hApPy bIrThDaY smiles and duct tape!

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HaPpY BiRtHdAy Smiles and Duct Tape!!

When the book was released last year, I had my fingers and toes crossed that it would find its way into the world, but in my wildest dreams, I never imagined that it would find its way into so many of the right hands.

Smiles and Duct Tape is not winning awards or getting nominated for prizes, but this is better – it’s helping people. ALD parents, special needs families, and people looking to better understand special needs and/or our little, not-as-rare-as-you-might-think disease, Adrenoleukodystrophy.

A highlight of this first year was our family being invited to meet the folks at bluebird bio earlier this week. Last month, the New England Journal of Medicine released a study that indicates that gene therapy is a promising option for boys with ALD. bluebird bio is behind that research.

Thanks to Smiles and Duct Tape, and my need to share every detail of our lives, bluebird bio found us and asked us to come up to Cambridge and talk to their team.

I liked bluebird bio from the start because they have the same relationship with capital letters as I do (my oh-so-cool not capitalizing my post titles), but when I did a little research, I really fell in love: “we are committed to our vision of transforming lives and making hope a reality for patients . . . ” AND one of the diseases that they’re determined to beat is ALD.

They are not just leading studies on new treatments, they are working to truly understand what the current treatments look like – that’s where we came in. We are the face of what ALD looks like with the current standard of care—a stem cell transplant— and without the luxury of an early diagnose. They wanted to hear more about our story and had dozens of questions for all of us (Anna answered questions with such confidence and grace AND Jack won a lot of hearts with his smile). They asked all about the transplant and details about what life looks like post-transplant. The goal of bluebird bio is to provide a treatment with fewer risks and a better after-treatment quality of life.

With all the crap going on these days, it’s hard not to lose a little faith in our world, but spending the day at bluebird bio felt like stepping into the future – a better future. Brilliant minds who are determined to make a difference. AND they invited us into their nest with open arms. We spoke, we ate, and we got an incredible tour of their facilities. These folks are warm and friendly and wicked smaaaht.

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With increased pressure to add newborn screening for ALD across the US and this promising research on gene therapy, the future looks bright for the next generation of ALD boys. If us Torreys can help even a tiny bit, sign us up!

Tomorrow I am off to the Southeast Wisconsin Festival of Books. Yet another exciting opportunity to share our story. I’ll share stories and pictures next week.

Love, Jess

https://www.thedailybeast.com/can-two-brothers-struck-with-lorenzos-oil-disease-be-saved?source=TDB&via=FB_Page

 

 

 

GOOD > BAD

Enough with the hard stuff – let’s celebrate!

A crazy few weeks around here and most of it has been WONDERFUL.

Last week, Jack and I had the honor of speaking at an event for CPNJ (the parent organization of Horizon High School). 150 employees were celebrating 5, 10, 15, and 20 years of service to CPNJ. We were asked to speak representing CPNJ families and sharing a bit about how their team has helped us. My nerves still cause me to jitter a bit when I speak publicly, but overall I think I’m doing a better job. And, looking out at a room full of so many people who have helped our boy, I felt extremely grateful. I did the majority of the speaking, but when Jack joined me on the stage, he really did steal the show. His smile is electric.

 

Then yesterday, we shared our story in a whole different way. Through Jack’s school, we were approached by a Taiwanese television station that is making a documentary about children with special needs and adaptive equipment. A large crew of people and cameras arrived bright an early to catch our morning routine (I took care of some early morning messiness before they arrived – THAT would have been a little TOO real). The crew followed JackO around throughout his entire day, and by the time they arrived back from school, they all seemed like old friends. It’s amazing the connections our silent boy is able to make. The documentary is following children with disabilities from four different countries, discussing different approaches cultures have towards the special needs community. It’s scheduled to air in Taiwan in the Fall. They promised to send us a copy. I can’t wait to see our boy on the screen (and to see if my need of highlights is distracting;-).

 

It’s not just our boy who has been getting some attention. Anna received a wonderful invitation last week. On Monday, Boxes of Fun is being recognized as a recipient of the Friends of Child Life Award at New York Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital. We’ve been making Boxes of Fun for the children on the Bone Marrow Transplant floor at the hospital for eight years. Last year, Anna asked to take over and started a club at her school with her dear friend, Jane, to help raise money and fill the boxes. No surprise, they dove right in and have not only raised enough money to extend the program to Hackensack Hospital, but they have raised awareness for both Boxes of Fun and paying it forward. Kids these days . . .

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Our lives are complicated. Big things like fighting with Social Security and little things like Jack developing a habit of soiling his bed overnight. Some days I feel like we are dealing with more than our share of sh*t, but when I step away and look at the big picture, I am reminded that the good still outweighs the bad by a long shot.

I am beyond proud of both of our children. Each with such different lives. Each extraordinary.

 

Love, Jess

 

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Trying to be Duct Tape

Look what Anna stumbled upon while on our School District’s website:

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In case you missed it – check this out!

 

Jack and I have also had the pleasure of speaking to several classes at South Orange Middle School and are scheduled to speak at an event for CPNJ, a Clinton School fundraiser and a few book clubs. Never did I imagine speaking being part of our journey, but here we are.

I was talking with a friend last week who has a child going through a difficult time with his own challenges, and she said, “I can’t wait to be on the other side of this. I can’t wait to be in a place where I can help other families.” All I could say was, “You’ll get there. It’s awesome!”

We could have reached this place and just lived our new normal, but our family was eager to thank everyone who helped us along the way (our duct tape). I’ve never been great with “thank you notes”, so instead we chose to thank our duct tape by paying it forward – by trying to BE DUCT TAPE.

Whether we are delivering Boxes of Fun (Anna and her Columbia High School friends have taken over, but Jack and I still deliver) or talking on the phone to a newly diagnosed ALD family or speaking to a group of young people about kindness – it’s confirming that we are on the other side AND it’s our way of thanking all of you.

I don’t believe that nature/life has a perfect plan for all of us – I’ve witnessed too much to make sense of that as a reality. What I do believe is that we all have the power to make the most of the lives we are living. I might not always make the best choices, but I will always do my best to help others. If our family can be a little bit of duct tape for someone else, we have done our job.

 

Love, Jess

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nothing short of magic

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Last night Dan and I were in the kitchen catching up when we both stopped mid-sentence, “What’s that sound?”

We’ve all been asking that question a lot over the last week. We listened again and quickly realize that it was Jack. We could hear him clearly from three rooms away. It’s nothing short of magic to hear our son. Thank you TruTV!

For everyone who is under the impression that our family is always doing cool, innovated, exciting things all the time – I hate to disappoint you, but you’re sorely mistaken. Most afternoons Jack climbs off the school bus happy, but exhausted. He has a snack and some water through his G-tube and settles down on a pee matt in front of the TV in the den. He watches TV for hours. I always thought parents that allowed such things were lazy, but it’s become part of our routine. It gives Jack a break after his long day of school adventures and it allows whoever is in charge to get stuff done.

Jack is pretty easy to please and for years he has seemed happy enough with the old standby shows on TeenNick or Disney, but lately he’s seemed a little bored. Everyone’s taste changes over time. Sometimes we forget that despite Jack’s challenges he is still maturing and it occurred to us that he might not be into the preteen selections we were forcing on him. So, last weekend I was hanging out with Jack wandering around the Fios guide in search of a good alternative. We stumbled on a channel called TruTV. Loving anything “reality”, I clicked to see what was on.

If Bravo was created for middle-age housewives, TruTV was created for teenage boys and anyone who appreciates teenage boy humor (this includes our entire family). The schedule seems to be rather limited in their content, but Jack doesn’t seem to mind – it’s all new to him. It’s inappropriate and ridiculous and Jack loves every second of what’s on. We haven’t heard him laugh this hard since we spent time with Uncle Pat this summer.

I often use the word silent to describe Jack. It’s mostly true – he doesn’t speak a word or hum or cry out. He can’t yell if he needs us or make even a simple sound on command. It’s hard to really appreciate his silence unless you spend time with him. By far, it’s the hardest part of life with ALD.

Luckily, one sound that ALD did not steal is Jack’s laugh. It’s spontaneous and honest and loud – almost primal. And, Jack has always been generous with sharing it with us. When something resinates with Jack, laughter pours out of him. His new channel might not be a great at Uncle Pat’s stories, but it’s pretty darn awesome!

Love, Jess

 

This is what ALD looks like.

I remember the first time Jack climbed out of his crib. I woke up to his little cherub face against mine saying, “Mommy, wake up!”

How could my two- year-old have managed to climb out of the crib? I marched Jack into his room and had him show me. I put him in his crib and, proud as could be, he lifted his leg over the rail, balance elegantly on the top bar and eased himself down. He hopped to the floor and clapped his hands. My handsome little monkey.

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Flash forward 16 years.

We’ve recently purchased a new camera for Jack’s room. It alerts me every time there’s movement. I tracked it intently for a bit while we were starting a new medication, but eventually I turned off the volume. He was sleeping better and I would still check the history in the morning, but there was no need for me to miss out on beauty sleep for every roll over.

I sure wish that my volume had been turned on Sunday night.

Dan went into Jack’s room Monday morning to let Keegan out, and found Jack walking around his room. When Dan told me this news, I felt a pit in my stomach wondering just how long Jack had been awake. I grabbed my phone to check the history on his camera.

Two and a half hours.

The side rail on Jack’s bed had fallen down at 3:14 am. Jack caught himself before falling off the bed at 3:57 am – he was suddenly awake and on his feet. The video shows him looking at his bed, but he couldn’t figure out what to do, so he walked around his little room until 6:22 am when Dan came in the door.

They say knowledge is power, but sometimes it just breaks your heart. I hate this F#$%ing camera!

I was chatting with a girlfriend this morning telling her how upset I was, “Poor JackO was roaming. Just roaming around. His bed rail had fallen down, he had gotten out of bed and he was just wandering around his room.”

“Was he playing a game?”

“No. Just walking around. Jack doesn’t play games. He can’t.”

“He couldn’t call out to you – make some sort of sound?”

“No. Jack can’t make noise on demand. He can only cough and sneeze and laugh – and those thing needs to come naturally. Other than that he doesn’t make a sound. Even when he cries, it’s silent.”

She was trying so hard to make me feel better, “Don’t worry, if he’d been really tired he would have gotten back in bed.”

This is a friend who has known Jack for his entire life, but even she doesn’t get it. Once up, Jack can’t manage a simple task like getting back on a bed and laying down. I don’t blame my friend. It’s hard to imagine the same teenager that can understand her inappropriate sense of humor, can’t manage something a toddler could do easily.

ALD is strange in it’s choices of what it steals. For every boy it’s a little different, but the disease does have it’s preferences. While many boys lose their ability to hear and see and walk (Jack is lucky), what ALD always manages to do is to create confusion. It’s like static in the brain that get’s stronger the more the boys try to accomplish something. Any tasks that take more than one simple step often cannot be completed. Getting into bed sounds so simple, but for a boy like Jack it’s not – walking over to the bed, sitting down safely, lifting his legs to put them on the bed, and laying down. This is something Jack just can’t do on his own. The two-year-old who could climb out of his crib is now an eighteen-year-old (almost) who get’s stuck.

This is what ALD looks like.

Love, Jess

(The volume on the camera is back on)

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ALD didn’t steal Jack’s smile.

 

The Skimm and the Panda

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Yesterday morning, The Skimm brought me an early Christmas present.

I get most of my news from the morning talk shows. A sound bite of serious, sprinkled within hollywood gossip and seasonal recipe ideas. It’s about all I can handle, but several months ago a friend recommended I check out The Skimm. Perfection. It’s an email that arrives every weekday morning with the important news stories of the day. It’s written like a friend is telling me (for the “Jesses” out there, not the “Dans”). No Skimm on the weekends which makes it even better – who really wants news on the weekends?

Our weekday morning routine is nuts here. We rush around, as if the school bus arriving is the strike of midnight and we will turn into pumpkins. Showering, toileting, eating, medicating, hydrating, brushing and tackling Jack’s “special shoes” onto his “special feet”. When we are done, Jack and I relax, plant our bottoms on the stairs, and open up the Skimm. Jack sits up straight, puts his arm around my neck and we read the news for the day.

Yesterday, among the clutter of news about the fight against ISIS, E.coli and gun control (pro gun control/con ISIS and E. coli), was a story about THE PANDA IN THE SNOWMEN. Finally, I understood what I’d been half-hearing all morning on the Today Show. I double clicked the link so that I could check it out. I’m not great at getting through a newspaper, but I am good at puzzles and within a minute I saw him. “Jack I see the panda. How about you?”

I pointed my finger, which he took without hesitation, and he pointed directly at the panda. Seconds. Amazing.

I know that some of you are thinking that it’s cheating because I let Jack use my hand to point. I thought the same thing when the school told me that it was their latest technique for having Jack make choices. I figured that it was like using a ouija board and that whoever was in change was subconsciously directing. I assure you that it’s not. Jack is quite clear about his intentions. And, Jack quickly saw the panda.

A friend commented to me that the trick with those types of puzzles is to relax your eyes and not stress. No wonder it came so easily to Jack. Jack lives his life fully relaxed and with no stress. We should all be so lucky.

MeRrY ChRiStMaS EvE!!

 

Love, Jess

 

Love That Max

Love That Max is a blog I’ve followed for years, and I am not alone. The blog is currently the #1 disability blog by traffic ranking and a Babble Top 100 Mom Blog. It has been featured on CNN.com, Today.com, Yahoo, The New York Times’ blog The Motherlode, AOL, MSN.com, MTV.com and The Daily Mail, as well as in Redbook, Real Simple, Parents, Good Housekeeping, Woman’s Day, Family Circle and All You magazines.

Ellen Seidman is an incredible writer and an inspirational mother to her three children. I’m honored and excited that she shared my piece, When my son communicates, will he share our secrets?.

Please take a peek and cross your fingers that Jack doesn’t have any secrets about you;-)

Love, Jess

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quietly clapping

As I looked through Jack’s backpack on Friday afternoon, I found a small whiteboard and a note from Monica (Jack’s school aide/school mom). She said that she had bought the board for Jack thinking it might be interesting, “He’s doing great answering questions. He’s so smart!”

I almost ignored the note. We get a lot of “great ideas” here at 26 Clinton Avenue, and most end up being less than successful experiments. The whiteboard lay on the kitchen island until later that night when Dan and I finally tried a few simple “yes” and “no” questions. Jack quickly and clearly circled the appropriate answers. We were impressed, but got distracted and didn’t think too much about it. Saturday we tried again with Anna, and she didn’t give her brother an easy time. She started asking questions, requiring Jack to read the options himself before circling the correct answer. Question after question he answered them all without hesitation. Eager to test how much he was reading, Anna took it a step further. She started writing out the questions silently. No hints or help. Jack didn’t miss a beat. He’d look at the question and circle the correct answer.

Over the last eight years we’ve seen hints that Jack could still read, but we had no idea to what extent. Until now, his fine motor skills have prevented much progress with holding a pen. Even something as simple as a circle was out of his reach. Now, Jack might not need to relay solely on his smile to get his point across. He may finally have access to words. AMAZING! Jack being able to tell us what he wants for dinner OR how he’s feeling OR what hurts. The possibilities are endless.

We’ve shared this update with some friends and family and the news has been greeted with high-fives, tears and hugs. Everyone knows that communication has always been on the top of our “wish list”. I think people have been surprised by our calm demeanor while describing this new milestone. I know we should be opening the champagne and dancing in the streets and we will – in time. We’re simply being careful. It’s self-protection.

Progress doesn’t always happen in a straight line and for people with ALD the road can be particularly inconsistent. ALD can tease you with progress than steal it back without explanation. This makes celebrating successes a little nerve wracking. Our family braces for good news as much as we do for bad news. I think every day that Jack is able to repeat his new trick/mind blowing triumph, we will feel a little more confident about celebrating. Until then, we are quietly clapping, dancing and doing summersaults.

Love, Jess

Our family has tried EVERYTHING to help Jack access language. It’s amazing that something as simple as a little whiteboard might be the start of a new chapter. Monica – we love you!!

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Jack didn’t miss a beat answering this one!

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Anna left this for Jack earlier today. He didn’t hesitate.

the talking dream

I remember the first time I heard my voice on my father’s mini-tape recorder. I was about four, singing Itsy Bitsy Spider. It sounded so strange. He’d taped me just minutes before, but I still questioned if it was really me. Although we live in these modern times full of videos, I’ve managed to avoid them. Not even our wedding made it to VHS or DVD or HD or whatever they’re calling it today. So, imagine how I felt when I sat down and watched myself sharing my story,  The Talking Dream, at Listen to Your Mother.

A few comments:

1.) Bangs don’t translate well with overhead lights.
2.) My hands move in a way that makes me uncomfortable.
3.) I play with my wedding band obsessively.
4.) I’m not a pretty crier.
5.) All this, and I’m still proud.

Check out the rest of the cast — I shared the stage with a talented crew!
Love, Jess

Words

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I’m sad to report that we didn’t win the lottery last night. I’m not sure why I’m always surprised when our numbers don’t match. A feeling of disappointment comes over me when we need to reshelf our “early retirement, Block Island dream house, pay off everyone’s mortgage” plans. Truthfully, money isn’t even what our family dreams about most. Our real dream is for words.

A friend of mine posted a question on Facebook yesterday, “If you could have one free day of any illness, what would you do?” THAT is a lottery that our family would love to win! I spent only a second before answering, “We would listen to Jack’s stories all day long.”

Jack does not speak, sign or write notes. Not only do I miss hearing him say “I love you Mommy”, but his lack of speech makes certain situations particularly challenging. We were at the hospital two weeks ago with Jack. He was clearly sick and not able to tell us what was bothering him. Not knowing if it was his stomach, his throat or his ears created the need for additional tests and extra worries. Even on a typical day Jack’s silence is complicated. His inability to call out if he needs us in the night sets Jack apart from even a young baby.

Strangers often have a difficult time understanding. They assume that his speech is limited or difficult to understand. I try to be clear, explaining that the only sounds Jack makes are sneezing, coughing and laughing.

“But how do you know when Jack’s hungry or sad?” I try to explain that although he can’t be specific, Jack is able to communicate most of his needs without words. When he locks his eyes on yours he is able to be quite clear. I’m not really sure how he manages this, but people who love Jack learn quickly how to read his eyes and his silence becomes less quiet. While he might not be able to tell you when he has a sore throat, he can fill a room with stories without saying a word.

It doesn’t mean that we are content with Jack’s silence. Seven years after ALD stole his words l still dream of hearing them. Dreams so realistic I can still hear the sound of his voice when I open my eyes. It’s hard to wake up smiling only to realize that it was just a dream, but I won’t trade those magical moments for a winning lottery ticket (even the $485 million variety)!!
Love, Jess

Jack does use an iPad and (mostly at school) has some success answering questions AND Jack is able to sigh one thing — I LOVE YOU.