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.

Living That Normal Life

For the first time in nearly five years, Jack’s latest lab results were normal! While he finished cancer treatment over a year and a half ago, his body has taken its sweet time showing us that it could function normally. The last hold out on the labs was his ferritin level, which stubbornly refused to come up even with liquid iron supplementation. Finally, though, he’s off of supplements and his ferritin is normal!

Health aside, Jack is mostly living a normal life as a regular 5th grader. He’s been improving steadily in school thanks to a teacher that is pretty laid back and increased time in the resource room for math help. He even likes math sometimes!

Oh, and he can tell time now. That finally clicked when we got him a smart watch. He played around with the time display a lot and I think that helped him understand how time works.

Who knows, the increased ferritin level could also be a factor. (Apparently low ferritin can impede brain functioning.)

Things have improved considerably for all things Jack-related. No more fits over homework, very few missed days at school, and mood stability. In our darkest cancer days, we never thought we would get here. It’s pretty incredible!

At the end of January, Jack will reach 5 years disease-free. He survived.

We all survived.

Brothers

Jack and Dez on Thanksgiving.

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.

It’s A Hard-Knock Life (For Us Parents)

I have a migraine right now and my hip is fucking killing me. I would love to go to bed – I don’t even care that it’s not even 9pm on a Friday – but I can’t go to bed because Dez is trying to go to sleep in said bed and my presence is not conducive to him falling asleep.

This is parenthood. Sleep is like vacation to me – better, even, because it requires much less planning (and yet is no less elusive at times).

David and I are involved in a tag team effort at bedtime these days. I nurse Dez, then David steps in when Dez decides maybe he doesn’t want to go to sleep and tries to make a break for it. Daddy means business, though, and when he walks in the room, Dez knows his attempts at delaying bedtime are doomed.

Being the parent of a toddler is hard. I had forgotten just how hard. I guess that’s what happens when you wait eight years to have a second child! This little person who is most definitely his own little person and yet can’t do a damned thing for himself yet (except stuff too many yogurt melts in his mouth at one time) can make you question your choices in life, your sanity, and your self-worth. I had forgotten, but now I remember: I do not like the toddler years, Sam-I-Am.

Frankly, the pre-teen years aren’t seeming to be much better at this point. I’ve been meaning to write about all kinds of Jack-related things but it’s a big ball of complexity that I barely want to think about. The shortish version is this – he has been diagnosed with ADHD, dyscalculia (a math learning disability), and anxiety brought on by medical-related experiences. And in a year he goes back for more testing because the neuropsychologist isn’t sure she was able to get him all figured out.

At nearly the same time that we got the diagnoses and the rest of the results of the neuropsych testing, things at school got particularly bad. Jack and his teacher are at complete odds. It’s partly Jack’s fault and partly the teacher’s fault, and both of them are less than flexible people. We are working on Jack’s behavior, though I think we (and the teacher!) will just have to accept that Jack will have some bad days.

Therapy has been successful, though, so that’s a plus. Yay! I’ll take all the victories I can get.

Back to Dez…he’s a weird little fellow. He’s no longer that magical unicorn baby. He is vocal and can be clingy and so very quirky. He took his first unassisted steps a few days before Christmas, and then hasn’t walked since. He just goes around walking on his knees (which are now quite callused). He doesn’t say much, either. He has some words but very few that are clear. That doesn’t stop him from chatting, though. He talks a LOT – just not in English.

He also doesn’t sleep for shit. He is a terrible, no good, very bad sleeper. I think he must have gotten it from David because Jack and I both excel at sleeping!

He is a great eater, though. He’s got Jack beat on that!

So clearly we’re living a hectic existence right now. I know it won’t last forever and one day I will look back and miss the moments where Jack helps his brother walk around the living room or Dez snuggles up to me for midnight nursing sessions…but right now I am dreaming of peace and quiet.

Fewer headaches and a massage would be lovely, too.

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.