Category Archives: Journal

Sadness, Serenity & Hope

>AFS FamilyThree firends

We have been feverishly preparing for our annual fundraiser, A Fifth Season on Nov. 7.
It didn’t seem to matter when our dear friend called us last week to tell us their Ethan had left them. He has flown off to greater heights and peaceful days wearing his angel wings, where there is no sadness or sickness. There is only serenity and Hope.

Ethan lived a challenging, yet beautiful life, teaching us that his blessed soul had a purpose here- to light and lift those around us. He was a friend to Bridget, Noah & Laine and to us. It is so difficult, yet simple to imagine what Julie, Alan & Nolan are going through. In fact, I think of them every other minute. I understand their grief and wonder what the next moment will bring to my family and my emotions. The Gahlbeck family was the epitome of love and grace and I only aspire to be half as together as they are.

I am including the speech I gave at A Fifth Season last year as it seems somewhat appropriate for this day.

Just a couple weeks ago…I sat in church thinking about what I could say to you all here tonight. (at least it seemed like a good place to get inspiration)

It was the celebration of all souls- remembering all those who have gone before us. There was a beautiful display of candles in remembrance of those that passed. The shine from the candles just radiated light and mesmerized me.

On that evening, I stopped to think of our situation. Despite the abundance of tranquil light, I realized the grim reality of it all- for ALL of us, but especially if you are a parent of a child who is sick…with Batten disease. It’s easy for us parents to get caught up in the hum of our everyday lives. The days can often blend into one another when you are caring for a sick child(ren). It is not easy to distinguish one stressful moment from another.

Was that them coughing in the night? Did I get the food ready on time- did my child have breakfast, lunch, dinner? Did they go to the bathroom today- how many times? Were the 5, 10, or so medications administered correctly and on time? Do we need to try something different? Are the seizures under control? Did someone charge the suction machine? Who’s coming for services today? PT, Bath aide, our hospice nurse? Should I send my child to school? Are their lungs clear? Are they fever free? Is it time to call the doctor? Should we go to the hospital? Is it pneumonia?
Did I take a shower????

Looking at the candles lit at the church the other night, I was fixated on our mortality. So many little things to worry about in our everyday lives- and we get caught up in the little questions. I don’t even ask the tough questions anymore-
Does my daughter/my son know how much I love them?
Do they remember the many experiences they had before they got sick?
How will we carry on when we experience their loss?

Even though I can’t answer those questions- I sat in the church pew squinting as I looked at those candles. There will always be that flicker of light in our lives. And we call it HOPE. As a big brother once said, “Remember, hope is faith and faith is believing that something is going to get better.” And it will, we must believe in that. Why else would we continue this fight against Batten disease?

I will leave you with one final quote tonight…“God lit a candle of hope for each of us. It’s not waiting in a window somewhere, or around the bend. He lit it right inside us- so that we need not ever live one moment without it.” Vickie Girard

Gahlbeck Family

A Birthday, Broken Bone, Benefit and other Ballads…

Not surprisingly, I have neglected formal updates on Bridget. Sometimes I may do a shout out on face book or even a personal email to family and a couple friends. But, it certainly is long overdue to hear about Bridget. B…’s one of our favorite letters in the alphabet. Bridget, Bridgey, Little Miss B, Sweet B…take your pick. It’s all about the girl behind the letter.

Bridget celebrated her 9th birthday in style this past November. Although there was no formal invite or party planned, it was of little consequence. Bridget was pleasantly surprised by her second grade friends and Mrs. Floyd, her classroom teacher. They threw her a party like none other. It was complete with party hats (hers was a crown, of course), singing, storytelling, poster sharing, gift giving, hugging and inevitably a bit of crying (you know me). I was so pleased I took this special day off of work to share the happiness that these children provided. It makes me so proud of and grateful for the children Bridget have in her life. What an amazing experience as a mother, especially to one who has such a special little girl.
Happy 9th birthday, B! DSC_3919

DSC_3926 DSC_3927

And thank goodness I took this 11th day off in November. We proceeded that afternoon to Bridgey’s orthopedic appointment to check on her back, hip and oddly swollen knee. After our 2 hours of x-rays and waiting, it appears that Bridget broke her tibia- just below the knee. WHO KNEW?!! She was experiencing pain, but we thought it was because of her hip condition- it is sub-lexed, or about halfway dislocated. She also has increased scoliosis- all of these issues are due to her neurological disorder. It’s just astounding what Batten disease can do without even trying. Other parents call it the Batten monster, and I would whole heartedly agree. Some say, “the B Monster has reared its ugly head again.” Fortunately, Little B’s leg healed quickly with just a mesh/Velcro brace at night and her hip is not causing her any discomfort. We did, however, need to get her fitted for a TLSO (chest) brace to wear when she is sitting upright. I realize it helps, but it’s obtrusive and emotionally daunting. Be gone ugly monster.

That same week rounded out with the culmination of A Fifth Season, a Benefit for Batten disease. It is the annual event for our group of families who have children affected with Late Infantile in the Chicago land area. Previously, it has taken place in the spring, but we moved the event to November. Although I was skeptical, it proved to be a very worthwhile decision. We had our best AFS yet- raising almost $80,000 for Batten disease. AMAZING!!! We will continue to fund Dr. Pahan at Rush University and contribute to the Dem Child project- a worldwide registry of children affected by Batten disease. Attendance was astounding, auction items dazzling and heartfelt generosity was off the charts- in the atmosphere, if you will. The theme was focused around “Wish Upon a Star” and concluded with live bidding of a star registry in each of our affected children’s name. Just think- when you look up on a clear night, you could be looking right at our Sweet B’s star shining right back at you.

Ballad- a song or poem, especially a traditional one, telling a story in a number of short regular stanzas. So here’s the tune: This is the last piece to my update, which includes bits of news about Bridget to date (almost Feb., 2014). We had an uneventful holiday season, dodged the snowflakes and huddled inside during this polar vortex. On some days, Bridget doesn’t even go to school because it’s just too darn cold! We hired a new addition to our team- Jessica, who is now B’s nanny/caregiver. She came at just the right time and we are blessed she said yes! Remy, our 2 year old, survived a harrowing accident/sickness as he swallowed something he shouldn’t have. He recovered from a near fateful surgery and is working on regaining his weight. He and Chewy, our beagle, continue to snuggle with Bridget and entertain us all. And finally, my dear friend Kerry Hughes embarked on her own journey with She is continuing her mission of using music as a vehicle to bring awareness and raise funds for rare disease. In her words- “Where there is MUSIC, there is unity. Where there is unity, there is HOPE!”
And that, my friends, is the end of this ballad. Stay tuned for more tunes….and always keep hope in your hearts- for Bridget and all the other children facing rare disease. Whether their name begins or ends with B, pray for them and love them. Simply put, ‘B’elieve.

“Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent.”
Victor Hugo

Lessons Learned

My big brother is always by my side ~ Bridget

My big brother is always by my side ~ Bridget

I have been teaching for a really long time. I have given countless kids the tools to help them read and learn. I have spent many hours on the phone or in meetings talking to parents about their children. I have attended hours of conferences, classes and in-services. I have listened to guest speakers talk about the teaching craft and have read several books and articles to improve mine. I have sat on many school committees and volunteered to help at school functions. I have always loved what I do and have worked toward learning as much as I can to be the best teacher that I can. However, nothing, NOTHING will teach you more than life itself.

This is not an affirmation or an opportunity for boasting. Rather, a revelation that I continue to learn, much like my astounding son who is finishing fourth grade. Harrison made this year an incredible learning opportunity for himself. He has grown in so many ways. What he has learned puts me to shame. I would like to share his learning and what we (especially I) can learn from him- all because he has a sister named Bridget.

Earlier in the school year, Harrison’s teacher recommended a book that she thought he would enjoy because he could relate to the main character. As part of his homework, he has to write reflections about what he’s reading. Here are 2 entries he wrote after reading Drums, Girls and Dangerous Pie by Jordan Sonnenblick.

I picked question 9 which asked how the book reminded you of yourself. I pick this because I can relate to Steven because Steven has a little brother who has leukemia and I have a younger sister who has a disease called Batten disease. Leukemia is a type of cancer. My mom had breast cancer, too. Steven is an average kid like me and has lots of interests. But, I don’t play drums like he does. I play baseball and football.

Living with special needs is pretty tough, but once you get the kinks out, it is easy. I think Steven is still figuring out the kinks, so it is still pretty tough for him. Steven tries to ignore that his brother has leukemia by playing drums. I forget that my sister has Batten by playing baseball or football. I think I can really feel what Steven is feeling and I know how painful at first and how depressed you are at first. But you have to struggle through it. It really is depressing to have a sibling in the hospital.

And as a follow up, here is advice for Steven…

Dear Steven, My name is Harrison. I too have a sibling with a severe illness. My sister has Batten disease. But even though it is hard, you have to stay calm because if you don’t stay calm your family doesn’t stay calm and your life gets a lot worse. This is a key thing, too, is to spend as much time as you can with your sibling. You can play games, hold their hand, hug them, talk to them, read them a story, watch tv with them, listen to music with them- stuff like that makes their day. Oh yeah, and make sure to still have fun doing hobbies for you. Don’t think about it that much because if you do, you won’t be a pro drummer. So just remember, have FUN!

These reading responses were just the beginning. Harrison has been more in tune with what is really happening in our home and more pointedly, in his sister’s life. In a writing lesson about a piece of non-fiction information that each student knows well, Harrison chose to write about Batten disease. His project evolved into Disabled in Your Childhood. As the project took form and came to life, he ended with a 5 page typed report about kids with disabilities. We had many heartfelt conversations about what hope is and what it means to have faith. Here are some excerpts from his paper.

15% of the world has a disability. But do you think kids with the disability just sit there like statues? NO, they don’t because it’s not a setback. Rather, I think it’s a power to embrace more people than you ever could without a disability- to have HOPE! I don’t think kids should have a disability in their childhood, but if they do there is still hope.
Hope can bring smiles, tears, joy, happiness and laughter. Hope can bring all these things and more. For those who suffer an illness, you can show us hope by showing that you are hanging on. For example, one day my sister who has an illness, Batten disease, showed a sign that she was being strong when she moaned and is sounded like “ma.” My mom heard it and she was so elated she was smiling ear to ear. That gave us a little hope that she was being tough and fighting her battle. Remember, hope is faith and faith is believing that something is going to get better.

All this makes me think about a poster at my house that says. “No disease is too rare to have a cure, “ by the Every Life Foundation. I agree with this because if the disease is cured, kids with a disability can have fun and go where they want to go. But sometimes, I think it shouldn’t be cured because then no one would have hope and faith. This makes me realize that if no one had a disability, no one would work towards finding a cure. If no one works toward finding a cure, we would not be able to have HOPE!!!

You can read the words of this 10 year old and see the flaws. But more importantly, you can see the emotion he puts into his thoughts and writing. Harrison has a beautiful way of looking at the situation and addressing it honestly. He is mature beyond his years when it comes to dealing with life and its lessons. As parents, we recognized this a few years ago when the whole world seemed to be crashing down around us. I was dealing with cancer and we all were dealing with Bridget, her seizures, clumsiness, complete regression and diagnosis. Harrison was a 14 year old in a 7 year old’s body. And, he continues to think and experience life beyond his years.

Not only has our son learned many important lessons this year, he has taught us the most important ones of all. Have hope, be faithful and love your family unconditionally. I marvel at his wisdom. I will continue to look toward him for my learning because he truly teaches me more than any book, speaker or class could. How grateful I am to have him in my life and help me learn life’s most valuable lessons.