Our Thanksgiving Chime

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The calm before the storm

We have an alarm that sounds every time the front door opens — a two-note chime. It’s usually followed by Finn (bad dog) barking loudly and racing to see who’s arrived and how long he can get away with jumping all over them. Last week, the constant chime exhausted poor Finn so that by Wednesday, all he could manage was to lift his head off the couch for a second to see who’d walked in the door before returning to his nap. 

At the beginning of the week, I too would race to see who’d arrived so that I could give them some love and offer them a snack or something to drink. After a couple of days, I figured everyone knew that I loved them and how to walk to the kitchen.

Anna was home for Thanksgiving (THANKS GOODNESS) and our dear friends – the Mackays – joined us for the holiday week. An extra five people and a dog, adding some noise to our “far too quiet since Anna left for college” house.

We invited another ten people and two dogs for Thanksgiving Day. Nineteen humans, five dogs, two turkeys (one fried), six pies, two stuffings, bourbon sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, green beans, salad, cranberry sauce, and more wine then our poor recycling cans could manage. Crazy, delicious, fun AND constant door chimes.

We said goodbye after Thanksgiving dinner to ten guests and two dogs, but added two more people on Friday (my best friend from college, Enger, and Katie Mackays roommate, Hanna). I feared we’d not have the energy to entertain them, but we managed. We even threw in a little party on Saturday night to round off the week!

The front door kept on chiming.

Yesterday we woke up and everyone did their part cleaning up the house, stripping beds and starting the laundry. Then, one by one everyone headed out – back to college, work, reality. I usually love the quiet after the storm of a holiday, but everything was so perfect last week, that I really didn’t want it to end.

I’ve been stressing lately about some things, but when it comes down to it, our lives are wonderful. Our friends, our family – they’re really all that matters. I can’t wait for the holidays to continue. We need some time with the Torrey side – and our door needs to go back to chiming!!

Love, Jess

PS Anna comes home in 17 days and the Mackays promised to come for New Years!!!!

 

National Daughter’s Day

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I missed National Daughter’s Day. Just one day without looking at my Facebook feed, and when I returned I was bombarded with piles of sweet pictures of everyone’s daughters. I felt like crap. How could I have missed National Daughter’s Day?!?

I went instantly to my phone, searching for the cutest photo of me and my girl to show everyone that I’m NOT a bad mom and that my daughter is way better than everyone else’s. I narrowed it down to a few good shots and thought about FaceTiming Anna for her advice, before realizing that I was acting crazy. I don’t need a National Day to remember I have a daughter or to celebrate her — I do a pretty good job doing those things on my own.

Not sure about you, but I can’t keep up. It seems that every day there is another National Day/Month reminding us to celebrate, remember or eat.

There are some great ones:

October 5 — World Teacher’s Day
June — Pride Month
June 20 — World Refugee Day
September — Leukodystrophy Awareness Month (for us, every month is Leukodystrophy Awareness Month)
November 27 — Giving Tuesday

Those are good ones, but then there are these:

January 4 — National Spaghetti Day
June — Turkey Lover’s Month
October 5 — National Do Something Nice Day (we need a day for this?)
June 1 — National Donut Day
June 9 — National Rose Day (I didn’t see one for Sauvignon Blanc, but June 14 is National Bourbon Day and September 7 is National Beer Lover’s Day)
October 15 — Global Hand Washing Day
September 16 — Wife Appreciation Day (just one day?)
March 10 — National Landline Telephone Day
June 21 — National Selfie Day
April 10 — Be Kind to Lawyers Day

The problem with these holidays is they distracted from things that should truly be celebrated AND they have people scrambling to join in. If you don’t eat ice cream on July 15, you’re missing out. If you don’t post a cute picture of your daughter on National Daughter’s Day you are a bad mom. So we keep going. I’m all for celebrating, but don’t you think it’s getting a little ridiculous? When we celebrate everything from quiche (May 14) to paperclips (April 4) to watches (June 19) to kite flying (February 8) isn’t it taking away from living in the moment? What if I don’t want quiche on May 14th, but I’m really digging the clam chowder that’s in front of me (National Clam Chowder Day is February 25) — should I feel guilty?

Perhaps we should consider celebrating things we love every single day.

I am trying to stop, but now I can’t stop looking at the National Days list. I wondered what National Days corresponded with our birthdays.

Dan’s Birthday (March 2) — National Read Across America Day (Dan does like to read and he loves America).

Anna’s Birthday (June 28) — National Tapioca Day (and National Nude Day, but let’s focus on tapioca . . . not sure if Anna has ever tasted tapioca, but I bet she would like it).

Jack’s Birthday (August 5) — National Underwear Day (NOT National Diaper Day? There is a Diaper Need Awareness Week in September, which is a lovely, but we need a new day on the calendar just for 20-year-old men who wear diapers). August 5 is also National Sister Day (THAT is perfect!!!)

My Birthday (November 19) — World Toilet Day (if you’ve spent time with me and my small, ALD affected bladder you know that this makes perfect sense).

In case you’re wondering. Today, September 27th, is National Chocolate Milk Day Day. Who knew???

Love, Jess

I don’t think I need to, but why not share some photos of my sweet daughter;)

Happy Belated Daughter’s Day!!!

lunch – the recap

In case you missed Wednesday’s post – CLICK HERE.

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seven hours of driving + a quick tour of campus + lunch with our girl = best day EVER!

It was just what we all needed. Seeing Anna in her element helped me let go of my nerves about how she’s doing. She’s thriving. Her classwork is interesting, she loves exploring Baltimore and has made many wonderful new friends (we got to meet several). Two hours of showing us around her new turf and a fun lunch and we were on our way. Saying goodbye was not easy, but we will see Anna for Parent’s Weekend in a couple of weeks and again in early November for Cousin Carlos’ Baptism. Thank goodness – we need more Anna time!

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Saying goodbye wasn’t easy.

Thank you for all the love and support this week. I heard from many moms that they’re feeling the same way and I’m not alone in the crazy drive/hug/lunch/hug/drive. I also heard from a few kids who shared that they appreciate crazy drive/hug/lunch/hug/drives! I sure hope Anna did, because I have a feeling this won’t be the only time I pull this stunt;)

Thank you Anna for being you and, thank you Jack and Mymom for being my partners in crime!!!!!!

Love, Jess

 

a table full of girls

Over the weekend we attended another graduation party celebrating a dear friend of Anna. They’ve known each other since they were tiny, and she has spent so much time with our family, that I consider her to be another daughter. Dan loves her too and Jack would think of her as a sister, if he didn’t have such a massive crush on her.

She’s not alone. Jack has crushes on all of Anna’s girlfriends. And these girls are wonderful to our boy. When they come to our house, the first thing they do when they walk in our door is ask, “Where’s Jack?” and then seek him out to give him a smooch. Some days I find Jack in the middle of the sofa surrounded by beautiful teenage girls watching Gilmore Girls or lose track of him to discover that he’s made his way up to Anna’s room to listen to some girlie gossip.

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Jack and some of the gals a few years ago.

Most of Anna’s circle of friends she’s known since diaper days. They knew Anna when she was a chubby little girl with a crooked smile. They knew our first house over on Jefferson Avenue and they knew Dan and I before we had gray hair. These kids also knew our family before ALD came screeching into our lives. They knew Jack when he was just a year ahead of them in school, loved to ride his bike and was one of the MCs in the school talent show (the only video we have where we can hear him speaking . . . ).

I realized while watching the girls at the party that I’m not just saying goodbye to Anna as she heads out to college — I’m saying goodbye to her buddies too. And, so is Jack.

I know Anna will find a wonderful new cluster of friends at college. She has good taste in friends and seems to always be surrounded by a funny, smart, kind assortment of people. I’m sure she will share a lot about her family with these new friends. About her loud Dad who graduated from Hopkins and loves history, music, lacrosse and the Yankees. She will undoubtedly share stories of her mother who insists on family dinners, needs constant help with wardrobe advice and spelling, and drinks a little more white wine than she should. And, I’m sure Anna’s new friends will hear a ton about her brother – the person who she adores more than anyone on the planet. They will hear what happened when Anna was only six-years-old and how it shaped so much of who she is now and what she longs to do with her life. Her new friends will see pictures of all of us and maybe even meet us over the next few years, but they will never know the whole story. They will never really know Jack the way that Anna’s childhood friends do.

I know that some of the relationships Anna has with her childhood crew will ebb and flow for a while. They are scattering all over the US for the next four years. It will be hard, but I really hope that they all make an effort to meet up again whenever they can. I’m lucky to still be close with a few of my childhood friends and it’s amazing how they know me on a level that newer friends just can’t reach. There’s something magical about childhood friends.

The graduation party was wonderful — good food, some white wine for me, and a lot of familiar faces. As I sat inside to escape the heat, I watched Jack through a large picture window. He was sitting next to Anna at a table full of some of his favorite girls. He had a grin from ear to ear. I know there will be more parties and tables full of these girls, but they will be a further apart now that many of the kids are heading off. I want to make sure that I savor them while I can and make sure JackO gets to enjoy as much girl time as possible before the summer comes to a close.

Love, Jess

Finito

Yesterday I was at a doctor’s office waiting to get my annual mammogram. If you’ve ever had a mammogram, you know that it isn’t any fun. As I waited to be called, I was trying to distract myself with cheesy magazines and social media before starting to send text messages, DanO – how’s your day going? Kim – Wanna head to the beach later this week? Anna – When do you get home from school today?

Before I hit send on the last one, it hit me. Anna wasn’t getting home from school, because she didn’t have school. She’s done. Finito. I’d known it was coming for 18 years, celebrated with her at countless parties over the last two weeks, and sat through a two hour ceremony filled with caps and gowns, playing Pomp and Circumstance BUT it didn’t really sink in until I was sitting in a sterile waiting room with a bunch of strangers, all of us wearing nothing but red and pink striped robes.

Welcome to my world. I was actually relieved when my name was called to go have my boobs smashed flat as pancakes.

Enough of me, my boobs, and my crazy emotions – here are some photos of Anna on her big day!

 

Love, Jess

My mammogram — unlike me — was normal.

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Get Swabbed

Eleven years ago we were told that Jack had Adrenoleukodystropy and that the only way to stop the progression of this hideous disease was a stem cell transplant (bone marrow transplant). Anna, who was 6-years-old at the time, would have been the best option, but she was not a match. Our doctors were forced to look on the bone marrow registry for a potential donor.

Imagine being told that the only chance of saving your child’s life is if a stranger is willing to make a donation.

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At the time I didn’t know much about stem cell donation. Online research did little to calm my nerves. At any given time, over 7,500 Americans are actively searching the national registry for an unrelated donor and only 2 % of our population is on the registry. And, what are the chances of finding a donor? Caucasian patients – 75%, hispanic patients 45% , asian patients – 40%, african-american patients – 25%, and multi-racial patients are faced with the worst odds. Over 3,000 people die each year because they can’t find a match.

Jack was lucky. Although there were no matches on the bone marrow registry, a stranger had donated their daughter’s cord blood (another option for a stem cell transplant) and Jack received those precious cells which stopped his disease and saved his life.

We’ve helped host many drives in the last eleven years and there have been at least three lives saved by spreading the word and helping people register. We are doing it again this weekend thanks to our friend, Elizabeth Sarkisian, and our local YMCA.

If you would like to learn more about bone marrow donation or would like to add yourself to the registry (and are between the ages of 18-55, not active military, in good general health, and over 105 pounds) please join us on Saturday 12pm-3pm at the YMCA in Maplewood.

Love, Jess

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Please keep in mind we are looking for people to register that are committed to donating if called. Otherwise there is false hope and wasted time for patients. Thank you!!!!!!

THIS is Alexander Disease (a cousin of ALD) #8 — Olivia Kay

By now I hope you are starting to understand Adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD). If you know our family or have followed Smiles and Duct Tape for a while, you know what ALD looks like for Jack. THIS is ALD has hopefully helped you to better understand what the disease looks like for other patients. I have many more of those stories to share, but today I want to share a story about a little girl named Olivia Kay and a disease called Alexander Disease Leukodystrophy.

Leukodystrophies are a group of rare, progressive, metabolic, genetic diseases that affect the brain and spinal cord by destroying the myelin sheath. There are dozens of Leukodystrophies (including ALD) and Alexander Disease is the most rare of the bunch.

Olivia Kay’s mother, Lisa, offered to write their family’s story and I was eager to share a story about another disease related to ALD. Meet Olivia Kay.

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THIS is ALD (actually, Alexander Disease) # 8 — Olivia Kay

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It was December 10, 2009 when I received a phone call from a doctor with the Cleveland Clinic. Did I know that morning that when I would wake that very day, it would become my daughter’s “day of diagnosis”? In the community of “parent’s raising special needs children”, it’s the day you treat like a holiday, but often not celebrated by any means. You never forget it and dread when it’s near. Like most parents, they remember that day just like any other parent never forgets the day their child first walked, or said their first word or peddled their first bicycle. It was the day that I was told my daughter would not live very long and she was going to die. Now I carry that day with me, for the rest of my life.

Olivia Kay was born with Alexander Disease Leukodsytrophy. Alexander Disease is the rarest form of more than 50 forms of Leukodystrophy. She was diagnosed with infantile onset, which means, between the ages of birth and 2 years of age. Diagnosis can only be verified through genetic testing. And sadly, there is no cure. Those who are affected by the disease appear healthy until the onset of symptoms. Olivia was very healthy and started having developmental issues and seizures at 10 months of age. This began our journey and the start of many hospitalizations and medical appointments.

There are three onsets – Infantile, Juvenile and Adult. Onset of the disease is due to the destruction of myelin in the brain caused by mutations in the GFAP (Glial Fibrillary Acidic Protein) gene.  This essential protein is responsible for providing strength to important cells.

Unlike other Leukodystrophies, Alexander Disease is not always hereditary. It is caused by a sporadic gene mutation within the GFAP gene, meaning the mutation occurs without being inherited from the parents.  There are some cases of Adult onset Alexander Disease where the disease has been found to be genetically inherited, however, this is rare.

With Alexander Disease, many children suffer from seizures along with many other symptoms. After learning of her diagnosis, the doctor told us to “treat the symptoms and find a support group”. I look back now and realize, that was absolutely of no help to me. Knowing that our daughter would never outlive us was heartbreaking; we lived in denial for quite awhile. Knowing how to navigate life moving forward, was scary and uncertain. And we would face this most likely alone.

As we walked this journey with our child, you quickly become not only the parent, but you become you the doctor, the nurse, the therapist and the advocate. As we struggled with some of the most emotional and heartbreaking decisions you will ever have to make for your child, we knew that what we were doing were the best decisions for Olivia’s quality of life. She endured many what I call “seasons” of the disease. From feeding difficulties, to gastronomy tube, sitting up in her wheelchair to bedridden, to respiratory challenges and ventilators and digestive and bowel regimes. Each time we entered a season, she tackled each one with bravery and strength.

Sadly, Olivia passed away on April 28, 2017 at the age of 8. I am so proud to have called Olivia, my daughter. She taught me more in my life that I will ever learn in a whole lifetime. Olivia changed lives in her community and impacted strangers who met her.

The most honoring thing that we can do as her parents now; carry her legacy on to further bring awareness to this disease, help support more children and families living with illness and share her story so that people can become more knowledgable about all Leukodystrophies.

— Lisa

*******

I had a hard time sorting through the photos that Lisa sent me. Tears flowed down my cheeks knowing what Olivia Kay’s small body suffered and what her family went through. She was such a beautiful girl with shinning light in her eyes. Lisa describes how her young daughter tackled each “season” of the disease with bravery and strength. A remarkable girl. A remarkable family.

Thank you Lisa.

Love, Jess

 

Two-Armed Sister Clutch

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You’ve heard from me for ten years. Now, it’s Anna’s turn. When it came time for her to write her college essay I was excited to help, but like all things academic, she insisted on doing it on her own.

Two-Armed Sister Clutch

        I have to hold his torso carefully so that he can’t bite me. For years, as my brother has gotten stronger, my technique has evolved from a simple shoulder hold into the now perfect “Two-Armed Sister Clutch.” My dad takes care of his head to keep it propped up—after all, the neck is the most important part. After ten minutes of very cautiously carving away at his beard, the world’s brightest smile emerges from his newly exposed face. I’ve just shaved my nineteen-year-old brother for the third time this week; my favorite chore with my favorite person.
        A sharp automatic razor and Jack—that’s my brother—make for a very interesting endeavor. But despite the chaos of the project, it always gets me thinking clearly. I think about the disease that forced its way into Jack’s brain ten years ago and made him this dependent on me, and about the fact it has been TEN years. I think about who he was before his disease—my typical big brother, goofy and in love with life. I think about who he is now—my silent and disabled big brother, goofy and in love with life. And finally, I think about who I am, and who his disease has made ME.
        Shaving my brother is a difficult task. I start off by trimming the top layer of the every-so-gnarly hairs. The first layer of Jack’s story is one very long word (the first word with more than six letters that I ever learned): Adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD). That is the neurodegenerative disease that turned my family from one straight out of a J. Crew catalog to the very quirky, “special” family that we are today. I was six, Jack eight, when he was diagnosed with ALD and his brain function slowly unraveled. Suddenly, my brother’s voice wasn’t around to fill up my house with jokes and curiosity. Suddenly, I had to be the athlete of the family…and the social butterfly… and the nerd. And now, a decade later, I am a hop skip and a jump away from being a professional groomer, too.
        After I trim Jack’s beard, its time to crank the razor up and dig down through all the brush, rounding the jawline and inching in to each crevice. Shedding that hair makes Jack look so presentable,… so professional… so normal. I get flashes of Jack Torrey as an adult (Doctor? Lawyer? Artist?), walking the streets of a big city, wife and kids by his side, living a normal life. I see myself meeting him for a bagel and talking about our careers, our friends, or our families. Sometimes I just picture us talking. It has been ten years since Jack last spoke.
        Luckily, my feeling sorry for myself is quickly interrupted by the most amazing laugh to ever exist. The disease that stole Jack’s words and independence did not manage to steal his laughter. I look at him and see what that sweat-inducing work out really uncovered: a giant, radiating smile. I let go of him and he wanders around the kitchen, slowly making his way back to me, tongue out and eyebrows raised, to give the best hug any sister has ever gotten from their big brother. That is Jack’s way of saying thank you.
        I’ll never have a typical sibling to show me the ropes of life and gossip with when I’m older, but Ill always have Jack. I’ll have his smile to tell me to always work as hard as I can. I’ll always have his laugh to encourage me to give back to other people and other families. I’ll always have his hugs after a lacrosse game or job interview gone wrong. And, I’ll always have an escape when I want to think about these things all over again—after all, that boy could always use a shave.

Anna Cappello Torrey
Johns Hopkins University Class of 2022 (we just got the news!!)

 

Love, Proud Mom

 

 

 

THIS is ALD #2 — Sean

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The odds of winning the Powerball lottery are one in 175 million. The odds of being born with the Adrenoleukodystrophy gene are one in 17 thousand.

And yet, everyone has heard of the Powerball, while most people give me a funny look when I share Jack’s diagnosis.

My go-to response is, “It’s that disease from the movie Lorenzio’s Oil.”

When that doesn’t work, I say something like, “It’s a genetic disease that effects the adrenal gland and destroys the myelin in the brain. It’s worse when it starts advancing as a child. That’s what happened to Jack. Yes – he was totally fine until he was eight-years-old and then . . . well, he kinda fell apart. He did have a stem cell transplant and it stopped the disease from progressing, but he lost a lot during that time. He can’t speak anymore and needs help with just about everything – eating, bathing, getting dressed, even walking down the street. He can eat. He does need to be fed and he has a tube in his belly for hydration. Oh, and he also needs a whole lot of medicine to keep him going. Steroids for his Addison’s Disease – did I mention that his adrenal glad doesn’t work? THAT is pretty common with people with ALD. Not everyone, but most. Jack also needs medicine for his seizures. That’s another thing a lot of the boys deal with. I’m not sure about the men with AMN. AMN is what older men with the ALD mutation get — if they get anything. Some men seem fine. And, most women are fine, at least until they’re older. Then they seem to have trouble walking and with their bladder and bowels. Yea, I know that’s scary. I sure don’t want to deal with any of that. Good news is that my mom’s doing well and she has the mutation. Oh, but that doesn’t really mean anything. Not with ALD. ALD doesn’t seem to have a memory when it comes down a family line. Anyway, Jack has Adrenoleukodystrophy.”
As my description demonstrates, ALD doesn’t always look the same. As readers of Smiles and Duct Tape, you know Jack and you know Jack’s ALD, but, there are many phenotypes – Childhood Cerebral, Adolescent Cerebral, Adrenomyeloneuropathy (AMN), Adult Cerebral, Addison Disease only, Carrier’s Syndrome and the lucky few who are completely asymptomatic. There are also several treatments (no cures): dietary therapies, transplant, gene therapy, treatment for adrenal insufficiency. I could show you charts and explain all the science surrounding the disease, but instead I’m going to introduce you to ALD through it’s people. It will be a chance to get to know ALD — our not-so-rare disease.
A couple of times a month I’m going to share a story about someone (or a whole family) with our disease. Don’t worry – you’re still stuck with me posting stories about JackO and our not-so-special family. THIS is ALD will be a little extra treat.
THIS is ALD #2
Sean Suppan
(Jack was #1)
One of my ALD stranger-friends (now friend) is Ellen Suppan. She and I met years ago when her son, Sean, was starting the transplant process. I remember getting off the phone with her almost breathless. Even though our family was two years ahead of them in the process, it was hard for me to imagine what they were going through. Their ALD journey seemed so much more complicated.
She shared their story with University of Minnesota Pediatric Blood and Marrow Transplantation Center in 2009. These are her words as Sean was going through transplant:
“In 2003, after a lot of doctor visits, we were told that my other son David
had ALD. He was 7. I had no family history, but it has to start somewhere.
Back then, there was nothing we could do for him. Within 3 months, he was
in a bedridden state, and then went to a vegetative state, and he was like that
for 4 years. David passed away in October 2006. We miss him but were
relieved he was no longer hurting.
Shortly after David’s diagnosis, I found out that we were expecting and later
learned I was carrying a boy. And yes, he carried the gene, but had a 50/50
chance of not developing symptoms. With Sean, we were very proactive. We
have known since he was born that he has ALD. When Sean was only 3, he
came down with a high fever and we did an MRI, and everything was clear.
We did another MRI 4 months later and there was a spot there. We were
shocked. David was 5 when this happened.
My main concern was to get Sean where he needed to be. There are good
hospitals. They have done a couple of transplants, but not as many as the
University of Minnesota. The most transplants for ALD have been done here,
pioneered here and they are still working on it.
The downside of going through the transplant is that the chemo may bring
on more advancement. It’s a no-win situation. If I don’t do anything, I have
seen the course it takes. But, we at least know that he will not get to the stage
that my other son had to endure for four years. We are thinking positive.
I am thankful and grateful that Dr. Orchard came up with this treatment. It is bittersweet for me. Back in 2003, they did not do transplants for symptomatic
kids like David. The progression with David was very cruel for a parent to
watch. We are doing for Sean what we could not do for David.
Don’t expect anything to be normal. It’s a new normal. It’s a new way of
doing things. Be ready. I always keep my gas tank half full, because I don’t
know when I’ll need to go to the hospital. Live in the moment. All the other
things will fit into place.”
What isn’t mentioned in this piece is that while the Suppan family was losing their son, David, in the fall of 2006, their daughter Ashling was diagnosed with AML Leukemia (she has just celebrated 11 years in remission). They were still mourning David as they went through treatment with Ashling and were diligently monitoring Sean. Then, as Ashling was enjoying life after her treatment, it was time for Sean’s transplant. Ellen shared with me that she missed her daughter’s high school graduation because she was in Minnesota with Sean recovering from his transplant. ALD often steals a lot from a family.
Eight years after our first correspondence, I finally had the pleasure of meeting Ellen, her husband David and Sean in person. I tried not to, but I couldn’t help but watch Sean closely and compare him to Jack. Sean has the same engaging bright smile and is eager to be part of the conversation. He is able to speak and to the untrained eye appears very typical. I did see a few hints of ALD, but needed to ask Ellen for specifics.
Ellen shared that following transplant they were most concerned about Sean’s vision, but gradually it seemed to improve. He does have difficulty processing new surroundings and has issues with his depth perception. Other challenges include short term memory problems and some behaviors like making odd noises, chewing on shirt collars (THAT is so Jack) and shrugging his head almost violently. He is able to feed himself, but needs help with other activities of daily living. Sean is currently in the seventh grade and moves between a special needs classroom and a few mainstream classes.

Overall Sean is doing great. The Suppan family is grateful that Sean was able to be monitored closely and received his transplant early. Ellen shared a note she received from his teacher. I think it says it all.

 

Hi Mrs. Suppan,
I wanted to share with you that Sean is doing terrific. I am so proud of him. Today he came up in front of the class and shared with him things he is thankful for. What an accomplishment for him – we appreciate him everyday and are thankful to know him. Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family.

 

“ . . . we appriciate him every day and are thankful to know him.” THAT is how I feel about Ellen. I hate ALD and the chaos it’s created in our families, but I am honored and grateful to have Ellen as a friend AND to have met Sean. Stay strong little man and I look forward to meeting you again soon – next time with JackO!!

 

Love, Jess

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THIS is ALD

the new normal

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Smiles and Duct Tape went to Wisconsin last weekend. I’ve been speaking a bunch with the ALD and the special needs worlds, but this was the first time I was sharing our story at a book festival with regular folks. This is what I learned — Regular folks are special, just like us.

I tried not to, but I couldn’t help myself from reading through the bios of all the authors attending the Southeast Wisconsin Festival of Books. MFAs, PhDs, awards, long lists of writing accomplishments. As I boarded the flight to Milwaukee, I couldn’t help but be nervous. How could I compete with all these real authors? And, why on earth would anyone want to go to The New Normal panel when they could go hear about The Poet as Historian or From Page to Stage or Teaching, Writing and Thinking about Queer History?

As soon as I landed, I was put at ease by the warm smile on the face of the man picking me up. He also had a sign with my name on it (I love that whole sign thing). As we got into the car, I asked about his connection to the Book Festival. He shared that he was not just a big fan of the event, but a dedicated volunteer and a former English teacher. My nerves ramped up again as I imagined him editing my work. Why was I here? Maybe Candy invited me on a whim, never thinking I would actually get on a plane and travel the 870 miles. I kept telling myself to breathe. Candy’s an old friend (from elementary school), but she was under no obligation to extend the invite and send me that plane ticket. She must have read the book and thought it would be a good fit for the festival, right? Breathe.

We arrived at the hotel and as soon as I checked in, another author quickly put out his hand and introduced himself. He couldn’t have been nicer and I quickly got over his PhD and other credentials. He was warm, sincere and interested in chatting. Then, I met up with an author who was part of The New Normal panel, and within a few minutes she felt like family. I thought – if everyone here is this friendly, I’m going to be okay.

They were, and I was.

The New Normal drew a larger crowd than I expected and I managed to keep up with the two other panelists. We each had very different stories, but all sorts of connections. I’ve never given a talk with other people and didn’t know what to expect, but it felt natural and I don’t think I even did my usual shaking. I also got to enjoy attending talks by an assortment of talented writers and to reconnect with my old friend Candy (and a pile of her creative/talented friends). All weekend was spent sharing and listening – lots of talking. This was a group that likes words written AND spoken.

As I think about the experience and all the people I met, I’m amazed by the fact that nearly every person I talked with understood “special”. Since I was there to share our family’s journey, people felt comfortable sharing details about their own lives. Many had gone through incredible challenges themselves or helped family through the horrors of illness or depression. They all had been witness to a new normal. Perhaps that’s true about everyone. I think we need a new word for “special”. Human?

Being around such a creative assortment of humans for two days was incredible. Everyone had a story and everyone was eager to hear mine. I walked away energized and eager to start my next writing project (I’ll fill you in on that soon).

I’ve been getting out of my comfort zone quite a bit of that lately. It’s been exhausting, but I’m honored to share Jack’s story with a broad audience. I’m learning a lot about the world and myself along the way.

It’s also good to come home.

Love, Jess

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My reading list:

 

Carolyn Walker’s Every Least Sparrow

Mary Jo Balistreri’s Best Brothers, Joy in the Morning, Along the Way, and Gathering the Harvest

Das Jenssen’s Phenomenal Gender: What Transgender Experience Discoloses

Jeaneete Hurt’s Drink Like a Woman

Nickolas Butler’s The Hearts of Men

AND if this show comes to a city near you —- GO! The Pink Hulk