Day 3 of Blogging for TSC Awareness Month
by guest blogger Caroline Clyborne Ramirez (Austin, Texas)
Since our son, Leif, first learned to talk, we’ve been drilling him on a basic call and response:
“Why do I love you?”
“Because I’m your son.”
We did this because we wanted him to know that he was loved, no matter what. He had our permission to be lost and a knucklehead while figuring himself out. He could worry about other problems, like having to eat vegetables and sharing. He did not need to worry about courting his parents’ love.
Then, my daughter was born. At four months, we learned that Colette had a diagnosis– tuberous sclerosis. She had about 20 benign brain tumors and epilepsy. We didn’t know if she would be smart or independent. Our blank slate of a baby came with no guarantees.
The grief and terror of the first couple of months were intense. I wanted to pull away. I wondered if I could ever love this child like I loved my son. What had I told him? “I love you because you’re my son.” I’d promised him. Could I sincerely offer that to my daughter? I felt like a fraud.
Life got busy. I stepped away from my career and into the life of a medical advocate. Colette had weekly PT, OT and eventually speech therapy. She had frequent overnight hospital stays to adjust medication any time we saw seizure activity. There were eye appointments every 3 months because her seizure control medication endangered her vision. We drove to Houston every three months to participate in a clinical study. The insurance company required weekly hounding to cover the basics. It was only the beginning, and already, the tasks made me a busy bee. My son loudly demonstrated his frustration with the redirection of my attention. I tried to be enough and constantly fell short. I worried that our sleepy, medicated baby was the most flexible member of the family. Her big blue eyes sparkled, and she never complained.
It’s an odd thing to be given an open-ended diagnosis. There was no adjusting to the news. The hope and despair pulled me up and brought me down like a roller coaster– tea leaf predictions from smiles and gas. I wanted to either grieve or enjoy my child. The “what ifs” of the future were easy to Google, from skin lesions on her face to LAM in her lungs. What if she can’t learn and spends the rest of her life in diapers? What if she develops behavioral issues and hits us? My one life experience as a substitute teacher in a Special Education had taught me that was NOT my population. I did not reach out to moms with older kids whose fates scared me. I clung, tooth and nail, to the shallow end of the pool and hoped we would never have to drown.
I was in constant fear that she would take a turn for the worst and we, as a family, would not be okay. Meanwhile, Colette was a bright-eyed and happy baby. She splashed the water in her bath and gnawed on her Sophie giraffe. It was a bizarre juxtaposition. Colette was the poster child of innocence. I was her strung out Mom. In tiny slivers of clarity, I dug my nose into her neck and smelled her yummy baby smell. Regretfully, I often saw TSC more than I saw my daughter.
That was when she had seizure control. When that ended at 10 months old, my nightmares developed a physical form. I took detailed notes of what movements we saw and sent them to the white coats in this army. Please, I said. Please protect Colette. Our precious baby continued to smile, but she almost never babbled.
Even though we were creeping toward the chasm that I’d feared would swallow our family, I felt calm and sad. I acknowledged more publicly what was happening, and wept big tears as I faced how little control we had over a disease that had no cure. Colette had good days and bad days, and so did I. I spent my time taking her to appointments, arguing with insurance, and trying to keep things normal for our family. I felt depleted and I felt despair.
I realized at some point that my nightmares were a very loud statement to both my kids. Colette’s imperfection had made Mommy sad. TSC was in her DNA. Colette, by simply being born, had brought TSC and all of its challenges into our home. Her sweet demeanor may have been lovely, but it was a consolation, a kindness that momentarily offset a mountain of pain. She had more to worry about than having to eat vegetables, and even more to worry about than experiencing seizures. She had caused her family to suffer by means of existing. Something was terribly wrong, and that something was within me.
There was a woman on Facebook with a daughter who was cognitively two and physically 25. She kept posting proud mommy posts, and she baffled me with her acceptance of her child. I didn’t understand her, but something in me was shifting. I realized that a 2-year-old is lovable and delightful. My expectations of her child– that her child act 25– imposed onto her child’s existence something presumably painful that might not be real.
As I thought about her child, I was flooded with memories of my beloved Grandpa. Grandpa had Parkinson’s. He was sweet. He threw a purple foam ball back and forth with me. I didn’t “know better” that he’d lost something. I just loved him, and he loved me. Maybe I didn’t need the conditions I had for loving my child. Maybe I could just love my child.
As my eyes opened wider, I became aware also of how my vanity bled into my relationship with my son. He was so smart. He was so handsome. My pride appreciated pieces of him he never chose for himself. It was an easy mistake to make. In a family of nerds, his brains made him feel like our boy. However, he was getting extra credit because of his luck– because I was proud of his gifts.
How unfair of me. My job was to help him develop his character, and my preference for his smarts added conditions to my love and modified my expectations of him. His sister aside, I saw a rot forming in my parenting. Colette’s condition challenged my vanity and made me see both kids more clearly.
Humbly, as a flawed person mid-stream, I am challenging myself to change what I expect of both my kids. I am going to love them both because they’re my kids. I am not going to give Leif extra credit for being smart, and I am not going to turn Colette’s existence into a burden anymore. I’m just going to support her health as she needs and enjoy her in the present, stripped of all the disparaging “shoulds” that diminish her humanity. If I need to, I’ll think of Grandpa and find a way to throw a ball to my daughter. I’ll appreciate the day she can throw it back, but I won’t love her more for it.
I’ll keep love simple. That way, my kids can stop worrying about the quality of my love and start focusing on the road in front of them. When I whisper in my daughter’s ear that I love her, I now really know the answer. I love her because she’s my daughter– no matter what.
Brain surgery is coming this month. Finally, we’re ready.