I See You

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Aaron + his mama. (Shared with his consent).

Last night, Aaron and I got fancied up and went to out to a play. He wore his suit jacket and a black tie and I changed out of my regular mom jeans into a green velvet dress. This was a big occasion for us.

This is the Point was playing at the PuSH Festival at the Cultch Historic Theatre in Vancouver. This play initially caught my eye because the two lead characters, Tony Diamanti and Liz MacDougall, are actors with cerebral palsy. They share stories about their own lives along with Dan Watson (and Christina Serra, represented by video), the parents of their nine-year old son Bruno, who also has CP.

Aaron doesn’t have CP; he has Down syndrome. But I’m not sure the difference in diagnosis matters that much – he lives the common experience of being disabled. He enjoys his grade 10 drama class at school and is becoming more interested in live theatre. A play featuring actors with disabilities is an unusual thing. (It shouldn’t be. But it is). I think it is my job as his mom to show him what is possible.

This is the Point is a real-life montage of stories, shared through live performances and video vignettes. It includes audience participation – we were encouraged to read Tony Diamanti’s words out loud as he pointed to letters on a communication board. I loved this invitation to be a part of Tony’s world – a contrast to the common notion that disabled people must always fit into our abled-bodied spaces.

Before the play began, Dan wandered about the audience handing out Hershey kisses. He then announced, ‘We do things at our own pace,’ to set the tone for the show.

The play is a peek behind the curtain of having a disability and being parents to a child with a disability. It gave space to stories that are told but not often heard or acknowledged by the general public. The play explained communication devices, talked about consent (or lack of it) and touched on abuse.

I think that stories can teach you something new or validate what you already know by creating a mirror for your own experience.

Here’s the something new from This is the Point: disabled people don’t always communicate as we do, they have a sense of humour, curse, are sometimes horny, have sex, fall in love and drink vodka. The question for me is: why should this be new to me? How does being surprised by this reflect on my own misconceptions about adults with disabilities? As human beings, we are all the same. And we are all different too.

This is the Point offered a commentary on my own experience as a parent too. Dan recounts a heart-breaking scene from his local playground, where the neighbourhood kids keep asking about Bruno, over and over again: What is wrong with him?

“Why do I have to keep explaining why I love my son?” asks Dan, exasperated in response.

I’ve felt that pain too. Playgrounds are an especially cruel place, a petri-dish for children whose parents who have never to bothered to explain about disability or kids who are different. At another point, Dan exclaims, ‘Suck it doctors!’ in reaction to the doctors who told him everything his son wouldn’t do. I almost stood up on my chair and cheered.

After the final applause, I leaned over to Aaron and asked what he thought. I wondered how it felt to see disabled people in a play.

“Good!” he said enthusiastically (although he hid behind his suit jacket during the ‘sexy’ scenes). He was eyeing the actors, who were all still on stage chatting with audience members.

‘Do you want to meet them?’ I asked. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘but come with me.’ ‘You go,’ I suggested, always eager to pull back from my hovering mother role.

He took a breath, marched up to Liz MacDougall and extended his hand. They looked at each other, smiled and shook hands.

‘Did you say anything?’ I asked when he returned. ‘No, I shook hands,’ he said. Somehow that handshake – the congratulations, the job well done, the nice to meet you, the thank you – was simply enough.  Aaron does things in his own way and that is how it should be.

Thinking about the play, I thought how rare it is for Aaron to see himself reflected in anything other than fundraising or awareness campaigns. We need more stories like This is the Point in our increasingly polarized world. Not as ‘special’ stories, but as stories as a matter of course, on regular rotation, in the media, performing arts, literature and film.  I promise that when I find them, I will amplify them.  And you can too.

You see, if you open your eyes and bear witness to stories that are different from your own, you never know what you might discover (mostly about yourself).  Bravo to the This is the Point cast and crew.  You made your point and you made it well.  xo.

lifted up from ireland

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I’ve never met Marie Ennis-O’Connor, but I know she lives in Ireland and is a force for good on the Internet.  She runs the blog Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer and began a Social Spotlight series which highlighting unapologetic big mouths on the Internet like me.

Here’s my interview, where I had a chance to reflect on my thoughts on social media. I’m a Twitter and Instagram kinda gal and spoke about my forays on both platforms.  (I think Facebook’s harvesting of personal data is particularly evil, so I deleted my Facebook account years ago).  I was honest.  I confessed to scrolling through pictures of wedding dresses on Instagram and taking a break from Twitter because I was tired of the mansplaining.

What I admire about Marie is that she is generous and shares her space in cyber-space with other women.  She uses her platform to help others to rise up who have been patients or caregivers.  She makes room for our stories, to lift us, to give us space to share and practice using our voices.  Importantly, she doesn’t make it all about her.  She doesn’t hog the mike.

We must all follow Marie’s good example to make room for the voices different than our own.  Thank you, Marie for handing the microphone so I can speak.  I promise to hand it down the line to another woman.  And so it goes.  #peoplepower

sharing your story

sharing your story

The original of this infographic can be found here: Sharing Your Story.

As families of kids with disabilities, we get asked to share our family story and our child’s story over and over again in different settings with different professionals.  This infographic is meant to acknowledge the work that goes into sharing stories, gives communication tips to help get messages across and encourages storytellers to take care of themselves.

These tips can also be applied to other storytellers, like patients and caregivers.  Please share this widely as a tool for advocates as they build their own toolkits of resources.  It is helpful for clinicians, educators and other professionals to understand the complexities involved with asking people to tell their story too.  I’ve been fortunate to have given workshops and presentations to audiences of families about The Art of Storytelling too.  Stories are important.  It isn’t just what you say, it is how and why you share stories too.

And now a little story of my own.  This visual was designed by Karen Copeland, who has been a terrific colleague and friend.  Karen is a mom to two teenagers and is no stranger to navigating systems of care or telling her story. She is passionate about providing families with the information and tools they need to be successful. Karen loves creating visuals to strengthen our key messages, hoping to frame information in a way that is easy to understand and impactful. You can see more of Karen’s visuals at her Champions for Community Wellness website.

I first met Karen when I moved to the west coast almost four years ago.  I followed her on Twitter after reading her blog post called I am ‘that’ parent and connected with her immediately online because I’m that parent too.

Karen kindly agreed to meet me for coffee.  I knew very few people here in British Columbia and I wanted to connect up with other moms for all the ‘peer support’ reasons (to share information and resources, for emotional support) but mostly because I was lonely and lost and needed a friend.  Karen was my first mom friend here and I’ll never forget her generosity in taking the time to meet with me, a complete and total stranger who she had met on the Internet.

We met at a Starbucks and clicked immediately. We said we’d collaborate together one day and we have.  She’s designed other infographics with my content:  Sharing the News, Meaningful Family Engagement and Giving a Talk.  We also travelled to Halifax together for a CFAN conference and she and I partnered to deliver presentations from a family perspective to groups of medical students. Karen has been a personal guiding light to me as she’s navigated her own balance of being a fierce advocate and caring for herself.  She also was there for me as a listening friend when I was diagnosed with breast cancer last year.

Our story is a testimonial to many things:  how vital it is for families to be connected together, how ‘just’ moms are always more than just that – we all come with other professional skills.  In Karen’s case, she has wicked design and storytelling talent of her own.  Our story also speaks to the power of two moms bonding over lattes, which can be the engine for innovative collaborations.  In fact, I think meaningful change in the world comes from these ‘kitchen table’ conversations and not from organizations or governments.

I’m deeply grateful for Karen and the other women I’ve met since I’ve become a mother 25 long years ago.  We lift each other up.  We believe in each other. Family to family connections can spark magic – Karen and I are evidence of that.

 

cancer isn’t a competition

Screen Shot 2017-08-18 at 2.09.26 PMWhile I’m a newbie to the cancer world,  I have been the mom to a kid with a disability for 14 years.  This doesn’t make me any kind of expert – it only makes me wary and tired.

In the disability community, I have detected a weird undercurrent of competition.  Whose kid is *more* disabled and requires more care?  Whose kid has been in the PICU? Who has an invisible disability?  A visible one?  Governments also love to make funding decisions based on selectively-chosen diagnoses.  Bureaucrats decide who needs support or respite or childcare, not families or people with disabilities themselves.

All this competition for dollars, compassion and care has fractured the disability community into tiny silos.  When we are torn apart, we are weak.

The best people rise above this competition.  I love when I connect with a mom about what we have in common (how awesome our kids are as well as struggles with schools, health care, government funding and society), not purely what our kids’ different diagnoses are.  Aaron has much in common with kids with different syndromes/stuff going on with them than Down syndrome (and he smartly doesn’t label his friends based on their diagnoses).  The same is true with cancer – I’ve been blessed to meet many folks in the chronic disease world the past few months who have been kind and supportive to me.  They don’t have to have the exact same thing I do to offer empathy on topics like body image, pain or identity.  Together we are all stronger.

After becoming a cancer patient, imagine my surprise that while breast cancer campaigns have done a lot to raise awareness, fundraising campaigns do not benefit me as a patient in any way.  I received medical care at our cancer agency (at no direct cost to myself, thanks Tommy Douglas) and even pick up my prescription at the cancer pharmacy so it is covered by the hospital.

But any ‘extras’ I might have required for my mental, emotional or spiritual health come at a cost.  These are available in the private sector and for those who either have insurance or can afford it.  Such is our two-tiered Canadian health system.

There are other tiers in cancer as well.  Have lung cancer?  Expect constant questions if you smoked (and so what if you did?).  Have skin cancer?  Ditto the questions about tanning or sun exposure.  Have any kind of cancer at all?  Many snide remarks about your ‘unhealthy’ lifestyle will be slung your way.

I consider this dumping on people who are the most vulnerable – the ole ‘blame the patient’ phenomenon.  This happens in the disability world too, with the dreaded:  why didn’t you get prenatal testing question that is asked of families with children with Down syndrome.  Isn’t just having cancer (or a baby with a disability) enough for a little bit of kindness?  It feels like we are all competing for a finite amount of compassion in this messed up world.

Dig deeper and breast cancer has its own weird pecking order.  Mastectomy (single or double) or partial mastectomy.  Chemotherapy or no chemotherapy.  Radiation or no radiation.  Estrogen blockers or not.  I didn’t have chemo and have felt that I don’t fit into the traditional world of breast cancer.  One nurse said to me:  ‘well, radiation isn’t as bad as chemo.’  Which I’m sure is true, but because I didn’t have chemo, radiation was indeed the worst thing that happened to me.  It wasn’t a walk in the park at all.  In fact, the first day I had radiation was one of the worst days of my life.  But I’ve learned to bite my tongue because I know there are others who have been through much more taxing treatment.

This moves into prognosis too:  NED? (No evidence of disease, the ‘survivors’) or mets (metastatic breast cancer, woefully ignored and underfunded)?

The only way to temper this strange competition in the health care world comes from wisdom I heard once from a spiritual care leader at the children’s hospital where I used to work.

She said:  You have your story and other people have their stories.  It is okay for these stories to be different.  

Let’s embrace each other’s stories without tearing each other down.  Let’s recognize that we have more in common than not and stop allowing governments, society and systems to fracture us apart. As a wise therapist once told me:  you can’t lose if you don’t play the game.  Opt out of comparison.   If we make it safe for every patient and caregiver (and health professional, too) to tell their stories – even if their stories are different than ours – then all the things that separate us will magically disappear.

my why

Today I excitedly opened an email from a conference that I really really wanted to attend.  I had submitted an abstract called The Art of Storytelling:  how to craft stories to change the health care world.  I am pretty good at writing abstracts, had a solid creative presentation to pitch and have a decent acceptance rate for abstract submissions.  This was a conference I admired, in a city close to my eldest son, so I was crossing my fingers that I’d be accepted for a variety of reasons.  I clicked on the email in my inbox, holding my breath:

We regret to inform you that your submission was not chosen…

Well, damn.  I know Wayne Gretzky says, you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. As a writer, I get rejected a lot (which tends to be radio silence in this digital age, not mailed rejection letters), but damn.  It always stings.

I’ve been floating around as of late.  I resigned from my paid staff position last month.  I’ve had two kids grow up. My youngest son hit puberty last year and is in a push for independence, which of course results in the slow rejection of the mother.  I miss hanging out with my daughter and doing girl things. I pine for my mom friends in Edmonton. Everybody here seems so busy – I’ve discovered that the laid-back west coast mentality is only an urban myth. I cannot even occupy myself with shopping for stuff and cleaning my big house – we’ve downsized by half and I have no more big house, no yard and no room (or desire) for more stuff.  This week we are in the midst of an odd blizzard and have been stranded up on our mountain.  I have time now to think, which is a terrifying concept in a world where we get caught up in the Busy Trap just so we don’t have a moment to ourselves.  The whole world is zooming around me so fast and here I am, just quietly sitting on a bench watching it go by.

Before I left my position, I had two wise colleagues separately recommend Simon Sinek’s TEDTalk to me.  It is called How Great Leaders Inspire Action, and while by title I’m no great leader, I do have a little sphere of influence, with my family, my company and myself.  I’d suggest it is worth 17 minutes and 57 seconds of your time.

If you don’t have the time to spare to watch it, consider this diagram:

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(saved from:  varchannelmarketing.com)

If you are feeling a bit lost and lonely like me, or if you have the nagging feeling that what you do in life is not in alignment with your values, this approach can give you direction.  Sinek’s point (in business, and I’m extracting his message to apply to life) is that the why matters.  Why do you do what you do?  And that’s not what your position title is, or your quest to make money to buy more and more stuff – I challenge you to dig deeper than that.  Why are you on this Earth?  If we can all can answer our why, then the how and the what will soon become clear.

So I’ve had the time to think about this a lot (and won’t be wasting time preparing to present to that conference that rejected me, ha) and feel confident in stating:

“I share stories – and create opportunities for others to share their stories – to rekindle compassion in the world.”  That’s my why. All my meaningful work has been born from that why. Now I just have to trust that my why is the light I need to shine my own way.

what inclusion means to me

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I’ve been agonizing over preparing a presentation all week.  For creating a talk is like crafting a story – it is carefully pieced together to engage the audience early on, to create a safe space for listening, to allow them to feel.  This is trickier than you might think.  I say this from hard-fought experience of crashing and burning onstage – misreading your audience is the absolutely worst thing you can do when you are behind a podium.  I live in fear of it.  This is a hell of a way to make a living.

I was asked to speak to all the teachers at my son’s high school about What Inclusion Means to Me.  There would be about one hundred educators in the audience on their Pro-D day.  I sweated out my approach, talking to the teacher in the Access Program (Burnaby’s special ed) who had kindly recommended me, the physics teacher who was the organizer, and many families who had kids with differences in schools across the provinces.  I was desperate to understand my audience, to not misstep, to represent other families well, for I had a lot of skin in the game.  This is the high school where Aaron would be for the next six years.  I could not screw this up.

I had spoken once before to a teacher/parent audience on this same subject, almost three years ago in Alberta.  My stumble then was not to include any research about the other kids in the school – the ‘typically developing’ kids, many of whom were travelling on a strong academic path.  One mom had angrily protested from the back of the room:  your kid is taking away from my kid’s teaching time!  I have recognized over the years that it is crucial to address barriers and concerns that the audience is holding early on in the presentation, for if you don’t, they hang onto those concerns during the entire talk, and this is a barrier to the listening.

This time I was more grizzled and wiser (but alas, still not perfect – is there really such a thing?).  I drew upon others for expertise in my talk.  I don’t know one thing about adapting or modifying curriculum, so I showed Shelley Moore’s great bowling video.  I leaned on Ian Brown’s wisdom about the value of people with disabilities.  The moms from my Family Inclusion Group Facebook page kindly offered up some wonderful quotes about our kids being brave, and presuming competence.  I remembered the young man, Ryan, who has autism and graduated with my daughter three years ago, and read that little essay.  Two local family leaders, Karen Copeland and Suzanne Perrault, helped me immensely with pep talks and information. I was very aware of not being self-serving – not only concerning myself with my own son’s experience, but with his colleagues’ experiences, too:  those who used wheelchairs, those who were non-verbal, those identified with ‘behaviour’ challenges.   I had many people behind me in spirit for this extraordinary opportunity:  for a mom taking up a morning in a high school’s Pro-D day is a rare sight indeed.

And what does inclusion mean to me?  In the end, I talked about our journey with Aaron – from when he was first diagnosed (the baby we expected was not the baby we got) to my struggles with my own fears about people with disabilities when Aaron was born, embedded in my head from my junior high days in 1974 (if you are going to have a stereotype, at least have an up-to-date stereotype).  I acknowledged the good work teachers do – how busy and exhausted they are too, and asked them to reflect on their why – why they chose teaching.  I talked about how inclusion was so much more than academic inclusion inside a classroom, how it was about inclusion in the hallways, at lunchtime, at school events, in sports, in extra-curricular activities.  I invited the audience to think of one way educators and the other students could include the kids from the Access Program in the school, no matter how simple:  learning the kids’ names, giving high fives, starting up a Buddy program, picking one thing from their class lesson to teach them each day.

My goodness, as I write this out, I realized I covered a lot of ground.  I’d had better practice what I preach about presentations, and that is:  Identify your intention.  Pick three key messages.  Know thy audience.

My intention was to touch hearts to change minds.  My key messages were about the value of children with disabilities (the disabled do the work of love, says Ian Brown), expanding the definition of diversity to include different abilities, and to point out how we are not preparing the high-achieving students for the real world if they do not know people who are ‘the other.’

I had to pause a few times during the talk to catch myself from crying.  This topic is deeply personal to me, as Aaron’s school experience is everything to us.  We chose to live in Burnaby based on the school district.  We bought a condo close to the school.  I resigned from my job to be more visible and available to support his school experience.

Scanning the audience, I knew others were crying too.  Maybe they had someone with a difference in their family.  Maybe they were remembering the feeling of being left out.  Maybe they were triggered to recall why they chose teaching.  At the end, the applause was more than polite, and I had a patient line of teachers waiting to chat with me.  It tears me up to think about how much these educators want to reach all children, but sometimes they just don’t know how.  This desire is everything.  Change happens with just one step at a time – the first step is the most important one.   This is the beginning of belonging, one high five at a time.

Inclusion to me means finding love + belonging.  It means taking the time to understand another person’s perspective, to feel empathy, to demonstrate compassion.  These are the exact same messages I share with health care audiences, as I’ve realized that these concepts are deeply universal.

In the end, for me, everything always circles back to Raymond Carver:

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Beloved on this earth.  That’s what I want for my children, for myself, and for you too.  xo.