It’s the same but different.

Even though Jessica lives in the group home, she comes home on the weekends, usually for two nights, sometimes one. Last Saturday, after I picked her up at the group home, she got in the car and as usual, asked, “Can we go shopping?”

But something about the way she looked gave me a bad feeling. She looked tired and worn out. However, we had planned something for my birthday and she refused to take no for an answer.

“I fine,” she kept saying.  It was too much trouble to argue with her. Even when she wakes up at 2 in the morning and won’t go back to sleep, it’s impossible to reason with her. What does time mean to her anyway?  So the day went on – we went shopping, bought the needed ingredients,  mixed up the cake, baked it, frosted it.

At the end of the day, Jessica was dragging, so I helped her get into bed. That night was rough. She didn’t sleep well. Usually asleep by eight o’clock, she kept getting up, coughing and complaining about her ears. In the morning, she said she was fine. Again, no use in arguing with her. So we did more shopping. Jessica was excited about the birthday dinner, Mina just wanted to stick her fingers in the cake and taste the icing.

By 5 pm, I was ready for Jessica to go back to the group home. My thoughts were ‘let them deal with her’, but it was too early to take her back. We still needed to do dinner and candles. At dinner, she didn’t want to eat anything. She wouldn’t say what was wrong. When we finally lit the candles and sang happy birthday, she decided she DID want cake. A few minutes later, she started to gag.

Here we go again, I thought – she’s about to throw up all over the table. Springing into action, I shoved Jessica into the bathroom before she had a chance to begin vomiting in Sarah’s kitchen. I was proud that at least we got to the sink in time. Okay, the ideal place would have been the toilet, but it was close enough.

The crazy part is how happy I was that she threw up in the sink. After crying, throwing up, wailing, throwing up again, it finally stopped. No one saw her vomit, but I know they heard the wretching. I heard Mina ask, “Why’s Jessica throwing up?”

Jessica’s vomiting lasted a minute or two. Churned up food poured out of her mouth like rivers of brown lava. Again, I thought about how grateful I was- she didn’t have a chance to throw up all over Sarah’s kitchen table. Thank goodness poor Mina didn’t see anything. She didn’t have to witness the same things her mom and her aunt Alia used to witness, years ago, way back when this happened on a regular basis. Most of the time, it started when Jessica choked on food, unchewed green beans or even a piece of lettuce. The choking, followed by gagging, then vomit.

It was always so sudden, but the gagging noise was the signal to everyone – GET UP and  GO!

I can still hear the sound of the chairs clattering to the floor when she’d start heaving. Alia and Sarah ran from the table as though the house had caught on fire.  Paralyzed, Jessica wouldn’t budge and then the vomit would sprew all over the plates and surface of the table.  Poor Jessica – I’d be screaming at her to move, as the frightening feeling of choking and not being able to breathe made her more immobile. I never knew whether to try to force her up and could never get her to vomit into a bag. No, the mess would erupt everywhere, cascading down the front of her shirt, over the table and on the plates. I would hold her hair back as she alternately cried, choked, vomited and tried to swat my hand away. The clean-up was the worst part.

She rarely does it anymore. That is, until last weekend.

Mina is still asking about this episode. She wants to know why Jessica threw up.”She didn’t feel good,” I told her. She keeps asking anyway. So when Jessica threw up last weekend, it reminded me of all my past challenges. That one in particular.

And, of course, I wrote about it in my book.


Smacked in the face?

SMACKED IN THE FACE – is that how I felt thirty-one years ago, when we sat in the cold air-conditioned room, meeting with the specialists, listening as they gave us their “final ruling” on Jessica?  Maybe. Yes. It’s an accurate description.   
As I worked on writing my memoir, recalling what happened over the years, I realized the things I’ve never forgotten are the emotions I experienced. The struggle. The anguish.  The love. As I wrote, I had to recreate and reimagine events but it wasn’t hard to remember how I felt. I guess that’s how I captured it. So now that I’ve finished the book, I’ve decided it should be published.
I’ve written a story millions of mothers can relate to, or at least mothers and parents of disabled children. I see a similarity between my story and the common theme of many of Jodi Picoult’s books -children with some type of disability, families struggling with problems. The determination to pursue getting it published is growing. But first, I have to get noticed. So today’s blog is focused on coming up with an “elevator pitch” for my book. I’m sure some of you are wondering what the heck is an “elevator pitch”?  Until I started writing this memoir I’d never heard of it.
So last night, I asked my husband if he knew what it was and of course he said he did. If you know him, you know he knows EVERYTHING about EVERYTHING. (Or just about.) And I mean that in a loving way.
So he says, “when someone is doing an elevator pitch, they are trying to create interest in a project. So you want to do one for your book. A good elevator pitch is short and shouldn’t last longer than a short elevator ride of 20 to 30 seconds, – that’s why it’s called an elevator pitch.”
“Oh wow,” I said, “now I understand. So help me write one.”
I wanted to come up with a killer pitch. I’d love to get some feedback. Here’s what I have so far.

My memoir, Another Side of Normal, begins with a life-changing detour after I am told that Jessica, my four-year-old daughter is “retarded” and will never grow up to live a normal, independent life. Filled with anguish, I use denial to resist accepting this reality until eventually, I do. The story begins when Jessica is twenty-eight and moving into a group home.
Here is an excerpt from the book:
“This was not how I planned her life. It was supposed to be entirely different. Without a map to guide me, it’s been a difficult journey to navigate. In the back of my mind, I can still hear the doctor’s words. His voice remains embedded in my mind like a permanent recording. ‘Your daughter Jessica is profoundly retarded.’” 
Perhaps the most captivating aspect of my story is the way I illustrate my daughter’s unique speech and curious mannerisms. My target audience would be adult women, mothers and parents of children with disabilities. At approximately 84,000 words, Another Side of Normal is reminiscent of Rachel Simon’s Riding the Bus With My Sister.


A baby and a book

My grandson Ari
So I am doing one of my favorite things in the world besides writing…. holding one of the grandkids! And in less than two weeks, I am headed to the Florida Writer Conference in Orlando. I am excited to be doing this. I have my friend Mimi to thank for convincing me to go. Mimi is a fellow writer who has written a memoir about recovering from a stroke when she was in her thirties. She’s brave and doesn’t let a silly thing like a wheelchair get in her way. She goes around and around and never quits, just like the Energizer Bunny. Yes, that’s what she’s like. So last year, she tried to convince me to go to this conference. We had nearly completed our memoirs. I didn’t go. After she told me she had an agent interested in her memoir, thought I should pursue it too. So this year, I decided I’m going. My decision was so last minute, it makes me laugh to think about it. I was in Mt. Rainier in Washington, with sporadic phone reception, and no cell service.  Mimi kept sending emails and once in a while it would come through.  Finally, when I landed in Miami, I saw every one of her emails -telling me the early bird special price was going up – urging me to hurry! At the 11th hour… maybe it was closer to the 12th = time was almost up. She had texted me over and over. “Are you going?” “yes”, I texted back. “well hurry up and register!” “I can’t get service on my network!”  Finally, there I was in the back of an Uber, and I had bars! I  registered for the conference on my phone. Now if you know anything about me, you know I’m not technologically savvy, but I did it! In the nick of time. Woo hoo!
I even texted another friend to see if she was interested in driving to Orlando and by some lucky break, by 12 am we were both registered for this conference. I am looking forward to finding an agent to represent me. I plan to take excerpts of my book. Do I take a query letter? I’m not sure what will happen, but the possibilities seem endless. Maybe Mimi will be lucky too.

Broken Brain

When the kids were little, we’d get questions about what was wrong with Jessica from Sarah and Alia’s friends. Maybe a lot of them didn’t have interactions with a mentally handicapped kid. At first glance, Jessica didn’t appear to have anything wrong with her. In fact,she was really cute. So were the other two. But whenever Jessica spoke, it was clear something was different.
So “what’s wrong with Jessica?” was a question my other two had to explain. It probably made them uneasy having to offer explanations and must have made them feel terribly uncomfortable. I would have felt that way. Maybe I should have taught them some snappy comeback, but I was also so unsure. The blind psychologist I was seeing told me they should answer “Jessica has a broken brain.” Easy explantation? It sounded that way. I have no idea how that may have sounded, but the blind doctor – whose name I won’t say  – gave this advice. She said I should treat Jessica the same way I treated the other two girls – have her participate in the same things -not to restrict her.
I didn’t do it that way. Not because I didn’t want to. It was because it wasn’t what Jessica wanted. Jessica didn’t ask to go with Sarah to her friend’s house or ask to join Brownies or go to Tae Kwon Do. If she wanted it, I would have taken her. I would have insisted on mainstreaming but she appeared to want to be with individuals who were just like her. I got in an argument with a professor at UM about mainstreaming. She had a disabled daughter and was a big proponent of mainstreaming. But each child is a special case, and wants different things – don’t they? I always honored that.
So it ‘s hard knowing if what I did or how I parented was the right way to do it. I wasn’t the one who grew up with a handicapped sister. And as for Sarah, Jessica was her twin. In my book, I have a chapter or two where I explore this and how it felt. We had to manage, we had to continue living our lives an doing the ususal stuff. But I am left a bit wistful, wishing it could’ve been easier for the other two.


“You Shouldn’t Have To Struggle!”

Rene, Jessica’s support coordinator was talking to me as I held the phone against my ear listening to his reassurances. I felt the tears welling up in my eyes. The crying was about to begin for the fifth time that day.
“I just want her to be okay and when I took her to my new dentist, she told me Jessica had three cavities and needs a deep cleaning. And she said I needed to take Jessica to a specialist! I thought I’d been taking care of her! I’d been taking her to my old dentist, and they never said anything like this. Then I find this out! ”
My first thought was I was the most awful mother in the world to have neglected her. I swallowed, choking back tears. Rene must have sensed I was about to cry, I was having a hard time talking.
“No, don’t worry, please Cathy. We’re here to help you. And remember if you ever have a problem, you can call us.”
Sniffing, I wiped my nose on the back of my hand. Jessica came into the living room and sat next to me.
“Don’t cry MuhMee, I okay. I fine. Don’t cry.”
Looking at her, with her crooked smile, I stared at the front tooth she chipped last year. My sweet thirty-five-year-old child was trying to reassure me. On the verge of another crying fit, she smiled again and said, “Don’t wuh wee.”
It made me laugh.
“Jessica, I’m just worried about taking care of you. ”
It turned out the specialist was someone all my friends had used for years! Years! Everyone in the special needs community knows who he is. Why hadn’t I ever asked anyone? This just gave me another reason to feel guilty and reminded me of the struggles I’ve had to deal with. I tried to tell myself it was okay, at least I found him. Actually, thank goodness I found him. When we got there, Jessica became really nervous. Then we met him. He kept telling Jessica, “you’re such a pretty girl.” He started talking to her, and they seemed to hit it off. Next thing you know, she was opening her mouth and letting him examine all of her teeth. It was like watching a movie and I was awestruck by what was happening. Pure magic.
In all the years I’ve taken her to the dentist, I’ve never once seen her willingly open her mouth. Before we go, I have to give her Xanax or Valium and even then she won’t open her mouth.  I think of Rene, telling me I  shouldn’t have to struggle and I’m grateful.
I expect I will post something about this amazing dentist when we go back. He was a miracle worker. He loved Jessica. I love him.0

Is everyone chasing normal?

I just read an interesting article on another blog I am following.
It’s, a children’s rehabilitation hospital in Canada. I started reading the posts on this blog, one after the other. It felt like I had landed in familiar territory. These were MY people.
But let me return to the article.  The author was discussing how parents of disabled children view ‘normal’.  She went on to explain the following:
“It got me thinking about how the word normal is really a code word for “value.” In our culture, normal is valued, and disability is not. ”
Reading this sentence was like an ah-ha moment for me. I suddenly understood what motivated me to write a 318-page memoir. The process of writing it began over 10 years ago, as I started to reflect and sort out issues I’d had to face.  Jessica is now 35 years old, and I am just starting to understand how to flow with it.
After reading the article, all I could think was “Wow.” Ms. Kinross summed it up in one sentence, what my struggle was about. Maybe one day my book will be published so I can share my unique story with the rest of the world.0

“Sophie’s Choice”

Sophie’s Choice, is the title of a 1979 novel by William Styron, about a Polish woman in a Nazi concentration camp who is forced to decide between which child will live and which one will be sent to the gas chambers. Meryl Streep starred in the film version of this story, and now the phrase – “Sophies Choice ” is considered a kind of shorthand for a choice between two difficult decisions.

Over the years, I have secretly compared myself to Sophie. Perhaps this is taking it to an extreme, to compare myself to Meryl Streep (in her role of Sophie,) as I make decisions and choices about Jessica. And in no way am I comparing the depth of my pain to sending a child to his or her death. I’m not. Examining my feelings, I have to look at why I feel this way. It is the act of choosing that causes my pain. I think of Sophie and the unbearable choice she had to make, how deeply it tortures her until she finally ends her life.

This is what it feels like to me. Unbearable. Especially the guilt.

Take vacations for example. I can’t leave her behind, yet she hates the plane. She cries and howls on take-off or throws up when we land. When she isn’t in her routine, she becomes ill at ease. Unfamiliar surroundings are scary. In my imaginary world, we have gone everywhere as a family – on cruises, on car trips, flying to exotic places or just camping in the woods. Except, we haven’t.
In the last few years, my husband Chip has helped me. He suggested we take her on short car trips to Orlando and do a lot of stopping along the way. We took her with us on a family vacation to Disney World a few years ago, but she wasn’t interested in visiting the parks. So when everyone else was going on rides or visiting characters, I stayed with Jessica. It’s hard to relax when every minute I am worried about Jessica. And then I think, am I self -centered? Selfish?

What kind of mother feels like this?

I don’t know if I will ever get over feeling that I am like Sophie. It’s painful having to push these thoughts out of the way, but they cling to me. I have to remind myself over and over again that I am a good mom. Yes, we’ve taken her on some family trips, it’s just that more and more often, I’ve decided not to.
We once went on a family car trip to North Carolina. I should consider myself lucky that Jessica’s cerebral palsy only affects her gait and her speech. Her walk is slightly awkward, she drags her feet and shuffles when she walks. She gets tired easily. But she can walk. We had to hold her hand and take turns practically pulling her up the mountain on our hikes. It was pretty stressful, and once again, I felt resentment building up inside. Why did she have to be this way? I thought of my good friend whose son has CP. He uses a wheelchair, and she said they use the handicapped accessible trails when they go on hikes with him. Maybe she doesn’t mind she can’t wander anywhere she wants. I tell myself I should be like her. But I’m not her. I hate that I can’t be.

Pilidelphia-Poconos 10-2012 (34)
from left to right: Sarah, Jessica, Alia, Lily, and Cathy

Is Jessica a Kid or a Teenager?

A few weeks ago, my granddaughter posed this question:

Is Jessica a kid or a teenager?

It isn’t the first time a child has been confused about Aunt Jessica. When Jessica was 10, her little cousin Johanna was born. By the time she was five, her abilities were already surpassing Jessica’s. Sadly, I knew this would happen. I didn’t expect it to unfold any differently. Everyone outgrows Jessica, a young woman who will always be a girl. A young woman who will never grow up. On the other hand, Jessica isn’t aware of this, or if she is,  she doesn’t understand that there are things she will never be a part of.
Johanna is now 25, and remarkably, it is Johanna who remains devoted to Jessica. Never once during all those years, did she ask me questions about Jessica or act like there was anything unusual about her. Jessica no longer refers to Johanna as her “baby,” but she will probably adore Johanna for the rest of her life.
So here we are, twenty-five years later and it’s my 4-year-old granddaughter asking the questions. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with asking. I am impressed that she even thought of it. I tried to explain but I’m not sure how much she understood. Mina has a sharp little mind. She seems to analyze everything and often attempts to manipulate situations and people. I often have to tell her it’s not okay to do this or that to Jessica. And as far as her question, I think she just wanted to know what category Jessica fell into, is she a child or an adult? After all, I think she knows Jessica is her mommy’s twin sister. Is there a category for people like Jessica? I’m still trying to figure out the answer to that. Thoughts?
Jessica is holding her nephew Ari while her niece Mina leans in.

What does it feel like to have Sensory Deprivation Disorder?

My last post was about taking my granddaughter to see the Disney Princesses, something Jessica insisted on staying away from. This made me start wondering what it must feel like to be Jessica. The reason she acts this way is she has sensory processing problems.  Children with autism often exhibit these symptoms but in my daughter’s case, she has cerebral palsy and as well as an intellectual disability. It makes her highly defensive against anything having to do with her five senses.
So Jessica isn’t only scared of people in costumes, she hates going on the rides at the Youth Fair (it’s the effects of gravity on her body), she hates loud, sudden sounds, she hates flying on an airplane (both take off and landing is a terrifying experience,) she used to hate (but now tolerates) the swings at the park, she hates getting her nails cut (she used to suddenly yank her hand away right in the middle of doing it), she hates opening her mouth to brush her teeth, and she hates when I floss her teeth. She hates going to the dentist, hates going over a bridge while riding in the car, I can’t think of anything else but I think I have painted a clear picture.
These days she isn’t as bad as she used to be. Maybe she’s outgrown some of it. 25 years ago I started taking her to Sensory Integration Therapy. Back then it was considered a form of occupational therapy. It was a fairly new technique. These days, most parents of disabled kids probably know what it is.
So maybe it helped her. I don’t know what she would have been like without it, but she went to therapy for years and SHE HATED EVERY SECOND OF IT. When I took her for her sessions,  I’d sit outside the door, listening to the therapist tell her she was going to put her in the tire swing. Jessica would howl like a trapped animal, just from being pushed in a swing!
The therapist explained it this way: “Pushing her back and forth will actually help her, and this action provides a small amount of controlled vestibular input.” In other words, her central nervous system was resistant to any shift in space, so this was one way to get her to tolerate it.
I never fully understood what the therapist was trying to explain, but it was hard to listen to Jessica scream and fight as she protested about the exercise. I remember I had to use a plastic surgical brush and every day I was supposed to brush Jessica’s arms, legs and back. It was supposed to decrease her sensory defensiveness. The brush stimulating the nerve endings of the skin. Half the time, I’d forget or Jessica fought with me so much, I’d give up.
So I can only explain what Sensory Deprivation looks like from the outside. The bottom line is, I don’t know what it feels like on the inside!
Check out this site for more information

My little lightbulb

I usually take Jessica to go and see my 95-year-old mother at her assisted living residence, but this past Sunday she started saying she didn’t want to.

“Come on, it will be fun,” I told her.

They were having a celebration for Grandparents Day with the Disney princesses. I was supposed to take both Jessica and my granddaughter, Mina, but Jessica was adamant. She carried on about it for so long, I  decided not to push. She  hates getting near characters dressed in costumes, even if it’s a princess.

When she was younger, she used to scream if they got near her. Now she just retreats. Last time a person in a costume came up to her, she ran into the bathroom and wouldn’t come out.

Jessica is terrified of Mickey, Donald, Goofy, Minnie, and all the rest of them.

So on Sunday, I left Jessica with her sister, Mina’s mom.
Once we got there, I don’t know who had more fun. Was it Mina or the people she interacted with? This would have been a totally different experience if Jessica had come. Mina lit up the place like a lightbulb, racing over and hugging Grandma Becky, calling out to everyone we passed. She rushed around trying to hug every princess she met.


Great Grandma Becky and Mina

Mina and Snow White

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