If it weren’t for ALD . . .

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I ask myself a lot of questions that start with, “If it weren’t for ALD . . .”

If it weren’t for ALD . . . would I still be a photographer?

If it weren’t for ALD . . . would I have ever written anything besides shopping lists?

If it weren’t for ALD . . . what would Dan and my relationship look like?

If it weren’t for ALD . . . would we travel more?

If it weren’t for ALD . . . would Jack love music so much?

If it weren’t for ALD . . . would Anna be thinking about studying art over medicine?

If it weren’t for ALD . . . would Jack’s laughter be as loud?

If it weren’t for ALD . . . what would this year feel like?

I knew that this was coming, and did my best to brace for it, but I am still having a hard time. I open up Facebook and I’m faced with dozens of pictures of dorm rooms and college gear. Smiling family portraits of the last hug before mom and dad get in their car to leave their kids that are starting their next chapter.

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I thought I was okay, but the other day while getting Jack’s haircut, we were approached by one of his old friends. Jack was delighted and didn’t miss a beat – he went right in for a hug and a lick. Jack was fine, but seeing her beautiful smile and hearing about her plans had me crying before I knew what was happening.

So many tears.

I’ve been asking myself — If it weren’t for ALD . . . would I be crying this much as I said goodbye to these kids?

I’m a girl that cries at commercials and the cheesiest of Hallmark cards, so I’m guessing this milestone would have arrived with plenty of tears if Jack were among his college bound peers, but I know that it’s made more intense because ALD did happened – because Jack won’t ever reach this milestone, because it’s another thing he’s missing, because he’s being left behind.

If it weren’t for ALD . . . where would Jack be headed? Would we be driving or flying? Would he be off to study history or art or a language? Would we be excited to empty our nest a bit or dreading the goodbye? How can I NOT wonder “If it weren’t for ALD . . . ?” And, how can I NOT be sad?

So, my tears are flowing these days, as I expected they would be, but I’m realizing that there is another, unexpected layer to my sorrow.

I’m suddenly aware that a big life chapter is coming to a close — not just for the kids heading off, but for everyone they’re leaving behind. So much of my life for the last 19 years has been, not just as a mother to my own children, but watching all these other little humans go from babies to toddlers to school-age children to young women and men. I can’t believe that these kids are starting to move on, leaving everyone in their wake to figure out what they’re supposed to do with our new “freedom”. My nest will always remain full, but the focus of my circle of friends is changing. Friends are talking about selling their houses and starting new projects and careers.

How did we get here? What does that mean for our family? Just when I reached a place where I felt comfortable with my roll in the world, it’s changing. If it weren’t for ALD . . . would I be so uncomfortable with this change?

Crap.

Love, Jess

Today brings the hardest blow yet. Katie V and Katie M each head out for college (RJ is just a week away). These are not just family friends, they are family. Kids that have been been with us — held us up — before, during and after. We are going to miss you guys. Good luck, have fun, and feel free to call Aunt Jess with anything that your mom and dad might not want to hear;)

 

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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And the Winner is . . .

Smack in the middle of remembering the hell we went through ten years ago, we got a beautiful reminder of where we are now.

THIS is where we are now — We are winning the GOLD!!!!!

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This amazing day was thanks to the Special Olympics and the greatest school on the planet – CPNJ Horizon High School. Their love, support, training and encouragement helped Jack hop his way to the finish-line!!

If this video made you smile (or cry happy tears), please consider making a donation to Jack’s school.

https://cpnj.donorpages.com/WWCHorizonHighSchool2017/JesseTorrey/?t=636288010860612211

Love, Jess (proud mama)

P.S. It’s not really about winning, it’s about being able to play the game. Thanks to the Special Olympics and Horizon High School – Jack was able to play the game!

P.P.S. It is kinda fun to win sometimes;)

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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How to raise a great kid – HANDS OFF!

I had a super stressful dream last night. Not my typical, “I forgot to wear pants to the grocery store” dream. This was new and I woke up sweating.

I dreamt that I was having trouble with my college essays and not sure if I would get my applications done on time. I could read into it, but I think it’s pretty clear what my subconscious was trying to tell me — it’s time to relax and go back to HANDS OFF parenting Anna.

The truth is I’m usually a pretty hands off parent with Anna. Not to say that I don’t grill her after every party and open her report cards, but both Dan and I generally allow Anna to make most of her choices without too much guidance. Safety is (of course) important, but other than a curfew, she has very few rules (and even that is pretty negotiable).

It started when Jack got sick. Anna was only six years old and her family scattered. She went from having a father who was available every day to toss a ball with her after dinner and a mother who was always finding random excuses to show up at her school, to not knowing who would be home to tuck her in bed each night. She knew her family loved her, but she also knew that if she needed something, sometimes it was just easier to make it happen herself. Siblings of special needs kids have a perspective that their “typical” peers don’t.

Although I appreciate how fun it would be to helicopter around and watch everything Anna does while adding my two-cents, I just don’t have the time or the energy. If Jack needs me, it means he needs assistance with eating or needs his diaper changed. I can’t NOT do it. If Anna has a question about her homework, Google is faster than waiting outside of the bathroom door.

As IF I could help with her homework.

Don’t think that Anna’s not getting any attention from me. We talk and text throughout the day about everything from clothes to friends to our relationships with God. We have breakfast and dinner together (“breakfast” is her eating an Eggo waffle and me drinking coffee, but dinner is an actual meal that I have prepared). We are so close that we are starting to look like each other. When people see us together they call her “Mini-Me” and it’s not just that we look alike, our mannerisms and senses of humor are the same – it’s almost creepy.

We’re close – what I mean by HANDS OFF parenting is that I don’t micromanage her. I don’t watch over her constantly to make sure she is doing things just so. She needed to get her driving permit a couple of weeks ago and all I said was, “Great. Just ask around and tell me who to hire. I will make the first phone call, then it’s all you.”

When she was planning her course-load for junior year, instead of digging through all the choices, Dan and I just sat back and watched her come up with her perfect schedule. My only input was “I think I would prefer AP Art to AP Calculus, but if that’s your thing – have at it!”

We trust Anna because she has proven that she can be trusted. She is a great student and has a wonderful circle of friends. She makes good choices (mostly – she IS a teenager). She is kind to her brother and when I watch her interact with other people I am proud of who she is.

We’ve been so relaxed with Anna that I was surprised that Dan and I climbed on board the “college train” with such intensity. Looking through college books, long talks around the dinner table, planning trips to see schools. Perhaps it’s a distraction from NOT working on the project with Jack or maybe it’s just super fun because Anna has an impressive transcript —  And, maybe part of it is that Dan and I really, really, really want to go back to college ourselves;). But, I need to be careful. I’ve found myself checking Powerschool daily and questioning grades, looking at that giant book of colleges even when Anna isn’t home, thinking about essay topics and waiting anxiously for the next round of ACT scores. I’m getting dizzy with all the information and Anna is not appreciating the frantic input.

“Mom, you know I have this covered, right?”

Yes, I know you do baby girl. You have turned into a remarkable young woman and I know you will do amazing things. Mom will go back to HANDS OFF parenting. Just let me know when you need me.

And, when can we plan that trip to Virginia and North Carolina . . . and Boston – we need to go to Boston!dsc00726

Love, Jess

 

What’s NVRN spell? Nothing.

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This is the smile that gets me through the hard stuff.

 

At my tennis lesson last week, I saw a young woman who looked familiar. She was a little older than Anna, and I was having trouble placing her. I went back to trying to focus on my forehand when it hit me, “Hey. Did you happen to go to Morrow Preschool?”

“Yes.”

Suddenly I could picture this slim young woman as a little girl a dozen years ago, with rosy cheeks and a glowing smile, playing with Jack on the playground at their preschool.

“You were in my son Jack’s class.”

“Wow. I’m not sure I remember him. Does he go to the high school?”

I sometimes freeze when I get hit with what’s happened. Maplewood is usually a safe place, where everyone knows our story. Where I don’t need to say things out loud. My stomach turned as I tried to choose my words so that we could simply go back to groundstrokes and drop shots, “No. Jack goes to a special school. His life’s kinda complicated.”

Now that we were both feeling awkward, I wished I hadn’t started this exchange and quickly looked for a transition. Her sweatshirt was bright and new with the name of her future, WESLEYAN, “You’re a senior this year? Heading off to Wesleyan in the fall? That’s wonderful.”

That’s all it took. Her smile grew, as she went from wondering what happened to her old classmate, to thinking about the adventures that lay ahead. We were both allowed to continue with our lesson, focusing on easier things than how complicated life can be.

When I got home from the lesson, I went into Jack’s room to say goodnight. He was sitting up in bed, and as soon as I walked in the door, he gave me a big smile as if he’d been waiting for me to tuck him in. I gave him a kiss on his forehead and laid him back down. As I covered him up, I realized he was wearing the bright purple NORTHWESTERN sweatshirt that we’d gotten him last year while visiting my parent’s alma mater.

The sweatshirt is missing all but 3 1/2 of it’s letters. Jack has somehow managed to eat the rest. He has eaten the O,R,T,H, most of the W, E, S, T, and E.

I can’t make this stuff up. It is a college sweatshirt that’s missing the college.

Love, Jess

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It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s Jack!

Poor Jack. His life is so limited.

It’s such a shame he needs to go to school every day. He probably just sits there, staring at the clock, hoping for time to pass quickly.

OR, He gets to fly across a stage!

 

 

Jack’s school mom, Monica, sends us pictures and videos almost every day of his school adventures. Yesterday’s was particularly amazing. Jack just might be the luckiest kid on the planet!

No need to feel sorry for our boy;)

Love, Jess

“special” moms

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What happens when you put 8 special needs moms at a table? You hear a whole lot of swearing and laughter.

Last night I went out with a group of moms to celebrate an incredible woman who is leaving HHS (she’s not a special needs mom herself, but she gets us and we miss her already). The mood was mixed as we arrived — goodbyes are never easy and change is particularly hard for us special needs moms. Our friendships vary from close to barely acquaintance, but we all share one thing – being the mom to a special kid (or two).

The hostess showed us to a table in the back of the restaurant, where we were less likely to bother other patrons. I guess a table full of ladies always has the potential for loud voices and racy chitchat. Within moments of sitting down, several conversations started at the same time. Far from the discussions I have with my “typical” mom peers, that center around our kids GPAs, prom, college applications and juicy town gossip, most of the discussions around the the table last night were about guardianship, social security and how many seizures in a day is normal in our given homes.

Such different words, but the tone felt similar to any other moms’ night out. I imagine if you couldn’t hear the particulars of our conversations, we looked and sounded just like any other group of middle-aged women. And, once we got settled and the wine got poured, the laughter started.

I’ve never had many “special” mom friends. Remember – Jack was typical until he was eight. By the time our family was thrown into the special needs world, our dance card was full. Besides, I didn’t think I could possibly have much in common with a group of women I felt vaguely sorry for. I figured they must be so sad all the time and overwhelmed and have no time for anything except doctoring and complaining.

Then, one day I realized that I WAS a special needs mom. I’d earned my title and I wasn’t completely buried under the job requirements. Perhaps there were others like me. Other moms with special kids who were still living life and wanted friends who understood them in a way that their typical friends couldn’t.

I started slow and found a couple moms at our last school and was amazed to discover that they were just normal women who happened to know the difference between a grand mal and an absence seizure and what the letters AAC stood for . I had a lot in common with some and absolutely nothing in common with others – just like “typical” people. Amazing!

It’s taken some time, but I finally have a little circle of women that I can call my friends who know one side of me that’s still foreign to most people in my life. We can bounce off ideas about alternative therapies and strategies for shaving/haircutting/and all-around-grooming our teenagers AND we can bitch about our husbands (not me Dan, it was the other ladies) and talk about our new diet plans. AND, we can laugh about (almost) all of it!

I left dinner feeling lucky that I’ve found this group of ladies. I wish it hadn’t taken me so long to realize that “special” moms are just “typical” moms with more patience and a better sense of humor. I look forward to my next “special” moms’ night out!!
Love, Jess

I did learn a few things last night. Wondering what words you should never use? “Retarded” and “normal”. What words are A-OK with special needs moms? “Intellectually delayed” and “asshole”.

Poop, shower and shave

Jack’s school, Horizon High School (HHS), is having their annual fundraiser and I wanted to write a post encouraging everyone to make a donation. My first draft was filled with all the extraordinary experiences offered to the children at HHS. Physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, a school store, student government, theater, aqua therapy, an outdoor garden. This is all on top of academic subjects (modified versions of Science, Career Skills, Social Studies, Language Arts, Life Skills, Drama, World Cultures, Art, Music, Technology, and Math).

Horizon High School is amazing for all those reasons, but there is one other reason that not all parents will admit. Horizon High School gives me a break.

I’m always happy when the small white van (no yellow bus for us) arrives, and today when I saw the bus out our front window, I started crying happy tears.

This morning was particularly tough at 26 Clinton Avenue. I knew it would be as soon as I walked into Jack’s room. Even Jack’s brilliant smile couldn’t mask the odor. “Come on JackO! This is gonna require a long shower and some extra cologne.”

If I keep Jack laughing, I have a chance at survival.

Eight years into this new life and I have developed an amazing skill where I can almost shut off my eyesight and sense of smell, so that I can go through motions required to clean up after a messy situation. I can’t even describe this morning’s shower fully, but we went through a half dozen washcloths and I needed to wash the tub when we were finished.

Just as I was getting Jack out of the shower, he surprised us both by peeing on the bathroom floor. One more quick rinse in the shower and I added the floor to my list of cleaning duties. As I got Jack dressed, I glanced at my watch and realized that we had lost valuable minutes and needed to rush through the normal “upstairs routine” in record time – teeth, deodorant, hair brushing. If only I hadn’t told Dan my plan for today. We still had our “downstairs routine” – breakfast, medication, hydration, and those cumbersome leg braces to deal with. And, now I had to shave Jack too. Alone.

I’m not entirely sure why I thought telling Dan that I would shave Jack was going to make the chore disappear. Jack was already in bed when I shared my plan. I couldn’t have expected Dan to wake up his son to shave him. And, I knew the fuzzy hair wasn’t going to evaporate on it’s own. But, it had been over a week since his last shave and Jack was starting to sport a look that was a cross between gangster and homeless. I couldn’t help but mention the need for a shave and that “I guess I will be the one to do it.”

After our “upstairs routine” was over, I helped Jack down the flight of stairs and I fed him, gave him his medication and 12 ounces of water through his g-tube. Then I sat him down on our steps to put on his leg braces and sneakers, already cursing as he did very little to help with the process. Once we were done, I took a deep breath, put Jack in a headlock and took out the electric razor.

As soon as Jack heard the motor, he started wrestling. If anyone had witnessed the scene, I would defiantly have lost my parental rights. He was wiggling and trying to grab my hand as if I was pummeling his face. I did my best to keep him safe and I attacked the beard while yelling one four letter word after another. After about five minutes we were both exhausted and Jack’s face looked better – not great, but better.

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Now, we were ready for the bus. Just an hour since the alarm went off and I was already in need of a nap. Horizon High School to the rescue!

Horizon High School is amazing for so many reasons – it’s individualized curriculums, warm and brilliant staff, beautiful facilities, but sometimes the thing I love most is that it’s a place that Jack can go every day, be safe and loved AND I’M NOT IN CHARGE. I love our boy and can deal with a lot of crap, but sometimes I need a break.

Love, Jess

Please consider supporting our wonderful school.  DONATE TO HORIZON HIGH SCHOOL

 

 

 

Here are some reasons to vote . . .

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Aidan Jack Seeger

I have a favor to ask of all of you who read this blog. VOTE YES!!

Aidan’s Law will require ALD screening in all fifty states. Many of you won’t need persuading to stop what you are doing and sign this petition, but some of you may pause and wonder if, in a world full of issues, we should be focusing too much attention and money on a rare disease. This post is for YOU. I have five reasons you should consider signing.

1. NUMBERS

As far as rare diseases, ALD is not so rare.

The current guess is that ALD effects 1 in 17,000 people. I say “guess”, because as our country does more testing, we are finding that many people have been mis-diagnosed with other diseases. ALD is a disease that winds it’s way through families and often does a good job at hiding for a generation or two and masking itself with a variety of symptoms/timelines/etc.

2. SURVIVAL

Aidan Seeger’s story is all too common with ALD. Without the luxury of an early diagnosis, the disease is allowed to devastate the body, stealing one thing after another as a family struggles to figure out what’s happening. Once a proper diagnosis is made, the options are limited and often prove to be too late for an already worn out body.

When Jack was first diagnosed, we found a half-dozen other families who were going through the processes of stem cell transplant (still the most popular treatment option). Jack is the only one of those boys who is still alive.

3. QUALITY OF LIFE

Jack is fortunate to have been diagnosed with just enough time to receive treatment and with just enough luck and energy to survive. Unfortunately, ALD did managed to steal much of his quality of life. While he is happy and doing well, he is fully dependent. We feed him, hydrate him (through a tube in his belly), medicate him, dress him, toilet him. He needs someone to walk him from the den to the kitchen. And, Jack is doing far better than some of his ALD peers. Most of these boys are in wheel chairs and many have significant hearing and vision loss.

4. MONEY

Many people are hesitant to stand behind and pour money towards an unknown disease. It’s important to understand just how expensive it is for our society to raise boys who survive after a late diagnosis.

Jack’s education costs almost $100,000 a year. He requires (and receives) physical therapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy several times a week. He has an aide who’s job it is to work solely with him, because he is not able to maneuver through his day at his special needs school.

Jack is turning 18 in a few months. An eighteenth birthday is usually celebrated with a party and the honor of voting, being able to serve in our military and applying for college. For Jack, his birthday comes with Dan and I applying for guardianship and Jack becoming eligible for both Social Security and Medicaid.

Jack is a very sweet and VERY EXPENSIVE member of our society.

5. IN CASE YOU NEED MORE

It would have been heartbreaking to learn when Jack was just a baby that a gene was lurking in his body that would likely someday need complicated treatment. It would have been difficult to find the proper doctors to monitor his development as he went through childhood. It would have been devastating to get the news that ALD had started it’s war on Jack’s brain and that we needed to drop everything and proceed with treatment.

BUT this would have happened with enough time that right now Jack would be approaching his eighteenth birthday with a healthy body and a future full of opportunities. If only Aidan’s Law had been passed 18 years ago.

There are 402 more signatures needed on this petition. Let’s help get this wrapped up today. Thank you to the Seeger family for devoting their lives to this cause.

AIDAN’S LAW – VOTE NOW!

Love, Jess