped that by sharing my own mistakes, he would see that everyone makes them and not feel so defeated. It was also an opportunity for me to reflect on those mistakes that I made, including how I responded to my son, so that I, too, could forgive myself, and learn, and grow.

My wife had a great idea and I think we are going to start doing it. We have a nightly routine where we talk about out day…something good, something bad, something we are grateful for. We are going to add a mistake that we did today and what we learned.

And then we’re going to celebrate it.

epilepsy dad make mistakes

Owning My Duality And Being Seen

“Well,” I said, “twenty minutes before I got here, I watched my son have a seizure on the living room floor.”

The room fell silent.

What had started as a casual conversation about our personal lives and what we allow to escape turned in to an honest conversation about what it means to really know another person, and I dropped a bombshell.

I felt the emotion in my voice as the statement left my mouth. The quivering that comes from keeping my despair in check. I thought of the other seizures he had that day, and the one he had at 3AM as I walked in to his room. He was on the floor, changing his pajamas because he had an accident from an earlier seizure when another one hit him. As I reached him, his slurred words told me he had another bad seizure, and he cried.

I didn’t bring that up, though, so in the grand scheme of things, it was only a little bombshell. But it was enough. Maybe too much.

I rarely talk about those details. While friends, families, and coworkers occasionally ask how my son is doing, those glimpses can’t tell the full story. His condition is central to our experience, but the details of what we go through every day rarely cross the invisible boundary between our world and the one outside our walls. When I step out my door, I leave that struggle at the threshold and become the person that I need to be to fit the situation that I am entering.

There is a wonderful Ted talk by Ash Beckham where she talks about owning our duality. We should not be polarizing in our views…we shouldn’t have to choose between this or that. Instead, we can be both. Ash didn’t have to choose between being an aunt and an advocate, she could be both. She could hold those two things at the same time. Through compassion, empathy, and human interaction, as complex individuals, we are capable of holding so much more. She goes on to say that if people don’t see those things we hold or those things that we are, then they can’t truly see us.

I went back to that video as I was writing this post. I thought about how I don’t connect deeply with many people, and I wondered how much of that was because I don’t let those pieces of myself come out. I’m expecting to somehow build meaningful relationships without sharing those things that are most important in my life. If people aren’t given the opportunity to see how deeply I am affected by what is happening to my son, then how can I expect them to see me?

I need to own my duality. I need to be able to hold many things. And I need to be able to share those things with the people around me if I ever hope to build the types of relationships that are built on compassion, and empathy, and on truly being seen.

It’s not an easy task. It’s not easy to change the years of programming and overcome the societal expectations of men that left me closed and guarded and hidden. But it’s important. Maybe one of the most important things I can do for myself, and certainly an important example that I can set for my son so that he doesn’t go through his complicated and difficult life alone. He, too, will be many things at once, and I would like for him to be able to be those things at the same time, and to be seen for the brave, resilient, complex, and special individual that he is.