Why I Marched on Oakland

On January 21st, I marched in Oakland as part of the Women’s March on Washington. I know there are some out there who don’t understand what marching accomplishes. I don’t always know the answer to that, but sometimes you feel strongly about things going on in the world and you can’t sit there anymore and do nothing. Sometimes, marching just feels right.

It was a diverse group that marched in Oakland. It wasn’t only women; there were people of every color, size, shape, ability, gender, sexual orientation, and flavor. The reasons why participants marched were many and varied.

Jack and me at the march in Oakland. Photo © Rhea Avalos.

Jack and me at the march in Oakland. Photo © Rhea Avalos.

Here are the many reasons that I marched (with my son Jack) yesterday:

  • To show that I will not be a silent victim of Trump’s fascist agenda and toxicity.
  • Because every person who marches builds up a critical mass that results in 2.5 million people, which shows that we are not a small minority of people who are concerned with the dangers of a Trump administration.
  • To show support to every person who will be targeted and harmed by Trump’s agenda and toxic atmosphere for simply trying to live their life:
    • people of color
    • LGBTQIA people
    • women
    • immigrants
    • those in need of affordable healthcare and protections against pre-existing conditions clauses
    • children who deserve to go to school without worrying about gun violence
  • To feel solidarity with my fellow citizens who also want to build a better America–an America that is constantly improving and not trying to return to the past.
  • To be part of a movement so big that it cannot be ignored.
  • To show my children what freedom means.

I will keep marching because it means something to me and reminds me what it means to be an American.

Progress in Getting a Better IEP

After many years of back-and-forth with Jack’s school, we have finally gotten an IEP that I think we are all happy with!

For the first time since we started meeting with the educational team at the school back in 2013, they didn’t fight us on where Jack is academically. Everyone agreed that he is demonstrating the long-term effects of his cancer treatment. Everyone agreed that what we’ve been doing so far has not helped. Finally, the school accepted that the holes in Jack’s learning would not just magically fill up again now that chemo is done. They have conceded that Jack has a huge gap between intellectual ability and academic achievement in math due to processing problems (i.e. dyscalculia), memory, and attention issues.

fear of math

Does not compute… Photo © Jimmie, Creative Commons usage.

I can’t tell you what a relief it was to walk out of that IEP meeting last week and have plans in place – not just HOPE but plans.

Jack has four new goals written into his IEP, including learning to tell time*, learning to count money, practice basic math facts so that he can get 80% accuracy, and fraction learning in the resource room prior to learning it in the classroom. Accommodations will include shorter assignments, untimed classwork, and the teacher will make sure he understands instructions/repeats them back before left to do the assignments.

Jack previously had time one day per week in the Resource Room (which amounted to 75 minutes per month) along with two other students and no individual help. Now he’ll spend time three days per week in the Resource Room and one of those will be solo with the resource teacher!

It feels like the future is looking brighter! Even if these things don’t work, we’ll know more about whether Jack can learn certain things if taught in a different way or just…not at all.


* Jack has no concept of time – not hour of the day, not day of the week, etc. He can’t tell how long something takes or how much time has passed – whether it is nearing bedtime, whether it’s late or early in the day, or what day tomorrow is. He floats along and has to have everyone around him tell him what to do next. This makes time management impossible! Part of the problem is that he can’t hold onto information about sequences longer than maybe two steps (so even if he does know that today is Monday and tomorrow is Tuesday, he has no clue where those days fall in the sequence of the seven days of the week). Another part of the problem is that he has trouble with assigned meaning of things – i.e. a quarter is worth 25 cents because someone long ago decided that was the case; the value isn’t inherent to circular pieces of metal of that size. He can’t wrap his brain around that. It’s like it’s another language that he can’t comprehend – the language of sequences and numerical meaning.

Keeping Your Toddler Busy When Traveling

Last week I hopped on a plane with my very active 13-month-old baby/toddler. Desmond and I took a 4.5 hour flight from San Francisco to Atlanta, just the two of us (well, and everyone else on the plane). We flew back home yesterday.

I will come out and say this for all to read – I was terrified to take this trip on my own. But that’s how most adventures in parenting start, right?

Airport baby wearing

Babywearing at the airport

To prepare, I scoured the internet for ideas for keeping small children occupied on airplanes. I found a lot of suggestions that work for kids over the age of 2 years – those kids that are less likely to eat the crayons or throw the blocks at other passengers. Dez is still not 100% accurate with putting food in his mouth – there is no way he would have luck drawing on a magnedoodle!

Having very little luck with my search on the internet, I proceeded to tear through my house looking for items that I wouldn’t normally let Dez play with but that also aren’t dangerous while supervised. I came up with quite a few things to put in my “forbidden items grab bag.” I then hit up my Facebook parenting groups to gather more ideas before heading to Target. (I came out spending way too much, but it was less than $100, which is kind of amazing for a trip to Target!)

In the end, I collected quite the mishmash of items to entertain my toddler on the plane. And thus I bring you tips for flying with a toddler (without losing your mind).

Ewokmama tips for flying with toddler

Ideas for Fun and/or “Forbidden” Items to Bring on the Plane:

  • a fun keychain with spare keys and a large paperclip attached
  • various expired membership cards
  • a bracelet
  • post-it notes
  • small, portable toys that are new to your toddler – we had Little People figurines, My Little Pony minis, a Little People clown car
  • a pill organizer filled with snacks
  • stickers
  • interactive books (i.e. a “slide & seek” book and Pat the Bunny)
  • a pack of playing cards from the $1 bin

My cell phone is the ultimate forbidden item, of course…so I also looked around the app store to find things that might appeal to a toddler. [Note: If your kiddo is closer to 2 years and above, Toca Boca makes some awesome apps.] The best app I found is called “Animal and Tool Picture Flashcards for Babies” by Open Solutions. It’s free and contains a mixture of animal photos and clip art pictures; when you tap on a picture, the app states the name of the animal and then plays a clip of the sound that animal makes.

That app was the best money I never spent! Dez LOVED it. Even aside from the animal pictures and sounds, he really enjoyed dancing to the background music. It came in handy in the hotel room later, as well.

A word of warning, though. Now that I’ve let Dez play with my cell phone, he is more demanding about it than ever. Still, it was worth it for peace of mind on the plane!

If I were to pick one item from the above list to suggest above all others (aside from the animal flashcards app), it would be the pill organizer filled with snacks. Dez thought it was great to point to the container he wanted me to pop open – over and over. The snacks were key! A well-fed kid is a happy kid!

Aside from items to schlep along with you onto a plane, here are a few more tips for flying with toddlers:

  • Opt for the window seat. Not only will your kid like the view, but you can use stranger anxiety to keep him from trying to make a run for it.
  • If you are flying with your child on your lap, upgrade to get extra legroom. You can let your kid stand up a bit or maybe even play on the floor (depending on how MUCH leg room there is). And in case of tantrums, flailing limbs are less likely to hit the seat in front of you.
  • Babywear through security.
  • Ask for an empty cup and/or water bottle for your kid to play with.
  • Make sure to nurse or give your child something to drink during take off and landing to help with eardrum pressure.

Hopefully these things will help you get through your trip without any meltdowns from your toddler OR YOU. If not and your kid has a tantrum, hang in there! And maybe buy your neighbor – and yourself – a drink to cope.

Moms and dads, what did I forget? What are your tricks for traveling with toddlers?

Cancer is a Thief

Another school year has begun. Jack’s fourth grade teacher seems likes she knows her stuff. Right from the start she walked the kids through how to organize their day so that there are fewer opportunities to “forget” homework; they carry a binder with a planner inside and dividers for each subject. Every day the class reviews what is to be done that evening and writes it in their planners. Ms. A is helping them establish executive function skills, an area in which Jack has a lot of trouble thanks to cancer treatment.

In addition, she is starting off the year with light homework that is mostly review material. Which is great…

Except that Jack is struggling a bit with even this small amount of homework. He is fighting increased anxiety and having bouts of depression. By the second week of school, he was difficult to rouse in the mornings. He drags his feet getting ready to leave and is incredibly slow and distractible when doing any task. He complains of stomach aches or nausea a lot. He speaks of the pressures of being in fourth grade and he despairs about growing up.

My son has turned into Peter Pan.

Last week I met with Ms. A and the school’s new resource teacher to review Jack’s IEP. Afterward I felt exhausted and defeated. I’d tried to explain the issues we’re dealing with but they didn’t seem to grasp it. I guess that’s not a surprise – I feel like I am gaining new understanding all the time about why Jack’s experience with cancer has had such a profound impact on him academically and emotionally. The territory we’re in – that of a childhood cancer survivor – is relatively new in the grand scheme of things. Schools and even our oncology team are still learning what the long term effects of cancer treatment are.

As a parent of a survivor, I get a unique and up-close perspective (lucky me!). I’m only now really coming to understand that cancer is a time thief. This effect feels more pronounced with a child – a treatment that spans three and a half years impacts many more developmental phases in a child as compared to an adult.

Jack Kindergarten

Jack, age 5, first day of Kindergarten

In school and outside of it, Jack spent much of the last three and a half years in a haze. Compared to other kids his age, he didn’t play much of the time – he didn’t have the energy. He went from being a happy-go-lucky five-year-old to an intense and conflicted nine-year-old…he didn’t have much opportunity to be a kid in between those two points in time. He didn’t admit it at the time, but he admits it now: he was afraid of dying.

Academically, we are observing that Jack is missing some key building blocks for math. This past Thursday, we spent at least an hour together going over a fairly simple problem – 3,000 divided by 10. It was as if he had never divided before. And while he can answer 5×3 relatively easily, 5×30 is a whole different ball game. He hasn’t been able to connect increasingly complex math concepts with the basics.

Some of the building blocks are missing due to frequent absences from school for treatment or side effects from treatment. He missed half of kindergarten and started first grade a couple of months late because he had no ability to fight off illness. Once he was given the okay to go back to school, he rarely attended a full week until sometime in the later part of third grade. Generally if he was too sick to attend school he was also too sick (or just plain foggy-brained) to do any schoolwork at home. We did our best, but he was going at a snail’s pace while his fellow students sped along at school. When he did make it to school, he felt lost and like an outsider.

Other building blocks are missing due to the effect of chemotherapy on the brain. One of the key chemotherapy drugs Jack was given went into his spinal fluid and is known to cause learning problems in things like math and executive function. We were warned about this, but it’s not something we had the time to worry too much about because we were so busy going to and from various appointments and dealing with administering medications or battling side effects. We had limited emotional capacity for worrying about that, in any case. It was always in the back of my mind, but I had no choice but to push it aside and carry on.

Now Jack is faced with trying to catch up in an environment that barely acknowledges that he has fallen behind. He has to work much harder to stay on track – both to fill in the blanks and to learn the next thing.

Meanwhile, he has boundless energy, almost like he’s been saving it up all these years. He wants to PLAY and EXPLORE and TALK. But fourth grade is stricter, harder, has one less recess, and more kids per class. Fourth grade demands more maturity out of the kids and it just happens to coincide with a time when Jack is trying to shrug off the very thing that demanded maturity of him too soon and attempting to, essentially, recapture his youth.

Jack DC Ball Pit

Jack, age 9, in a giant ball pit in DC

Jack feels a sense of unfairness and has articulated it in his own way from time to time. “I’m dealing with cancer; why do I have to do homework?” is one line I’ve heard on several occasions. And there is the repeated refrain, “I don’t want to grow up! It’s too much pressure!”

It has taken me some time but I understand now. Three and a half years of treatment left Jack with only vague memories of what a carefree existence was like. He has his life, thankfully, but he also has PTSD and lives with so much fear. He can’t get time back – cancer has stolen his innocence and so much of his childhood.

Many nine-year-olds struggle with school and homework – in that, Jack is not alone. But Jack is the only one in his class (and, as far as I know, the only one in his school) who is dealing with those things while trying to make up for years of lost time and heal his soul. The school faculty have no idea how to help him.

Neither do I, really, but I won’t stop trying.

No Way Out But Through

When Jack was diagnosed with Leukemia three and a half years ago, I focused on the “End of Treatment.” I thought we would do what we could to get through the difficult treatment process, but that eventually we would be done.

Well, to be perfectly honest, I thought we would be done when the Induction phase (where remission is achieved) was complete – 30 days after diagnosis and the beginning of treatment. Then I readjusted my thinking – we would have most of the hard stuff behind us after Consolidation – the chemo-heavy “blast the hell out of any remaining cancer cells” phase. I figured Maintenance would be unpleasant, but easier that those prior phases – I thought we would pretty much be done once we got to Maintenance. But then Maintenance lasted over two years and while much of it went smoothly, we did not feel done at all – instead, the hardship of all we’d had to endure up to that point caught up to us.

THEN I thought – End of Treatment is the ticket! End of Treatment would come and this business would be behind us! But, well…

I’ve lost count of the number of therapy sessions Jack has had at this point. With this latest therapist, we’re at least past 10 sessions by now. This therapist has been the most helpful, and Jack has had two successful blood draws! By “successful,” I in NO WAY mean easy. There was shaking and tears, and both times I thought we would not get the draw. But Jack managed to push past his fear and do it!

The first time he was successful (after 8 therapy sessions and countless “needle exposures” at home), he felt jubilant and accomplished afterward! He even said it hurt much less than he thought it would. But the second time was harder for some reason, and afterward he felt tired and defeated and weepy. It didn’t help that one of the phlebotomists in the lab muttered, “He’s never going to be ready,” which Jack heard.

Two steps forward, one step back. Can I bill the lab for the therapy appointments, ya think?

As the therapist delves deeper with Jack into the medical trauma he has experienced, the emotions (mostly negative) get harder to deal with and manifest that difficulty comes out in various ways. Fear randomly comes and goes, insomnia often plagues him, and Jack has felt more of a need to cling to his parents. Some OCD tendencies showed up during the second blood draw, something we hadn’t seen in him before, and then again in his therapy session the next day. Depression – a despair that no 8-year-old should even be able to contemplate – came over him at bedtime on Sunday.

Having gone through trauma therapy myself, I know how hard it is and that when you are in it, it feels like nothing will ever be okay. There are many forces within our minds that try to protect us from feeling the pain of trauma – they tell us to run from even distant memories of it. It’s exhausting to fight your own brain. It takes a fierce, stubborn person to do it, and lots of support.

I have no doubt Jack can do it. We will support him every step of the way.

But he has many doubts and fears. After the therapy appointment Saturday, which had him so upset that he started to run around the room near the end and stopped being cooperative, I tried to reassure him that it’s all worth it.

“It doesn’t feel worth it! It feels terrible!”

I know, buddy. It really, really sucks.

The blood test results – what much of this effort and urgency is about – look pretty good. Jack’s immune system is recovering, which is very reassuring. But for some reason, his iron is super low and that leads to other worries, more medications (thankfully, just a liquid iron supplement at the moment), and additional tests.

We don’t want more worries, more medications, or more tests. Our cups not only runneth over from these things – they’re being crushed by the weight of them. We don’t want anymore, thank you!

We have no other choice, though, so it’s one foot in front of the other. I’m coming to terms with the fact that I have to stop thinking in terms of when cancer will be behind us. When you’re in it, you can’t see through to the other side.

You just have to keep going anyway.