It was the best of times, it was the worst of times

(Charles Dickens; A Tale of Two Cities)

The experiences of our little household pale into insignificance against the backdrop of political turmoil, cultural change, and sad losses amongst our beloved SWAN community, that characterised so much of 2016. Nonetheless, we had our own ups and downs…

Our year started on a knife edge as we awaited the final scan of our unborn baby three weeks before its due date. A year on, I simply cannot imagine life without the chubby little bundle of laughter, energy and character that is our Caitlin. Her middle name, Faith, reflects the gamble we took and the faith we had that it would work out, but I had absolutely no idea just how well it would work out; what an incredible difference she would make to our family, how happy she would make us and how she would complete us.

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Do not be fooled by the angelic appearance

Aside from Caitlin’s birth, I recall little from the first few months of the year. They have become overshadowed in my memory by the period from May onwards, during which Benjamin has been repeatedly, seriously, ill. Over that time it has been rare to have more than two weeks at home between hospitalisations, operations, intubations; week after week in high dependency and many, many doctors scratching their heads. During this time family life has inevitably suffered. We’ve been living long-term on a short-term emergency footing, planning day to day, shifting the girls from pillar to post, every one of us missing the others, staggering from one admission to the next with barely time to breathe. The doctors now say this will likely continue for years.

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But while Benjy’s physical health may remain precarious, the impact on our family doesn’t have to continue. Positives have emerged from the situation. For a start, we’ve really discovered who our friends are, just how numerous and how generous they are. We’ve fallen firmly on our feet in the community we chose to live in and we have felt included and loved within it this year.

Our two girls have proven to be a huge support, to ourselves and to each other, during the interminable hospital stays. Tolerant, patient and flexible, although often separated during the day their relationship has come into its own whenever they are together. This year would have been so tough on either of them had they been alone. Together, they have borne it far better than I, and forged the foundations of a strong, loving relationship (and comedy partnership) that I hope will last long into adulthood.

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Plotting something

For myself, the initial despair that we might be facing more years like 2016 pushed me to accept that we should ask for more formal help; that we should make a plan. With much help and encouragement from my social worker aunt, from the charity Kindred, from social services, Rachel House Children’s Hospice, and others, I have built a package of practical, medical, emotional and financial support that gives me hope that we enter 2017 more resilient, able to move on from our emergency footing to live life despite, during and through Benjamin’s hospital admissions.

We are now better placed to support Benjamin as much as we can from home: with prophylactic antibiotics, a nebuliser, suction machine, ‘sats’ monitor, weekly specialist physio visits and emergency feeding regime. The down side, of course, is that our home is more like a hospital and my role more of a nurse, but that’s a small price to pay for less time actually spent in hospital and torn between my children.

With support from social services, Caitlin will be able to attend nursery even though I am unable to go back to work to pay for it (and I’m more than fortunate that my employers continue to be incredibly flexible and understanding about this). It’s a little earlier than I would have liked her to start, but will give her a consistent place to go when I’m in the hospital with Benjamin and – even better – the same consistent place as Jackie. Being the outgoing little soul that she is, and being so used to being cared for by strangers, she settled in without a backward glance at Mummy. Like Jackie, she’s already having to grow up too quickly; it’s bittersweet but I am so proud of her.

Proud of me? But I'm stuck under a table...

Proud of me? But I’m stuck under a table…

And, when he’s well enough, I’ve also thrashed out a plan with Benjamin’s teachers and headteachers, council safety and transport officers, and his incredibly competent and lovely school nurse, to enable him to attend nursery too! It’s going to take some dedication from us all, but eventually he should be able to transition to the two full days he’s entitled to at his age. The way his eyes light up when he enters his classroom shows that this is absolutely the right thing to do, and the work we will put in to get him there is nothing compared to how hard he works to hold his head up, to move his eyes, to switch his switches, when he is there. Benjamin is the inspiration that keeps us all moving forward.

Other things have fallen into place to make life seem easier as we move into 2017. We have a car. We even have a parking space for it! Benjamin has qualified for monthly respite breaks from NHS Lothian Children’s Services. He’ll receive his vaccination boosters again and he’ll be tested and retested as doctors continue to seek answers to his problems. He’s been accepted for therapy at the renowned Bobath Cerebral Palsy Centre in Glasgow. 2017 will be nothing if not busy!

We know not all of this will go to plan. Benjamin will, without doubt, spend extended periods in hospital. Plans will be put back, put on hold. Some days it will take all my efforts to keep him well enough to stay home. Some days I’ll be successful: already over the past few weeks he’s had infections that I’m sure would previously have seen him in hospital, and the feeling of achievement when he comes through one is almost enough to make up for the lack of sleep! Some days I’ll get things wrong. Some days he’ll just be too sick, and I have to responsible enough to make that call. But being in hospital is no longer the spectre it may seem from outside. Being ventilated is not to be feared, it’s just the level of support he needs at that particular time. All the time we are learning, our normal is changing, and through all that we can cope and we can thrive.

Thus our big lesson to take into this New Year is to manage our expectations for it. To hope for the best and prepare for the worst but never to fear it. I don’t mean this to sound negative: if we can prepare for the times of sickness we’ll be ready to take full advantage of when Benjy’s well. So while I know I’m not going to get a foreign holiday – or even get to London – for a couple of years, if Benjamin is fit and the weather is fine we can damn well pack the tent into our big new car and have just as much of a break a few miles down the road. We may not be able to commit to a dog, but our new guinea pigs will be showered with love and (maybe rather too rough) affection.

Just before Christmas I received a phone call from our new paediatrician, not with an appointment, a cancellation or a result, but just to check how we were doing and to tell us that everyone in the Sick Kids was thinking of Benjamin and wishing him well. I can truly believe that, because Benjamin brings out the best in people. In what could have been, if not the worst of times certainly a difficult year for us, our children, friends and family, the professionals that work with us and all those who helped us, have made it one of the best. With the festivities falling nearly three weeks after his last release from hospital I knew we were on borrowed time, but spending Christmas morning opening stockings in bed with all three of my children is something I will always treasure, and a memory that will carry me through whatever the next year may bring. With much love to all our readers for 2017.

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