Blogiversary

Blogiversary1

Somehow it’s the 1 year anniversary of my blog…which basically means that TIME FLIES! My first post was about green bagels on St. Paddy’s Day  (Green Bagel Morning), which we dutifully ate again this year.

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I’ve really enjoyed blogging over the past year. I’ve loved the connections that I’ve made with people, and this blog REALLY REALLY helped me out when Emmy went into cardiac arrest after heart surgery last May (You can do it, Emmy!!!). I never in a billion years thought that I would be blogging while my daughter was on life support. It seems almost trivial. Blogging while your kid is on life support?? What??  I’m not even that much of a social media person, so it doesn’t seem to fit my character.

But oh-my-gosh, did it help!!! The messages of encouragement kept me going. And the support was incredible. I felt as though we were lifted through that entire experience on the shoulders of others. I didn’t feel like I was going through it alone.

I still get rattled when I look back on my blog posts during that time. It can bring me right back to that hospital room in a split second. It’s surreal to be so far removed from that experience now–physically removed but not mentally… Never mentally.

I have two favorite posts from the past year. I mulled over These Are The Shoes for a LONG time before I wrote it. Every time I opened Emmy’s drawer, those shoes would stare at me. And every time I thought, “I have to write about this feeling to get it out of me.” I’ve mentioned a few times that writing is like therapy for me. When something eats away at me, it’s all I can think about. And then once I get it down on paper, the immediate relief is unbelievable. Seeing those shoes every day really affected me and then, once I wrote about it, I was able to let it go. Amazingly, the shoes don’t bother me anymore.

My other favorite post is In Love. I LOVE that picture of Emmy. She looks like she’s shining from the inside out. That post represents a divide for me. I felt as though I let Williams syndrome come between Emmy and me for a long time. I was very aware of the fact that she has Williams syndrome. I thought about the implications a lot, and it kept me at a distance from her. This was totally unconscious on my part, but it happened nonetheless. We went through hell during her heart surgery and recovery and, while I would never want to go through something like that ever again, it helped me realize that Emmy is my daughter first and foremost. I no longer saw her as “my daughter, but let’s not forget that she has Williams syndrome.” I saw her as my daughter. Period. End of story.

And even though this blog is called Williams Syndrome Smile, my older daughter Charlotte, and husband Dan, (and the new baby soon!) have all played a significant role as well. I think this is more about life in general. Parenting is a minefield, I tell you. Having a child with special needs might color some of my experiences in a different way, but 99% of the time, I’m doing the normal things that every parent does. My #1 goal in life is to not screw up my kids…and yet I can guarantee that I’m already doing something wrong. (And it’s probably the thing that I think I’m actually doing right!! That’s the irony of it all.)

Thank you so much for reading and sharing, everyone!! I’m looking forward to Year #2.

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Why I Stopped Apologizing for My Child

Apologizing

A while back, I was looking to find a daycare that Emmy could attend a couple days a week. Before I started my journey as a mom, I assumed that my kids wouldn’t go to daycare because I had images of constantly-runny noses, unchanged diapers, and bored staff. Woah, was I wrong about that one! I’ve been able to find daycares that are run more like schools, so my kids are learning, having wonderful social interactions, and making cool art projects. They’ve also become very close with their teachers, and I love to see those special bonds forming. So I am pro-daycare, if you can find the right place.

This happened before I found the right place…

Emmy was too young to attend Charlotte’s daycare, which we’ve been very happy with, so I needed to find a place that would take younger children. And I needed to decide when I would drop the words “Williams syndrome.”

Here’s the thing. Not all parents reveal that their child has a diagnosis. They don’t want a label, they’re worried about their child getting into the school, the don’t want their child treated any differently, etc. I empathize with all of these concerns, and I’ve thought about the same things myself.

In my case, though, I knew I had to tell the school about Williams syndrome. First, I knew that our pediatrician would have to fill out a Universal Health Record before Emmy started school, and that it would say “congenital heart defect due to Williams syndrome.” So the cat would be out of the bag at some point. Second, I figured that the teachers would pick up on her delay and ask me about it. I didn’t want to have to fib my way out of that one. Third, my memory is not great. I would never have remembered who I told or who I didn’t. That’s part of the reason I don’t keep her diagnosis a secret from anyone. I would literally have to carry around a notebook and jot down who I told and who I didn’t — and hope that those people never run into each other!

Ok, so I knew I was going to tell. I just didn’t know when or how.

I called the first school and asked if they had room in their program for her age group. The Director said, “Yes. Come on over.”

I hopped in the car and mulled over how I would tell him about Emmy. When I arrived, he offered me a seat in front of his desk. All I could think was: Williams syndrome Williams syndrome Williams syndrome. He told me a little about the program. I nodded and smiled. Williams syndrome Williams syndrome Williams syndrome.

Finally, he stopped talking and asked me about Emmy. He wanted to know if she was either cruising or walking because that would determine her classroom. They had room in both. At this point, Emmy was barely cruising. She was holding onto furniture, but she wasn’t cruising with ease. I knew, though, that if I didn’t talk her up, he would put her in the infant class with the kids who weren’t walking at all. I didn’t think that holding her back, in that sense, was best for her development. She needed to learn from the kids who were already walking. She was also closer developmentally to her own age group than to an infant.

So I took a deep breath and confidently said, “Yes, she’s cruising. She’s been a little slower in that respect because she has Williams syndrome.”

Cat’s out of the bag!

I swear his eyes nearly popped out of his head.

“And what’s that?” he asked.

I told him about Williams syndrome and, in doing so, I realized that I was apologizing for my child. I was emphasizing that she was practically typical and that Williams syndrome was no big deal. Honestly, I felt gross. I was sugar-coating. I wasn’t being real, and I wasn’t being true to my child. When I saw the look of concern on his face, I just kept laying it on thick — how Williams syndrome would be no problem at all. I didn’t dare say that she might need help on the playground or with art projects. I didn’t mention how great it would be if her Early Intervention therapists could come and work with her. I acted as if she would be just fine with no help whatsoever. And then I sat back and waited for his response.

He looked incredibly uncomfortable. He didn’t embrace the situation. Instead, he probably heard nothing I said after the word syndrome. He nervously said, “Ok, let me go check back in with those numbers and make sure that we have room in the cruising class.”

He walked away and came back with a post-it note that had a number on it.

“Turns out we’re at our limit!” he proclaimed. “I thought we had room, but I was wrong. But I’ll certainly give you a call if anything opens up.”

I’m sure he was lying. On the phone, they had room. In person, after my revelation, they were suddenly booked.

I got back in the car, feeling sick, and drove to the next daycare. I debated not revealing her Williams syndrome this time, but I knew I had to for all the reasons I mentioned above.

This time, I toured the school first and then sat down with the Director who said they had one more slot. Great! She couldn’t back out on me now.

I then told her that Emmy has Williams syndrome and, to my horror, I fell back into that sickening apologetic tone. At one point I even said, “You wouldn’t even know there was anything wrong with her.”

UGH. OUCH. I couldn’t believe those words came out of my mouth.

The Director smiled sweetly and replied, “But there isn’t anything wrong with her.”

I felt awful. Here was a stranger who needed to tell me that there wasn’t anything wrong with my child. But talking to her made me feel like I was getting somewhere. I felt as though she understood and was ready to accept Emmy with open arms.

She then asked if Emmy had any medical issues. I said that she has a heart problem due to Williams syndrome but, here we go again, it’s no big deal.

Heart problem?? The air left the room. Her attitude of acceptance turned into a brick wall. This sounded like a liability.

“Welllll,” she started. “You know I’ll have to check with Human Resources about that.”

People have since told me that it’s illegal to not accept someone with a heart condition, but I haven’t done enough research to confirm that. All I know is that, when I called her later to see if she had checked with Human Resources, she said she was mistaken and that they actually didn’t have room for Emmy. The class was full.

So the woman who just told me that there was nothing wrong with my daughter was able to find something wrong. Thanks for the life lesson, lady.

I felt disgusted. I had basically sold my soul to explain away Williams syndrome, and both places rejected me. I felt as if I weren’t giving Emmy the credit she deserves. Instead of proudly embracing what was special about her, I was apologizing for her and explaining her differences away. And they didn’t take her anyway! All of my sugar-coating got me nowhere.

So I decided to speak honestly and openly about Williams syndrome. It is harder for her to do things. But, damn, does she try HARD at everything she does. She perseveres like no one else I’ve seen. And her sweet personality is just such a gift. I’m so proud of this girl.

Just as I resigned myself to not finding a place that would take her, there was a phone call from another school that we had been trying hard to get into. We had been on the waiting list for a while. They were packed but found a spot for Emmy a few days a week. The Director was so welcoming and, when I talked openly about Williams syndrome, I didn’t scare her away in the least. She said that she couldn’t wait to meet Emmy and that they were so happy to have her. I asked if we could have some of her Early Intervention therapists there to help her, and she responded, “Of course!” She didn’t freak out about Emmy’s heart or about her lack of walking. She wanted to put Emmy in with her age group, which I whole-heartedly agreed with. It felt good, finally, to be heard and understood.

Thinking back on my “apologies” for Emmy makes me feel icky to this day. Hey, this diagnosis isn’t her fault! She did absolutely nothing wrong. Through a completely random genetic event, she was made this way. And, boy, do I love everything about her.

So this whole experience, while stomach-churning in parts, gives me the confidence to say:

I am no longer apologizing for the special needs of my very special child. 

Love you, kiddo.

Finding a Home

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I forget that Emmy has a Congenital Heart Defect. I don’t know if other Williams syndrome parents feel this way, but I am very much focused on all of the various aspects of Williams syndrome…the heart defect seems almost secondary.

It SOUNDS ridiculous. Her heart is what’s keeping her going. Her heart is essential for life.

But when we found out she has Williams syndrome, those were the only 2 words I Googled. Not “Congenital Heart Defect.”

It could be that people with Williams syndrome can have a host of medical issues, so I was trying to absorb the laundry list of possible problems instead of focusing on just one.

It could be that I’m not a medical expert, so it’s much easier for me to research and comprehend other aspects of Williams syndrome.

It could be that I STILL have a hard time wrapping my head around the fact that Emmy was born with a serious Congenital Heart Defect, had open-heart surgery this past May, suffered 2 cardiac arrests, and spent a week on life support.

Whatever the reason, I’ve always seen Emmy falling directly into the Williams syndrome camp. And, therefore, the Williams syndrome support groups were initially my home.

But over the past year, I’ve found a home in another support group too — one for parents of children with Congenital Heart Defects.

I’m the only one in the group who has a child with Williams syndrome. But the people I’ve met as part of the group totally GET IT. They have been so loving and supportive and helpful and encouraging. When someone says to you, “I hear you. I understand,” it’s the best thing in the world.

So when we went to a Congenital Heart Defect walk over the weekend, I was so happy to see all of my support group buddies and a team of people from the hospital who came out to walk with us.

And there is one special mom, who I won’t write about in too much detail here — to respect her privacy. But I walked on a team for her sweet son. He was only 1 week older than Emmy.

And, when Emmy went into cardiac arrest earlier this year, this very special mom dropped everything to come to the hospital — even though she had lost her son in that very same hospital, on that very same floor, only 3 weeks prior. You don’t find people like that every day.

So now I’ve found two homes — one in the Williams syndrome community, and the other in the Congenital Heart Defect community.

And it’s become so clear that I NEED support. In the past, I would’ve been way too ashamed to join a support group. I would’ve been too afraid to show weakness. I would’ve shouted from the rooftops that “I can do this all by myself!”

Now I’ve grown wiser. When I’m in a support group, I learn from others who have walked this path before. I lean on others when I can’t stand on my own. And I hope that I give something in return — even if it’s just sharing our story.

I also love to laugh. And support groups can be a Cry Fest. Sometimes.

But, usually? Usually, we’re laughing.

Loud and Proud

LoudandProud

The average person wouldn’t know that Emmy has Williams syndrome. First of all, it’s a rare (1 in 10,000) genetic condition that most people haven’t heard of. And, secondly, to the untrained eye, she outwardly looks and acts like any other child. If you’re not an expert on genetics, you probably would have a hard time picking a child with Williams syndrome out of a crowd.

This applies to many other syndromes as well. Since finding out that Emmy has a genetic condition, I’ve met other families who have revealed their own child’s diagnosis. And, just looking at them, I would have had no idea.

So I don’t have to tell anybody.

Nobody needs to know.

It can be a secret between me, my family, and the school system.

These ideas went through my head in the beginning, when we first found out. Especially because a doctor told me that I shouldn’t reveal her diagnosis until I knew someone really well. She told me that people can be confused and, later, cruel. I became terrified that other people would hate us; hate our family — just because we were different. I had an image of everyone gathered at a neighborhood picnic, and our family showing up. In my head, I saw the heads in the crowd turn to look at us and whisper among themselves that we were “that family.”

I saw it because I knew it.

When I was growing up, we had people in my town who were different. And everyone knew who they were. There was the guy who always walked around town because he couldn’t drive — because he has special needs. I always saw him at the park and the coffee shop. I was aware of the fact that he was different. And I wasn’t anywhere near as open-minded and curious as I am now.

When I was growing up, I casually noticed him, but I never spoke to him. I should have said “hello.” I should have been friendly and welcoming. I have learned SO MUCH about other people and their differences since finding out about my own daughter. That has been one of the many gifts she’s given me.

Recently, I drove around my old town, and I saw that very same guy walking down the street. I swear I cried at the wheel. All of a sudden, I became more aware of who he was. I became curious about his story. And I also reflected back on the kindness of others. I thought about the people who had talked to him at the coffee shop and shook his hand at the park. I now believe that there are more loving and caring people in this world than there are cruel people.

I believe that those who love will embrace our family enough to drown out that small faction of cruelty.

So I write this blog and share our story, loud and proud.

The response has been incredible. I don’t feel like “the others.” On the contrary. I’ve been so moved by the number of people who have accepted us — and appreciated us — just as we are. This is my family. This is reality. I can’t change who we are, and I don’t want to.

When I found out about Emmy’s diagnosis, I had some incredible phone conversations with other Williams syndrome moms, which I will never forget. I remember telling one of the moms that I was too scared to reveal Emmy’s syndrome — too afraid that the other moms on the playground would ostracize me.

She replied, “If that happens, you need to silently thank them. They’re showing you who they are — right off the bat, and you wouldn’t have wanted to be friends with them anyway.”

I take that with me. She’s absolutely right. I wouldn’t have wanted to be friends with those people anyway. And the people I have met as a result of sharing Emmy’s diagnosis? They’ve been amazing.

Two Weeks

TwoWeeks

It was exactly two weeks ago that we brought Emmy in for heart surgery. The surgery went beautifully, by all reports, and she was brought up to the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit to recover. We were expecting to be in and out of the hospital in about 4-5 days.

It was in the recovery room that she suddenly went into cardiac arrest — twice. People with Williams syndrome can have complications during and after surgery (problems with anesthesia, blood pressure changes, etc), but we thought we covered all of our bases and did all of our research. We thought we were beyond prepared. We thought all of the doctors with whom we spoke (prior to surgery) were beyond prepared. It turns out that, sometimes, parents can only control so much.

What happened next, though, was miraculous. The doctors and nurses saved her life. They acted quickly and smartly. They turned the recovery room into an operating room. They opened her chest back up and put her on a bypass machine called ECMO. At that time, Emmy’s heart wasn’t beating on its own. The machine was doing all the work.

I will be forever indebted to the people who saved her life that day. I am also indebted to the wonderful doctors and nurses who cared for her over the next two weeks. And I’m indebted to those to offered us prayers and support through my blog and Facebook and texts and emails and voicemails. I’m sorry that I haven’t responded to everyone yet! I’m still kind of in a fog.

Over the past two weeks, Emmy slowly recovered. One by one, the machines were taken off. It seemed to take forever. Two weeks felt like two years.

But we got our reward last night when Emmy opened her eyes for the first time in two weeks.

And, today, a music therapist came to visit — to see if we could pull Emmy out of her shell a bit more. Emmy still has a c-pap in her nose to help her lungs. She hasn’t spoken a word, though she’s tried. Her voice is very small and sounds like a wheeze. She hasn’t smiled yet.

But when the therapist started playing the guitar, Emmy weakly reached for maracas. She gingerly took one in each hand. And, with two little hands that have barely moved in two weeks, she shook the maracas to the song.

“Hello Emmy,” the therapist sang. “I want to say hello.”

To See or Not To See

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Emmy is off bypass! Her heart is beating on its own!!!!!

Yesterday, it was determined that a surgical team would try and take her off bypass because she was bleeding. We were incredibly nervous. Last time she came off bypass, we ended up with 2 cardiac arrests and a very, very tenuous situation. One day, I’ll write about exactly what happened, but I can’t even go back there in my mind right now. I’ll put it this way — we almost lost her.

This time, she tolerated the move off bypass very nicely, and we had a beautiful night next to Emmy with her heart beating away at nice steady pace. Today, she is still sedated, and she is on a respirator to help her lungs. Overall, she continues to have steady progress in the right direction!

I’ve experienced many amazing things over the past week and, again, I’ll write about those at a later date. I’m still in a hospital room with her, and it’s difficult for me to really reflect on anything until we are home safe and sound.

But I’ll tell you a story from yesterday…

It was Charlotte’s 4th birthday, and her wish was to see her sister. Yikes. We hadn’t planned on having her see Emmy from the beginning of this journey because we were only supposed to spend a couple days here. But with the complications, Emmy’s stay got longer and longer. And Charlotte got more and more curious.

“Why can’t I see her?”

“Just send me a picture.”

“Put her on FaceTime.”

“I know she’s sleeping. I still want to see her.”

My gut told me that it was time she saw Emmy. We seemed to be doing more harm with all the secrets and avoidance. Charlotte has had a tough time the past couple days. She’s a girl who loves routine, so all the craziness has really had an affect on her. We tried to shelter her from it, but kids FEEL things. Probably better than adults.

Even though my gut told me to bring her in to see Emmy, my mind flashed back to a few days ago when my sister came to visit. Upon seeing Emmy, my sister fainted! I must tell you — it is difficult to see Emmy like this. It isn’t glamorous by any means. But here I was thinking, if my 28 year old sister fainted, did I really want to bring a 4 year old in to this situation?

Turns out that there’s a Child Life team at the hospital, and they’re excellent. They prepare kids for seeing their siblings in this state.

So for Charlotte’s birthday wish, I brought her to the hospital to see her sister. The wonderful woman from Child Life helped ease Charlotte into it. Before we went in, she gently asked questions about how Charlotte was feeling and described the contraptions that we would see in the room.

When we entered Emmy’s room, Charlotte’s eyes immediately went past all of the machines and landed straight on her sister’s sweet face. She was quiet, taking it all in.

After a few minutes, the Child Life specialist asked, “I see you’re looking at something, Charlotte. Do you want to tell me what you’re looking at?”

Charlotte nodded slowly and then said, “My baby sister Emmy.”

She barely noticed all the machines. She only saw her sister. It was beautiful.

We went into the waiting room to give Charlotte her birthday presents, and throughout the afternoon she kept asking to return to Emmy’s room — to see her baby sister.

Hope and Faith

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I am so touched by how many people read and forwarded my last post about Emmy’s complications after heart surgery. I felt support from everywhere. In my scariest and darkest time, I was lifted up by others. I’ve been writing about the power of support for a few months now, and I had no idea how much that would become true after Emmy’s surgery.

I’ve felt that support so strongly as I’ve sat next to Emmy in this hospital room. She’s sedated and on bypass, but I talk to her. I encourage her and cheer her on. I tell her about the people who are rooting for her. I am POSITIVE that she feels it too. Tomorrow they will test her heart a little more to see if it can withstand a gentle move off bypass, and I know I will continue to feel the faith all around.

I started this blog a few months ago and have been getting anywhere from 5 to about 50 visitors on an average day. The most I’ve ever gotten was about 108 visitors. I’m just happy to have 1 visitor!! I’m touched that people would come and check-in with my family, and writing is therapeutic for me.

My last post, in which I asked for support following Emmy’s complications, was passed around from person to person to person. People wanted to help and pray and think good thoughts and offer me hope and faith from across towns and states and countries. It felt like everyone had my back when I needed it most.

That night, I checked to see how many people visited my blog. Even seeing 1 visitor would’ve boosted me up and made me feel like someone was cheering us on.

The number amazed me.

1,079 visitors came to my blog that day!

And they came from many countries — Chile, Turkey, Malaysia, the UAE…

They came from everywhere.

That means that, all across the world, we want so desperately to connect with others–to be there for people in need. It brought tears to my eyes and love to my heart.

It brought love to Emmy’s heart too. I could FEEL it. Just when we needed you, you were right there. From my deepest place of gratitude, thank you.

With your help, I keep cheering her on. “GO EMMY GO!!!”

One Week from Today

OneWeekfromToday

In exactly one week, Emmy will have heart surgery. I’m still in denial. I keep waiting for the phone call where a doctor says, “Oh my goodness, I am so sorry for all the confusion! Emmy’s numbers were showing up backwards! Whoopsie.”

Or, when we go in for her pre-op on Monday, I’m expecting a nurse to say, “I have good news! The narrowing in Emmy’s aorta has completely disappeared. This kid is healthy as horse. Take her home, and we’ll see you…never!”

It probably won’t feel real until Emmy gets wheeled into the operating room and I’m left behind to obsessively stare at the clock.

There’s a chance that she might need a blood transfusion during or after surgery and, because we have the same blood type, I was able to give a directed donation earlier this week. Dan came with me and donated to the general population because he and Emmy aren’t a match.

The woman who worked at the blood bank was so unbelievably kind as she took down my information. I hadn’t told her who I was donating to because I didn’t want to cry, so I just acted nonchalant.

As she transferred my information onto the form for Emmy’s surgery, she saw her birthdate–July 2, 2011.

The woman looked back at me and, with tenderness in her voice said, “This is for a small child.”

I steeled my jaw, intent on not breaking down, and said, “It’s for my daughter.”

She was so kind and offered comforting words. As I was giving blood, she asked lots of questions about Emmy. It made me feel good to have support, even from someone I’d never met before.

After Dan and I gave blood, we sat down at the small snack table and made conversation. We dutifully drank our juice and ate salty pretzels.

All of a sudden, Dan’s face turned grey. His breathing got shallow, and his eyes weren’t focusing.

“Are you ok?” I asked, stunned.

“I’m…having…trouble…breathing,” he managed to get out.

I jumped up, still woozy from having just given blood, and hobbled over to the kind woman. I choked out, “My husband…”

She called out to her coworkers, and a swarm of people descended on him, putting ice packs on his neck and keeping his head down.

“This can’t be happening,” I thought, as I stood back from the crowd. My mind flashed to Emmy’s surgery. “This can’t be happening.”

The kind woman who took my blood looked over at my panicked face and said, “He’s going to be just fine.”

I didn’t believe her.

They put Dan on a stretcher with his feet in the air as I nervously looked on. It took him a solid fifteen minutes to regain his color. Finally, he climbed off the stretcher and came to sit back down with me.

“That was really scary,” I said.

“I don’t know what happened,” he replied.

Dan is a strong guy, which is why he is my rock. To see my rock go down left me feeling completely helpless.

We’ve had a stressful week trying to get our ducks in a row before surgery, and I think the weight of it all has taken its toll. As nervous as I am for surgery, I just want to get it over with so we can finally exhale.

We Have Each Other

WeHaveEachOther

I’ve been at a loss for words this week. My friend has experienced a tragic loss that defies words and explanations.

There are many thoughts that have gone through my mind over the past few days. Why do bad things happen to good people? How can life be so fragile? Where are the miracles that I’ve dreamed about?

I’ve been thinking, thinking, thinking. And then something so strong came into my head, as if I didn’t even think it myself: “We have each other.”

Even if my questions do not have answers, we are standing strong together. Our hugs have been so tight. We’ve felt other people’s tears against our own cheeks. We’ve grasped hands and rubbed backs. We’ve leaned on one another.

We can’t predict the future, but there is comfort in knowing that we can rely on others to help us get through the tough times. These personal connections are essential.

This is what I know: It is my honor to support my friends. Yesterday, today, and tomorrow. We have each other.