The Math of Love and Hope
Three diagnoses plus exponential struggles make for a complicated equation — but my boy loves me a lot, even though I can’t solve all his problems.
As a specialist in school psychology in Houston, Texas, my office is filled with things that make me happy. I display my licenses and degrees, family photos, and shells from beaches around the world. None of them holds a candle to the algebra equation that I have framed.
Why on earth would I frame an algebra equation? There is a story, one that begins 20 years ago when two doctors told me that I couldn’t have children. Ever. You can imagine my joy when, six years later, I was told that my “illness,” which I thought was the flu, was a baby. To my husband and me, it was a miracle.
As a baby, my son was adorable. When he was a toddler and preschooler, he was easy to raise. I thought I was the best parent in history, and that I had all the answers to parenting. When he was six, though, he contracted scarlet fever, a form of strep throat. He was sick and miserable.
Once he started to get better, we noticed something different about him. Our laid-back boy had become hyper, anxious, and had developed verbal and motor tics. We were concerned, and so was his teacher. We received phone calls from the school telling us that he was running around the classroom, throwing pencils across the room at other children, and making strange noises.
We contacted a psychologist friend who recommended that we see a pediatric psychiatrist. At the appointment, he told us that our “normal” child now had something called Pediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorder Associated with Strep (PANDAS). Apparently, the strain of strep that he contracted caused his body to perceive some of his own brain cells as virus cells. His body attacked the cells, resulting in brain damage. It affected his ability to inhibit cognitive and motor impulses. He was diagnosed with ADHD, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and Tourette’s disorder, and we were told that the symptoms would maybe lessen or go away when he got past puberty. Maternal guilt set in. I no longer felt like Mom of the Year.
It’s been a rough eight years since the diagnoses. Parenting is hard work, but parenting a child with special needs sometimes seem almost impossible. Some days are easy for him and for us, while I want to crawl into bed on other days. Friends have come and gone; it’s hard for other parents to understand that the reason my son is bouncing off the walls at their house, or peeling at his fingernails until they are bleeding and almost completely gone, is not due to my bad parenting, but to a neurological problem.
Two years ago, my son came home from school and said that he had something to give me. He pulled out a wrinkled piece of notebook paper and explained the backstory for how and why he made it. He had forgotten to bring his gym clothes to school (yet again), and was sitting on the bleachers while the other students played basketball. As he sat there, he got out paper and pencil and started playing around with creating his own algebra equations (because who wouldn’t do that in their free time, right?). He happened to remember that his friend had shown him an equation the day before that he thought was pretty cool, and he felt the need to solve the equation and give it to me.
Because he’s the kind of kid who thinks algebra should be used as a means of entertainment, I thought nothing of it and put it in my pocket to look at it after I had finished putting away the laundry. Before I got in bed that evening, I noticed the piece of paper in my pocket. I unfolded it, and found that the solution to the equation was “<3 U (I love you)”. I began to cry.
This wasn’t the first time he told me that he loved me, nor will it be the last. But for some reason, all of the years of teasing and rejection that he had endured as a result of these disorders came to mind. The fact that I played a small part in raising a young man who still thinks about his mom during the day, and feels the need to express his love, hit home.
I went to his room where he was asleep and looked at his sweet face. I leaned down and kissed his cheek, to which he stirred and whispered, “I love you, Mom.” As I turned to leave the room, I heard him make a popping sound with his lips (one of the tics he had) and knew the battle wasn’t over. At that moment, I felt like maybe, just maybe, I might still be in the running for that Mother of the Year award after all.