Monthly Archives: July 2019

Embracing the Joyful Sadness of Life

July 31, 2019, by Kristin Neva

This year for Father’s Day, I ordered a basket of gourmet caramel apples from Amy’s Candy Kitchen, a little shop in Cedarburg, Wisconsin. Amy’s Granny Smith apples are large and covered with sweet caramel, salty pecans, or other nuts. It is an explosion of flavor, magnifying both the sour and sweet. I added a note to the gift basket that read, “Where it all began.”

While Todd and I were dating, we would drive north from Milwaukee to the historic town of Cedarburg, situated on the banks of Cedar Creek. We’d poke around in gift shops, watch a blacksmith practice the ancient craft, pick up caramel apples, and walk along the river. Cedarburg was, and remains, a special place for us. Over the years, we’ve gone back for apples while passing through town, and now that we’ve moved away, we order them on special occasions.

Living with a loved one’s terminal diagnosis is a heartbreaking, sour part of life. Experiencing such intense sadness has opened my eyes to the suffering of the world — abject poverty, violence, disease, and illness pervading the cosmos. I find being human is increasingly difficult. Yet, at the same time, I am more aware of the beauty that co-exists with suffering; the sweetness of life. The sun rises and sets in a glorious wash of color. Deer prance and jump through fields of daisies. Flowers bloom. Birds chirp. Children giggle.

I see this contrast play out in our own lives. With each birthday we celebrate, each family photo we take, there is always the nagging thought: “I wonder if this is the last.” The last birthday; the last photo. The sadness of that thought is juxtaposed with joy. “We’ve made it this far! One more memory in the bank!”

This spring, I celebrated my son’s first hit at a Little League baseball game, aware that Todd was missing the moment because the weather was too cold for him. When we returned from the game, however, Todd asked Isaac for all the details of his first hit. Similarly, I took a video of my daughter’s marching band at our Bridge Fest parade so I could show Todd, who was comfortable at home in his office. Later, Todd watched the videos with Sara by his side.

Even with sadness, there is joy. We are watching our children grow into themselves. They do well in school. They’ve matured and gained confidence. They are helpful and compassionate. We lean into what we have left.

We recently discovered that McLain State Park installed a walkway down to the edge of Lake Superior. Last week, during a particularly warm evening, I held Todd’s hand as the kids explored the shoreline while the sky turned a brilliant pink. That moment wasn’t dampened by his ALS. Rather, it was made sweeter.

That is the paradox of joyful sadness. The suffering makes me appreciate the simple joys so much more.

***

This article originally appeared in ALS News Today: Embracing the Joyful Sadness of Life.

Fighting Is Winning

July 16, 2019, by Kristin Neva

I am by nature a fixer. After my husband, Todd, was diagnosed with ALS, I found out modern medicine didn’t provide a cure. There’s no option for surgery. No drugs significantly improve outcomes. So, I turned to searching the internet for alternative therapies that might help.

“I want to fight this disease,” I told my counselor.

“If you’re fighting, then how do you define winning?” he asked.

I pondered the question before replying. “Fighting is winning. We win if we don’t give up.”

I wanted to at least try supplements, juicing, and nightly massage — things that wouldn’t cause harm or break the bank.

Todd was on board.

We purchased a massage table, and I worked on his spastic arms and legs every night, which helped his weak muscles function better. He walked less stiffly and had more use of his hands.

Since his bloodwork showed he had low levels of magnesium and calcium, he wanted to get off his proton pump inhibitor, which he had taken for a decade to control heartburn.

To alleviate his heartburn, he went on an elimination diet and found he was sensitive to gluten. By avoiding wheat, he was able to rid himself of the chronic condition that had plagued him his entire life.

He took loads of supplements, vitamins, and minerals that, according to limited anecdotal reports, had helped others with ALS. Trying something, even if there was no scientific proof it helps, felt better than doing nothing.

It was hard to say if the supplements helped, but they were relatively inexpensive and his neurologist thought they wouldn’t hurt. He even recommended a few.

Todd did feel better with what we were doing. He felt less fatigued, and his muscles cramped less. He said he planned to die in the best health possible.

Even with all we did, the disease progressed. Now nine years later, Todd is paralyzed with no use of his arms or legs. He can still speak and swallow, but his breathing is getting dangerously weak, and he will soon need a feeding tube. But I look back on those monies spent on all the supplements without regret.

He needed to try something for our mental health.

We have come to accept the natural course of this disease. Todd has since stopped taking several supplements, as it’s getting more difficult for him to swallow big pills, and some of them didn’t seem to make any difference. He still avoids wheat — though he can now cheat on occasion without consequence — and massage helps him sleep at night.

I’m still a fixer, but in recent years I’ve channeled my fighting energy into managing the disease and making him more comfortable.

I try to stay one step ahead of the equipment he will need at the next stage of the disease. We plan to see a pulmonologist this summer after his next breathing test, and we’ll ask if a BiPAP might help him sleep better at night.

My most recent find, which I’m quite excited about, is an adjustable bed frame that’s compatible with Todd’s Amazon Echo smart speaker. He can ask Alexa to tell his bed to raise the head, raise the feet, or turn on the massage.

Todd is now getting longer stretches of sleep — up to 2 1/2 hours. This doesn’t solve all our nighttime issues, as Todd is still a side sleeper and needs someone to turn him and scratch those incessant itches, but it does give him a bit of independence.

We may not have cured the disease, but we keep fighting to manage this beast, so we are indeed winning!

***

This article originally appeared in ALS News Today: Faced with Incurable Disease, Fighting Is Winning.

Prepare, Not Protect

Todd and Sara, October 2010

July 9, 2019, by Kristin Neva

My world changed forever 13 years ago when I became a mom. I lay in the hospital bed with my newborn daughter’s crib next to me and my husband sitting nearby. I was in so much pain I felt like I couldn’t move.

“Sara’s turning blue!” Todd said, panicked.

My pain ceased to exist. I leaped out of bed, pulled the call cord in the bathroom, ran into the hall, and yelled, “Baby’s choking!”

A nurse came quickly, but by that time Sara was already fine. Todd’s lifeguard training had kicked in, and he had turned her facedown and patted her back to help her get the mucus out.

With my heart still racing, I held my little girl, acutely aware that my precious child was vulnerable. It was my duty to protect her from the world.

Every night I prayed, “God, thank you for Sara. Keep her safe and healthy, and help her to keep breathing.” I worried about sudden infant death syndrome. I charted her poops. I researched vaccines, nipple confusion, and BPA. Sara grew, and I managed our lives.

On a family vacation to Disney World when Sara was 3 and I was pregnant with my son, Isaac, Sara picked out a small, stuffed dog to bring home as a souvenir. Lady was Sara’s new best friend. Sara took her everywhere and slept with her.

One night, we couldn’t find Lady at bedtime. Sara was in tears. After a week of searching the house and looking into my heartbroken little girl’s eyes, I decided to buy a replacement Lady.

It was not so easy. The Disney Store said Lady was available only in the theme park. Eventually, I found a seller on eBay who made occasional trips to the park to purchase toys and then resold them for twice the price to distressed parents like me. A new Lady arrived, and all was right with the world.

But a year later, Todd was diagnosed with ALS, and our world changed forever — again.

I felt blindsided, struggling to process the diagnosis. This was a problem I could not solve.

My mind raced. What was our future going to be? Anxiety filled me. How was I going to raise the kids by myself? How would I support them with my liberal arts degree?

For the sake of my family, I was desperate to get a grip, so I found a counselor. “I want my children to feel like they are in a secure world,” I told him. “I want to protect them from pain.”

“You can’t protect them from pain,” he said, “but you can prepare them to go through it.”

We all need to prepare our children to face life’s inevitable challenges. Children who have a parent with ALS will have that struggle to deal with. Other kids will face different problems.

One evening during the year after Todd’s diagnosis, our family, along with my mother, went out to eat at Red Robin, which is much loved because they offer the kids free balloons.

Later at home, the kids were playing, and we heard a loud pop! followed by silence, and then “Whaaa!” Sara’s balloon had hit a hallway light. She was heartbroken.

My mother tried to distract her, but Todd said, “That’s OK. She needs to grieve.”

Supermom me would have promised that we’d get a balloon at the dollar store in the morning, but I let Todd take this one, instead.

“Come here, sweetheart.” Todd grabbed her hand and led her to the living room. Sara crawled up onto his lap. He held her, and she cried. He whispered, “It’s OK. It’s OK.”

Before Todd’s diagnosis, I tried my best to shield my children from pain and hurt. Post-diagnosis, I sometimes let them be sad so they can develop grieving skills.

If our child is being bullied or if we need to mediate sibling conflict, we should obviously step in and act, but at other times, we can recognize that our role is to support and comfort through the pain rather than try to erase it.

***

This article originally appeared in ALS News Today: Sometimes in Parenting, We Decide to Prepare, Not Protect.