Dear Summer Camp " Buddy",


I couldn't help but write you this letter, and I hope that's okay. I have so much to thank you for, first for being Zoe's ' buddy" at summer camp.There is more I want to share with you too. My hope is that you will tuck this letter away and read it again at different times in your life.

I hope it will help you make sense of your world, maybe inspire or comfort you when words like these are what your heart needs.

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What Frustrates You Most About Your Special Needs Child?

 Well, technically the question in the packet of papers read “ What frustrates you most about your child?” The questions were typically brief and non-descript and this was the only question that made me pause, put down my pen and sigh. There was less than one line to complete my answer, not anywhere near enough enough space to tell my daughter’s story. 

  It was laughable really, that someone would ask such an open ended question that sounded so insensitive, at least to a Mom like me. The packet was specifically written for parents of kids with special needs, the question and answer process designed to know my child better.. but frustrates? Typically, when my kid misbehaves there is a  “wiring” issue involved in the behavior.. processing, impulsivity, fatigue etc. There is nothing about my daughter Zoe that “ frustrates”  me, as  in.. “ gets on my nerves, drives me crazy, or really *#**#$* with my day.,..yet really... now that you ask.. almost EVERYTHING about Zoe FRUSTRATES me.

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Mitochondrial Disease Awareness Week is Over, and What Our Future Holds..

Zoe is ten now, TEN. Once upon a time , we weren’t even sure she would live this long. That’s what it’s like when you have a young sick child, diagnosed with mitochondrial disease.

I have been reading about mitochondrial disease all week, and thinking about how rarely we speak of it now. How we had to move on with our life and had to start living it. How time can change things.

Our questions about Zoe’s future were impossible to answer, and the only clinical estimate Zoe’s Doctor offered was “ The earlier the onset of the disease, and the more organ systems involved, the more severe the progression.” Zoe was almost 3, and we knew mitochondrial disease was affecting her brain, her muscles, her eyes and kidneys." This wasn't hopeful news. 

 Although Zoe’s diagnosis was not as severe as some, like this family’s story just published by CNN, the plan was the same- take your medicine, and take care- do whatever you can to avoid illness and fatigue and we’ll see what the future brings. 

It has been a long ten years- and by looking at this picture, you wouldn’t know that. You can’t see the power wheelchair Zoe needs to move through large areas like school , or her push chair that we used on the day this picture was taken. You can’t see the walker she needs to stand unassisted or move through our home. You can’t see how her every moment, each step, each activity in her life has been adapted for her success and independence.

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Don't Sweat the Small Stuff - " Change it Up!"

LavenderI don’t sleep through the night. A good night means I am up only twice. My day starts at 5 and ends by 10, and the mothering I do all day is a physical, eyes and hands-on type that Moms’ of toddlers can most identify with.  I am the mom of a girl with special needs, and I have been blessed with the gift of perspective.

It is an awesome gift I have earned. When you hold your child throughout painful or difficult medical procedures one day, and the next she wants a chocolate brownie or to wear her princess tutu to the grocery store.. it’s a no brainer. It’s perspective. 

When the bedroom floor is strewn with toys at bedtime, but the sound of laughter still lingers from her afternoon of play, it’s the gift of perspective that allows you to push the mess aside and climb in - to give your girl a goodnight hug, grateful for a good day.

Managing stress is always an issue from me, managing work, home, marriage and mothering. Years ago, I picked up the first edition of “ Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff For Mom’s” and was moved by the poignant, short common sense chapters. I especially needed support with the accepting that I cannot do everything, taking care of myself was mandatory, and sometimes just surrendering was okay. 

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Running Through Life

 Yesterday, Zoe RAN for the first time. And it was real, I could feel her determination, she kept pumping her tired legs, to go a little faster ,and climb the slight hill.

I could see the happiness spill from her smile , as she passed others on the running path . I felt the thrill of it, as she finally crossed the finish line, elated and spent.

Standing behind her, I saw what she saw- the incredible imagery of the wii game graphics on the big screen-- the dream-like sequence of images, as my little girl stood in her walker, pumping her legs with a rhythm her legs were never meant to find. As she imagined it was her hair flying in the wind and that she really was that girl on the screen- running in the sun, legs galloping with ease over the grassy hills.

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The " Good Enough" Mom..



I am about 12 years into motherhood now.. and like a lot of Mom's I know, I still don't feel like I'm getting it right. Mothering kids with medical issues takes a purposeful amount of focus and attention, the kind that sometimes prevents you from being that cool " chill" kind of mom..yet still I try , and every day I learn. 

I have learned that sometimes rolling off the bed as a result of a tickle fight is the kind of good clean fun that all kids need, low muscle tone or not. 

I have learned that a smiling , happy faced kid, that got that " 5 more minutes!" in the pool she desperately wanted can help you dismiss and not obsess over-the flushed color of her fatigued face. 

I have learned that your sad, crying kid- can break your heart at any age- whether a sick toddler unable to tell you what's wrong or a frustrated, overtired 10 year old that just can't verbalize every feeling she feels.

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Message for ALL Mom’s .. LOVE your kids, as if they were dying..




My day today began like any other, I was up at 5 packing lunches and backpacks, while trying to gulp down some coffee. I have an appointment at the office later, so I spent a few minutes standing in front of my closet sighing, before getting dressed and rushing through the morning rituals to drop my oldest daughter at school first.

 Later, it is just Zoe and I in the car.  The sun is streaming through the car windows. I put on some music and began making small talk with Zoe about her day. 

I am used to the starts and stops in our frequent conversation. Zoe,  is almost eleven now,  and a thinker-  yet she slowly forms her thoughts, chooses her words and processes it into speech. There are pauses as she searches for the word she wants, and fatigue can slow the pace, slur the word . Remembering all the years she could barely even communicate, I wait patiently and am still grateful each time she begins to speak. 

 Her thoughts come in word pieces and listening carefully, I fit the puzzle together ..

“ Mom, when I grow up and become a Mom, would this be a good car for me to drive and how do you learn to be a Mom anyway?”  There it is, her question. And suddenly it’s as if the clouds have pushed the sun away, and my daily “ cup half full" approach to life has been smashed to hell. Zoe can't see my face, and I am glad. I don't want her to know the raw pain that is causing me to to hold my breath .

My girl is growing up, and thoughts of the future, are close , more menacing than when she was 5, and although she is an awesome kid doing amazingly well- she still has a progressive metabolic disease. She still has generalized epilepsy, kidney disease and although she grows more steady with the growing size of her body- she will always use a  wheelchair and a walker to explore her world. 

What I couldn’t say to Zoe is that with her vulnerabilities I can’t imagine her “ being a mom”-  that her physical impairments alone ,will prevent her from ever driving a car. I refuse to even contemplate the complex medical conversations we have had about Zoe’s life expectancy, we just don’t go there.

Yet this reality is what sometimes separates me from other Mom’s. Tragedies that take kids too soon are always unexpected. As busy Mom’s we just forget  that we are all fragile. We sometimes forget that the messy room, the lapse in homework , the bad grade -aren’t the important things about mothering.

In the last few months, I have heard too many stories about children lost too soon. Within the special needs communities, the families were fighting, and winning. Their kids survived surgeries, hospitalizations, and the everyday challenges that often come with raising a special needs kid. These parents were managing their kids health, their kids were stable, even improving with therapies. Their parents were seeking refuge in that stability that meant success-until the day their kids weren’t stable. Until one day their physical vulnerabilities were  cause for taking their child’s life, and they were just gone.

I am guilty of doing it too sometimes. Getting caught up in the day to day. Zoe is doing well, we are managing , we are “winning” and then an illness comes along, a news story, a medical test, or a conversation like this one Zoe and I shared - and reality comes crashing through, grounding me again to what is really important.

 And it’s this reality , that I wish every mom knew. It sounds  harsh, I know.. - but it’s a secret that special needs moms have learned along the way. It’s something that I think all Mom's should know, or just think about sometime. That all that other stuff- just really doesn’t matter. 

Let your KIDS light your soul and commit to be present in their moment , commit to really love your kids, love like they are the MOST important , love with the heartbreaking pain that comes with it. LOVE your kids, as if they were dying.


The Words That Matter Most

I remember the exact moment I got the news, when my world stopped and for the moment -nothing else mattered. I remember the way the doctor led us across the recovery room and into the makeshift office of the medical tech I saw scurrying away.  Some guy who, at the doctors urging, left so fast, his abandoned cup of coffee still sat steaming on his desk. We sat talking until that cup of coffee grew cold.

 At first there was relief, I was strung out from sleep deprivation, and determination. I knew something was very wrong, but no one in  Arizona could figure it out. Thanks to my father’s celebrity connections,  Zoe and I had flown across the country to meet with a team of special doctors. 

  I made it through that meeting , learning a lot from the doctors words and more from those converstions that  followed.  Most doctors are practiced at the art of breaking bad news.

 Over time I have learned how much to say, how to have these conversations- and when it is best not to try. 

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Love and Laughter.. . We'll Live Happy Ever After

Photo[1] To reach for the fun of everyday.. it has to be easy and at- hand- and sometimes simple is best. By that I mean, the seasonal art basket has to be in reach, the kitchen table rearranged so a little girl in her walker can look out the french doors on the side patio to check on her own blooming chalk flower garden, and that access through these doors is quick and easy so  chalk sessions on the patio can happen spontaneously in the late afternoon- even though  this little girl has had a tough week healthwise and big sister is coming down with a cough. Flowers Oliviasart

Because there is no medicine like love and laughter, add some  sunshine, chalk and water..  and I believe with that.. we'll  live happy ever after.Zoes









From Better to Worse and Then They Will Part

I thought she was asleep, until her head peeks out from beneath her blanket and she stretches her arms out for me. "Mom, your home! " Zoe says this with such joy as if I have been away for days. Not so. Just an hour, her bedtime hour. She is smiling sleepily " Daddy took really good care of me." I close her bedroom door and move down the hall and find Olivia, in bed, fast asleep with her pile of library books around her. Turning off her light, I go to find my husband, thinking of how lucky my girls are- and of the many kids out there whose Daddy's just don't stay.

 My husband and I talked about wanting kids before we were even married. We had lots of peace and quiet then, we sat sipping wine in sidewalk cafes, planning our future . We spent weekends experimenting with gourmet recipes, and relaxing by the pool. He had his own company, and I was a career girl- but still our family felt like the right future for me. We stood in the courtyard at Four Seasons in Santa Barbara and exchanged our vows.

We have been blessed, and lucky and in love. Our vows remain unbroken, and statistically, it is a rare thing. Divorce is at an all time high,, throw in decreased success rates for second marriage, chronic illness/special needs and yes- we have defied the odds. But my heart breaks for those who haven't, for those spouses who messed up, gave up, moved on and out- the ones that literally left- leaving their little ones behind.

Nobody ever sees it coming. The economy has pillaged many happy homes. So has adversity, tragedy and the plain old fact that life is tough right now. I believe in doing what's best for the kids, and I get that sometimes that needs to be divorce.

And when you get married it is hard to imagine you and your spouse experiencing that worst case scenario, that tragedy, loss or life changing event . I hear about it happening more and more now. The hard to manage kids, or the family living with chronic illness or special needs, where one night Daddy just doesn't come home because it is selfishly easier to stay away. Or the spouse, who is always putting their family first and one day discovers that their life was all a lie, unexpectedly untrue.

Sitting across from my husband, I talk about the hour I spent at Olivia's school that night. He tells me about the girls and bedtime. " I know what you mean about Zoe" he says, " she was way past tired tonight. I worry about her... " his sentence trails off and I see the deepened expression settling in his face, hear the pain in his softening voice. I can read the words lodged in his heart, the ones he doesn't let go. I know what he wants, what he wishes for and how much he loves. And I think of all the broken families out there and I wish this was the only kind of heartbreak they ever had. The kind where Daddy's heart is broken by love, by wishes, by a wanting pain.

Instead of all those little children left behind , whose hearts are just broken by Daddy.

Truth and Beauty

When Zoe was little, each moment of truth was stunning. She will never walk by herself. She won't run in the grass, walk in the sand, or recklessly dance her way across the room. These moments have continued as she grows older. Drive a car. Have a child. Grow old.

 I grieve these truths and then move on, trying to live so typically that sometimes I can forget for a long, long while. Until now, now that Zoe, and her big sister, are coming to know these truths- and understanding them enough to shed their own tears.

 Zoe is 8 now, and loves to sing and dance- read about Ramona, and is smart, especially in that " when you least expect it" kind of way. Zoe's big sister is almost ten, and I have spent these years teaching them that they can do anything,that everyone is beautiful in their own way, that they are just like everyone else. For Zoe especially, she believes this to be true- and only recently has she started to see how truly different she really is.

During a recent bedroom dance session, I caught some of her awesome moves on video. She grabbed my iphone the other day and began playing the clip. She was stunned. " Mom, I looked horrible ( one of her favorite dramatic declarations.. horrrrrrrible!) I thought I danced better than that she said- and then she sat .. silent for a few minutes. And then just yesterday, we were talking about her book report presentation, nearly a month away.. and in the midst of all of her objections, was that truth that came before the tears... " I can't speak like the other kids."

And yes, I know how to fix these things. We will practice, and practice and adapt. The awesome team at school will help her practice too, and her confidence will grow. I know it will be another accomplishment for her.. until the next truth comes. And is that what comes along as your special needs child grows older- teaching them these truths?

I get emails sometimes from other moms in the special needs communities. Asking about what I deal with or how. Have I ever experienced this or that.?. and the answer is most always yes. I just can't share that. The grittiest ugliest stuff, the seizures, the stroke, the sicknesses- to me the details are private, and to my husband and others who love them - It is painful too. And sometimes, there are no words. I try to protect my daughters when they are at their worst, I want to care for them, heal them the best I can and we just hunker down until the storm has passed.

The start of this school year has brought many of these reminders, the adaptions, the schedules, the fear of the fast spreading school germs that can knock the girls down in a moments notice. I have been scheduling the MRI's, The EEG's, evaluations, updates and labs. Soon it will settle down, and I will slip into the school routine again. And I look forward to moving on , keeping the painful moments private and living so typically that I can forget for a while , until the tears come again.

Mitochondrial Disease and Me..

This Saturday I will be speaking to a room full of people like me. People that used to maybe escape for weekends at the beach when their work life got too demanding, someone who would pick up the phone to gather friends at a favorite restaurant.. someone content to spend hours of  quiet time with a good book, a good movie, a good friend. This was all before they began living with an illness, looking for answers for their child, or for themselves.Before the day a  doctor sat across from them, telling them about mitochondrial disease and everything changed.

I don't talk about mitochondrial disease . Especially around my kids. Mitochondrial is a big word, disease is an ugly word and the two words together ? Well.. it's complicated. Essentially, mitochondria is in every cell of your body and responsible for producing more than 90% of the energy the body needs to sustain life and support growth. When  mitochondria fail, less energy is generated within the cell. Cell injury and even cell death follow. If this process is repeated throughout the body, whole systems begin to fail, and the life of the person in whom this is happening is severely compromised. You can read more, but once you learn that it is progressive and that as of today there is no cure.. the documented details can be grim.

Learning about mitochondrial disease changed me. Finding the diagnosis we so desperately needed - was a relief. But after that, there was grief,  frustration and finally... determination.

Cancer used to scare me until this happened.  Because when you have cancer, there most always is some type of treatment, a foreseen idea of what the future will hold, how the illness will progress. You can plan, you can prepare. You can even fight back.

We take my daughters to the Cleveland Clinic, and there we see one of the best, most knowledgable expert physicians , and for that I am so thankful. But still, there is no real treatment, no real plan and no expert guess as to what the future will hold. You can only manage today, and your only chance in delaying the progression of this is to be vigilant . Illness, infection, and physical stress can increase progression. And so I am always monitoring sleep, food, heat stress, energy levels and illness. And always monitoring, is stressful . I want us to live each day fully, make memories, be normal, but I also know that the decisions I make today will affect their life tomorrow.

Today I am not as social as I used to be. I still like music, movies and good restaurants. I still can make people laugh, yet today it's mostly my husband and at the most unexpected times, usually at the end of the day as the children sleep and we settle into our new normal.The great restaurants are replaced with new recipes we try at home. We make the most of our time together, enjoying the backyard, the simple thrill of opening the french doors during dinner, letting the desert breeze in and marveling at the Arizona sunset , magentas and purple splashing the sky.

I am losing touch- with friends, people I admire, even family I love. There is not enough time to pursue and even maintain relationships, personal interests, and it hurts. It is hard  to steal the time away -on the phone and especially in person. There are medicines, appointments, unexpected illnesses. There is daily living, fatigue, the summer heat , seizures and even more to manage. My children's lifestyles which require hands on supervision or assistance. I am working part time, trying to support my husband's business as well and sometimes, I am on the verge of even losing touch with myself. Each day I try to find a few minutes so that this doesn't happen. Time to pray, time to write, read a book, knit,  a few minutes outside. I  know that my health is essential to theirs.

So on Saturday, I am presenting a session at the United Mitochondrial Disease Foundation Annual Symposium, a gathering of physicians and families from all over the country, brought together by the common need , the desire to know more about Mitochondrial disease. The desire to understand it better- and the desire to be understood.

I will be talking about blogging and journaling, how to do it- what it can do for you- how easy it is. How blogging allows you to express yourself while connecting with others.

And on this day, I know the people I meet, will understand the complexity that comes with living with mitochondrial disease. To them, I won't be the friend who doesn't call, the childhood buddy they never see. The relative that is always behind at writing a note,  sending a holiday card or staying in touch. I won't be the casual acquaintance who is often uneasy and awkward with small talk, especially  when I am worried , stressed or on a tight schedule.

 To these people I will just be the mom of two girls with mitochondrial disease, the one who writes about living with it, the one with the upbeat attitude, another mom who does the best job she can each day, just holding it together.

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In Her Dreams

Zoe calls me during the night, and I go to her- sometimes she needs milk, or is tangled in the confusion of blankets she likes to cuddle , sometime it is more than that. But when I tuck her in again, her head atop her Barbie pillow with one arm tucked underneath, I wonder about her dreams. She tells me sometimes about about the monsters and the princesses that visit in her little girl dreams. But as I watch her now, eyes closed, the even breathing of sweet sleep beginning, so content. I wonder what she dreams. ... O in the middle of the night, is often frightened - as if the anxiety she battles by day is exaggerated with the dark of night. I understand this, instinctively. When I find myself up in the middle of the night, soothing her fears, getting a snack for her, I worry too.. about the future, their future, how much I have to do, how much I can't get done, I worry about the rising cost of healthcare, the marketing jobs on my to -do list, the appointments I need to make, even the laundry that sits unfinished. When I have tucked them in again, I crawl back under my covers. I seek the warmth of my husband and try to relax,saying a prayer for my girls. But as I start to fall off to sleep, I still can't help but wonder about Zoe when she dreams. Does she walk in her dreams? Can she run? Dance? Bike ? Can she wear dress up high heeled Cinderella shoes and dance about in play? Does she dream of those things she so often asks to do? I hope so. I hope her dreams carry her into her own magical world, so that if only in her slumber, all her dreams come true.

Words Left Unspoken

Untitled_edited When Zoe was almost three, she spoke in sign. Words she could never say, were finally free with the fluttering, practiced movement of her hands. Maybe she wasn't speaking then because of her undiagnosed epilepsy, or her unrecognized severe vision loss. Or maybe it was because she was sick ALL the time, with one infection and hospital visit after another. So I found Christine, a local ASL instructor who came to our house and opened our world. I wrote about what that must have been like for Zoe and what is was like for me, here. 

Zoe will be 8 soon, and her speech although affected has evolved so that most people can understand her, most of the time. Somewhere along the way, with six years of speech therapy, she stopped signing I love you, and began whispering it in my ear. Today she uses her words all the time. Yesterday she told me she wants a bike, though I have yet to find one she could ride. She tells me too, that she would like to dance ballet, go ice skating, surf like Barbie in the Mermaid Tale movie and that she will be a Mommy someday.

Last week, Olivia and I were driving in the car and we started talking about Zoe. We talked about Zoe's medicines and how her body doesn't work the way it is supposed to. And this is where I tread very carefully ,O's body doesn't work the right way either, and for the same underlying reason. Yet, these sisters are very different. O can run and climb, and bike and dance and someday I hope she will even surf. O looks and sounds just like any other typical 9 year old girl. O just gets tired faster than other kids her age and shares some of the less complicated health issues that affect Zoe. So we talked about Zoe's muscles not working well and how her inability to balance prevents her from walking, when Olivia asked " But Mom, Zoe will walk one day right? All by herself? All the time, like me when she get's older?" and I realized then that Olivia thought this was something Zoe would grow into. Gently, I replied " Well, the doctor's don't think she will, but she is stronger now than she used to be. We have to wait and see , but.. she may not."

Zoe's diagnosis dictates she probably won't...ever. Zoe's prognosis dictates a lot of things. But, Zoe.. well, Zoe is amazing and I don't like to use words like never and can't and especially not the word won't.

So I looked into Olivia's face then, to see if she understands what I have just said. And I see that her eyes, like mine, are filled with tears. She opens her mouth to speak and then pauses, - and I anticipate the emotional response of a 9 year old sister- saying it isn't fair , then I wonder if she will just accept what I have said and move on. But with the new maturity of a protective big sister - she asks " Have you told Zoe, Mom? Does she know?" and with that spoken I see her loving care and affection. I see the same grief I sometimes feel. She is worried for her sister, afraid she will be hurt and disappointed.

I think about some of the words that have hurt lately. Zoe, pleading with me to walk at school with her pretty new shoes. Zoe crying because she really wants to read and isn't quite there yet. I think about the words Olivia just spoke- and the emotion and raw ache that came tumbling out with them. I think back to when it was only the words left unspoken that hurt .The day I called my husband, from the Cleveland Clinic to tell him we had finally found what was wrong with Zoe, and then I cried, while he waited on the other end of the phone for the words that were still to come. I remember how we would ask our neurologist with each visit to Cleveland, will Zoe walk? Will she talk? And there was more that was left unsaid with each answer to our questions. I remember Olivia's diagnosis that came later and again how much the doctors didn't say, because little is known about the progressive path of this disease. And I remember when the Doctor's phone call came to tell me about a recent stroke they saw on Zoe's MRI and what I did not say in the silence. The memories of Zoe as a toddler, awake and crying through the night as if she were in pain- yet she was unable to say anything. I would cry silently, tears streaming down my own face as I nuzzled Zoe close -kissing away the wet on her cheeks, using my breath to cool the sweat on her brow.

Today it is bittersweet, there are words that wound and bring sorrow, and words that fill us with happiness and hope- yet none of these words can compare , to the heartache of the words that are left unspoken.

Little Girl Shoes and A Mother's Heart

Life is full and busy- and I like living in the moment , appreciating what I have now and not fearing what the future holds. But the other day, there was this this one moment, when reality crashed in . Just a moment, that knocked me to me knees and once again reminded me what life is really all about.

The girls and I were shopping for Easter outfits. This is the first year, I have broken the " Easter dress" tradition for mass- and encouraged them to choose something special that they love and can enjoy wearing again. O, my older girl artist was naturally drawn to the bright turquoise, blues and greens and Zoe, still my girliest girl was looking for pink flounce. O was confident in her choice of a hip chick long flowing skirt and top with beaded necklace and belt. Zoe delighted to find a soft pink ruffled top, and a matching bright pink poufy skirt. Dressing rooms are getting easier now, as Zoe can do a better job maintaining her balance holding on to the grab bar. Seeing her fashion pose in front of the full length mirror, and then her hand on one hip as she evaluated her choice of outfit as seriously as her almost 10 year old older sister , was so heartwarmingly wonderfully typical that it made me smile uncontrollably. Next, we were off to find shoes. Shoes are tricky with Zoe, she cannot walk on her own unassisted more than a few steps, she has balance issues and is flat footed. So for her special outfits we need a sensible, but girlie shoe. Zoe went up and down the aisles in her power chair, selecting a few styles and filling her lap with shoeboxes. She drove over to the bench , and waited for me to help her transfer onto the bench seat to try on her shoes. And although she could have tried them on seated in her wheelchair, she did what we have always encouraged her to do, what she wants, because she is no different than everyone else. I then fitted her feet with a pair of very feminine but casual, gold ballet style flats that were decorated with tiny flower appliques. Looking up, I saw she was smiling a smile that filled her entire face. She looked to O for approval first, "Perfect !" O declared. I was still kneeling in front of her- soaking in the warmth of her happy glow as she reached up and cupped my chin in her hand. " Mom ", she begins tentatively, her voice is questioning and I can see by her gaze as she looks me in the eye that she is serious and oh I don't know, has an almost far off look on her face. I know she is slowly formulating her words for an idea, translating these important thoughts of hers into words. " Yes...." I say, encouraging and patient. Zoe has delighted me with a higher level of thought and expression lately, and I am curious . So I smile and I wait and the words come. " I want to wear these shoes to walk at school, I want to walk all by myself in these shoes. I am tired of using my wheelchair ALL THE TIME, she emphasizes each of these last three words pointing to her wheelchair again with each word. . Can't I wear these new shoes to walk, and show my friends? And in that moment I wonder if my little girl is asking me a bigger question . She has never really talked about what she can't do . She has never even asked me about what she someday will do. Instead she believes she can , and if she can't, we try to find another way to do it. And just like that I draw my breath sharply. I am on my knees already, so I bend over forward because the pain that has stabbed my stomach, my heart? is so sharp and sudden, and possibly the greatest I have ever experienced. And then I lean toward her again and try to casually gather her in my arms, my face in her hair so she cannot see my eyes have filled with tears. " Zoe," I answer, my voice in her ear. I know you want to walk all by yourself, but you need someone to help you, if you don't want to use your walker or your chair." I pull back now and search her eyes. " I know, Mom" she sighs a small sigh. I am sure there is no pain visible on my face now, even the concern I have absorbed inward, so that it is cannot be seen. My voice is positive , light hearted. Because I am a mom and I want to protect my child from this pain. " But you know what? Zoe, You will be beautiful in these shoes" I continue. " I know Mom," she is smiling again. . " That's okay, Mom" she begins. I have fun in my chair, chasing the boys in my wheelchair on the basketball courts at recess. I am fa--a-a-a-st! She almost sings this last part- and she is laughing again. The moment has passed.

But in my mother's heart, this moment has etched another line . That is how I imagine it sometimes, before a heart breaks, the cracks must come from deeply etched lines of wear. But this same mother's heart is also filled with love, and when I look at my children, O's love for her sister, Zoe's resilience- it overflows with pride.

Helicopters & Hospitals and Ordinary Time...

I sat at mass yesterday,with Zoe's head on my shoulder, her small arm tucked around me. Olivia was on my other side, listening attentively as the priest talked about the meaning of ordinary time. This is what we are celebrating now , the period of ordinary time defined by the church as the journey from Jesus' birth to his death.
Because I care for a child with special needs, the word ordinary strikes hard.To me this word "ordinary" means typical. And typical moments are something I sometimes long for, like an ordinary day  where my daughter can run to meet me at the sidewalk after school ,her backpack hanging from her shoulders. Instead ,she happily rushes to me in her wheelchair. Sometimes I wish for ordinary- for little girls who can have play dates after school, instead of coming home to rest.
Being the parent of a special needs child requires first the most basic of mothering instinct, the kind that comes from mothering the life within your womb, the kind that grows with that life. Mine came to me early in my first pregnancy with the diagnosis of a complete placenta previa . It hit fast, with little time to question that instinctive and fierce protectiveness . Quickly I shed my workaholic ways, and followed doctors orders. Both the baby and I were " high" risk, and for a long while my only outings were to weekly doctor appointments. These docs treated and consulted with their expert opinions . Their appointments focused on  predictions and likelihood of outcome. But one visit, post-exam the conversation changed-  my complication had unexpectedly resolved,  and suddenly these Docs were releasing me from bed rest. Driving home, my husband and I made our first decision as parents that day. We would wait a bit longer, staying on bed rest - just to be sure.
Within the week,my husband was rushing me to the local hospital and from there -within the hour I was transferred via helicopter to another hospital that had a specialized department for high risk maternity and neonatal care. There I stayed for a few weeks more,  with round the clock monitoring, steroids- to mature the baby's lungs and anti-labor medication to delay delivery as long as possible. My early morning began each day with my husband by my side, and each night he came again -kissing me goodnight before he went home alone each night.
The final outcome was dramatic, once the baby's lungs were mature- we prepared for an early c-section. The hour before, the same specialists declared my condition had spontaneously resolved. My original OB disagreed and  delivered Olivia via c-section at 32.5 weeks, the complete placenta previa still present. Our parental instincts were correct.I had no idea then, the importance of that twice learned lesson. 
There were complications with Zoe's pregnancy also, but we navigated through them easily with the experience we gained from my first pregnancy. Zoe was delivered early at 34 weeks and within the first year of her life, she experienced several unexplained illnesses. She had " colic" , and even then her extreme infant neediness seemed unnatural. My round the clock presence was soothing to her, I could tell- but what was I soothing away? What was the underlying problem that made this sweet baby so restless, so desperately uncomfortable?  
Within the first two years of Zoe's life, I could see unexplained physical abnormalities - muscle weakness, delay in mobility, unusual eye function- there were even some slight unusual markings on her body. Within those first two years, I was the only one obsessed with putting the big picture together and getting answers ( see October 29, 2005 blog entry for published article on this..) Within those same two years, there were also several misdiagnosis'- acidosis misdiagnosed in the local ER as dehydration, eye movement delay that was later diagnosed as severe strabismus, physical markers overlooked as unimportant, unusually large head circumference that later fit the neurological diagnosis, an abnormal genetic blood panel interpreted by a local pediatrician as being insignificant, a brain MRI image misread, mislabeled  and documented  as normal, later reread and re-diagnosed with several significant abnormalities present since birth. Most of these errors we only discovered when I gathered up my baby, my determination and all of her original medical data to travel from Scottsdale to the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, where Zoe was finally diagnosed with mitochondrial disease- and we, her parents-then wept. We wept with relief and eventual grief. Two years later, history replayed itself when I gathered Olivia, then almost 5, and went again - coming  home with the same diagnosis for recent unexplained fatigue.
When you parent a special needs child, this type of experience hones that natural mothering instinct. The steely resolve, determination and patience you gain prepare you even further. Truly though the biggest requirement of all is   the ability to celebrate ordinary time every day- ordinary time being the every day, the journey we all have with our children- from their birth to their death.

Alone with Autism, A Cup of Comfort for Parents

Autism  I have met many mothers whose lives are both challenged and enriched by their child who is affected by autism. Although it does not affect my girls, there is a very high incidence of autism related to mitochondrial disease. In honor of Autism Awareness Month, I wanted to share this story of mine that was published in A Cup of Comfort for Parents with Autism. ( Note that feeling more private at the time, I had changed the girls name for national publication.)The stories are inspiring and true, the real, shared  emotions soothing to a parent who may feel alone. This book makes a great gift and will be appreciated by any family living with autism . You can purchase it online at the link above,on  Amazon or it is most often available at your local bookstore. ( This I know as Olivia checks each bookstore we visit!)  

Sara’s First Friend

    The gray sidewalks that border my daughter’s school playground are filled with chalk drawings. Today, the kindergarten chalk artists have yet to begin their detailed daily pastel drawings. As we enter the playground area, my daughter, Samantha, her red ponytails bouncing, runs ahead to place her backpack in line outside her classroom door. Sara, her little sister, slows the quick pace of her walker as she looks down, studying the chalk- filled walkways with interest.

   Finally, as Sarah & I  reach the end of the long sidewalk, we find our place,. Leaning against the wall that parallels the playground, we watch the five- year- olds as they laugh and play, tease and cry, releasing their early morning energy before another day in class.Sara studies her sister from afar. Sara’s eyes reveal nothing. I am tired this morning, as usual, because of Sara’s restlessness throughout the night. Wearing blue jeans, and my favorite Gap T-shirt, I sit “criss-cross applesauce” style, clutching my commuter mug. I drink the hot coffee greedily. mentally double- check my morning routine, worried that I have forgotten something essential for Samantha’s day at school. Worried, as usual, that she has not received her due share of affection, or enough attention because of Sara’s demanding needs. This is my morning routine. Sitting here, staring at my very different daughters, trying to imagine Sara on this playground two years from now, and questioning what our future will be.

   I have mastered the role of being Sara’s advocate. I believe this is inexplicitly entwined with the responsibility of being her mother. I think back for a moment when life was simple, when I was more carefree before my heart began to hurt,before that life-defining moment. I was in the shower, that day, indulging in the extravagant luxury of deep- conditioning my hair. Samantha, then three, came to pound on the glass shower door. She was demanding milk in the “I want it now, Mommy!” typical toddler way. That’s when it clicked; something is wrong with Sara. She was sixteen months old, and not talking, not walking, and not demanding- or even requesting anything. She was much delayed. It took a year to get physicians to pay attention. I flew across the country and sought the care of a special neurologist at the Cleveland Clinic. The primary diagnosis is mitochondrial disease, the secondary neurological diagnosis followed later that year.

    On this early morning, my daughters are separated by twenty feet of sidewalk and ten square feet of playground sand. But I know of the other very real and vast differences that place my daughters’ worlds apart. Although Sara’s physical disability is visible, her neurological issues are not. Sara uses a walker to lend strength to her weakened muscles. There is, however, no crutch or physical aide to help her with her other features. There is no outward sign to tell others that she has a neurological impairment, a different weakness with unique challenges of its own. She experiences anxiety, awkwardness, and behavior challenges, she can be very uncooperative.- these are the things that cause other mothers to look, whisper, and even comment, offering unsolicited advice.

     When the first morning school bell rings, Samantha runs over to us and kisses Sara and me goodbye. a wet sloppy kiss on the mouth for me and a nose rub for Sara. Samantha has learned that Sara prefers this softer, less sensory- offensive gesture of affection. With a quick wave tossed over her shoulder, Samantha runs off to collect her backpack and enter her classroom. Sara stands quietly as she watches her sister walk away. She looks at her feet as she shuffles them repeatedly. I wonder for a moment whether this is how it will always be between them:. Samantha rushing off to experience life, while Sara stays behind.

     Each morning as we stand against this wall, I watch Sara watching Samantha play-and every morning I wish for the same thing. I wish that, someday, Sara will be comfortable in an environment like this . I hope that this exposure to Samantha’s school world will ignite Sara’s interest, light a social spark.

     Sara is blessed to have many “friends” in her life-people outside our home that truly care about her,- want the best for her, and have great confidence in her abilities. There is Robin, Sara’s speech therapist, Atalie, her physical therapist, and Michelle, her occupational therapist. Not only do these friends teach her physical skills to strengthen her muscles, they also teach her how to play with toys, initiate social interaction, follow routines, and respond socially in simple situations. Abilities her sister developed naturally, these are skills Sara will have to learn.

     Today, Sara points to the children rushing by us and says “me..Surprised and excited, I bend down and look into her face. Eye to eye, I question the meaning of this spontaneous use of language. I am on my knees, waiting patiently for Sara to show me what she meant. I feel a tap on my back, and I turn and stand up to greet our neighbor, Tracy, and her three- year- old little girl, Katie. We all drift toward the parking lot. Katie, is running in circles and humming loudly. For a few minutes, I am lost in simple conversation with Tracy.

  We talk of our husband’s long work hours, recipes for gourmet dinners, and dirty laundry, and I feel as though I am miles away from the complex therapy schedules, vitamin supplements, medical bills, and emotional worry that fill my world. I am a typical mom, just beginning my day. , standing in the school parking lot,. Visiting with a neighbor- carefree.

    Relaxed and preparing to say goodbye, I look down at Sara. She has been walking beside us in her walker, quietly regarding Tracy and Katie. Suddenly, she is leaning against her walker for balance, and Katie is reaching for Sara’s hand, and for a moment Sara lets her hold it. Then, amazingly, she leans toward Katie, and rubs her nose to the tip of hers. An Eskimo kiss; she imitates the kiss goodbye her sister gave her moments ago.

    The sun shines brightly, and I am shielding my eyes from the glare. My fingers form a half fortress wall, protecting the tears that are pooling in my eyes. I feel a warmth in my chest, and I recognize this unfamiliar feeling, is unexpected joy. It leaves me with a sense of contentment, yet I feel strangely energized.In a gesture of celebration and hope, I put my arm around Tracy’s shoulders and pull her into a hug. I lean down and brush Sara’s cheek lightly with my lips. Her rosebud lips offer me a subtle, shy smile. And I know,-that she knows. Sara has found her first friend.

Suzanne Perryman is the publisher of a consumer crafts magazine ., a passionate and advocating mother of two girls, and a community volunteer for Raising Special Kids Arizona. She resides in Scottsdale, Arizona with her husband Bruce, and is also the AZ Chapter President for the United Mitochondrial Disease Foundation.( As published in 2006)