“But God Made me Perfect!”

“I’m four today. I can’t walk. Will I ever walk?

This was the first thing that Julianna said when she woke up on her fourth birthday. A few seconds after the words left her mouth, she changed the subject.

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August 2014. 4th birthday.

One of the most remarkable things about J is the way she accepts her physical condition. There is no self-pity, ever. She knows all about the things she can’t do; she just doesn’t feel bad about it.

I wish I could say that she learned this from me, but it’s quite the opposite. Today I am able to read her words with just wistfulness. When I actually heard those words almost one year ago, I was gutted.

When your child has an awful disease, your heart can be broken in a million different ways. There’s the pain of unrequited hope when she doesn’t defy the odds. You ache — sometimes physically — when they lose milestones. And if the incurable disease becomes terminal, there is despair. It is too much for the already fractured mother’s heart.

I have been in all those places, and I know that there will be more to come. For now, I’m in a better place. It doesn’t mean that I’m at total peace with our situation. I believe that there are some questions that cannot be answered on earth, and I still wrestle with the cruelty of it all.

The shift came gradually. As with most things related to J’s illness, I have found it best to follow her lead. She has the important things figured out. If she does not mourn for a life that she cannot have on this Earth, how can I dwell on the what-ifs or why-nots?

My time here with Julianna is limited, and there is so much more joy to experience. I am grateful that this is my focus now.

April 2015

J has watched “Beauty and the Beast” and now wants to role play.

J: Mom, be Gaston.

M: OK. Hi, I’m Gaston.

J: I’m four years old. I can talk but I can’t walk.

M: Oh well…. No one’s perfect.

J: But God made me perfect!

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July 2015. Our belle Julianna.

“Mom, Who Will Marry Me?”

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July 2012. J calls this “my wedding dress.”

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July 2012. A&J were the ring boy and flower girl in my cousin’s wedding.

Bedtime conversation, 25 July 2015

J: Mom, who will marry me?

M: Julianna, you are four.

J: I’m pretending!

M: OK. Um, how about Kristoff? Is he OK?

J: Mom, come on. I’m not in Arendelle.

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Winter 2014. Not in Arendelle.

Cabbies, Kimchee and BiPAP

The summer before I started eighth grade, my mom sent my brother and me to Korea. It was my first trip to the motherland since immigrating to the US at age two. There were many wonderful things I discovered. I also got lectured by taxi drivers (plural) about my atrocious Korean.

They went something like this:

  • It doesn’t matter if you live in America. You are Korean.
  • You cannot forget this.
  • You will always look Korean; therefore, you must speak Korean.
  • How will you pass along your heritage to your children if you don’t know Korean? (Note : I was 12.)
  • You need to tell you parents to speak only Korean at home.

I was able to understand everything they said, but my Korean was not good enough to employ sass. Even sadder, my Korean language ability was probably at its peak during that time of my life.

In my defense:

— My parents decided to speak English at home so that we could assimilate. It worked. I am quite fluent in English

— After age 2, I lived in: Missouri, rural Massachusetts, Florida, Mississippi, central (not coastal) California, Colorado, central Texas, Arizona and southern Washington. There are opportunities to speak Korean in those places, but doesn’t this explain some things?

(In full disclosure, I also spent a year in South Korea – but on a US military base. As long as I didn’t venture very far away, my Korean was impressive. Like, people actually brought me along to translate.)

In the end, the Korean cabbies were right. I hope this makes them proud.

Journal entry — 2 Feb 15

J has a very sharp sense of smell & often comments on stinky food: egg salad, fish, etc. 

She thinks kimchee is stinky. One day, I told her that it is her destiny to love kimchee because she is half Korean. 

Tonight I ate my dinner on the couch next to J. She is on BiPAP. 

M: J, can I go get some kimchee now? ?

J: Yes.

M: Are you sure? The smell won’t bother you?

J: No.

M:  Is it because you are half Korean? (hopeful)

J: Because I have BiPAP on.

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Aug 2011.

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A long, long time ago.

Daycare Fail and the Angry Burrito

Note: Before I thought about starting a blog, I wanted to write a book : an actual book with palpable pages that told Julianna’s story in a linear fashion. Maybe I’ll do it one day. For now, I’ll tell her life story post by post.

Chapter 1: 0-3 months

When Alex was seven weeks old, he got kicked out of daycare. The daycare provider was very sorry, but he was too fussy and had to be held all the time. True to form, I blamed myself. It was my fault for having to go back to work so soon. We had produced a high maintenance, colicky child. No one would be able to handle him.

Tracey was our next daycare provider. She had 15 years of experience, and was a baby whisperer.  (She was also from England, and is the reason our kids still say “bum” instead of something more crass. It’s awesome.) She told me that Alex was just a typical baby, and babies need holding, but I didn’t believe it completely.  I worried for a while that she would eventually catch on and kick us out too.  At about six months, he seemed to mellow out. All the books said that this was when colic usually stopped, so we were relieved: we had survived colic!

Julianna came two years later, and just demolished our understanding of colic. She had colic. My strongest memory of those early months is pacing at all hours with an inconsolable, unhappy bundle. If I held her and jiggled her and shushed her just right, she would stop for a while. Any deviation from approved practice would begin the crying  — and my misery — again.

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Sept 2010. A&J.

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Oct 2010. Our burrito (aka the Yuri roll) could also be happy.

At around two months, we began to have problems feeding Julianna. In retrospect, this was the first symptom of her neuromuscular disease, but we chalked it up to evil colic. Even the  uber-competent Tracey had a hard time feeding her. It would take 30 minutes to go through 2oz, and she would only take tiny sips before turning her head away. Sometimes she refused for long stretches. Eventually Steve found the One Magic Position that usually worked: wrapped up tight like a burrito, on our lap, on her right side, held about six inches away from our bodies. (It also didn’t hurt to throw salt over our shoulder, knock on wood and find a four-leaf clover.)

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Nov 2010. Colic is exhausting.

I don’t remember how long the colic lasted, but it was a slow fade. It did get better around six months, (just like the books said) but there was also high drama for years afterwards.

J has always been able to cry on (her) demand. Not just the sniffles: Hollywood close-up worthy, with copious tears. We started calling her histrionic alter ego “Carrie”.  “Carrie” would storm in, do her damage, then leave just as abruptly. We would express our relief  – “We’re so glad we have J back! Carrie is not as fun.” J would agree and wonder out loud why Carrie was so unpleasant.

(No offense to all the wonderful Carrie’s out there. The name came to me on the fly. Alex’s equivalent is “Ned”, as in negative “Ned.” I have one too, but the kids have not come up with a name for her yet.)

It’s ironic now, because J is sunny and happy almost all of the time. Carrie has been largely replaced by charm, bossiness and exquisite control of language.

The waterworks still make an occasional appearance, and they are quite impressive. A few months ago, I  decided to find out her secret:

Dec 2015 – journal entry

M: Julianna, how do you cry so easily? I can’t do that…

J: I open and close my eyes and think of something sad.

M: like what?

J: not sharing.

 

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Dec 2013. Carrie, Steve, me and Alex. Alex knows not to mess with Carrie…

“Hark the Herald”

23 June 2015 (version of Facebook Post)

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Spring 2012. At her peak strength, J could stand well with one-hand support.

Regression is one of the cruelest aspects of Julianna’s disease. This bunny moment is bittersweet.  At one point, she was able to stand with assistance. No BiPAP or GJ tube here either. It’s very different today.
Tonight, I read Psalm 23 to her out of a children’s story Bible. The story explained that Psalms means “songs.” She asked me why I “talked a song.” I told her that reading a Psalm was like saying the words to a song. As an example, I recited the first verse of “Hark the Herald”, one of Julianna’s favorite song.
She did not approve. She shook her head, and said “No, let me show you.” She sang the first verse of “Hark the Herald” to me, BiPAP and all. Afterwards, she said she needed to rest her voice and asked me to hug her. She closed her eyes, and I thought for a moment that she was going to fall asleep. Unusual, because sleep doesn’t come easily for our girl. She opened her eyes after a few minutes and declared her voice “rested.” Then she was asleep.
Another lifetime ago, she was able to sing all three verses of the song.  This life is different. Singing just one verse took a lot out of her, but she did it. She knows that some songs simply have to be sung.

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Dec 2013. Christmas photo. Image by Jennifer Rilatos Photography

“I Just Want to Rest!”

This is J doing her version of the “Pop and Lock.” Competent dancers may think this is a simple move, but I know better. It’s not that easy to isolate the shoulder muscles and make the perfect little “pop.” (Tip from J: “Your head has to be stable.”)  J’s dance moves are like her perfectly curled eyelashes: they did not come from me.

15 Feb 15 – journal entry

J was down for her rest period this afternoon. We were watching a Disney movie. I broke out into a little jig. (Koreans are the Irish of Asia, after all.)
M:   J, am I a good dancer?
J:   avoids eye contact
M:   Am I?
J:   sighs
M:   Do you think I’m a good dancer?
J:   I’m just trying to rest!

“Don’t Worry. God Will Take Care of Me”

June 2015. Forehead to forehead. One of my favorite nighttime rituals. (Image by Aubrie LeGault, Capturing Grace Photography.)

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March 2014, Woodland Tulip Festival. It’s hard to believe, but heaven will be even more beautiful.

Sleeping is not Julianna’s forte. Bedtime is 8 but she rarely falls asleep before 9:45. She has very little movement below the shoulders now, so someone sits at her bedside until she drifts off. Steve and I are supposed to take turns, but I volunteer for most of the nights. I know that my time on this earth with Julianna will be far shorter than I want, so these hours are a luxury.

She needs me to take care of all of her physical needs. I turn her, suction the saliva that she cannot swallow and I keep her clean. She also needs me to engage her mind. It is always active, and she needs to share.

Her physical body is profoundly weak, but, verbally, she is like an elite gymnast. Her words are rich and precise. She uses them to entertain, engage and to show her love. Above all, she wants to be understood. This is harder now. Her disease has also taken away volume and enunciation, but those who invest the time and effort are rewarded abundantly.

Her words about heaven  prompted me to submit a story to The Mighty, a site that features many touching stories about people living with disease and disability.  Before this, my only attempt at mass communication was the occasional group e-mail. Sharing this story was way out of my comfort zone, but I felt that I needed to share Julianna with the world.

The conversation posted on the Mighty occurred in May 2015, and it was not the first time we talked about heaven. The original heaven conversation took place several months earlier. I remember being overwhelmed by hearing my four-year-old daughter speak about her wish to go to heaven. I thought I was so stunned that I didn’t write it down. (This is how I documented it in my second story for the Mighty, “How Our Daughter Helps Us Face Our Greatest Fear” .)

Happily, this is not the case. As I went through my e-mails in preparation to start this blog, I found the conversation that started everything. It was all in an e-mail.

9 Feb 2015 – e-mail to my mom

Today was a little hard b/c J needed BiPAP so much. And she was upset for the first time in a while – it didn’t last that long, but it’s hard for me to see her upset at all. She said she was upset b/c George licked her foot (he has a rough tongue)… She was OK and playful after she got over everything.

Yesterday we read the heaven book. I’ve been wondering about our plan to take her to the hospital if she gets sick again – b/c it’s even harder now to imagine her suffering. So I decided to ask her. Her answers were fast and clear.

Me: Julianna, if you get sick again, do you want to go to the hospital again or stay home?

J: not the hospital

M: Even if that means that you will go to heaven if you stay home?

J: Yes

M: And you know that mommy and daddy won’t come with you right away? You’ll go by yourself first.

J: Don’t worry. God will take care of me.

M: And if you go to the hospital, it may help you get better and let you come home again and spend more time with us. I need to make sure that you understand that. Hospital may let you have more time with mommy and daddy.

J: I understand.

M: (crying) – I’m sorry, Julianna. I know you don’t like it when I cry. It’s just that I will miss you so much.

J: That’s OK. God will take care of me. He’s in my heart.