Ben is seven! We celebrated with, amongst other things, an egg-free chocolate cake that I whizzed up in our blender and gave to Ben through his feeding tube.
With every passing year I sound a bit more like my mum: “I can’t believe you’re seven years old! I remember when you were just a baby!” But it’s true – I am genuinely surprised that we have been parents for seven years and that Ben is so big and tall.
As with all recent birthdays, James made a Ben-themed video of the past year and we watched it with our family, projected on to the wall. I would recommend this as a way not so much of celebrating the child’s birthday, though Ben and Max enjoy seeing themselves, but more as a way of congratulating oneself on another year of parenting. It is heartening to see how much children have changed and grown over the year, how much you have done with them, and ultimately how justified you are in feeling so tired.
The other thing that we realise when we (James) make these videos is that there is always way too much material. We have done too much fun stuff and taken too many photos and videos to fit into one short film. It makes obvious that Ben is living a full life, with variety and fun, surrounded by loving family.
Just after Ben’s birthday he had an appointment at our local rehabilitation centre where wheelchair services, assistive technology and other helpful services are based. There are always all sorts of disabled people coming in and out for appointments. I was sitting in reception with Ben and Molly, waiting to be called. Molly was a bit grumpy because she hadn’t yet had her morning bottle of milk, Ben was happy watching a screen showing footage from four security cameras. A lady in a wheelchair was pushed close to us (and I have written that in the passive deliberately, because the person pushing didn’t ask her where she wanted to wait). She was an older lady, I would guess in her seventies, immaculately dressed and made up. She smiled at us and after a few moments said (as is common):
“You’ve got your hands full!”
I smiled and we had a brief chat about how old the kids were, how cute Molly was, how much she liked milk. Then the lady asked, as she looked at Ben:
“Is he able to go to school?”
“Of course,” I said. “He goes to a brilliant school which he loves, don’t you Ben. We’re just here for an appointment.”
I could see the pity-look appearing so I was even more positive than normal about both Ben and his school. But as she was leaving she said:
“It’s so hard for these handicapped children. So hard for their families. I feel so sorry for them.”
It was one of those times when I felt like I didn’t have the words to be able to explain to her what our world is like, what Ben’s life is like, how we (try to) treat him. I have no idea how or why she uses a wheelchair, or how old she was when she first used it, but clearly she has lived a different experience.
It’s impossible in passing conversations like this to say all I want to, but later I felt so sad that she assumed Ben didn’t go to school, that his life is somehow unbearably hard, that it’s okay to talk about him like that right in front of him. Clearly being disabled in some way doesn’t automatically educate you in how to treat disabled kids in 2016 (or 2017).
I don’t want to minimise Ben’s challenges – loads of things are tough for him, almost nothing comes easily, and much is really unfair. And as a family we sometimes struggle when Ben’s disability makes things more complicated for all of us. But right now, as a seven year old boy, Ben is having a good life most of the time (and really, which child is having a good life all of the time? I mean every kid has to tidy up or eat Brussels sprouts or go home some of the time). He has loads of fun. He laughs most days. He is loved. He is learning. He is thriving.
By way of illustration, between his sixth and seventh birthdays Ben:
- Had a baby sister: tolerated Molly’s wailing, put up with a third of our attention rather than half, learnt to deal with her grabbing onto his legs and pulling his hair. And then got a new baby cousin, Ralph, who also sometimes likes a bit of a wail.
- Learnt to cycle his trike on his own: whizzed round in circles, racing Max and being unbelievably pleased with himself. He is still working on learning how to steer.
- Made really noticeable progress with communication: starting to eyepoint using his communication book to tell us things, more reliably telling us yes and no.
- Made huge progress on using his eyegaze computer: using it almost every day, knowing exactly what he wants to do, reliably choosing stories and then navigating through them like a pro, using communication software to create messages that were totally appropriate to the moment.
- Went on holiday to Cornwall and France: first flight for three years, loads of swimming and beach time, hanging out with family and friends, getting tanned (and on one unfortunate occasion burned), getting a new passport.
- So many jokes with Max. So many lovely moments between these two boys.
- Started staying at a children’s hospice for the occasional night, didn’t seem to be traumatised.
- Moved house, again. Visited the building site to review progress and try out his new lift. Before he is eight he should have managed yet another move, his sixth since he was born.
- Began to be hoisted (rather than manually lifted) for most transfers between chairs and beds: coped much better with this than his mum.
- Listened to lots and lots of audiobooks: his bluetooth speaker and ipod have become essentials wherever Ben goes, and there’s therefore been less screen time, developed a love for the books of David Walliams (except the highly emotional ending of Gangsta Granny) and late in the year Harry Potter.
- Finished his first year at a new school: totally smashed it, participated in a whole school play in his walker, another year of loving learning, fascinated by the Great Fire of London.
- Was increasingly contented: Ben has spent the last year less fractious and generally happier. We spend less time flicking though films to find the one he is happy to watch, less energy trying to entertain him in public places so we can finish our lunch. This is probably connected to us having more (paid) help, and Ben getting older and more mature, helped – we think – by his surgery in 2015. As long as we explain what’s what is going on or is about to happen, Ben is noticeably more able to deal with unfamiliar or demanding environments. Long may it continue.
As we celebrate another year of Ben being our son, I am so very proud of this boy (and still so very sad that seven years ago he was still in hospital). He is such a joy to us all, so filled with patience and humour and determination. Happy New Year everyone – let’s all hope we come across more Bens, less pity and more positivity in 2017.