Captain Endurance and the Imperturbable Girls

I have to admit, I’m not really up on my superheroes. I understand things have moved on a bit from Thundercats (I wasn’t allowed to watch He-Man and the Masters of the Universe because it was on ITV and therefore infra dig). I’m painfully aware of the PJ Masks, thanks to my six-year-old and YouTube, but the whole Marvel Empire is largely a mystery to me.

However, I really don’t feel I’m missing out because I have daily contact with at least three superheroes of the absolute superest kind: my children.

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Leader of the gang, Benjamin, is ‘Captain Endurance’ because the number of unpleasant, frustrating, and downright tedious things he puts up with (and, often, sleeps through) without any fuss whatsoever is frankly astonishing.

He’s coped with four-hour seizures that were exhausting just to witness, not to mention the drugs needed to stop them – enough to put a horse to sleep. He’s undergone multiple surgeries under general anaesthetic. He tolerates being physically restrained for MRI scans, and multiple attempts to get a cannula into his veins at every hospital admission. Every few months a radiologist sticks a wire into his stomach and intestines, pulls out his feeding tube, and pushes a new one back in – a process that can take anything from ten minutes to four hours and generally makes Benjamin feel pretty sore and sick for a couple of days, not mention that the radiology suite requires a deep-clean afterwards to get the bile out of all the equipment.

Benjamin doesn’t complain at the worst pain of all – the application and subsequent removal of dressings each time his permanent IV port (he really is half-boy half-robot) is accessed, and that of the hyoscine patches that go behind his ear to reduce his dribbling. He is subjected to an unpleasant round of beating, shaking and squeezing going under the name of ‘chest physio’ twice daily (or more, if his little sister takes it upon herself to emulate the procedure).

At intervals throughout the day (up to half-hourly depending on how poorly he is), a catheter is forced down his nose and into his throat to suck out all the gunk that accumulates there – a procedure that must at the very least be uncomfortable if not distressing, yet Benjamin puts up with it; sometimes he even sleeps through it!

He’s on medications that can make you drowsy, medications that make you agitated, medications that taste horrible, smell horrible and drip all over his trousers. He’s fed nasty-smelling milk into his jejunum (the first part of the intestine) and is nil by mouth so he never experiences the sensation of food on his tongue or the satisfaction of a full stomach. From his vantage point in the kitchen he spends hours every day watching the rest of the family cook and eat meals, smelling curries bubbling, cakes baking, fish suppers fresh from the chippy, without ever getting to taste them himself. Yet he never seems to get frustrated or complain. Remarkably, neither do his wonderful carers who also arrive at tea-time yet aren’t allowed to partake.

However, this is preferable to what went before – months of being fed into his stomach only for the milk to reflux up his oesophagus and down into his lungs causing chronic chest problems. It’s also preferable to what went before that – a constant barrage of bottles and breasts trying to force milk of any kind into his undernourished little body, not being allowed to sleep for more than three hours at a timebefore another feed was due.

Then there’s the hours of waiting at out-patient appointments. There’s being weighed and measured and having the details of your bowel movements discussed in excruciating detail by your parents and a team of consultants and medical students. There’s sleeping constrained by a system of wedges that forces you to lie in a straight line no matter how much you want to curl up cosily in a ball. There’s never having shoes that fit, because by the time they’ve arrived from the Orthotics people you’ve inevitably grown out of them. There’s never having glasses that fit, because, well, no-one seems to be able to make glasses that fit you.

I think the thing that would frustrate me the most – although Benjamin bears it with beautiful grace – is never having control over even the minutiae of his own life. He is poked and prodded when he wants to sleep, and put to bed when he is not sleepy. He is constantly climbed on by his sisters, forced to watch their choice of programme on TV. He is cared for by carers he had no say in choosing (although he clearly loves them to bits), sent to respite when it suits the rest of the family, and generally surrounded by people with whom he can rarely communicate his desires. As yet, he shows no sign of annoyance at all the things he has to go through, no sign of frustration at the things he cannot do. I don’t know whether to wish for him to grow and develop to the point that he does get frustrated, or to want him to stay forever in a state of more-or-less blissful ignorance. And, since Benjamin’s condition has no overarching diagnosis and therefore no prognosis, I have no idea which scenario is more likely.

So yes, Benjamin is super-patient, super-tolerant, super-uncomplaining. He is Captain Endurance. He’s also super-amazing! Before he was born, it was predicted that he wouldn’t survive birth: he not only survived, he needed nothing more than a little rub to get him going, he registered the same APGAR score as his sisters, he spent zero time in the neonatal unit, and was discharged from hospital five days after he was born. It was predicted he would never be able to breastfeed and would need an NG-tube from day one: this superhero breastfed like a trooper until the age of 17 months. It was predicted he would be blind and would never recognise his family: Benjamin sees, recognises, tracks and smiles at the faces of people he knows and loves. Our little man works so, so hard to achieve every tiny milestone, superhero-style.

And is this a surprise? No, because Benjamin comes from a family of superheroes; just look at his sisters, ‘The Imperturbable Girls’! Among his little sister’s first words were ‘syringe’ and ‘suction.’ At the age of two, she can conduct a pretty rigorous round of chest physio when Benjy is least expecting it. At six, his elder sister can look after the little one when I need to look after Benjy; she fetches nappies and muslins, passes me the right size of suction catheter, and knows how to dial 999. Both accept uncomplainingly that they never get to travel further than Granny’s house, that sometimes we can’t go places that have too many steps or no suitable toilet; that we have strangers in our house every evening, that most school holidays will involve at least one long boring day playing on the iPad in A&E.

They put up with all of this because they don’t know anything different. Neither of them can remember a time before Benjamin. Neither of them has seen enough of other children’s home-lives to know that ours is unusual. They don’t know anything different – yet. Unlike Benjamin, they will definitely come to a point when they realise they are missing out. When they start to count the differences between their lives and their friends. Already, although they sleep through the ambulances arriving in the night, they remember for months the mornings that Benjamin wasn’t there when they woke up.

Having a ‘SWAN’ (Syndromes Without a Name; a child with a condition of unknown cause) for a brother will make this harder, as there is no easy explanation for any of us to fall back on. I can’t tell Benjamin’s sisters why he is like he is, and they can’t explain to their friends either. They live in a world of uncertainty because I can’t them what will happen tomorrow, next year, or in ten years’ time, for Benjamin or for them. So, imperturbable, yes; unaffected, no, and increasingly no as they get older.

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My superheroes in their super-mobile (and a half naked doll for some reason)

In many ways, caring for Benjamin is easy: it’s all practical stuff. I can lift him, bathe him, feed him, medicate him, clear his airways and time his seizures. I can call an ambulance when I know I’ve done all I can. All I can do for my girls is to try to provide them with the support they need when they might need it: their school teachers are aware, they are on the waiting list for our heavily-oversubscribed young carers’ group, I try to let them know they can talk to me about anything and I will do my best to make things right. Perhaps the best way I can help them is to build on their superhero abilities by making their superhero status super-cool! They are part of the SWAN club! They get to join SWAN days out, share SWAN balloons, wear funky hoodies in groovy colours, and meet other SWAN siblings with similar superpowers. And I know – along with their SWAN pals, they will grow up to be super-accepting, super-inclusive, super-tolerant, super-gentle, super-strong, and with a super sense of fairness and justice. True superheroes.

DSC_0000_BURST20180418132008808.JPGAs to Benjy, how will he grow up? Will he continue to push the boundaries of what is possible? Will he become a ‘SWAN graduate’ with a firm diagnosis? Will he join the ranks of SWAN angels gone far too soon but held forever in our hearts? Whatever happens, he’ll always be a superhero to us.

Friday 27 April is Undiagnosed Children’s Day 2018. Support the Superheroes: Text SWAN18 £3 (or any amount up to £10) to 70070. #UCDsuperhero

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Torn

We are just back from weekend trip to Aberdeen. I say ‘we’. I mean my husband and I, and the two girls. Our first trip away without Benjamin.

I think we pulled off a pretty good impression of a ‘normal’ family on a ‘normal’ trip. Dare I say ‘minibreak’? A few bags slung into the boot along with sledges just on the off-chance – no squeezing in of feeding supplies, nebulisers, and suction catheters around the wheelchair. We stayed in a simple family hotel room – no phoning round for hours to find anywhere with a wheelchair accessible room that would sleep five (actually, I did phone around for hours before I remembered that, this time, Benjy wasn’t coming with us. Doh.).

But for me it was far from normal. My normal is with Benjy, and Benjy was away having his own holiday. We are fortunate to have access to a specialised, nurse-led, NHS children’s respite service, the kind of service that is under great threat in many parts of the country. We are grateful they can accommodate Benjamin for a weekend once a month – enough time for us to really make time for the girls. We are thankful that the staff have worked with us to get to know Benjamin well enough that we can entrust him to them.

But still, I’m torn. I don’t want to move too fast. We could have flown to New York for the weekend! But no, take it slow, baby steps, for all of us but mostly, if I’m honest, for me. So Aberdeen was a test run, somewhere we could get back from within a few hours at any time of the day or night. A test run for the logistics, yes, but also a test run for the emotions.

A six year old girl in snow-gear, arms outstretched, standing on a rock on a snowy hill

On top of the world (or a small hill in Aberdeenshire)

Sure, it was simpler and easier. Sure we could do things – like visit friends with inaccessible houses, like climb a snowy hill, like stay out later than usual – that we can’t do with Benjamin. The girls had a ball, singing songs in the car, playing in the snow, exploring the hotel, ransacking the snacks, a longer bath and a later bedtime. I can’t say we got any more sleep than we do at home – two excited girls and a late night in one room doesn’t compute. Add to that all the packing, and driving. It wasn’t exactly a rest, and it wasn’t a family holiday – how could it be, without Benjamin?

Sure, Benjy doesn’t seem to miss us. He enjoys the attention and the activities and the lovely lady nurses! But does he realise? Does he know that we’ve gone away without him? That we’re having family time without him, because it’s easier; because it’s too much trouble to take him with us? I wouldn’t dream of leaving his sisters with anyone else overnight at the age of four; how can I justify treating him differently? Especially when his needs are so great and his time with us may be short.

What if he gets sick and I’m not there to interpret how he’s feeling? What if the worst happens? Even if the worst doesn’t happen, we are all missing out on precious time with Benjamin. Will we regret these lost hours when there are no more hours with him to be had? Have I drunk in enough of him that I will remember his scent? The feel of his cheek? The little noises he makes when he senses I am near? Have I taken enough photos of his little freckled nose? Have I let his sisters have enough cuddles to last them a lifetime?

But his sisters can’t live their lives within an hour of the hospital. They can’t keep missing out just in case. They need to live now, experience the things their friends do now; they need Mummy and Daddy’s undivided attention, now. And I need time away from Benjamin to realise just how much I do miss him, to appreciate how much he means to me as a little boy, as my son, as my daughters’ sibling, rather than a patient and a full-time job.

So, hard though it is, it is good for us all to have this time apart. It wasn’t a family holiday and it wasn’t meant to be. All we can do is to make the most of our time away, to do things we can’t usually do, go places we can’t usually go, to spoil the girls and spoil each other, to try not to argue and try not to feel guilty if we do. And when we get back together, all we all want to do is hold Benjamin close, hug him tight, listen to his welcoming murmurs, kiss him gently, kiss him hard, hold him some more and appreciate being a family once again.

It ain’t easy being green

So, this week I got into an argument with some people I don’t know on Facebook (I know, I know, I should know better). The argument was about this picture, originally seen in a viral tweet:

Screenshot of a tweet showning an image of peeled oranges inside plastic cartons

A friend shared the photo with the single strapline ‘wtf’ and there followed several comments along the lines of ‘carry a pocket knife … no excuse for this.’

So I made the mistake of pointing out that some people, actually, do have an excuse, nay, a reason, to need such items, for instance poor coordination or muscular weakness, and that perhaps we could be open-minded enough to consider the difference such pre-prepared foods make to the potential for living an independent life as a person with a disability (as had already been adeptly pointed out on several news outlets such as The Metro). Sadly, few other commenters were interested in being open-minded, they only wanted to show off their green credentials by ramming the point about plastics home.

Similar arguments have been raging recently over the phasing out of disposable plastic straws, for which neither paper, stainless steel, or reusable plastic as yet provide a perfect alternative for those who cannot easily drink from a cup, can, or bottle. Now I do agree – who couldn’t, having seen the evidence on Blue Planet 2? – that, for reasons ranging from climate change to marine conservation to the depletion of resources, we need to reduce massively our reliance on plastic. In fact, living less than a mile from one of Scotland’s most beautiful (albeit inaccessible to wheelchairs) beaches, I am acutely aware of the despoiling nature of drinking straws, cotton buds, discarded flip-flops, etc., etc.

A beach covered in plastic trash

But. For some members of society there’s not ‘no excuse’ for using plastic drinking straws. They can’t just ‘carry a pocket knife’ and peel their own oranges. And vilifying these people doesn’t help build a compassionate society that shows concern both for our neighbours and for the environment we all share.

I try to be green. I walk or cycle where possible. I compost waste and use cloth nappies. We have insulated our house and don’t heat the rooms we don’t use. It’s in our own best interests: I know that working towards a more sustainable way of life is of most benefit to the most vulnerable, with eco-catastrophes such as more frequent and severe winter storms, rising fuel and food prices, and the loss of cultivable and habitable land, impacting hardest on disadvantaged groups including those with disabilities.

A pile of enteral syringes, of varying sizes

But, I also know that, because of Benjamin, our life is less sustainable than I would like. We have the (gas-fired) central heating on at night to keep him warm. We use – and discard – plastic containers, tubes, and packages every day as part of the process of feeding him safely. We have to drive places because public transport is not always feasible. Should we be mocked on social media for this? Should we be criticised for consuming materials that, literally, keep our son alive? Should being green trump caring for our most vulnerable?

Perhaps what is needed is legislation, not to outlaw single-use plastics entirely, but to limit them to those that cannot do without them. Of course, this will eventually make them effectively unavailable even to those that do need them, because a specialist label almost always means a specialist price-tag: the more ‘niche’ a product becomes, the more prohibitive its cost. Perhaps instead plastic goods should be available only on prescription, like antibiotics, to prevent irresponsible users putting everyone at risk. But with some clinical commissioning groups already considering cutting funding for non-pharmaceutical items such as prescription formula, I’m not sure this would be popular either.

There’s no easy answer. Clearly we should seek to develop safe, effective, reasonably-priced, sustainable alternatives to single-use plastics. But we aren’t there yet, and in the meantime I’m not sure banning them and stigmatising their users is the way forward. People with disabilities are discriminated against and misunderstood already; this will just provide the bullies and perpetrators of hate-crime with another weapon in their armoury.

So how can we reduce our plastic use without an outright ban that negatively impacts upon the small sector of society that truly can’t live without them? The first step has to be education: let’s keep up the impetus that Blue Planet 2 has started. At the same time, we need to support the development of safe, effective, affordable, desirable, and sustainable alternatives. In the meantime, it’s up to us all to be responsible: if you don’t depend upon plastics, don’t use them: leave them for those that do (I only hope people’s attitude to plastics differs from their attitude to disabled parking bays…!). With tolerance, thoughtfulness, and responsibility we could build a society that values its environment and its most vulnerable members. Is that too much to ask?

Benjamin, a smiling four-year old boy wearing glasses

These specs aren’t single-use plastic are they mum?

Postcode Lottery

I’ve always thought of myself as fortunate. Opportunities have landed in my path. My parents bought a house in the catchment area for a good school. My teachers saw to it that I got into a good university. That good education got me a job that I love. I have three beautiful children. My husband works hard so that I don’t have to choose between my career and spending time with my children. Childbirth aside, touch wood, I have never needed a night in hospital. I have not yet been reliant on benefits. We have been able to choose, get a mortgage for, and afford a deposit on, a perfect home in a stunning part of the world.

Benjamin looking contented, wearing a warm jacket in a SN buggy

Comfy in his new buggy

Now we have Benjamin, still, we are fortunate. The healthcare he receives is second-to-none. He gets all the therapy in the community that he needs. All the equipment that he requires is also provided (albeit a little slow to arrive at times). He attends a wonderful SEN nursery and will attend a wonderful SEN school. He has a dedicated pair of support workers who keep him safe (and give him many, many cuddles) whenever I am not with him. Social care-funded agency carers help us for six hours a week, Benjamin gets two nights a month in a specialist respite care unit, and we have the support of our children’s hospice whenever we need it. Benjamin gets disability living allowance, we have a car through Motability and a blue badge. Our house will soon be adapted to suit Benjamin’s needs and the local authority will fund 80% of the cheapest option as quoted by the cheapest supplier; moreover, the work will should be completed by the time we really need it! Yes, we had to fill out some forms and write some letters. Yes, we had to dig around to find out what we were entitled to and we had to fight a little to get some of that. Yes, once or twice I have had to write to my MP and the local paper. But, generally, we get what Benjamin needs and what we as a family need. We are indeed fortunate, or so I thought.

Benjy in his kitchen chair, with Caitlin sitting on his lap, her hand on his chest as if doing chest physio

Expert physio

Then, I started talking to other parents. Some families, in local authorities not too far away, get 12 hours nursing care a day. Some families get additional care in the school holidays. Some families received an automatic referral to psychological support to help them to deal with the trauma surrounding giving birth to a child with severe disabilities. Some families get twenty new syringes a day. Some families get liquid drugs so they don’t have to faff around crushing and grinding tablets to within an inch of their life to ensure they don’t block the feeding tube… I started to feel less fortunate. I started to feel jealous.

Then, I started talking to other parents. Some families’ only respite centre is being closed down. Some families have to self-fund essential equipment such as a suitable wheelchair. Some families can’t get a blue badge even though some days their child can’t get out of bed. Some families have to fight and fight and fight and go to court and pour every ounce of their energy and resources into fighting to get their child into a school that simply meets their needs. Some parents are forced to give up that battle, give up their career, and home-school their children. Some carers are carrying 50 kg children up and down stairs, or risking their backs lifting them into the bath because adaptations plans have stalled. Some families are crammed into a single room in a bed-and-breakfast because their local authority can’t find, won’t build, or refuse to adapt, a suitable property for their needs. Some children have seen half-a-dozen different paediatricians and never the same one twice. Some children have been discharged from all the services that might be able to help them. Some parents are accused of faking their child’s condition, or of poor parenting. Some are pushed so close to breaking point that they fear having their children taken away… Some families have their children taken away. I started to feel like the luckiest mother on earth. There, but for the grace of God, go I.

Why does it have to be like this?

Why do families at different ends of the same street, let alone different ends of the country, have to meet different criteria to get the same support? Why do families in very similar circumstances receive such vastly different levels of care (if any)? Why are we placed in these situations where we feel jealous, or guilty; where we have to compete? Why can’t there be a level playing field? Why isn’t access to support – health, education, social care, housing, advocacy – based on need and not on where you live, how deep you dig for information, how hard you’re prepared to fight, how well educated you are, who you know, who you can afford to employ, whether you are able to give up work, even whether you earn little enough to qualify for support (yes, it can work both ways)?

A circle of reusable nappies in a range of pastel shades

‘Why does it have to be like this?’ I asked Jenny Gilruth MSP at a recent round table discussion at the Scottish Parliament, Getting it Right for Parents of Children with Exceptional Healthcare Needs. She said I couldn’t expect everything to be centralised. But I’m not asking for provision to be centralised, I’m just asking for the rules, the criteria, the tick-boxes, the ‘decision making tools’ to be standardised. It could be as simple as saying ‘which area provides an example of good practice in terms of [insert essential service here]? Let’s employ their strategy across the board.’ How can it be so difficult to ensure, for example, that all children with continence needs should receive enough suitable continence products to meet their needs from the same age? Presently, some NHS boards provide pads from age three, others age five; some areas won’t supply pull-ups and others won’t supply cloth nappies; and some children get three pads per day while others get an unlimited supply. It should be as simple as every relevant organisation paying more than lip service to GIRFEC (Getting it Right for Every Child, in Scotland, or its English and Welsh equivalent Every Child Matters).

We might live at different ends of the country, but unlike some politicians, policymakers and bureaucrats, SEN parents do talk to each other. We know there are discrepancies, huge discrepancies. We share as much knowledge and as many tricks as we can to help each other out, to level the hideously uneven playing field we find ourselves on. We try to get around the borders that divide us and to fight as a team, while the system tries to make us compete to be the loudest voice clamouring for limited funding and limited support. We know it’s a postcode lottery, and we know it’s all our children that are losing out.

Lottery tickets, a pen, Euro notes and coins

Just a cold

The males in our household have been stricken with a cold. My husband has adopted the standard attitude of shuffling around the house looking sheepish, occasionally being wracked by paroxysms of coughing that needlessly shake his entire body, and ostentatiously ironing handkerchiefs and boiling kettles for uncertain purpose. This in itself is pretty hard work for the females of the family (with the exception of the guinea pigs who seem remarkably unbothered by the whole thing).

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No preschool today

Benjy, however, takes it to another level. It usually begins with a sudden dramatic increase in secretions (i.e., snot). During his morning physio routine, a white froth starts pouring from his nose. He’ll need suctioning every half an hour, day and night, rather than twice a day.

He’ll be uncomfortable – as you or I would be – but he cannot tell me so. Instead, his muscles will tense, he’ll be stiff, hot, jumpy and irritable, making me fear a seizure. He won’t sleep, and neither will I.

After a couple of days the secretions will thicken and he’ll wake choking in the middle of the night. This is the scariest time, frantically suctioning a frightened boy to clear enough of his airway so that he can breathe. His heart rate rockets and so does mine. I try to remember that, despite all his complex requirements and specialist equipment, Benjamin is still just a little boy with a cold. I give ibuprofen and Calpol, drop Olbas oil on his pillow and place bowls of steaming water in his room.

Then the wheezing starts – ‘viral induced wheeze’ they call it. Although his secretions are clearing, his oxygen levels are dropping. So it’s sixteen puffs of his salbutamol inhaler a day – twelve at scheduled times and four to keep in reserve for that middle-of-the-night panic.

A week in, and when most of us would be starting to get over it, the rest of his system starts to respond. This is what would have put us in hospital last year but now we are (hopefully) equipped to deal with it at home. With Benjy – and this is typical of jejunum-fed children, I’m assured by our patient specialist gastrointestinal nurse on the phone – his output of stomach juices and bile increases dramatically. So dramatically that they can’t all drain out into a bile-bag, but end up being vomited out of his mouth and nose. Now I know all our kids are superheroes, but sometimes I really wish Benjy’s superpower wasn’t firing green slime out of his nostrils onto his poor unsuspecting support worker…

IMG_20171220_221317_051.jpgWith the vomiting comes an increased risk that Benjamin will aspirate his stomach contents into his lungs and cause a chest infection. Our amazing team of ‘rapid response’ specialist respiratory physios come to the house to assess him and take swabs for analysis. We embark on a cause of strong antibiotics in addition to the prophylactic antibiotics that he is on permanently through the winter, just in case. We put Benjy to sleep on his side (worse for his back, better for his lungs). I ‘sleep’ with the video-monitor inches from my face, ready to leap up when I hear him cough. I wonder how we’ll manage in the New Year when we move him to a downstairs room.

The antibiotics have their usual effect of (without going into too much detail here) producing nappies that require an entire change of clothes, several times a day. I resort to sitting him on an incontinence pad to save washing his chair, car seat, or buggy. And I double his daily dose of Imodium. But he goes 48 hrs between bile-vomits, which is an improvement. We feel safe to send him to our wonderful NHS respite centre for a couple of nights. I feel glad they will be dealing with the nappies. I keep my fingers crossed they don’t panic and send him to the hospital.

I don’t know how much it has cost the NHS to see Benjamin through one simple cold – providing us with a sats monitor, suction machine, catheters, nebulisers, inhalers, medications; giving us the expert assistance of doctors, pharmacists, nurses and physios. I know it’s cost our family about a fortnight’s sleep, two swimming lessons, one meeting about Changing Places toilets and a whole lot of Christmas shopping.

But for all of us, this is infinitely better than having Benjamin in hospital, splitting our family up and putting him at risk of catching all manner of other winter bugs. I’m proud of what we’ve achieved, and I’m grateful for the equipment and training we’ve been given and the trust that has been placed in us, to keep Benjamin safe at home. Team Benjamin has risen to the challenge, so far.

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On the mend

The long haul

The world is closing in around us. Around my son, his siblings, and me.

My children are all growing up so fast. I can hardly believe Benjamin is four – he’ll be starting school next year. My eldest is already a grown-up P1 girl and loving it. And my littlest is walking, running, and jumping with boundless energy. As a mother, I’m moving out of the cloistered new-born weeks for the final time. The world should be opening up with opportunities for all of us.

A three-year old boy, smiling, in a special needs buggy, wearing glasses, a woolly jumper and smart new blue boots with velcro straps

Pleased with his new shoes

Benjamin is doing spectacularly well. I won’t bore you any more with the medical interventions we’ve employed which have got us to this point. We’re just so chuffed to see him putting on weight, and length, and developing a personality (even if that is characterised by pretending to be asleep to get out of things he doesn’t want to do). I’ve had to ask for a new chair, a new stander, a new wheelchair, and new shoes – and I’m immensely grateful to have been supplied with these without question. He needs bigger nappies and that means a trip to Primark (no expense spared!) for bigger trousers. We are even starting to think about having to hoist him to protect our backs.

We’ve moved on from ‘He won’t survive his birth,’ and ‘He’ll likely not see his second birthday,’ through ‘He’ll be in and out of hospital until he’s five,’ to the gobsmacking (in a good way) pronouncement of our consultant last week: ‘He may well remain stable until he hits puberty.’ This is amazing! Every extra day with Benjamin is a bonus – so the prospect (fingers crossed, touch wood) of years more smiles and cuddles is just a dream come true. And this new-found, hard-earned, and still-surprising health should pave the way for him to get out and about in the world.

But. The world is closing in around us. Because the world isn’t built for us. Let me go back to the hoists. This might sound like a small change – but actually it’s a massive leap. The transition from lifting to hoisting is a tipping point. It marks the end of being able to take Benjamin anywhere, in a backpack, baby carrier, or buggy, to being limited to places that are wheelchair accessible and – if we stay for more than a few hours – have a bathroom with a bench and hoist. My mother-in-law has kindly invited us to holiday with them next summer – but by next summer I don’t even know what kind of accommodation we would be able to stay in. Certainly it won’t be long before we’ll have to pay over-the-odds for a wheelchair-adapted room or cottage.

Now toilets really aren’t the focus of this post, but they are a good marker of how inclusive and accessible our country really is: and there are only just over 1000 fully accessible Changing Places toilets that Benjamin can use in the UK (that’s roughly one every 90 square miles. That’s fewer than half the number of toilets in Wembley Stadium, as Our Inclusive Home so tellingly pointed out). Finally, thanks to the efforts of an incredibly dedicated band of campaigners, Changing Places did hit the mainstream news in recent weeks, and have been discussed everywhere from Facebook to the Houses of Parliament. But is this going to lead to change? Ikea and Wetherspoons are leading the way. Center Parcs are following suit. Yet most of the major supermarkets, cinemas, and department stores couldn’t give a ****, or so it seems.

A three-year-old boy in a special needs buggy, squinting into the sun, in front of a grassy lawn and a ruined castle wall, beyond which is a blue sea and sky

Getting out and about

So, the world is closing in around us, because if we want to go out with Benjamin we are very soon going to be limited to those 1000-odd places, including Ikea and Wetherspoons of course, so at least we can get a beer and some ödmjuk… Soon, our children’s grandparents are going to have to come to us if they want to see us, because we won’t be able to get Benjamin into their houses. I can’t imagine we’ll be able to camp for much longer. The number of friends we’ll be able to visit will become vanishingly small. I won’t be able to take Benjamin to try on those trousers in Primark, or to the cinema, on a long train journey, or to the zoo.

I’m readjusting my already readjusted life plan. In good ways – thinking about where Benjamin will go to secondary school – and in ways I’m not so sure about, like installing a modern wet-room in our characterful Victorian house, like wondering whether I’ll ever, realistically, go back to travelling the world for work. And I’m readjusting for my daughters too. I need to get them used to the long-term idea of having a disabled brother. Undoubtedly they will miss out on childhood activities – holidays abroad, camping trips, family hikes, even family days out on our local beach. Will Benjamin become a millstone around their necks when I am gone?

I have so many questions now. How will society treat Benjamin when he’s no longer a cute little boy, when he’s a hairy, hormonal teenager, or a grumpy old man? What on earth will he do all day when he leaves formal education? How much of an environmental impact do decades of disposable nappies have and is it worth fighting for an alternative? Will he get PIP when he turns 16? And, what if I die before him?

I don’t have the answers. I do know that these are not really questions about Benjamin but questions about society. Any problems we might face over the coming years are not because of Benjamin and his disabilities, but because we live in a world that values profit and popularity over people, that pays lip-service to equality but neglects to make reasonable adjustments towards inclusion, that celebrates diversity but assumes the only purpose of prenatal testing is to facilitate the eradication of ‘diseases’ such as Downs Syndrome.

To those who would say, ‘We warned you. You asked for this. You knew at 38 weeks what was coming. You had the chance to avoid all this so don’t come running to us complaining about the impact on your daughters and asking for a bench and hoist….’ No. NO. The value of my son’s life has nothing to do with the impact he has on anyone else’s. Nothing, nada, zilch. However many days, weeks, years we are blessed with, his life is 100% worthwhile. He has a right to life and a right to live life to the full, and it’s up to us – all of us – to make it work.

A four-year old boy, beaming, wearing a silly hat and surrounded by balloons that say '4'

Here’s to the next four years and beyond

Portrait of a three-year-old boy squashed into a brown corduroy coat and woolly bobble hat, looking grumpy

But do I have to go out when it’s snowing, mum?

So if I’m going to have to write a few more letters (Fort Kinnaird, Edinburgh Zoo, Dobbies, you’ll be hearing from me again), if I’m going to have to host a few more Christmas dinners rather than travelling to others’, if my daughters are going to learn first-hand the value of neuro-diversity instead of biodiversity, sobeit. We are, a thousand times over, the fortunate ones. We have three beautiful children, and the longer we get to spend in their presence the more blessed we are. I will cherish every minute, be grateful for every day, and fight for everything that is right. We’re in it for the long haul.

What should a four year old be?

At four, Benjamin should be a cute, tousle-headed, tearaway by now. In and out of the paddling pool all summer; under my feet all winter. Chattering nineteen to the dozen. Learning to pee on a ping-pong ball. Spoiling his big sister’s games, and being too rough with his little sister. Big enough to be making his own way at preschool; still just little enough to creep into my bed for cuddles. Except, according to the doctors’ first predictions, he shouldn’t even be here at all.

I wonder what Benjamin would say about what he should be?

“Well mum, I am definitely tousle-headed and I’m totally cute – and don’t I know it? You can see I’ve got an eye for the ladies, brunettes in particular. I give them a wink, a sideways glance and that lopsided smile and they’re smitten. But if you’re there, mum, I’ve only got eyes for you.

“And I do love the water. I might not be in and out of the paddling pool but I love it when you trickle the bathwater over my chest. It’s a rare treat that we go swimming – but when we do I can stretch out my stiff muscles like nowhere else. Please take me more? I know you’re nervous that you can’t support my head. But I trust you. Trust me? I’m lighter in the water and you might feel stronger if you try it.

“I know I’m under your feet all the time. My chair, with its sticky-out wheels and sticky-outer handle. My medicines, with their sticky drips everywhere. My tubes and wires, always getting tangled and caught up. I know it takes you longer to do everything, because you can’t just potter around the house, you have to take me with you, moving me from room to room, chair to chair. Your constant shadow. I love to be your shadow. I love to watch you work, listen to you hum along to the radio. I love it when you let yourself have a little dance. I wish you would dance more (although I wish we didn’t have to listen to Radio 2 all the time).

“I might not chatter but you understand me, mum, even though I don’t talk or even make baby noises. You know when my body language says I’m uncomfortable. You know when something has caught my eye. You know when I’m tired. I wish you would trust yourself more because you know. You’re my voice, mum. I know you’re tired of advocating, questioning, pestering, and fighting. I feel bad, mum, that you have to do all that for me. But I know you wouldn’t have it any other way. I know, when you’re in the mood, you love a good fight against the world.

“I know I’ll always depend on you to change my nappies, to feed me, dress me, bathe me, to make sure I get the right medicines at the right time, to do my physio and to clear out my lungs when I can’t cough for myself. Sometimes you just get on with it, silently: I’m just another task that has to be done. Sometimes you linger over it, taking the time to kiss my eyelids, to massage my feet. To drink in my special scent. I drink in yours too. You are my world.

“I love my sisters. I know each of them by sight, sound and scent. I hope they don’t resent me. I know that by my very existence I spoil more than just their games. I cherish the times when they come to me, lay their heads on my chest, and kiss me. But I love just to watch them too. They are so colourful, so shiny, so busy. I’m never bored when I am with them. I light up when Jackie gets home from school, or Caitlin wakes up from her nap.

“I hope you’re proud of me, mum. I work so hard. I know you are proud of me. I hear you tell people over and over again how good I am at holding my head up now. How I can look to the left and hold it. How I wave hello (but only you know that’s what I’m doing). I hope you know, mum, that at the end of a therapy session, when I’m so exhausted all I can do is dribble, that I’m proud of myself too.

“I know you’re scared to let me go to preschool, mum. You think ‘They won’t know him like I do. They won’t keep him safe. What if something happens?’ But I’m four now; within a year I’ll be at school. And we both need some space, mum, and you will feel less guilty about skipping my therapy if I’m getting it there too. I hope that might mean you have more time for cuddles. Because even though I can’t creep into your bed, I live for your cuddles. When my whole body is tense and fighting against itself, in your arms I relax. When you stroke my hair I feel special. When you rub my feet I feel like you and I are the only people on earth.

“I know this wasn’t in your plan, mum. But when does life ever go exactly to plan? Especially when you bring children into the mix. All I can do is live from day to day and I wish sometimes you would too; maybe then you would worry less, dance with me more, and cuddle me tighter.”

Four years of teaching from you, Benjy and I’ve still a lot to learn. Big cuddles from mummy on your birthday xxx

An earlier version of this article was highly commended in the Carers UK Creative Writing Competition 2017.