Different Dreams

I don’t remember ever having dreams of what I wanted to be when I grew up. I had friends who wanted to be cowboys, or baseball players, or astronauts when they were children. As they matured, they wanted to be doctors, or lawyers, or police officers. And I once knew a person who dreamed of being a circus performer, which might seem weird, but I knew him in a city that had a “clown college.” But I don’t remember having dreams of my own. I knew someday that I would be older, but I didn’t know what I wanted to be doing when that day arrived.

After we moved to Florida in my mid-teens, I got it in my head that I wanted to be a marine biologist. It seemed like a good fit. I spent most of my summers when I was younger in the water, catching fish and crabs. I wasn’t afraid to pick up the random sea creatures that I’d come across. And, most importantly, a girl that I had a major crush on also wanted to be a marine biologist and she agreed to be my lab partner because of this newly developed common interest.

I would have made an excellent marine biologist. Ignore the fact that I won’t go in water that is below 80 degrees. Ignore the fact that I’m more of a sinker than a swimmer. Ignore the fact that I don’t like being cold and wet. Ignore the fact that I get seasick. If you ignore all the things that are in the job description that involves being in or on the water, I would have been great.

So, I signed up for a marine biology class in high school and sat across the room, watching my romantic interest instead of the fish. But she was watching the fish, but also started seeing one of the popular kids. As a result, my interest in her began to wane, and, coincidentally, so did my interest in becoming a marine biologist.

My son, however, has known since he was born that he wanted to be a hockey player. He and I started playing hockey together before he could walk, and his love for the sport has only grown. Over the years, he’s added careers like a baseball player and professional video gamer. But they have been “in addition to” never “instead of.” Even now, at ten years old, he’s waiting for the call from the Colorado Avalanche or the Vegas Golden Knights to tell him they need him, and we’ll be on a plane.

To help him pursue that dream, I took him to skating lessons starting when he was two. At four, we added the hockey classes. The look on his face when he got his first official jersey is etched in my mind.

epilepsy dad different dreamsepilepsy dad different dreams

 

But then, just before his fifth birthday, he had his first seizure.

The first seizure didn’t adjust his course, but the second one did. And the third. And the three months in the hospital battling status. And the exhaustion and side effects of the medication. For more than two years, we struggled to get him back on the ice. We’d play hockey in the basement, but the level of exertion necessary to be on the ice and playing hockey was too much. We’d try a few classes, and his body would shut down for days. During one class, he had a seizure. The fighter that he is, he got right back up and tried to participate, but we needed to keep him off the ice for his safety until we could figure something out.

We added tee-ball and baseball since those sports were easier to manage breaks and his level of effort. He is good at baseball, and he likes it, but he keeps asking about hockey. He has a friend who has been playing for a few years now, and I can hear it when he talks about his friend that he wishes it was him on the ice instead. But it isn’t. And the reality is that I don’t know if it ever will be.

The reality is that my son’s seizures are still not under control. The reality is that the more he pushes himself, physically and mentally, the more exhausted he gets, and the more seizures he has, which perpetuates the cycle. No one can tell us if that will ever get any better, so we’ve tried to structure his life in a way where he gets the most out of it while minimizing the impact of his epilepsy. But the thing that he loves the most, the thing he’s dreamed about all his life, is the thing we haven’t figured out how to give back to him.

I never had dreams when I was younger, so I don’t feel any remorse or regret for where I wound up. I think I am where I am supposed to be, with the family I love and a job in a field that I’m good at and find rewarding. Looking back, the choices that I made, even subconsciously, all aligned on a clear path to here.

I believe the same will happen for my son. He will be where he is supposed to be. But I’ve always wanted to give him every opportunity to succeed, every opportunity to explore every possibility, and to feel supported every step of the way. Part of my purpose is giving that to him, and doing everything I can to help him achieve his dreams.

It breaks my heart to think that I may need to tell him that he needs to have different dreams.

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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Taking A Chance Or Playing It Safe

I should have known there was something wrong when my wife texted me that our son had a seizure in school. Seizures during the day are rare for him, but I thought that maybe we wore him out sightseeing with his cousin who was visiting over the weekend. That was an especially bad day to break from his nocturnal seizure pattern because that afternoon he was supposed to be back on the ice for his first hockey class since his seizures started more than two years ago.

When we lived in Colorado, hockey was all this kid wanted to do. We played hockey on the floor since he could walk. We even made a movie about it.

He started skating when he was around three, and he started his first hockey class just before we moved to Philadelphia, which also happened to be the time his seizures started. With how bad things got, hockey and skating were out of the question. Taking away something he loved so much was one of the cruelest things that epilepsy did to him.

It took almost a year, but once he started to regain his balance and stamina, we found him a coach to do off-ice drills with him. We continued to play hockey on the floor or at the park, but he would always ask when he could get back on the ice. I didn’t have an answer.

After nearly eighteen months, we let him back on the ice. It was only for short periods of time because his balance, stamina, and attention issues still prevented anything too rigorous, but it was something. To a kid that loves hockey more than anything else, though, it’s just skating. There is something different about doing it in full pads, with a hockey stick, and surrounded by other hockey players and we weren’t there yet, although that was about to change if he was well enough to go to this new class. After more than two years, he was about to return to where he was before the seizures started, which is why the timing of the daytime seizure was extremely unfortunate.

We decided to see how the rest of the day went. After school, he took a nap and my wife said that he seemed fine after he rested. We took the chance and she brought him to the rink and I left work to meet them. As I walked in, I saw my son scan the room and realize that he was in a locker room, surrounded by other hockey players. He was so excited that he trembled as he put on his gear. By the time I got there, he flashed a smile and asked me to help him finish getting dressed. Apparently, mommy didn’t know the order things had to be put on in and he had to keep taking something off in order to first put on the thing that should have gone before.

Finally dressed, he tucked his mouth guard into his toothless smile, grabbed his stick, and headed to the ice. It took all he had to not sprint, and he would have if the ice were further away. But he walked up the steps, past the bench, through the door and, finally, onto the ice. He skated around for a minute to get a feel for the ice and then skated over to his coach with the rest of the team.

epilepsy dad parenting hockey risk

It took all I had to not burst into tears on the bench. My heart was filled with such joy to see my son so happy. We do a lot of cool stuff as a family, but my son also does a lot of stuff that other kids don’t have to. Dealing with seizures, doctor’s appointments, therapy, an impossible diet, more therapy, more testing. He doesn’t have much control over even basic things that his peers do and, for a while, epilepsy had taken from him the one place where he could be himself and do something that he loved to do for himself. But there he was, on the ice, smiling and sending me an occasional thumbs up (which is really difficult to do with a hockey glove on) as he did the drills with (and better than) the rest of the kids.

epilepsy dad parenting hockey risk

Halfway through practice, though, from across the ice, I heard the sound that I dread every morning and I saw my son slump forward onto the ice. The coach moved towards my son and I yelled, “He’s having a seizure.” “When?” the coach asked. “Right now, ” I replied. As the coach knelt down, my son rose to his feet. I motioned to the coach and he had an assistant help my son to the bench. We sat him down and went through the protocol. “Do you know what happened? Do you know where you are? How are you feeling? Which way is your brain going?”

I told the coach that my son was okay and that he needed a break. The coach mentioned that he’s a nursing student and just happened to start reading about seizures and epilepsy medication. Serendipity. After awhile, my son told me he was ready to go back on the ice. As a parent, I felt faced with an impossible choice. Should I put him back on the ice on a day where he is clearly having more seizures and risk him getting injured? Or should I play it safe and take him home and take away the joy he was feeling? I glanced at my son who was watching the other kids on the ice and I made the heavy choice to let him rejoin his team. As he skated towards the coach, my heart raced and I watched his every move without blinking. Every fall was agony. Did he just fall or did he have another seizure? Thankfully, he would pop right back up each time and rejoin the drill. When class ended, I let out a huge sigh of relief as my son skated over to me, gave me a fist bump, and stepped off the ice.

By this time, he was exhausted but he took off his gear and I helped him put it back in the hockey bag. His eyes were a bit droopy, and I could tell that he wasn’t really there. He had given everything he had to be on the ice and his body and mind were starting to give in. It’s a blessing and a curse that my son wills himself through the things he wants to do and the things we ask him to do. I wish life were easier for him.

When we got home, I put him on the couch and made him dinner. He ate quietly and watched a little television before bed. As I went to get his evening medicine, I noticed that his morning doses were still in the pill dispenser. I asked my wife if she had given him his meds. It turns out, she didn’t. The daytime seizures, the exhaustion…we found the culprit.

Mistakes happen. It’s a lot to juggle four doses of multiple medications a day, a special diet, seizures and the normal chaos that comes with a seven-year-old boy. I felt terrible that the first time back on the ice, his head must have been going haywire. He had seizures. He had to come off the ice. He wasn’t really present. He barely remembered being there. All because we made a mistake on the day that he was finally able to go back to his first love. The poor kid can’t catch a break.

We gave him his medicine and the next day he was thankfully back to normal. I’m still not sure if we made the right call keeping him on the ice, and I suspect that we’re going to have a lot of similar decisions to make in the future. But that’s just part of managing epilepsy, and trying to give my kid as many things back that his condition has tried to steal from him. He won’t get it all back, but every little bit counts.