safe(ish) choices

September is here and it’s been fascinating to see how everyone is getting back into the swing of school/fall — in-person small classes, home schooling, virtual learning, hybrids. Our family is still struggling to find our “back to school” routine. We have a messy, make-shift assortment of activities for JackO that we seem to be constantly changing (although he is happy and busy(ish)). Anna is back in Baltimore, taking classes from her apartment and has already been quarantined twice after being exposed to people who tested positive for COVID. Dan is continuing to work from our home office and seems to enjoy working unshowered in tee-shirts, but I do hear him throughout the day yelling at Fios. I win the award for the least productive family member. I do start each week with a master plan of writing and work-outs, but instead find myself doing everything but. At least my closets are clean.

These are crazy times and I keep reminding myself that things will get back to normal at some point. Maybe NORMAL isn’t the right word. 

Thirteen years in, and our family still refers to our lives as before and after ALD. Two years following Jack’s transplant, we still had a suitcase in the trunk of the car just in case we found ourselves in the hospital. And, when everyone was struggling to find masks in March, all we had to do was go into Jack’s closet where we had our leftover pile from post-transplant isolation days. Having gone through that time in our lives, scarred us and left us always feeling like a shoe could drop at any moment. I resented this unease for years, but I guess it prepared us for this latest sh^tshow (I tried to find another word, but noting really worked as well).

Having learned from our ALD experience, I would imagine the entire world will live for quite awhile referring to life as before and after COVID. I’m guessing that it will be years before a cough is just a cough and the pile of masks at our front door disappears or we allow the Purell in the car to dry up. I know someday we will go back to living again, but when?

Maybe instead of focusing on getting back to normal we should focus on creating a new way of living. I know for some of the country, masks have become a political statement, but here in our area masks are mainstream. It means that I now venture out into the community without too much fear. I do find I am constantly looking around for maskless faces and listening for coughs, but mostly I am just going about my business. Being out — even just to run errands — feels liberating after months of the only non-family member we would see was the UPS deliver person.

Part of our back-to-school/fall plans is seeing more people.

We are trying to have friends over at least once a week and even went out to dinner last weekend — outside. I’m taking walks with friends again and Jack has his “other mothers” and his favorite OT (we love you Mr. Galo) coming to the house again. We are even heading to visit friends and to see my in-laws for a few days this weekend. Not that any of these choices are perfectly safe, but everyone we are seeing has been hunkered down and except for a small crew of people, everyone wears masks when not outside/distanced. We feel there is minimal risk, but do appreciate that some of our choices aren’t perfectly safe. Still, we are willing to take the limited risk. Stretching our comfort level is important for us right now so that we stay sane. We were starting to go a little nuts and within a few weeks, the cold will blow in and entertaining will become harder. The flu season might also complicate re-opening in general and we don’t want to look back in November and wish we had seen more people while we could.

So that is where we are right now. Trying to get in the rhythm of the new season and control what we can. Wear masks when out, wash hands constantly and see people in a safe(ish) way.

It’s Thursday and I still haven’t done much working out, but at least I can say that I did spend an hour writing. Now I can go back to procrastinating my paperwork and organizing another closet. Maybe I’ll also reach out to some friends and see if we can make some dinner plans out on the patio next week.

I just hope that, before too long, we can worry less and hug more. Until then — Happy FALLLLLLL!

Fingers Crossed, 

Jess

New Tricks

I often chalk stuff up as a happy accident or a funny coincidence when Jack has a new trick. It’s not that I’m not proud of our boy or that I don’t pray with every ounce of my soul that he will make improvements and develop new skills. I’m just being careful. It’s my way of protecting myself from disappointment. For years, I would see small successes and think it was the beginning of a huge transformation. I was often left disappointed when a new trick vanished as quickly as it had arrived. So I’ve learned to focus on and celebrate what Jack is doing well and consistently.

Over the years there have been some things that have proved to be more than a trick. Jack relearned how to walk with purpose, eat solid food, hug. A few years ago, after being told repeatedly from the folks at his high school that Jack could read, I watched as Jack pointed correctly to a word on a sheet of paper. I paused and then pushed down the excitement, reminding myself that he had a one-in-four chance of choosing the right word — not crazy odds to have guessed the correct answer. Then he did something similar the next day. I tentatively held up word after word to test the skill. I was delighted — and shocked — to see that his teachers were right.

Lately we’ve witnessed another new skill that at first had us laughing.

Last week I got a flurry of text messages from friends asking me what was going on? “What are you saying?” “You okay?” “What’s THAT photo?”

When I scrolled through our correspondences, I saw odd comments and strange photos. I couldn’t figure out what was going on — had my phone been hacked? And, then I saw something that solved the mystery. A large nose.

It was Jack.

I went into the bathroom where Jack was sitting on the toilet with his iPad on his lap. Jack isn’t consistent with his toileting and we find that if we sit him for a bit every few hours we can often save a diaper (adult diapers are about $1/per — and we are cheap). We sit him with his iPad so that he can stay entertained AND stay seated (he has startled more than one guest over the years by walking out of the bathroom with his pants around his ankles).

After the random texts, I realized that Jack’s iPad is linked to my phone and that he was writing to people. How on earth? He must have just been lucky as he hit some buttons.

Then it happened again. And again. Apparently Jack likes texting and sharing photos of his nose and thighs (thank goodness it hasn’t been of anything else).

Then this morning I heard Anna’s voice coming from the bathroom. Having just delivered her to Baltimore, I wondered how it was possible until I walked into the bathroom to find Jack smiling at his sister’s face on FaceTime. Apparently he doesn’t just like to write notes.

So folks, I need to apologize in advance for any odd correspondence you might receive from me. It wasn’t a butt dial and I haven’t been day drinking. It’s just Jack saying hello.

AND, if you get any photos . . . I’m really, really, really sorry. PLEASE do not alert the authorities.

Love, Jess

ZOOM LIFE and “this is a REALLY happy mom” smile

I’m glad I waited before turning on our camera. I needed a few minutes to get my bearings. My priority was to keep Jack calm and happy. It was hard enough to hide my reaction from him —  I couldn’t risk anybody else witnessing any tears of awkward stares.

It’s one luxury of ZOOM LIFE — People don’t need to see you, until you’re ready.

Once I took a deep breath, I put on my best “this is a REALLY happy mom” smile and hit “start video”.

Last week Jack started logging onto some virtual activities with the adult program he will (some day) attend in person. The lovely staff sent us a list of options ranging from art classes to Zumba to music to virtual outings. We were excited to start participating and eager to have a bit of a schedule; especially with Anna heading to Baltimore before too long.

I knew that once we logged in we would “meet” many of Jack’s new peers, and we also knew his peers ages range from 21 — 70+ and that they all (like Jack) have rather complicated lives. 

Let’s go back 13 years to when we walked into The PG Chambers School for the first time. I managed to keep that “this is a REALLY happy mom” smile, but tears filled my eyes as I was introduced to Jack’s new peers. Our family hadn’t been part of the special needs world until Jack was eight-years-old and thrown in with no time to prepare. We hadn’t known many children with such complicated disabilities before the day we walked into the school. I know it sounds awful, but it made me sad and overwhelmed that Jack was suddenly part of this world.

The same thing happened when Jack started at Horizon High School (now Pillar High School).Teenagers with disabilities were not a population I knew and everything looked bigger and more complicated. My “this is a REALLY happy mom” smile needed to be firmly planted before I walked into the school that first day. Maybe two.

Of corse within weeks, first at The PG Chambers School and then at Horizon High School, the student’s disabilities faded and their personalities shone. Quickly, I found I no longer focused on the wheelchairs and tubes and braces. Instead, I would focus on the smiles and the wonderful energy that always filled the space.

I pride myself on being open-minded and non-judgmental. I don’t define people by their successes or their failures. I don’t judge people by their talents or their challenges. But, once in a while, I need to pause to let my emotions catch up to my brain.

Last week, as we logged on to the virtual program, I needed a second to look around at the boxes of new friends and take a deep breath, before hitting “start video”. Within a few minutes we were dancing Zumba as a family, but we weren’t dancing with our usual Torrey gusto. While ZOOM LIFE can make things a little easier, it is a bit harder to connect and feel part of something new when everyone is just a box on a screen.

If the staff at the program asked how they thought Jack and his family were adapting to their program, I’m guessing they would say that we are a lively family and seem happy. Our family IS both lively and happy, but we are human and sometimes it takes us a moment. Until then, we will dance until we can really boogie — I imagine that the staff will see the difference when it happens. AND, I am guessing it will happen soon.

I hope everyone is enjoying the tail-end of the summer and getting to do a little boogieing!!

Love, Jess

hApPy BiRtHdAy JaCkOOOO!

When I was 22, I had just moved to New York City and was working for an advertising agency. I had my last “first date” — with Dan at the Democratic National Convention (because he’s always been the coolest guy on the planet). I was busy contemplating whether I should continue working in advertising, return to being a photographer’s assistant or apply to graduate school. Nothing was set in stone, but I was happy and my adult life was underway. 

Today Jack turns 22. He’s living at home and working on getting through Season 4 of Jersey Shore. He has ongoing dates with Maria, Monica (his caregivers) and Anna. He’s not sure wether he’ll be going to an adult day program this year, doing virtual activities via zoom, or just hanging out for the next few months. It’s not the life I would have imagined my son would be living at this age, but he’s happy and his adult life is underway. 

While Dan and I are stressed about what’s next for our boy, Jack continues to enjoy every inch of his life. He’s not worried about when his adult program will open or running out of hand sanitizer. He’s not fighting with people on social media about wearing masks. He’s not wondering if our country is heading into a depression or if we will ever feel comfortable getting on a plane again.

Jack enjoys today and trusts that tomorrow will be even better. For a silent person, he’s my loudest teacher. 

Yesterday we lost power — as did many as Isaias managed to rip it’s way up the east coast. I spent most of last night worrying about whether our power would be restored quickly and if the generator we’d set up would somehow leak carbon monoxide into the house. I worried about if the branch that had taken down the power line had first hit our house and that there was a leak that we hadn’t yet seen. I worried about how I would be able to clear out the branches from the pool so that Jack could swim and what I was going to make for Jack’s birthday dinner. I got up this morning and looked at Jack’s sweet smile and decided that for Jack’s birthday I’m going to honor him by adopting his beautiful attitude — at least for a day;)

Today there will be no worries on Speir Drive — just gonna hang out and embrace the day. Oooooh, and swim in a pool full of branches and leaves and order some food for dinner!

Happy Birthday JackOOOOOO!!!!

Love, Jess

Too Many Variables

Last week I had meeting with Jack’s support coordinator to organize his plan for the fall — via Zoom, because that’s how we meet with people now. 

Although we love our support coordinator (she’s organized, smart, kind AND she returns my phone calls), I got off the phone feeling exhausted and not really sure if we had accomplished anything productive. We kept throwing out dates and ideas and then going back to other dates and ideas. Honestly, I’m not really sure what we came up with or if it makes sense.

The only way I can describe it is as a giant algebra problem without enough information to solve it. Too many variables.

Now that Jack is an adult, he receives a budget, through DDD, to pay for activities. Last winter we’d found a wonderful day program and he was scheduled to start on July 6. We had budgeted for him to attend the program 5 days a week for 6 hours a day and then knew exactly how much we had left for other things like at-home support and a variety of therapies.

Then COVID-19 arrived.

The day program closed and the last we heard they’re hoping to reopen after Labor Day. If life were normal, we could plan accordingly. We would correct the budget and plan to start on September 8 — but life isn’t normal.

Not only does the program not have a definite opening date, they don’t know exactly how they plan to open and whether or not they will be excepting new clients right away. And, this being a new program for us, we’re not sure if we will feel comfortable starting immediately once they open their doors. So many safety concerns. We can’t send Jack until we are completely confident that the program is safe. 

BUT what does SAFE mean now?

Perhaps it means that the program is smaller and thoroughly cleaned every day. Perhaps it means they will stagger the hours for their clients, so that social distancing will be easier. Perhaps it means that every client will be provided a one-to-one to help keep everyone socially distanced and wearing masks. Perhaps it means there’s a good vaccine and/or treatment options. Perhaps it means that COVID-19 disappears magically.

Once we decide what SAFE means,  Jack might be able to start a day program, but will that be in October or November? It’s more likely that we won’t feel confident until January or February or March or . . . . ahhhhh!

How do we make a plan when we don’t have any dates?

Jack’s budget does provide at-home support and Jack’s caregiver, Maria, (and Anna, when she’s home from school) will continue to work for us, but we need to be careful about how many hours we use. If we use too many hours, we may not have enough in the budget for a day program once we are ready.

Since COVID-19 burst into our lives, I’ve gone through a lot of emotions. For a while, fear was all I could focus on — fear of leaving the house, fear of the groceries carrying germs, fear of opening the mail. Then I went through weeks of being exhausted from washing down groceries and by the energy it took to plan simple outings like going to the post office. Then, I seemed to flip and felt bored and useless — checking off days on the calendar when I couldn’t think of one significant thing that I’d accomplished. Depression was creeping in, and last week’s phone call with our support coordinator didn’t help.

It’s not just the unknown about Jack’s plans. As I look at the next couple of months, we have plans, but know that they are subject to change at any time. Our trip to Block Island, Anna’s return to school, Dan’s office reopening. Everything is fluid these days and it’s starting to really get to me.

Our family is pretty good at adjusting. We’ve been able to zig and zag through a lot of things that have come our way, but the problem is that COVID-19 doesn’t have — even a hint of — a timetable that we can glance at to know when life will return to something that feels normal.

I like to wrap up these posts with some “glass half full” statement or something to make you laugh, but I can’t think of anything today. Sorry. This suck. I hate COVID-19.

Love, Jess

Wear a mask. It might not be perfect, but at least it makes many of us feel a little safer.

Okay — I won’t leave you on a bad note. Here’s a fun picture of our new dog, Tupelo.

Special Education Mom

Joanne’s beautiful boys in their younger years

I adore my friend Joanne for many reasons. She’s an extraordinary blend of Brooklyn tough, brilliant mind, and the warmth that comes when you’re faced with caring for your special child (in her case two children with special needs). She also has no fear of sharing a large pizza, farmer’s salad and an order of crostini with me at Arturo’s without mentioning the calories (ohhhhhhhh, how I miss those lunches).

When COVID hit, while I was focusing on how I was going to manage getting groceries and how long my hair would hold up before showing it’s true colors, Joanne was researching the law and contacting the State about resources for her sons. 

Four month into this, I’m finally in a full blown panic about what’s next for Jack and I haven’t been sure how to share it in words.

I don’t need to. Joanne has done it for me AND she shared it on CNN.

Keep fighting/advocating Joanne. Ben and Sebastian need you. Jack needs you. No pressure — but the entire special needs community needs you!!

Please click below to read her post and don’t forget to watch the CNN piece!

CNN

Love, Jess

Banana is 20!

Today is Anna’s 20th birthday. Like so many people, she isn’t celebrating it the way she had planned. Anna loves her birthday almost as much as I do, and she has been talking about her birthday plans since last June. Piles of her Hopkins crew would fill our house and then her childhood friends would join in and fill the yard and pool. Driving the neighbors crazy was really the only thing we worried about until COVID arrived. 

We modified the plan and then modified it again. Now we are hoping that the weather holds so that a few of her friends can come for some from a distance/Purell-filled fun in the pool. If that doesn’t work ,out at least she can celebrate with her three biggest fans – me, Dan and Jack.

The last four months have been filled with cancelled plans and profoundly adapting everything else. It wasn’t just her birthday, Anna’s entire summer has been altered. She was going to be waitressing here in town and then working in NYC with a doctor who works with children with neurological disorders (specifically Leukodystrophies). The waitressing job disappeared and then Anna got word that the hospital where she was doing her internship was only allowing “essential staff” on premises. Luckily the doctor was willing to adapt his plans and Anna is spending hours a day in her room working on a project that I don’t really understand, but she finds fascinating.

Anna has also found a job with the Department of Developmental Disabilities working with a handsome young man with special needs — Jack. She has hikes planned and has already been working on swimming lessons for our boy. Jack has had a lot of caregivers over the years, but I can say, without a doubt, that he has found his new favorite. And, for Anna, it is incredible to actually be getting paid for something she has always done without complaint. She adores spending time with her brother. She is a truly special — special sibling.

Anna is such a special young woman and I’ve always been proud of her heart and brain and determination, but COVID has shown me another quality she has that I appreciate. Anna is able to adapt. Our family tends to be “glass half full” people, but Anna seems to look at every glass as over-flowing.

Love you Banana and hope that you enjoy your quiet(ish) birthday!!! It may not be the birthday party of the year, but we promise that when the dust settles, we will P-A-R-T-Y!!

Love, Mom

PS As I have been writing this, I’ve been seeing friends sneak through the backyard gate. I need to go out there and start screaming, “Six Feet!!” and “Purell!!!”.

RIP Finn

For years there have been five dogs roaming my in-law’s property on Block Island every Fourth of July weekend. For the last few summers, we’ve had a contest rating them and awarding The Most Rotten Dog. Finn won most years. He’d run away, he’d jumped on strangers, he’d eat garbage, he’d steal shoes, he’d eat food off platters, he was even known to bite a person or two. And, it wasn’t just while on vacation, even at home, Finn was never the perfect dog — but he was ours and we loved him.

Finn arrived into our lives 14 years ago, when we’d first moved into our house on Clinton Ave. The kids were 7 and 5 and Finn was our way of completing our perfect family. Within a year, Jack was unraveling and Finn didn’t get the attention a puppy should have. Puppy classes were traded in for doctor’s appointments and rules were replaced by yelling, “BAD DOG!”. 

Despite the changes in our house, and our less than exceptional puppy raising skills, Finn was always there for us. When we brought Jack home from the hospital following transplant, PopPop and Sue offered to take him up to Block Island, but we were determined to keep our family intact, so we kept Finn home and watched him like a hawk so that he won’t step on Jack’s IV lines or jump on his g-tube. Finn didn’t – he would just sit quietly by Jack — until the doorbell rang and then he would run like a  bullet and jump on whoever was arriving.

For the last 14 years Finn has been a huge part of our family and he has also been my personal shadow. He slept on my side of the bed and waited for me looking out the dinning room window when I’d leave the house. To avoid him scratching the door, I even learned to keep the bathroom door opened a crack so that he could find me.

Since Christmas, Finn has been suffering from seizures and “episodes”. He was losing his vision and hearing and could no longer enjoy his long walks and his usual routine of mischief. Last week, as a family, we decided it was time. His life was full of more bad days than good days, and at fourteen, his veterinarian didn’t see anything in his future but a quick decline. We wanted to do the best thing for our boy so we found a wonderful vet who could come to the house and ease Finn into his next life.

Our friends and family used to joke about life without Finn. How easy life would be without our trouble maker. Guests could come without being warned. The mailman had a chance at safely delivering mail. We could watch our nighttime shows without Finn constantly barking at the door to be let out – then in – then out – then in. But, when the veterinarian arrived yesterday, we were all in a puddle of tears. Finn had woken up with more energy than he’s had in weeks. He was not the mischievous pooch from his younger years, but he seemed fairly comfortable and happy. I kept thinking we should reschedule our appointment, but then kept remembering his last episode and how I’d promised him that we would do everything we could to have him avoid that pain.

We all sat in our living room, Finn on my lap and cried and gave our boy love as the doctor did her thing.

Dying with comfort and dignity is all that we could provide our four-legged friend after everything he provided for us for 14 years. We are going to miss you Finn and I promise I will always keep that bathroom door open — just a little — in your honor.

Love, Jess

We 

ALD Connect Peer Mentor Program

No photo description available.

Thirteen years ago we were in the hospital living through transplant. We’d only heard the word Adrenoleukodystrophy for the first time four weeks earlier. We didn’t know anyone who had ALD or who had even heard of the disease. Our doctors didn’t even have much information to share.

We were terrified and we were completely isolated.

It took months to connect with any other ALD families — it was a time before social media and Googling ALD simply lead us to horrifying stories and even more horrifying statistics. Once we found a couple of other ALD families, we did find some comfort, but it was often short-lived as their journey’s took turns down dark paths. Fear and guilt weighed heavy in continuing those relationships.

It took years before our family really found our ALD community. Smiles and Duct Tape – the blog, then the book – found it’s way into the hands of a member of the board of ALD Connect and she reached out to encouraged me to go to their next meeting (thanks Kathleen). Attending a panel of ALD patients and caregivers and then my first ALD Connect Annual Meeting was empowering. It was years after Jack’s diagnosis and transplant and it was when I first realized that our family had reached another chapter in our ALD journey. Being surrounded by people who knew our disease – who lived our disease – was inspiring. And, we were no longer weighed down by fear and guilt and were finally strong enough to be able to provide help. Sharing our story with other families and doctors and organizations studying our disease — it’s (I hope) helped other people, but it’s absolutely helped our family find strength and take some power back.

ALD Connect asked me to attend a meeting last year to find out more about peer to peer support programs and how they can help rare diseases like ours. I was honored to be asked to represent ALD Connect and found the conference fascinating and reminded me of how our family felt thirteen years ago. Scared and alone.

The first speaker at the conference talked about the added stress of feeling isolated that families go through when facing a rare disease. They’re not just battling the disease, they are often battling the disease without any support from people who understand the disease the way ONLY PEOPLE WHO HAVE LIVED IT can understand.

ALD is a horrible disease, but the people effected are an incredible group. It took me a while, but most ALD families don’t take years to find the strength to help others. AND, thanks to social media, our community has been able to more easily find each other. Informally, many in our community have been acting as mentors, but ALD Connect is now rolling out a more formal program.

The ALD Connect Peer Mentor Program is now welcoming our ALD community to reach out if they would like to be paired with someone within our community who has experienced a similar path with the disease. A group of incredible mentors have been selected, representing each phenotype of our disease, and they are looking forward to being a resource for support, encouragement and a shoulder when needed. Please contact me or admin@aldconnect.org if you are interested.

Thirteen is a LUCKY number

13 years (Day +4749) . . .

Thirteen years ago we sat in a crowded hospital room and watched as a small bag of stem cells went into Jack’s central line. We were hopeful, but terrified.

Our doctors had not promised that the transplant would work and they were painfully honest about the risks involved with the procedure. They reminded us again and again, that in the case of ALD, a transplant was not a cure. Instead (if successful) it would stop the progression of the disease — the idea of these new disabilities being permanent seemed surreal. I had also done enough Googling in the four weeks since Jack’s diagnosis to know that a transplant was often followed with complications like infections or Graft vs Host Disease and sometimes with ALD, it accelerated the loss of the myelin.

We found little comfort in any of the information we’d been given, but we had no other option to save our son, so there we were — watching the cells as they entered Jack’s body.

29 minutes. Drip, drip, drip.

Dan made a set-list of our favorite music and we tried to keep our fears at bay. We made small talk with the doctors and nurses and told jokes. Jack was only 8-years-old and we promised him he would feel better soon and focused on the bonus of having a second birthday to celebrate every year.

Our family has been through a lot over the last thirteen years — both good and bad, but we’ve also had a lot of parties for Jack since we watched those cells enter his small body. One gift from ALD is that it has made our family learn to really appreciate the good days.

Today is a good day. We are healthy and the sun has promised to come out so that we can sit outside and jump in the pool. There will not be any food trucks or crowds of people, but we will still enjoy every minute of this day – and every day – with our boy.

Happy Birthday Sweet JackO!!!

Love, Mom

Stay Tuned for Friday – Jack receives his High School diploma. Big week for the Torreys!