Reflections on My Insomnia

by Tim on December 12, 2014

As I write this, it is 3:30 AM. There’s no obvious reason for me to be awake. Everyone else is asleep and quiet. The only noises are some white noise and the cat purring, and now the soft clicking of this keyboard. As pain goes, I’m actually a bit better than average. A recent medical procedure helped some with my headaches. But yet, here I am, writing this.

I mostly got out of bed because I figured, what’s the point of staying there? I even thought about showering and starting the day really early. I’ll ‘wake up’ in three hours, shower, and get the kids ready for school. I’ll drive them the 20 minutes there, and then I’ll be off to my neuropsychiatry appointment, the one who sees whether two years of chronic pain is rotting my nervous system and driving me crazy.

So why am I, the former world champion of sleeping, awake? I can only guess.

I know I worry, somewhere between a lot and all the time. Between cancer, autism, concussions, and chronic migraines, we each have no small number of challenges in our house. We have a lot of medical debt. I haven’t been able to work enough to get paid in a long while. Week before last we had over ten total doctors’ appointments. This is getting to be a regular, weekly thing for us.

Maybe I’m so mentally and emotionally exhausted that I can’t sleep anymore. I can’t shut down. I can’t find that balanced state of sleep and rest because my body and mind are shot full of holes. Maybe my nervous system really is rotting, and maybe I am going no small amount of crazy.

I just keep trying to tell myself that I am human, I’m emotionally trying to do more than I am capable of sustaining, and that I need to acknowledge that I’m a finite and flawed creature with limits that can’t be exceeded. Our lives are like the speed of light. At least for now, even light has its speed limit.

We all think we can subject our bodies and minds to this intensity day in and day out and never pay for it. We are charging this stress just like monetary debt, except we have to rob one account to pay another just to keep the creditors at bay. That only buys us a little time before the house of cards collapses.

I go to bed at a normal hour. I try to meditate regularly. I don’t do anything that strenuous. I’ve eliminated a lot of outside responsibilities and stressors from my life. Together we’ve worked hard as a married couple and a family to improve our life together. I’ve made a number of positive, personal changes. But still, here I am, awake.

I am trying to notice the sensations of my body and mind as I write. I’m cold because it’s chilly outside and in. I’m hungry because I blew past dinner last night. I’m fidgety because I struggle to be remotely calm or still. I’m worrying about the significant challenges each of the kids are facing right now. I’m not particularly in the Christmas spirit. I know most of the time I would give a piece of my soul for a quiet house and some sleep, and I am pissed at myself that I can’t rest.

In the grand scheme of things, my pain, stress, and responsibilities are less bad than usual. It has been much worse over these past two years than it is right now. Our basic needs are being met; regardless of our debts we are staying afloat pretty well.

So what gives?

I’m going to hazard a guess, and I think it’s one that’s likely true for you, too.


After being afraid of everything going on for so long, my body and mind know little else anymore other than the default state of fear. The process of fraying all the nerves takes some time, based on intensity, but once it happens, there you are.

I’m afraid of the future. I’m afraid of all the headache pain coming back even worse than before. I’m afraid of falling back into that terrible pit that I didn’t think I’d ever even begin to climb out of.

I’m afraid of all these challenges that threaten to implode our family. I’m afraid for our little one’s health as he fights cancer. I’m afraid that our J-Man will face so many challenges as he gets older that he will find it too hard to have a job, live somewhat independently, or find someone beyond us whom he loves who can love him back just as much. I’m afraid of so much more that I don’t even want to write down.

So, yeah, I’m afraid.

I take some solace that you and I are somewhere out in the middle of all this together. You have your own fears as I have mine. We each have our limits. We fight this, but even the speed of light has its limits. Light can still do amazing wonders within its own barriers, so perhaps there’s hope for us yet.

I take some solace that it’s worse to not be afraid. To lose fear is to lose your ability to care. You no longer wish to fight for a better life. Fear is a necessary emotion. I just wish it would let up some.

Today likely won’t be my day. That’s been a consistent trend for a while. Putting one foot in front of the other in the presence of fear, doubt, self-judgment, and the enormity of the challenges one faces is one of the bravest acts of all. So I’ll try to be brave as best I can and hope better days are ahead.

It’s easy to think that you are never going to get anywhere. Forward progress can feel glacial. You may think that little of what you do really matters. But it does. It all matters. Even if you are terrified, what you do matters, perhaps even more.

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I Wish I Knew What He Wanted

by Tim on December 10, 2014

We admit it. We get depressed during the holiday season about one thing in particular.

We have no idea what our J-Man wants, and there’s really no way to find out.

He’s still ‘minimally verbal’ at age 9, with approximately the functional verbal speech of a two-year-old. His communication via speech device is only a little better. Mostly he expresses some basic wants about food, drink, and a handful of activities, he will answer certain kinds of questions, and then the rest of the time he scripts.

He can’t tell us much at all about bodily sensations like pain and discomfort, and rarely can he identify his own emotions. Those are just too abstract for him. We are left to guess about those, too.

As he gets older, I feel more and more like he’s a deepening enigma. He seems more and more distant in many ways. He’s approaching the pre-teen years, and we all face many changes soon. I know in my heart that so much is going on inside him – the good, the difficult, the painful, the joyous – but it has so few ways of getting out. What I can figure out about him feels like it barely scratches the surface.

I don’t even have the remotest clue what he might want for Christmas. Not a clue. We guess each year. Some years, out of what we do get him, one – maybe two if we’re really lucky – he accepts and enjoys. We find a winner more or less by educated accident.

Is it really that big of a deal if he doesn’t want to participate in Christmas gifts? Not really. Christmas ultimately has little to do with presents anyway. It’s just for me a symbol for all the things we cannot understand within him yet.

I would love to share my Christmas memories with him, what our old tree ornaments mean to us and why, the special snacks and sweets we make only at Christmas. I would love to tell him stories of my own grandmother, how she loved Christmas, and how she made us all feel special. So many ornaments on our tree came from her house after she died, and decorating our tree is in no small part full of rich memory and grief of those days that exist within our shared family memories.

I would love to know what memories he has now. I would give anything to know what he loves. Is there some form of visual art or music that moves him? Is there something he wants to build, explore, or learn in-depth about because it interests him? Is there something where he’d think, “I love this. Come do this with me Daddy,” and we could share in that experience together?

I don’t wish to change him to do what I want. Let’s be clear about that. I do want to know what he wants in and with his life. I want to know what he dreams about. I want to see at least some of what he sees in the world.

But I can’t. At least not yet. I will still hold my faith that we will be able to share these and more together someday. Until then, I sit with him, I talk to him, I learn everything about him that I can. We think of every way we can give him the opportunities to discover what he loves and who he wants to be. And Christmas, particularly Advent, reminds me that this is really a season of waiting and hoping. That continues to be our path.

Instead we make educated guesses, and for now that will have to do.

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So Many Questions I Want to Ask

by Tim on November 12, 2014

Every time I look at my son, a torrent of questions fill my heart. He can answer questions like what his name is and what his address is, but those are not the questions in my heart. He can answer ‘no’ or ‘yes’ (usually ‘no’ even if he might mean ‘yes’) to some questions about his wants and needs, but those are not the questions in my heart either.

Over the nine years of his life, the list of questions I’ve longed to ask him almost stretch to infinity. I stare into his eyes that rarely look back into mine, and I see multitudes upon multitudes – an entire cosmos I cannot yet reach.

I desperately want to know.

What do you love? What is in your daydreams? When you spend an hour with paper and crayons, what do you feel in your heart? Do you dream about the future? What do you see? When you see this particular girl in your class, does something begin to stir within you? What do you wish you could say to her? How do you feel when we are gone and someone else is home with you?

My dear heart, are you happy?

When you are afraid, what gives you comfort? When the order of things is broken, what does this feel like to you? When you sit and stare, you look so thoughtful. What do you see? As you sleep, what do you dream about? Do you have nightmares? Peaceful dreams? I cannot tell.

When you see me or Mommy or your brother, what do you feel? Do you know how much you are loved and treasured? Do you know how much your whole family and all your teachers care about you and cheer for you?

Do you know how much joy we feel when you overcome a challenge that you’ve worked so hard at? Do you know how proud we are of you? Do you know how much we love you and how proud we are of you no matter what?

When you script words on your talker or out loud, what do they mean to you? When you discover new words and share them with us, do you know how exciting and wonderful this is? We get to witness you discover a new treasure and share it with the world. How many more words and thoughts and dreams are inside you waiting for their time to finally shine?

What do you dream about doing with your life? When you are in pain, what does it feel like inside you? Does the world feel too threatening and scary? How can I walk with you through this and carry some of your burden for you?

I can see frustration in your eyes. When you try so hard but cannot do something, what do you feel? Do you judge yourself? Are you angry? Do you feel hopeless? Determined? Tired? Dejected? Do your body and mind feel out of control? Are you angry that you want to do something but your own body prevents you?

There is so much I do not know. There is so much you cannot yet tell me. I know this is very, very hard. As much as it is for me, it must certainly be many times harder for you. We continue our search for the keys that will help you open the doors to all the language, ideas, thoughts, and dreams inside you.

I know how far you have come. I am so, so very proud of you. And I know so much more is waiting for us to discover. Some things will take years or a lifetime, or maybe they won’t come at all, but to me that’s not the most important thing.

We get to take that journey together, and that’s the answer to every question that matters most to me.

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When I was 23, I did volunteer work talking to people who were near the end of their lives. I was scared of other people’s pain, or at least what I perceived as being pain. I took a situation that I figured had to be painful and assumed the person felt the same. I wanted to fix it because that’s what you’re supposed to do with pain, or so I thought.

I doubt I was all that effective in my volunteer work. Most likely, I wanted to fix other people’s problems to relieve my own fears. And really how do you ‘fix’ things that either don’t need to be fixed or that simply cannot be? The truth is that 23-year-old me would be terrified of the situation my now 41-year-old me lives in, this world with so many questions and endless concerns and so few answers.

Some have said to be grateful for what all these experiences are teaching me. I would much rather our younger son not have cancer. I would rather our older son not struggle so much with the basics of everyday life. I would rather have not had constant migraines for the past two years.

The truth is that I feel powerless to do anything right now. That is one of the worst feelings you can have as a parent. There’s so much waiting – waiting to see what the cancer does next, waiting to find the right dosing for my newer medications.

Every now and then, Dale Jr. just starts sobbing. He is thoughtful and sensitive, much like I was when I was little. He gets too overwhelmed to cope with all his feelings about everything happening to him. Many years ago, I would have looked for ways to divert him from sadness or fix it somehow or tell him everything will turn out fine.

Now I know that all I can do is hold him, say “I know you are sad. I’m right here,” and be present to him in whatever way I can. I cannot deny or fix how any of us feel. This is all hard right now. The best thing we can do is ask whether we can just be OK with that for now.

When I’m at the pediatric oncology clinic, I look at all the children and parents around me. There are rip currents of pain and fear everywhere. All of us feel like we’re at the mercy of forces we can no longer control. But we are, in our own ways, present to each other. No one speaks in empty platitudes. No one denies the truth of what all is going on. We know anything else is to dishonor the paths we each must travel. We just keep moving on as best we can.

flower from the ashesThe inpatient pediatric oncology floor – our home for a total of almost two weeks now – would once have terrified me. To go there is to walk into the soul of fear. I saw parents who had become shells of themselves. Their children hadn’t been home in months. Some would never go home again.

Yet somehow in the heart of that place, grace and kindness still live. Like flowers that grow out of volcanic ash, each parent we met extended their heart to us. Their children smiled to our son and he back at them.

To varying degrees, we have all been stripped back to our core. We are given the unfiltered truth of what it means to be human. We are helpless and afraid. We are strong and our love unshaken. We fight to whatever end.

We show compassion and kindness because others have showed us the same. We are surrounded by love and support from all sides. We are exhausted and unraveling. We just try to get through the day. We appreciate what we do have. We marvel at how our kids bring out the best in others. We hold on to all that is good.

I never thought I would become that guy. That person I would have felt sorry for. That person who has no idea anymore how the supposedly normal lives of others works. That person who others look at with no idea what to say. That person whose child gets special attention because he’s fighting for his future. That person whose family others pray and cry for because they don’t believe this could all happen to someone. But that is who I am now.

Autism has become one of the easier things in our lives lately. We joke that it’s about tenth on our list of things to be concerned about. Our J-Man is doing pretty well and going through his daily routines about the same as he always has. We never know what he has picked up on, how much he understands about everything that’s happening to us. That mystery remains inscrutable for the time being. He finds solace in the routines of daily life, and he simply is. He almost seems the most oriented of our chaotic family.

But now we just want to survive all this intact and have our life together continue on, hopefully stronger and brighter than before. I have become someone I barely know. Physically I have deteriorated. Mentally and emotionally I am often someone I don’t recognize. Anxiety, chronic pain, fear, guilt, strain, powerlessness, and a laundry list of other emotions take their toll. Some of that is my own doing. In the midst of crisis, we still have it in our power to break things much more than they already are.

We will never be quite the same even when Dale Jr. finally goes into remission and, God willing, my migraines go away. Too much has happened. We will just find a new normal and come to some kind of peace with it.

We’re here together, and that’s what matters most. We have communities of support who lift us up when we can’t do that for ourselves. We’re getting by. It could be much worse. But it is hard.

Sometimes that’s just how life is for all of us. It’s OK to say it out loud. It’s OK to say things are hard. It’s OK to say you feel worried, anxious, or terrified. It’s OK to ask for help. You’re allowed to do all this just as much as we are. We’re all in our own ways in this big boat together.

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Pulling the IV Pole

by Tim on October 16, 2014

During Dale Jr’s most recent chemo treatment, he ended up back in the hospital. He got so dehydrated from vomiting after the second of the four days of infusions that he had to be admitted. So almost six months to the day after we left that inpatient pediatric oncology unit hoping to never have to go back, there we were again for another four-day stay.

He remembers everything about the last two times we were there, particularly the location of all the play areas. He was so weak the first couple of days that he could barely move, but he wanted so desperately to go up to the fancy playroom two floors above the oncology unit.

There was no way he could walk the distance. He couldn’t even walk much past the door of his room. So I found a wagon and loaded him in with his stuffed bird doll and a blanket. You could tell he felt awful, but he wanted to go so much that the medical staff suggested we at least try. I took the wagon handle in my left hand and the IV pole in my right, and I dragged it all behind me toward the elevators.

About halfway there, I was almost struck down with a vision of what I had seen in this place six months before.

Outside his room when he was first diagnosed in March, I saw a dad pulling a little girl in a wagon. She was wrapped in blankets, too weak to move. He dragged the wagon handle in his left hand, the IV pole in his right. They made laps of the oncology unit. As I watched them, I had this haunting feeling that what I was seeing was a prophecy of our future. I never imagined that it would literally come true.

I became that dad I wrote about. I wanted to fall to my knees, but I knew I couldn’t. We have to keep a brave front for him.

We made it to the floor the playroom is on even with my awkward ‘driving’ skills. Since the children’s hospital is located on a major college campus, a lot of college students volunteer there. I was rescued by two of them. One offered to push the IV pole the remaining few hundred feet to the play area while I pulled the wagon.

If you ever wonder what you can do for someone, carry a little piece of their burden for a bit by doing something practical. It doesn’t need to be much or for long. Just pulling the IV pole along for a couple of minutes matters.

This was the big playroom for the entire inpatient part of the children’s hospital. Children with cancer, severe burns, injuries from accidents or traumas, and much more all mingle together with volunteers. It’s like the center of the unfairness universe. But we make the best of it. The kids with cancer tend to get the most sympathetic looks and quiet words. Everyone here knows some of them won’t survive.

The kids play, and for a little while we forget what all is going on. He lasted about fifteen minutes until I had to take him back to his room. He slept for three hours. It was all heartbreaking. We were living on the other side of the prophecy. If I could have rammed that IV pole up cancer’s ass, I would have.

While he slept and I drank bad coffee from the parents’ pantry and ate from a stack of individual cups of chocolate ice cream, I tried to think about anything to be grateful about in all this. It turned out to be not all that hard really.

It’s the people who will walk to the edges of worlds to care for our children. These nurses and doctors walk toward the center of other people’s hell and do their best to help, to heal, to give hope.

The families find a bit of comfort in each other even if we’re often too busy attending to our own children to talk much. We are like strangers huddled under a shelter in a terrible storm.

We have all been offered platitudes by well-meaning people to explain why we are here in this place with our children. Those people will never really understand what it means to be here. They just need to make sense of it for themselves and maybe for us, too, in an attempt to avoid the feelings of terror we feel.

But what kind of divine plan can have children screaming as the chemicals burn a hole in their chests? What kind of plan can have parents’ hearts lying shattered on the hospital floors? What kind of plan decides which little ones live and which die?

The solace I find is that people care for us and help us, for whatever reason. Maybe it’s because of their faith. Maybe it’s because it’s simply who they are. Maybe it’s a combination of these and so much more. I simply don’t know.

The kids in the oncology clinic try so hard to carry the banner of bravery left for them by all the courageous souls with cancer who went before them. They, too, do not know how to quit. They inspire us. They teach us what is most sacred in life. They teach us that we don’t have time for all the petty things in life. Our time here is just too precious.

And somehow all this care and courage turns everything into a certain ragged grace that comes out in between the cracks of chaos and hope. It calls us on to follow the footsteps of those who have been out here before us. We are not alone, even if few will ever take the path we are on.

Is any of this fair? It almost doesn’t matter whether it is or not. We can curse the challenges and heartaches in our lives, but it does little to change them. Lately, I feel a bit less angry. I’m not sure why. I guess I realized it wasn’t making any difference except to harm me and others.

We are loved. We are pitied. We are embraced. We are sometimes just on our own. We try our best. We win some days and lose others. We hope in a good future because the alternative is too terrible.

Perhaps people see us as a symbol of how fragile life can be. Perhaps those who live fairly straightforward lives see ours as a rollercoaster precariously balanced on the edges of gravity. Some days are very hard. Some are pretty average. Others are extraordinarily amazing beyond words. But it’s quite obvious that the lives of others are not much at all like our own.

It’s hard to see this as a journey anymore. It’s neither a marathon nor a sprint. We live outside of time. It’s just today now.

We are exhausted, constantly worried about finances, short with each other, and desperately hoping for the days beyond all these challenges. We joke that autism is about eleventh on our list of things to be anxious about right now. We do know that ourselves of two years ago wouldn’t recognize who we have become.

We take heart in how much both our kids inspire others. They have gone through more challenges than most children end up facing their entire lives. So many root for them and want to help. They’ve pulled the IV pole for us whenever they could. I could never put into words what all this means to us.

My hope is that you find people like this in your own lives. We all need them. We aren’t meant to do this alone.

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For the last eight years, we’ve worked to help our J-Man learn to say the ‘b’ and ‘p’ sounds. For most of those years, it’s sounded like this mixture of a glottal stop and a fake swallow combined, his lips and teeth open. In other words, about as opposite from an actual ‘b’ or ‘p’ sound as you can get.

A procession of speech therapists have tried a seemingly endless encyclopedia of techniques to help him with this. As he gained more and more verbal sounds, the sounds he used as his own approximations for ‘b’ and ‘p’ remained steadfast. He still has approximately the verbal speech of a two or three-year-old (he just turned nine), but the clarity of the speech he does have has improved in leaps and bounds in recent months.

It would be one thing if it were just us talking to him. We know what he means, and in that regard his glottal approximations haven’t made that much functional difference. We know, however, as he gets older and learns to express himself more and more, and the more clarity we help him achieve, the more he will be able to make his voice heard by others. Obviously when he gets older and grows toward adulthood, the more vital it is for him to be at least somewhat understood in situations anywhere from ordering lunch to advocating for himself to others.

So we kept trying. We tried every form of modeling the sound for him, but to no avail. We focused on getting him to close his lips – an essential component of bilabial sounds like ‘b’ and ‘p’ – but he would just touch his lips and then go right back to forming the sounds the way he always had.

Many years and approaches later, we noticed that the throaty, glottal noise was moving slowly forward in his mouth. We wondered if maybe he was ready and preparing himself to make a change. His speech therapist had the brilliant idea to substitute ‘b’ or ‘p’ for ‘m’ to get him to close his lips as a transitional step toward ‘b’ and ‘p’ later. So, ‘blue’ became ‘mlue’ or ‘muhlue’, ‘mink’ for ‘pink’, and so on. This finally seemed to click for him in a way nothing else had before. It got that frontal, similar, bilabial sound going and moved the sound forward in his mouth. We were getting there. We could feel it.

Then on occasion he would successfully make a ‘b’ or ‘p’ sound! It seemed rather random, but in reality it was primarily when he wasn’t thinking about it. Instead of overthinking it or remaining so invested in patterns that had built up over the years, it just popped out there.

BeautyWe thought about what a Herculean step this was for him after almost eight years, how much he stuck with it and did the work and the practice. I can’t imagine something being so hard, but yet him working at it for so long. It made us even that much prouder of him.

I recently had to go back to the Head Pain clinic in Michigan, this time by myself. Mary frantically was texting me that he was repeatedly making those elusive ‘b’ and ‘p’ sounds in songs and scripts at home. I asked her to make a video clip and send it to me. She did, and I sat on my hospital bed and wept, tears of joy and pride.

Tears that he had climbed to the top of this incredible mountain, and tears that I had been 700 miles away when he did. I had missed that moment. I am the primary stay-at-home parent. I have been here for just about every first of everything. A big part of me hurt. I know how hard he worked, and the time, talent, and energy a small army of people had put into helping his speech progress over the years.

I felt sorry for myself for a little while. I sobbed as I watched the video over and over again. Then I became grateful that moments like this are part of my life. I get to bear witness to my two brave, determined sons who conquer challenges great and small every day. They do not quit, ever. I am grateful that they make me a better father and a better man. Lord knows I need both of those things right now.

I am grateful for the people who work on their behalf to make these moments possible. These moments don’t appear out of thin air. They are the culmination of hundreds and thousands of hours of work by numerous saints who give their lives so that our children can have that chance to become the fullest possible expressions of themselves.

We start on the next journey now. There will always be a next journey. But now he can say words like beauty, bright, brilliant, believe, beloved, best, blessing, brilliance, bravery, possibility, potential, powerful, promise, peace, perseverance, progress, and proud.

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The Screams

August 26, 2014

In the J-Man’s classroom when a child is upset or overwhelmed, they may begin to scream. Perhaps they scream in frustration, anger, terror, or confusion. Perhaps they have no words except to scream. It may come out as a shriek, a brief and shrill alarm, a cacophonous string of high notes, or a bloodcurdling and […]

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“Is love available even here?”

June 24, 2014

A wise friend of mine has this tattooed on her wrist. It reminds her of one of the most fundamental questions we must ask ourselves when life goes to pieces and hope seems so far away.  This question has come to me often in our many hours in the pediatric oncology clinic. Of all the […]

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