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I Wish I Had Known Earlier…

My son was an obstinate and challenging kid. He persisted daily on battles large and insignificant until I finally fell into bed… physically and mentally exhausted. For most of his childhood, I wished he could just comply like all the other kids. Then, following his cancer diagnosis at age 36, Jeff’s ADHD traits became his biggest assets — and an inspiration that radiated far beyond our family.

“If you want your children to improve, let them overhear the nice things you say about them to others.”
Haim Ginott

My 42-year-old son passed away recently, following a 6-year battle with cancer. He was not an easy child to raise, and I often called him the poster child for attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD). His challenges began at 6 weeks old, with an eye disorder that resulted in a downward, rapid flip. It was scary and baffling. He was hospitalized for 10 days at Children’s Hospital, in Detroit, where experts put their heads together to eliminate horrible options: tumor on the optic nerve, epilepsy, a serious neurological disease, etc. He was released with a vague diagnosis of “Minimal Brain Dysfunction,” which was also what ADHD was called prior to the 1970s.

The mystery of Jeff, it turns out, was just beginning.

As he developed, we watched for neurological glitches that doctors warned us might show. The professionals were not sure how limited he might be in walking, talking, etc. The nightmare of worry began with small things: poor eye-hand coordination, late walking, and mirroring with his left hand whatever his right hand was doing. To confuse us… he talked early and at a high level of competency! What was that about? He finally walked at 17 months and ran immediately. He appeared to comprehend abstract concepts early and grew into a delightfully active toddler.

We were collecting long lists of positives and negatives all at the same time. His verbal skills advanced and his self-knowledge seemed off the charts. Yet he missed a lot of what was said in preschool and didn’t seem to be doing what “everybody else” was doing. The night that his kindergarten class had Open House for parents, he cried bitterly before his dad and I left the house to attend the event, begging us not to go. Questioning why he was so upset, we learned the children had all been asked to draw a picture of themselves that the teacher then proudly hung on the bulletin board for parents to see. Jeff KNEW that his didn’t look like anyone else’s drawing and he felt humiliation at 5 years old. We assured him that everyone is unsure of their artistic abilities and whatever he drew would be just fine. As we walked into the classroom, we saw the drawings displayed. Without speaking we both wished that the ONE obviously different wasn’t Jeff’s, but… of course it was.

This was the beginning of a long and difficult educational process that we all painfully endured.

[Self-Test: Could Your Child Have ADHD?]

Elementary school was a nightmare of IEPs and special-needs discussions. This was the late ‘70s and early ‘80s: the infancy of educators understanding special needs. Jeff’s 5th grade teacher told us “If I make exceptions for Jeff then everyone will expect the same.” We fought for every accommodation that helped increase the window of opportunity to learn. There was still shaming and putting Jeff up as example of “not trying hard enough.” His self-esteem suffered and he began to gravitate toward other kids who also struggled and/or didn’t care much about school.

At about 8, Jeff began his love for Karate and other Martial Arts. He took it seriously, and worked hard.

The flip side was Jeff’s strong desire to be independent. At 11 years old, he applied for a job sweeping up at a nearby hair salon. He was paid once a week, which made him feel on top of the world! He had the start of a strong resume at this tender age.

A well-known trait of many kids with ADHD is that of obstinance. Each day felt like a battle of wits and stamina, as he exhibited defiance to the maximum. Lying in bed at night, I regularly asked myself if I could possibly fight again tomorrow all of the battles I had faced today! He persisted on important things as well as seemingly unimportant things. WHY? Why was I not able to “wipe that out of him?” Why couldn’t he just buck up and be like every other kid and do what he was told WITHOUT the battle, rage, drama and exhaustion???

In high school, we actually encountered a positive parent-teacher conference! The business teacher glowed about the strengths she saw in Jeff. She predicted that if he went to a small business school, he would blossom. She arranged for him to have “co-op,” which was an opportunity for him to leave school (that alone would have been a treat) and work at a nearby appliance store, selling washers, dryers, refrigerators, etc. He learned all there was to learn about each appliance and sold with knowledge, grace and personality. He was a star!

[Self-Test: Could Your Child Have ADHD?]

Upon graduation from high school (a constant source of argument… as Jeff detested each day in class, begging to drop out and get a GED instead) he went to Northwood University, a business school targeting the car industry. Cars were Jeff’s passion. He began working in car dealerships, successfully proving his outstanding salesmanship skills at an early age. He was in his element at last! He felt grown and competent as he sold his beloved cars, with passion.

At age 19, Jeff posed for his first professional picture as a top salesman for an auto dealership. While math was never his forte’ in school, he quickly learned to compute his commissions in his head.

Jeff had several careers in his lifetime: car sales, commercial real estate, insurance, and buyer for a car dealer. He studied and secured any needed licenses. His work ethic was amazing, as evidenced by the fact that nearly all of his previous bosses attended his funeral and shared with us glowing memories.

At 36, Jeff was diagnosed with neuroendocrine tumor, which started in his pancreas. He spent 6 years fighting every day — with medication, surgery, chemo, and finally the process of dying. His strength and endurance was admired by anyone who interfaced with him. There were times he felt like quitting the fight. But, with his wife Jasmine by his side every step of the way, he displayed positivity and persistence. He missed very little work, maintained strong family and friend relationships and became an amazing husband, father, son, brother and loyal friend. He became an example for his two daughters, friends, and family. He taught martial arts and served as a role model for his students. He and Jasmine were involved in a charity for kids with cancer.

Jeff was never happier than surrounded by his amazing family. Shown here with daughters Jaelyn and Aubrey, and wife Jasmine.

The obstinate and defiant little boy had become an exceptionally brave man. I went from wanting to wipe out what I perceived as negative traits… to telling him often that he had become my hero! I feel fortunate to have been given the time to express that to him.

But, how I wish I had noted how perfectly determined he was back then! How I long for a do-over that would allow me to reinforce his strengths and not try to make him into “everybody else.” He wasn’t like anyone else. He was Jeff. He was amazing.

I wish I had known earlier…

[Self-Test: Could Your Child Have ADHD?]

Updated on July 26, 2019

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  1. I am sorry for your loss. Thank you for sharing this inspiring story with the rest of us. I will have try harder to criticize less and encourage more. I am humbled by Jeff’s success.

    1. I am humbled by these comments. It is comforting for me to share our story. I so wish someone had changed MY mental framework when Jeff was young. The way he fought his cancer was exemplary and I believe strongly that his persistence was always one of his great gifts. Enjoy your kids. Catch them being good and help them see their strengths. Help them believe in themselves. Guide them but celebrate who they are. It will help me to know you’ve got this message. 🙏🏻😃🌈

  2. I’m so sorry for your loss. Thank you for this. My son has ADHD and is obstinate and reactive to the point of frustration. I will remember these words when I feel like giving up hope.

  3. Dear Wilma: Thank you for this beautifully written story of your son’s life – what a tribute to him! I can tell from the thoughtfulness of your writing that you are, and always have been, a very caring and wonderful Mother! Because of your very moving story, I will criticize less and compliment more – I cannot thank you enough for sharing it. My son will leave home for college in a few weeks – and while my husband and I are filled with worry, your story has helped me to realize that my son’s many positive traits far outweigh any ADHD-related traits. What a gift your story is to all of the ADDitude readers!! Thank you again – I will keep you, Jasmine, your granddaughters and your family in my thoughts and prayers.

  4. Thank you so much for sharing this. I have two ADHD children. I often wonder if i can get out of bed and do it all again. To be honest sometimes i just stay in bed crying trying to figure out what i was doing wrong. The fighting about EVERYTHING, the drama, the obstinance. I didnt realize it was all linked to ADHD. I will try to see them as individuals with a different way of doing things instead of making them like everbody else.

  5. Dear Wilma,

    I am so sorry for your loss. Thank you for sharing Jeff’s story and your insights.

    I don’t often read these blog articles, because frequently they lead me into fruitless speculation about what if I’d known earlier. Given the title of this essay, I can’t honestly say why I clicked on it, but I’m glad I did. My little prickly pear is about to leave for her freshman year in college — in fact, she’s at a freshman gathering there this weekend — and I’m worried about so many things: will she take her medication (not to mention, we can’t find a nearby pharmacy that stocks it!), can she self-advocate for her accommodations, will she be a “bad roommate”, etc.? Thank you for the reminder that I need to celebrate her unique, special gifts…and just breathe through the rest.

  6. Your experience is so valuable and you share it honestly and openly. Thank you for your insightful perspective on how kids who don’t (and can’t) confirm to school and social norms suffer, struggle and can succeed. It is hard for parents to accept the child they have when they see how difficult life is for their child. You found ways to support your son so he could grow and develop into an incredible person who contributed positively to many people. I am sorry that you lost him. It is terribly sad. His influence lives on through all the people who love him.

  7. Wilma,
    It sounds like your son will forever be remembered and cherished by so many.
    Your words are so wise and so timely as I worry about how our 7 year old will do with the school year starting. I will continue trying to find ways to fight for options for him and build him up when his self-image suffers.
    Thank you for inspiring me and many others with Jeff’s story.

  8. Thank you so much for sharing your story. I am so sorry for your loss. My six-year-old daughter and three-year-old son both have ADHD and your story has reminded me that I need to be more patient with them. I was diagnosed with ADHD as a child but it was determined that I wasn’t a severe enough case to need medication so nothing at all was done and no one ever told me about my diagnosis until I was in my late 30’s. I am still learning so much about myself and my children and what life with ADHD means for us all. Stories like yours help me to put it all into perspective, so thank you.

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