Dear neighbour

Dear Neighbour,

How are you? I hope you’re having a good day. Me? I’m tired. Tired of squeezing a 25kg wheelchair into a car boot through a six-inch space. Tired of soaking the backs of my legs against the front bumper of your wet and dirty car. Tired of trying to squeeze a big car into a tight space when I’m in a hurry to get inside and do physio, medications, feeds and nappy changes. Tired of having to leave three children under seven on their own in the house while I inch my car forward just so I can get something out of the boot. I don’t understand why you would park up so close behind anyone that they couldn’t open their boot – but the Motability car of a disabled child who uses a wheelchair?

I was so excited the day we picked it up. We’d struggled on until Benjamin was three and we could join the Motability Scheme. Commuting to the hospital 30 miles away by train, running around trying to get a Car Club car when he was suddenly taken ill at school. I couldn’t believe it when the council arrived to paint our disabled bay the very day the car arrived! It was like a good omen – how often does that kind of thing happen? The car has made our lives so much easier, and safer. But they could be easier still if you were a little less petty and proprietary.

 

Our car is nearly 5 m long – we need a big car to fit in our family and the wheelchair and all the medical equipment, feeds, plastics and pads. Our disabled bay is 6 m long. If you take up a few precious inches of it, it doesn’t leave much manoeuvring space, does it? I’m not the best at parking – if I didn’t need to use this space I would go up the road or round the block to a larger one, to save myself the daily stress. But I do need this space, so I can’t.

What do I need to do? I’ve tried joking with you. I’ve tried knocking on your door and asking you politely. I’ve tried pointing out the sticker in the window that says ‘Please leave space for my wheelchair.’ I’ve tried parking at the front of my space (you encroach further), at the back of my space (you park as close as you possibly can). Hell, you’ve even had two parking tickets!

I know I am the underdog here. You are a patron of the arts, supporter of local causes, general town VIP. I am a nobody, an incomer to the town, a young (okay maybe not so young) mother, a benefit-claimant. But does your status entitle you to make our lives harder? Does it give you the right to ignore the Highway Code? (Section 2 part 239 says: …do not stop too close to a vehicle displaying a Blue Badge: remember, the occupant may need more room to get in or out.)

We absolutely love where we live, and we are blessed to have friendly, kind, thoughtful neighbours – most of whom I now call friends. But I’m starting to dread going out of the front door and all the stresses it now entails. All I need is to be able to park my one car in the disabled bay designated for it, and open all the doors, so that I can get my child and his equipment safely from house to car and back again. You have three cars; a healthy daughter; two functional legs. Would it really hurt to walk an extra 15 yards to your car? Sometimes you even park right up to ours when there’s a space directly in front of your own house anyway!

I’m sure your life isn’t easy either. I try to live by the adage that everyone is fighting a battle I know nothing about. I just don’t understand why you persist in making our lives more difficult and dangerous. We’ve come so far in this country in terms of access and inclusion, laws and recommendations. But attitudes like yours are still a stumbling block. Please, cut us a break and give us some space.

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I wish I didn’t have to rely on a car, but it’s not easy to use public transport with Benjamin – so our car really is our freedom

With thanks,

Benjamin’s mum

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Brave, bruised, and better for it

With apologies for the spoiler, I can hardly believe it went without a hitch.

Back in the depths of winter, when Benjamin’s health appeared relatively stable, we rashly booked ourselves a summer holiday, more than two hours drive from our local hospital. Twelve hours drive and sixteen hours ferry away from our local hospital. Abroad! During May and June, as he deteriorated, it looked as if we would have to cut our losses and claim on the travel insurance. But, with almost three consecutive weeks of reasonable health under our belt, I nervously started to pack, whilst simultaneously trying to keep everything low-key and last-minute to avoid getting anyone’s hopes up.

Mostly, that is, the hopes of my six-year-old who’s learning French at school and was desperate to show it off: “I can do all the shopping, Mummy, you can just relax.” Because that’s all you do on holiday, right? Shopping and relaxing. My own hopes weren’t really that high to begin with, what with the twelve hours of driving, six of them on the wrong side of the road, the horrendous thought of a sixteen-hour crossing of the North Sea, the likely infestation of mosquitoes since we were camping right by a lake, the high chance of sunstroke, frostbite, drowning, or lightning strike, and the lack of an en suite toilet.

It’s hard work preparing and packing to take a family of five on holiday. By the time I’d arranged passports, warning triangle, vehicle clean-air certification, breathalysers, head-lamp stickers, GB sticker, maps, travel sickness pills, first aid kit, two weeks supplies of milk, containers, giving sets, bile bags, medications, nappies, wet wipes, incontinence pads, nebuliser, suction machine, feed pump, spare feed pump, sats machine, thermometer, electrical adaptors, clothes for everyone, toys for everyone, bedtime stories, surprise activities to keep everyone amused on the journey, snacks, directions to every hospital between here and Le Mans, a French translation of Benjamin’s medical notes, insect repellent, sun cream, blankets, waterproofs, swimwear, and cuddly toys, I was seriously wondering if it was really all worth it.

It was so worth it.

For me, there was a lot riding on this. Following three years of in-out hospital admissions, disrupting the lifestyle and opportunities of Benjamin’s sisters, this was my first chance to prove that we can give them a semblance of a normal life. To answer the detractors who said we should abort Benjamin for the sake of the rest of the family. And those who said we’d never make it work with three children. To show that we can all – including Benjamin – have fun times and a decent quality of life. To show that our little family works, plays, and stays together. I was determined to make it work.

My aspirations were given a massive boost by the wonderful staff of the P&O Hull-Zeebrugge overnight ferry. All we had to do was pop our hazard-lights on, and we were directed to a parking space right by the lift, and met by a lovely lady who took charge of Benjamin, leaving us enough hands to manage the girls and the luggage. The same lady seemed to be on hand throughout the entire voyage, always keeping a friendly eye out to make sure we were staying safe and having fun.

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“Nice bed, Mummy, but where’s the boat?”

Our club-class cabin was amazing! A cold beer from the minibar helped my husband get over his initial panic that we had only three beds (I quickly pulled down the upper bunks that had been stowed against the wall, and the girls just as quickly clambered up and got into their pyjamas, so exciting was the prospect of a bunk at sea). Once we’d coaxed the girls back into their clothes we risked the terrifying prospect that is taking a wayward toddler out on deck, and watched the delights of Hull receding into the evening sun with a G&T before heading down for our all-you-can-eat buffet dinner (which in Jackie’s case consisted of rice, chips, naan bread, poppadum, a bread roll and a scoop of mashed potato – with ketchup, of course – just in case they don’t have carbs in France).

A full days’ drive down the motorway later (with copious stops for coffee, picnics, toilet trips and ice cream) and we arrived at Lac de Sillé, a forest campsite that somehow managed to be both on top of a hill and next to a beautiful lake. With the occasional exception (like our tent being on a wooden platform up some wooden steps, making it somewhat difficult to wheel Benjamin into it), the campsite setup also made life very easy. There were real beds, decent toilets and showers, a fridge, a pastry delivery every morning, a pizza van every evening, draft beer, and plenty of fun atmosphere thanks to the World Cup!

I’d love to say I’d planned it ‘just so,’ but it was pure luck that made it the perfect holiday for everyone. The site was so safe – and car-free – that the girls could have a real taste of freedom, pottering around the woods, building dens, playing tag in and out of the trees. Generally they played really nicely together, and even found novelty in helping with the washing up. They both got to stay up late enjoying the poolside World Cup parties, and as a consequence we mostly got a lie-in in the mornings.

Since we were in the right country at the right time, it would have been churlish to refuse my husband a day out at the Tour de France. And I got to visit local markets, photograph butterflies, and drink cheap wine to my heart’s content. Best of all, the lakeside ‘resort,’ about a mile’s walk away through the forest, had pedalos, ponies, pancakes, a little train and, for Benjy, a beach wheelchair! So many opportunities to spend ‘quality time’ with one another – in and out of the water. But most of the time, Jackie turned out to be right, was spent shopping. Particularly as the local supermarket contained possibly the most exciting invention of the century – an orange-squeezing, juice-making machine!

Of course there were moments of confusion – and not just involving the mythical motorway exit for the Le Mans by-pass. Caitlin had been so excited about going on a ferry – but once we were on board, the ferry was so big she couldn’t comprehend it and spent the entire journey asking plaintively “But where’s the boat?” There was the morning I got up last and emerged blearily to be informed excitedly, “We’re going to make bunting!” I somehow misheard. “You’re going to make pancakes?” Fortunately we had the ingredients for both bunting and pancakes. Win-win.

And of course it was hard to relax completely. What if Benjamin gets ill? Do we know how to call an ambulance, and how long would one take to come? Can we speak enough French to explain his condition and what he needs? What if some vital piece of equipment goes wrong, or we run out of milk or medications? It wasn’t until we were on the boat home that I really believed we might make it without a medical disaster.

And of course it was hard work. Constantly lifting a 25 kg boy and his 25 kg buggy in and out of the car, the tent, the back-breakingly low camp-bed, and the floor took its toll. Working through his morning and evening routines every day made me realise how much of the weight our wonderful carers take off back home. Remembering all his medications and equipment every time we went out, and working out how to use them away from our familiar set-up and in 30-degree heat, was mentally exhausting. It made me realise this is probably the last time we’ll be able to holiday like this – by next summer Benjamin will just be too heavy to manage without some concessions to accessibility. But, we are so lucky to have had such freedom for so long.

I was pushed way out of my comfort zone in many ways: keeping Benjamin safe in unfamiliar situations; speaking up to make my children’s needs understood – in French; driving a big car on the wrong side of the road; letting routines slip; letting things get dirty; using those hole-in-the-floor toilets! I learned that trying to economise on space by sharing a single tube of toothpaste is self-defeating. I learned that a car packed to the roof with milk and syringes on the way there = a car with plenty of space for nice French wine on the way home!

There was no infestation of mosquitoes. Nobody got (too) sunburnt, drowned, or was struck by lightning even in the dramatic thunderstorms we experienced for the first three days. It’s true there was no en suite toilet (at least, not until we got back on the ferry). But, we were blessed with totally awesome weather so we never had to traipse across the campsite in the rain. I know everywhere has had awesome weather this year, but still it felt like Someone was watching over us. When asked “Would you do it again then?” my answer has generally been, “Of course not, we’ve had all our luck now, something is bound to go wrong next time!” But maybe, maybe even if something does go wrong, I think we might just survive…

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.