The Day Rhia Declared She Can’t be a Princess Anymore.

I found Rhia crying in her room.

“Sweetie,” I said, taking her in my arms. “What’s wrong?”

“I can’t be a princess anymore,” she said.

“Of course you’re a princess. Why do you think you’re not?”

“Because I can’t walk anymore and princesses don’t have ataxia! Have you ever seen a princess with ataxia? No!” She buried her face in my chest and cried harder.

I wanted to cry, too. Damnit, why does this have to be so hard for her? Why does she have to keep losing ground a little bit every day? If she has to be blind and deaf, why does she have to notice how all her friends are grown up and living there own lives while she gets weaker and has to stay home? What the hell do I say to her?

Rhia is passionate about Disney, especially the princesses. Cinderella is a personal friend and Rapunzel was at her recent birthday party. She wrote them all a letter and they wrote back. When we go to Disneyland, all she wants to do is talk to the princesses.

“They remember me!” she declares. And a few do. Over the years, we’ve met the same actresses who surprisingly remember Rhia out of the thousands of kids they see each day. There’s just something magical about Rhia, something that draws people to her. Plus, she has a gorgeous wheelchair with flower-print wheel rims. Rhia plays with her princess dolls every day and talks to them as if they are alive; her imaginary friends are her closest friends.

But on this day, those imaginary friends failed her.

“Listen to me,” I said, urging her to look up at me; she has to look at me to see me sign. “You are a princess now and always. Cinderella herself said you are a real princess and you have the certificate to prove it!”

“But that was before…”

“No. Once a princess, always a princess.”

“But I can’t walk any more.”

“So what? Cinderella didn’t say you were a princess because you can walk. She said you’re a princess because you’re kind and smart and funny. You care about people and are a good friend. You are helpful and creative. And you love to sing.”

Rhia had stopped crying and was listening, but still didn’t look convinced. “But I’ve never seen a princess with ataxia.”

“I know baby, and I’m sorry about that. I’m so sorry everything is really hard for you now. You are a princess because you are strong and try hard. All princesses are strong. You are a princess forever!” I hugged her tighter.

She sighed, turned away from me, and picked up her Ariel doll. I kissed her head and left her to think about what I had said. I overheard her ask her doll, “Do you think I’m a princess?”

I prayed somehow that doll said yes.

Who Chooses Your Label?

I was chatting with a man who has multiple disabilities, when he suddenly said, “What’s up with the whole person-first thing? Why am I called a man with disabilities instead of a disabled man?”

“Do you want to be labelled a disabled man?” I asked.

“Why not. I am.”

“But isn’t that putting your disability ahead of who you are?”

He scowled. “My disability is who I am. I’m not ashamed of it. Are you?”

“No. But we wanted to make sure people with disabilities…”

“Disabled people.”

I continued, “… were seen as people who are equal to others.”

“We, meaning the allies.”

Nodding, I said, “Yes. We allies.”

He said, “Look, I know you allies mean well, but shouldn’t we disabled people decide what we want to be called?”

He was right.

How often do we allies decide the labels we give to others?

This conversation made me think of the labels used in the LGBTQ community. What do he labels Bi-sexual and Pan-sexual mean? What’s the difference? If you love someone other than your own gender you’re Gay, unless you’re a woman, then you’re a Lesbian. If you love both genders then you’re Bi-sexual, but where does Pan-sexual fit? Transexual, transgender… who decides what you’re called? Labels are vehemently debated and discussed in the queer community, but how are they discussed in the disability community?

What are my own labels and who gave them to me?  White. Woman. Middle-Class. College educated. Mother. Middle-Aged. Teacher. Writer. Celiac. Feminist.

Ally.

Labels have meaning, which gives them power. Therefore, people should decide for themselves what label they claim. If my friend wants to be referred to as a “disabled man” then that is his right. Another person may want to be a “person with disabilities”. That is their right. An ally should respect the choices of the individual, otherwise can we really label ourselves allies?

 

Caregiver or Mom?

Caregiver or mom? The two are blended into one role when our children are small. As they grow, we let go of small bits of caregiving. They learn to drink from a cup, use a spoon, pull off their own shirt and shoes and brush their own teeth. They become potty trained. They go to school and learn to write their own name. They get their own snack and in time learn to feed themselves. Perhaps they cook dinner for the whole family once a week. If they have smart parents, they learn to wash their own clothes. Slowly our children grow and become independent and eventually are able to live on their own. They don’t need us to be a caregiver, but they will always need us to be a mom.

This is what I’ve seen happen in other families. It isn’t what I’ve experienced.

My daughter will be 23 tomorrow but has less skills than she did when she was 10. Rather than gaining independence, she has become more dependent. Her illness has slowly taken away her motor skills and her hearing and now her vision is declining. Her cognitive abilities are reduced and something as simple as choosing which shirt to wear becomes an enormous task. So I help. I help her dress. Help her brush her teeth. Help her eat and bathe and use the toilet. We seem to be living in reverse.

The tricky part is balancing her need for a caregiver with my need to be mom. Her need for constant support with her desire for independence. My need to keep her safe with my hunger for freedom. We’re both trying to figure this out. When am I the caregiver? When I am mom? When do I make decisions that support her life and when do I make decisions to support my own?

A caregiver can be more methodical; I set my heart aside and take care of her daily needs. It doesn’t matter how frightened I am or tired, it only matters that she get enough nutrition and stay hydrated. I can manage doctor appointments and therapies and other caregivers that come to relieve me. Caregivers don’t need much sleep. Moms do.

This mom is frightened and angry and sad. This mom is sick and tired of the call in the night from a daughter who can’t get out of bed for a drink of water anymore. But this mom is also grateful that the call in the night still happens. My daughter, my beautiful, funny, kind-hearted daughter is turning 23 tomorrow after every doctor said she’d never see 20. We’re planning a party and celebrating the wonder that is Rhia. I am in awe of this child… this young woman… who disrupted my own life with her needs and curiosity. I am honored that of all the potential moms in the world, this spark of wonder chose me.

We still haven’t figured out the balance, and maybe we can’t. Balancing the heart with the mind and independence with dependence might be impossible. Sometimes Rhia is as sick of me as I am of the constant caregiving. She’d love to walk out the front door and find her own life with her own friends in another state! I’d love to help her pack.

But here we are, our lives entangled by Mitochondrial Disease. I’ll keep trying to learn when to be mom and when to step back and be the caregiver. A caregivers primary role is to support independence. Maybe that’s a mom’s role too?

How deaf is she?

A friend sent me a link to a video called “Are You Deaf Enough, by Jessica Killgren-Fozard, which was posted by Ai-Media. Here is the link to the video:

https://www.facebook.com/aimediaAUS/videos/10155585533079220/

In the video, Ms. Kellgren-Fozard talks about how it feels when people ask her how deaf she is. How much can she hear? Why doesn’t she “sound deaf”? The questions and her response reminded me of how I feel when people ask about my daughter Rhia.

How much can she hear? What does she hear? Can she hear me at all? When did she lose her hearing? She looks like she hears me, are you sure she can’t hear my voice? Why doesn’t she wear hearing aids? Have you considered cochlear implants? 

The answers are: I don’t know. I don’t live in Rhia’s skin and I don’t have her ears. There is no way I can know what she does and doesn’t hear. All I can do is guess, just as the doctors and the audiologist have guessed. We think she hears sound, but it’s garbled, like trying to understand a foreign language under water. She doesn’t hear high pitched sounds. How do I know? Because when the smoke detectors go off she doesn’t even flinch. She looks like she hears you because she used to hear so understands that you are speaking to her and she is clever enough to make excellent guesses about what you are probably saying. But that too is my guess. Maybe she can hear you sometimes, but it fades in and out. She tried hearing aids but hated them. A cochlear requires major surgery and she hates that too, so she learned sign language. Any other questions?

The questions are all about what she can and can’t do. People listen to the answers, nod, attempt to communicate with her for about a minute, then move on. Once they have proven to themselves that Rhia can’t hear, they stop trying to talk to her.

Occasionally I am asked, “How should I talk to her?” What a wonderful question! Instead of wanting to know how Rhia adapts, a person will ask how they can adapt to her. I see people try to communicate with her and include her in an activity. It’s not easy and I don’t blame people when they eventually give up. But the ones who really try to connect with Rhia are rewarded with her bright smile. If they know even a little sign language, Rhia beams and says “They know my language!” All it takes is getting close, making sure she’s looking at you and then signing, “It’s good to see you.”

I know when people ask me about Rhia’s hearing they aren’t trying to be rude or cruel; they really want to understand and learn. And most of the time I don’t mind answering. But if you’re going to ask the hard questions, be sure to follow up with a question about communication. How does Rhia like to be included? What is her favorite thing to do? Can you help me sign a question? Does Rhia understand what is happening? How can I help her understand? Would Rhia like a cookie? How do I sign “cookie”?

The more you focus on who Rhia is and learn how to communicate with her, the more you will discover she is a vibrant, funny, kind hearted young woman who loves to sing and go for walks on sunny days. She’s also deaf.

All grown up

The day I feared and hoped for came: Rhia graduated from school. When she turned 22 in May, she officially “aged-out” of her school based programs. She is now an adult.

Her school had a small ceremony for the three students who were also moving on to adult based services. But first, every student in the program got an award. One was for “Best Dancer.” Another was “Kindest.” A tall, shy boy was given an award for being the “Most Helpful.” And then it was Rhia’s turn. She stood up on her wobbly, colt legs and walked to the front of the room where she was given her Graduation Certificate and her award. Her’s said, “Most Likely to Speak Her Mind.” Everyone cheered.

They know my daughter well.

When Rhia was 5, she got in trouble for something (I don’t remember why). Instead of backing down, my tiny, elfin child put her hands on her hips and glared up at me with fierce eyes. “You can’t talk to me like that!” she declared. Fighting laughter, I sent her to her room. I was so proud of her and prayed that nothing would break that powerful spirit.

17 years later, nothing has… not multiple doctor’s appointments, losing her hearing, worsening eyesight, three hospital stays, deteriorating strength, ataxia, and anxiety. She will tell you exactly what she thinks and will fight hard if she thinks you’re wrong. Brutally honest, she is also extremely kind. She’ll tell you the truth, but be the first with a hug if she realizes she’s hurt you. She’s never intentionally cruel and fights for others as hard as she fights for herself. I wish I had been that strong when I was her age; instead I allowed others to walk all over me. I didn’t believe I mattered, but Rhia knows that she does.

I’m afraid. She’s not. But she doesn’t understand how complicated services for adults with disabilities can be. I see road blocks, paperwork, questions, and meetings. I’m afraid her world will get smaller now that she doesn’t have an ASL interpreter. Will we find one? Can anyone or anything replace the incredible support she’s gotten in school? How will I manage to piece together anything close to that?

Rhia is happy. Her greatest joy is she can now wear all the Disney t-shirts she wasn’t allowed to wear in school.

“I can wear anything I want!” she said, tossing school shirts on the floor. “I’m all grown up!”

“Yep,” I said, “You can wear Disney everyday.”

“Hooray!” More shirts flew into the air. I quietly scooped up the best ones to keep for the times she needs to wear something nicer than a Princess t-shirt. That will be another battle on a different day.

I need to have faith in my daughter. A deaf-blind young woman who wins an award because she always speaks her mind is no one to underestimate. And I’ve always got her back. We’ll find a way.

 

 

 

 

 

Trying to change the world is not a solo endeavor.

I believe that one person can make positive changes in the world. My heroes are Martin Luther King Jr, Dr. Hawa Abdi, Cesar Chavez, and Margaret Sanger. All four fought for the rights of others despite impossible odds and succeeded. And so, with their example in my mind, I tried to raise money to pay the bus fare for people with disabilities. Dial-A-Ride is expensive, especially if you live out of town, and in a rural area like Mendocino County, the bus is limited. How does a person with a disability get to town for shopping or a doctor’s appointment or to visit friends, if they can’t drive?

How hard could it be? It’s not like I’m trying to provide medical care in Somalia.

With the support of Burners Without Borders, a volunteer organization that helps people create change in their communities, I made a fundraising plan and called the Mendocino County Transit Authority (MTA). No one called back. I called again. I emailed. I waited. No response. Fine! I guess they don’t want money. Too bad, I’ll try a different tact. After making a list of local non-profits who help people with disabilities, I contacted each one. No one called back. Hmmm…. weird. What am I doing wrong? I called Burners Without Borders for help and they advised me to go ahead and fundraise and not worry about getting MTA support. Just show up with a check and they’ll take the money.

So I started planning a fundraising event and quickly had a panic attack.

If I don’t find a way to help people with disabilities get to the grocery store, who will? Would Margaret Sanger give up because no one returned her phone call? No! She was beaten and thrown in jail, but never gave up. She also had a group of people helping her.

Oh… right… even heroes need help. And I am not a hero. I’m just a woman in a rural town who sees a problem and wants to solve it.

Last year I tried to get the City of Ukiah to fix the Accessible Pedestrian Signals (APS) at intersections so people with vision impairments could cross the street safely. I met with a City Councilwoman and contacted the Department of Transportation. I also spoke with the City team working on the new traffic plan. They said they would add me to their contact list so I could attend their meetings. It never happened.

Again, I banged my head against a brick wall trying to solve a problem no one else seemed worried about.

If I had more time, I could attack all these problems effecting people with disabilities in my town: no transportation, broken pedestrian signals, crumbling sidewalks, lack of curb cuts, unsafe street crossings (near the hospital for goodness sake!). But I can’t do it alone; not even Martin Luther King Jr was alone. I have to accept the fact that just because I see a problem doesn’t mean it’s mine to solve. I really tried to make progress, but the brick walls I hit are stronger than one person can tear down. So I’m passing the baton to the next person.

You?

I hope someone carries it.

 

5 years and counting

Rhia almost died five years ago on Easter. After a week in the hospital she recovered from what the doctors called metabolic distress. She left weak, but alive. And she had an actual diagnosis for the first time: mitochondrial disease. The doctor didn’t know which type of mito she had, but all the symptoms pointed to some kind of illness that starved her cells of fuel. Slowly, over many years, her cells would starve to death and she herself would die.

They gave her five more years.

That was five years ago.

I spent five years preparing myself for her inevitable death.  Five more Christmas. Five more trips to Disneyland. Five more visits to New Orleans to see family. And then one day she would stop breathing, and my lovely girl would be gone.

But she’s still here, happy and thriving and very much alive. Her ataxia is worse and so is her vision. She can barely walk, even with her walker. Managing her fatigue is top priority. And she’s lost ground cognitively. But despite all predictions, she is still here. She is a friendly, stubborn, kind-hearted, and curious young woman who deals every day with her disability. It frustrates her sometimes but she never gives up. Every time she walks into the doctor’s office on her wobbly legs, it is another victory.

I was ready to say goodbye. I wasn’t ready to take care of an adult with severe disabilities. Soon she will transition into an adult day program when she ages out of the school system at age 22. That is next month!

22. No one believed she would see age 22. Not even me.

On Tuesday we go back to Stanford for her annual check-up with the geneticist and neurologist, They measure her body and track her decline; there is always a decline. And they always smile when they see her. I see the unspoken “how are you still here?” Rhia is impressive, a mystery that has puzzled her geneticist for 10 years. First he couldn’t figure out what was causing her symptoms, now he can’t figure out how she’s still alive. But he seems thrilled to see she still is.

I know I will outlive my child, but no one can tell me by how long. She could collapse tomorrow, or next month. Every time she gets sick I feel the tight panic in my chest. Is this the illness that finally saps her strength? She recovers and my fear subsides. Until she falls. Will this injury be the one that stops her from walking? She gets back up. She keeps walking. She keeps smiling. There is nothing I can do but watch and enjoy every moment I have with her.

Not to say she’s always a joy to be with. She can be impossible! Stubborn and quick to frustrate, she can yell, hit, kick, and throw things. But she is just as quick to apologize and make amends. She’ll pick you a flower or draw you a picture. When you’re sad, she’s the first with a hug. She tells the most ridiculous, surreal jokes and laughs at her own wit. She sings in the car and the bathtub. And she always makes you feel like you are in the presence of a miracle.

I know we’ll say goodbye one day. But right now, I’m going to watch Snow White for the hundredth time with my fabulous daughter.