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.

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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.