I have held a lot of babies in my time. It is an added bonus of working as a birth and postpartum doula. I don’t hold nearly as many as I used to but I still get to fill my arms with baby love at my monthly breastfeeding mothers group.
You have heard me mention at least 600 times before that we held Meredith for fifteen hours per day for 8+ years. We still hold her every day but for very short periods of time like in the morning when she first awakens or before bed.
When you hold your child with cerebral palsy for hours a day and for years on end, you grow very accustomed to the unique patterns of movement. I wrote in a past post that “she is like an extension of me (and her father) and holding her is like a dance that we have rehearsed and perfected over the years. We intuitively anticipate her movements milliseconds before they happen. She throws her head back and we stop it with cat like reflexes. She curls her left arm up like a chicken wing as though she were about to throw a punch and we know that micro seconds later her she will thrust her pelvis outward. If you are not used to holding her, this particular move will have her launching off of your lap onto the floor if you are not ready for it. Her body and the way she moves it is as familiar as my own. ”
So it only made sense then that the longer I held Meredith the more unfamiliar I became with holding neuro-typical children. My sister had four children after Meredith was born and as each one grew and developed, my husband and I would hold them as though they needed trunk support indefinitely and we feared accidentally yanking out their feeding tubes (which none of them actually had). My sister used to laugh when Tim would hold our 15 month old niece, for example, and have his hand placed on her upper back and neck anticipating a sudden throw-back which, of course, never happened.
Three weeks ago, I flew to Portland, Oregon to attend the United Cerebral Palsy of Oregon and SW Washington family conference. During a brief intermission of my keynote address, I was approached by a young mother and her baby boy, Hayden, who was about 21 months old (if my memory serves me correctly). I asked to hold him and she warned me that he was heavy. Heavy? It’s all relative. It was so wonderful to hold a child that reminded me of Meredith as a baby. For the first time, I held someone else’s child in a way that came naturally to me.
That evening, we gathered for drinks and conversation with professionals and parents who were attending the conference. One particular mother arrived with her son, Owen, who was sitting in his wheelchair. I had first met them right after the keynote that morning. Owen’s mom had been a follower of this blog and had read everything I had ever written. It was amazing to meet her in person. Owen was in a wheelchair identical to Meredith’s and although he was half her age, he was about the same in weight. Seeing him that first morning made me very, very lonesome for Meredith.
When they joined us at our table that evening, Owen was fidgeting and squirming in his chair. His mother explained that he wasn’t a big fan of sitting for long periods in his wheelchair (sound familiar?). I offered to hold him if she was okay with that. I scooped him into my arms and he snuggled in for a big cuddle. I think he felt secure as he could sense that I knew exactly what I was doing. He just looked at my face and smiled making me even more homesick for Meredith.
These two experiences were the first in almost eleven years where I held two children ‘like” Meredith. Out of all that happened during the conference, these moments of holding Hayden and Owen stand out to me most.
Three weeks ago, I travelled to Portland, Oregon, accompanied by my dad, to give the keynote at the United Cerebral Palsy of Oregon & SW Washington family conference. Since my return, life continued on at an abnormally hectic pace leaving me little time to reflect on this journey.
Many have asked me how my trip went and it really feels like a long time ago that I was flying across the country to give this talk. I had been contacted a year earlier by Susan Cushman, Family Support Director for the organization. She contacted me after reading “What I Would Tell You” and asked that I come to Portland and be the keynote speaker as well as a workshop facilitator. I was both honoured and terrified to accept her offer.
It took me a long time to settle on a topic and finally I decided on sharing the lessons I had picked up along the way as a mother to Meredith. It was called “Ten Pearls of Wisdom~ a decade of lessons learned mothering my child with medical fragility.” That afternoon I gave a workshop on “Cultivating Resilience for the Long Haul” touching on the things that have helped me to go from new motherhood to where I am now, almost eleven years later, intact, happy and healthy.
This was my first time giving a keynote and so I really didn’t know what to expect. It was all very surreal. Writing this speech required a trip back in time to when I was a new mother. I never would have imagined back in December of 2003, that almost eleven years later, I would be sharing my hard earned wisdom with a room full of parents, children and adults living with cerebral palsy and professionals. My only hope was that something I said would resonate with my audience and from the feedback that I received, I am confident that I succeeded in what I set out to do.
There were many highlights of this trip. I was thrilled to meet a fellow Life-Cycle Celebrant, Peggy Acott, for dinner on our first night in Portland. Peggy helped me immensely in gathering the items I needed for my keynote and my workshop. It would have been very difficult travelling with a large glass vase, 200 “pearls” and a live bean plant. Meeting Peggy (and her partner, Sue) was wonderful as we have been “friends” on Facebook for some time. Shout out to Peggy for your kind spirit and your assistance!
Friday brought the conference and there was such anticipation on my part that I awoke ready to roll at 2:30am. With seven hours until show time, I texted with my husband, did yoga, ate breakfast and went over my notes about fifty times before finally being able to head downstairs to the conference area. That evening, we gathered in the lounge for much needed drinks and soon others joined our table. It was such a pleasure to meet other families who could easily relate to me. I loved hearing from the mothers of children who were now 20 years and older and I loved giving hugs to the mothers who were just starting out on this journey (blog post coming up on this topic!).
On Saturday, my dad and I took a road trip to the Oregon coast . Our first destination was Cannon Beach which was incredible. Unfortunately, the weather was wicked and we headed back to Portland halfway to our final destination of Lincoln City as high winds and thick fog were making the journey less than pleasurable. I am definitely going to return to the west coast and drive from Vancouver, BC to San Francisco, CA some day. It was like nothing I had ever seen.
Before I knew it, Sunday arrived and it was time to head home. I was relieved, exhausted and warmed by the kind and memorable people I met in Portland. I hope to return one day when life allows. I was excited to get home to my family. Tim welcomed me with flowers and Meredith welcomed me with a cold shoulder and indifference. It didn’t take long for some snuggles to warm her up and for her to forgive me for leaving her for five days.
Since returning, I have been frantically finishing up my book among many other commitments. I have just one chapter to finish plus the introduction and acknowledgements. Finally, after three years, the “What I Would Tell You” book will be set free. There will be lots of changes coming up in the months ahead with a new website and of course, a new book for sale.
Thank you, Susan (Cushman) and the staff/ volunteers and families of United Cerebral Palsy of Oregon and SW Washington for making this Canadian mother feel so welcome in your beautiful city!
*originally posted January 2013 but I am having a throwback week of posts. Enjoy!*
I held my breath in that moment when you were born.
I held my breath as I gently but firmly ordered you to breathe, to stay here with us as I flicked the soles of your feet and the Midwife administered oxygen.
I held my breath that morning five days later as the words carefully tumbled out of the Neurologist’s mouth……”As I suspected, your daughter has suffered a serious brain injury.”
I held my breath every single night that we had to leave you in the NICU and go home to our empty house.
I held my breath each time you were poked or prodded or crammed into uncomfortable positions for x-rays.
I held my breath when the Pediatrician told us that at only six weeks they would be drilling a hole into your abdomen for a feeding tube. I held my breath as they wheeled you down the hall for that first surgery and for every surgery after that.
I held my breath as we left the hospital to bring you home for good. How would we ever know what to do with you all on our own?
I held my breath each and every time you violently retched from the severe reflux that plagued you……….up to 15 times in 24 hours. Each time I held my breath urging you to catch yours.
I held my breath during every follow-up appointment for fear that there would be more bad news. Good news are hard to come by when your brain is so complex.
I held my breath the first time you stopped breathing and we called 911 and waited that long wait for the ambulance to arrive. I held my breath during the bumpy ride to the ER and I held it again as we waited for you to come back to us. You did then and you did the other six times you stopped breathing.
I held my breath when we were told your life would be short and I held it again as we were given a cheerful tour of the Palliative Care Home for Children.
I held my breath each time a new professional entered our lives. Sometimes I held my breath due to the exhaustion of explaining everything for the 250th time and sometimes I held my breath to keep myself from wringing someone’s neck.
I held my breath every single time you screamed out in pain and anguish from things most people take for granted like pooping and eating. I held my breath because I knew that if I didn’t, I would be flailing on the floor screaming from my heart breaking over and over to witness you in pain.
I held my breath every single time I held you in my arms for 8+ years and the arching and constant thrashing about would force that one rib of mine to pop out of place.
I held my breath when we made the very difficult decision that we would not be having more children. I was certain that if I fully faced the reality of that decision that I would shatter into a bazillion tiny fragments and so I held my breath instead.
I held my breath through every festive holiday and event like Christmas and Hallowe’en knowing that you could never fully “get” what they were all about.
I held my breath as I lay in my bed and listened to see if the nurse was getting to you when you retched or cried in the night.
I held my breath as I lifted you while you spasm-ed although what I really wanted to do was slam my fist through a wall. Holding my breath kept the rage at bay.
I held my breath to hold back the tears. Oftentimes it was not possible to shed them. And, Beloved, I couldn’t bear to burden you with your mama’s tears plopping on the top of your head.
I have held my breath too many times to count over the last nine years.
And then 20 months ago, after a routine run up a flight of stairs, it was as though the breath was knocked out of me permanently. Tests after tests including those to make sure my lungs and my heart were working well, showed nothing was wrong although I was certain they would find that my heart was indeed, broken. I knew deeply that somehow along the way I had forgotten how to breathe. And I didn’t know how to go about remembering.
A chance meeting with a professional vocal coach last week has set me free. She knew from the pitch and tone of my voice that I was all mixed up. She said, “Take a deep breath.” And I did……I expanded and filled my chest up like a rooster in the morning. And then she said, “You are holding your breath, my dear. Your vocal chords aren’t getting the air that they need. You are breathing up in your chest instead of deep into your belly. You are neglecting to use the largest bottom portion of your lungs.” Therein lay the problem. I had forgotten how to breathe and she reminded me. Within twenty-four hours, I felt free and open and r-e-l-a-x-e-d.
Our bodies can handle so much before they shut down. I was holding so much more than just my breath. Remarkably, the body responds almost immediately when the path of least resistance is presented.
It is my time to exhale.
So many look at you and see your limitations and your medical fragility. Some want to look but turn away not wanting to appear rude. Others look too long and I refrain from telling them to “Eff off.” To the majority of onlookers, you are a child with disabilities; a “poor little girl” and a “very sad situation.”
Sometimes I wish they could see what I see. I don’t blame them for their limitations because before I got to know you, I, too, saw a baby that was disabled and sick and I could barely see anything else through my angry tears. As time passed, my grand wishes for you dwindled until the only thing that really mattered was that you lived one more day. That was all. The dreams I once had for you were nothing short of miracles: walking, talking, eating orally despite what our seasoned neurologist predicted. But all of those dreams slipped away with the months and then years that passed.
But as the dreams and yearnings vapourized, something even more magical took their place. By letting go of the things I wished you could do and be, I made room for seeing you as you are. As you grew, so did my perceptions of how things should be. In fact, after some time, the word “should” no longer had a place in my vocabulary. Eventually, I no longer compared you to others because I finally saw you for who you were.
I have the privilege of seeing past all of the things that everyone else can’t help but see. Instead, I see your brilliance which cannot be dimmed by a brain that doesn’t function the way it was intended to. Through your eyes, I connect with your spirit and I know that you ‘get’ so much more than we know. Your body may have you trapped unable to run and dance and skip and twirl, but when I hold you in my arms and you look right into my eyes, I see YOU~ your essence and your pureness and that magnificent light that each one of us embodies.
I no longer have expectations like I used to. We have learned to just go with it; no longer burdened by developmental milestones, shattered dreams, broken hearts. My only wish now is that everyone else could really see you the way I do.
Today is the first day of school in our area but for us, it’s just another day. My news feed is clogged with photos of eager children ready for a fresh start; big smiles, tidy haircuts, clean running shoes and new clothes and back packs. In the days leading up to this first day of school, I read about mother’s ideas for managing the daunting task of packing lunches and have viewed countless photos of home baked goodies and packed lunch boxes ready for the morning.
In the past, this day represented a lot of things to me none of which resembled hope, anticipation and excitement for a new beginning. Instead, this day was bittersweet as I watched the children walking by on their way to school. It didn’t help that our back yard was (is) attached to the far end of the school field and so for ten months, our days were (are) peppered with the sound of recess bells and children laughing and shouting on the playground…… a daily, deafening reminder that we were on a whole other path.
Long ago, we resigned to the fact that Meredith would likely not attend school. There are many reasons why and we have given this much thought. Our team of specialists broach the subject carefully and at this time have been told to put it aside and to trust that we will bring it up if we ever feel Meredith is ready and able to attend school. In the meantime, we do not wish to discuss it further.
Last night we sat on our back deck, as we often do this time of year, and shared mojitos and food with our friends. They are childless and so staying up past midnight on the night before school starts had the same effect on them as it had on us which was next to nothing. Aside from our relief worker coming in an hour later in order to get her own kids off to school, today was like any other day in our lives.
But there was one noticeable difference.
For the first time since Meredith was of age to attend school, I am not filled with grief and “what-could-have-been’s.” For the first time, today really is, just another day.
As parents of children with special needs we put on brave faces and face each day with a sense of hope and courage. I also know that we harbour secret fears about this parenting journey and the many possible detours that can happen at any given moment. Sometimes things move along in a relatively predictable way and we catch ourselves exhaling instead of holding our breath in a desperate attempt to be ready for the next blow. For the most part these fears do not consume us but sometimes things happen which shine the light on our biggest worries.
I have two major fears which sit in the darkness and are for the most part tucked neatly away unless they get triggered. The first one is being forced to have Meredith placed somewhere other than our home to be cared for due to increasing medical demands which we are not equipped to meet. My second fear is probably related to the first fear in that I have a fear of becoming ill myself and not being able to provide the care that Meredith requires of me. I have been remarkably healthy in my life and in the last decade I have made my health a priority knowing that there will be a ripple effect on all involved if I fall apart. In the earlier years, I admit that the thought of getting sick caused some anxiety and I was a obsessively diligent with my self-care. I have learned to ease off a bit knowing that getting stressed about being well is not overly practical in the long run. Now there tends to be an ebb and flow to my self-care. Sometimes I exercise religiously and sometimes I take a break. Sometimes I drink wine on a daily basis and other times I gulp down protein shakes in place of the booze.
In 2009, the H1N1 flu virus caused a world wide pandemic and panic spread quickly. I, too, panicked at the thought of becoming ill from this serious flu. Truthfully, I panicked more at the thought of getting the vaccine which I had little trust in. In the end, we made the decision to have Meredith vaccinated and my husband and I reluctantly received the vaccine as well. Ironically, over the weeks that followed, my liver went into failure and I became very, very sick. In my attempt to avoid serious illness, I became seriously ill anyway.
And you know what happened? The entire world as we know it didn’t fall apart. I felt helpless and extremely frustrated as my husband had to take time off work to care for Meredith and I had to surrender as my liver recovered. It was terrifying initially as we didn’t know what was wrong with me. I blamed it on stress until I turned a golden shade of yellow. Since that ordeal, which was five years ago, I have been well except for the odd head cold.
Until last week.
For the past six days I have been dealing with sudden and serious SI Joint issues. In the first 24 hours, I saw my Chiropractor, Massage Therapist and my Physiotherapist who I had a previously scheduled app’t with for my shoulder. He couldn’t do much with my shoulder as I was barely able to walk with the SI pain and so he sent me on my way advising me to rest, use caution in my sitting and standing and to ice the area often. My husband had to take two days off work and I sat helplessly by as he took over full care of Meredith as well as the household while I struggled with basic tasks like wiping my bum and stepping into my underwear. But I gave it 48 hours and by Saturday, there was improvement. Just in time as I had three marriages to perform and a prenatal class to teach all day Sunday. Then on Sunday morning, I stepped out of the shower after a fairly restful sleep and proceeded to tweak my SI Joint yet again by bending forward to dry off my legs.
And then things went from bad to worse and I was pretty much immobilized. I was waking in the night in tears from the pain and I was getting increasingly frustrated with every painful movement. For almost eleven years, I have managed to carry, lift, move and hold Meredith and suddenly I am not able to even change her let along hold or lift her.
I realize that I am a lousy patient and although this last week has been a lesson in surrender, patience and trust in everyone else to pick up the slack, I admit I rage when my health fails me. My husband tends to me and everything else patiently and lovingly but the strain takes a toll on him, too, which makes me feel even more helpless and frustrated. I essentially become a fragile hurt bag and I am well aware of it.
The good news is I went to see my chiropractor this morning and he did an adjustment which has improved things ever so slightly. I am still on strict rest as inflammation is an issue. I have figured out how to get through the next few days as far as care for Meredith is concerned when my husband returns to work and I am hopeful that my body will spring back to normal in no time.
In the meantime, I am trying to be a good patient which ironically is not at all how I feel. And I know when I heal, I will be even more grateful for my well body and mind and will be fine tuning my self-care regime to prevent a re-occurrence.
I was on my home from the city the other day after a string of meetings. I was tired and looking forward to getting home however I wasn’t looking forward to the 100km drive that stood between me and my destination of home.
There was a lot of construction going on everywhere it seemed and my last clients of the day suggested I take a road that runs parallel to the highway I needed to be on. I would take it to the end and then get back onto the highway saving myself a twenty minute wait in construction. It had been a few years since I took this route but it seemed like a reasonable plan.
As I approached the end of the road, I quickly noticed that a lot of changes had occurred. There were exits and off ramps where a simple stop sign used to be. I entered into what looked like a maze of roadway and veered onto an exit ramp when I saw a sign directing me “West.”
As I made my way around this large curve in the road, I drove past a sign that read “West/ Toronto” and quickly realized I had just exited onto the wrong highway. This used to be the highway I drove when we were living in our first home together in the town where Meredith was born. It was no longer a two lane highway with multiple crossings of rural roads. Now it was a four lane, divided highway and I was going in the wrong direction.
For a second, I didn’t know where I was and it took me a moment to get my bearings. When I realized that I was on a completely different highway than I was supposed to be on, my initial reaction was to find the closest exit to get back to where I was just a moment ago and where I wanted to be.
Well, this new highway doesn’t allow for exits. It quickly became clear that I was committed to taking the long way home. It meant that I had to drive further away in order to eventually get to my intended destination. I laughed at myself as I drove along. I was exhausted but I immediately let my frustration go and just decided to enjoy the ride because what were my options? I know for certain that ten years ago, I might have slammed my fist onto the steering wheel in anger and carried this disdain at my stupidity all the way home. But, there was no turning back and besides, although a longer drive, I knew that the scenery was far more enjoyable on this detour.
Life is like that. We have expectations, a lot of them, and we approach our lives confined by these expectations of how we think and believe things should unfold. By doing so, we live under the guise of control. If we have certain expectations, then we have some sense of control and this makes us feel less anxious. But this perceived sense of control is an illusion.
All it takes is one gigantic unexpected detour in life to force you to see that having expectations and controlling outcomes leads to disaster because that is not how life unfolds. Whether or not you want to believe that, is up to you but I can say with conviction that dropping expectations and adapting to the unfolding of life however it reveals itself, will set you free. What you do control is how you will respond. Will you spend the entire time looking for an exit or a way back to where you used to be, to your comfort zone? Or will you see where you used to be in your rear view mirror and move forward choosing to enjoy the scenery along the way?
From where I stand now, I have difficulty travelling back in time and remembering the first few years of Meredith’s life. For literally years, we lived in a constant state of fight or flight, survival mode and crisis. These regular crises came in the form of severe sleep deprivation to sudden episodes of apnea that required 911 calls and the reality that she may not survive. When we were in the thick of it, people would regularly say, “I don’t know how you do it,” and we, like programmed robots, would reply, “You just do.”
Since December, we have had some space from the daily onslaught of stress and the unknowns and have quickly adjusted into a period of (dare I say?) predictability and most importantly, regular sleep (a combination of seizure medication and full time night nursing). What is confusing me, though, is how quickly I have forgotten how bad it was some days. I mean, it was really, really horrendous at times and now, the further I move away from it, the less I can recall. I read blog posts and status’ on Facebook by parents who are in the throes of this specialty of parenting and I although I can empathize, I also feel very removed from it all.
This concerns me as I have a sense that those years should have more of a grip on me but in some ways, it’s as though none of it happened. Could it be that high levels of stress hormones and severe lack of proper sleep causes a person to experience a muted version of their reality? Or perhaps, in order to survive the unrelenting stress, we shut down to some degree so that years later the memories are not as easily accessible. Could this be some sort of primal defense mechanism or means of protection?
We had grown accustomed to living in that high degree of stress and had, for the most part, accepted that for the rest of Meredith’s life, this would be how we lived. Of course, we endlessly searched for ways to improve Meredith’s quality of life and consequently ours but we never imagined that things would stabilize or resemble some sort of ‘normal.’
Now, that we are six months into our improved quality of life, there have been some positive developments. We only hold Meredith for maybe an hour and a half in 24 hours; a far cry from six months ago when her nights were plagued with nocturnal seizures and holding her 8 hours per night was not a rarity. I also feel as though we have been launched out of the land of active medical fragility and as we move further away from the day in, day out “wait-and-see” frame of mind, I feel like we are on the outskirts of a club we once belonged to.
And then three weeks ago, I went in to check on Meredith and she was not breathing the way she should be breathing. I quickly administered oxygen while calling one of our relief workers who lives close by to ensure I had someone on-call to accompany me should we have to head to the ER. My husband was on his way to work and I called him immediately after securing a back-up. Within minutes, Meredith came around and was back to her normal breathing pattern and smiling at me.
To say that I went into a bit of a shock would be an understatement and for a few days afterward, I felt the heavy presence of our old life. It was a not-so-gentle reminder that although we may be on the outskirts for the time being, it isn’t permanent and we can easily and unexpectedly jump back into the life we had inhabited for a decade. This extended leave from the way things used to be has given us reprieve to regroup, catch our breath, connect with ourselves and with each other and to engage in life again in a way that was not possible for years.
I am grateful everyday to be in a peaceful place for a change (as unfamiliar as it is) but I don’t want to forget those early years. I know that we will never go back to that intensity of the early years as they naturally toughened us up and we have risen high above the normal quota allotted for resiliency. I know, though, that staying on the outskirts indefinitely is also not an option. It is the very nature of medical fragility to accept that all things come to pass whether you want them to or not and in the time it takes to exhale, you can find yourself back in the club, reflecting on that brief moment spent on the outskirts.