Tommy’s Life: It’s the Legacy that Matters
by Michael E. Ross
All of us are going to die, and no matter how long you live, the legacy that you leave behind matters. Quality versus quantity is how you judge it, and my son Tommy changed a lot of people’s views in his five years on Earth.
Tommy was born on July 21, 2004, and I’ll never forget seeing him for the first time. His blond locks of hair, blue eyes that just seemed to sparkle, and his closed fist when he entered this world. He even gave a “thumbs up” on the warming table! To see this eight pound and five ounce baby and holding him in my arms was an emotional experience. I’m not ashamed to say that I cried tears of joy, and the feeling of being a father was a remarkable, special moment that changed everything.
Tommy went home a few days after being born, and it was just such an exciting period of time for my wife and I, along with his grandparents and the rest of our family. He was just such an adorable boy, with unlimited energy, and a look that could make anyone’s heart just melt. Yet, Tommy started to have some feeding issues, and he would scream constantly, and didn’t sleep but five minutes at a time. Our pediatrician, who was a wonderful man with compassion running through his veins, assured us that all was okay. He simply had gastric reflux, which is quite common, and he prescribed him various medications. They would seem to work for a while, and then he’d be back to screaming. It’s a powerless feeling, to have this innocent child in your house, with such a voice that it could almost shake the foundation. After a few months, he lost a lot of weight, and was labeled “failure to thrive.”
This was so painful. How could this beautiful child be labeled “failure to thrive?” What did that mean? There were more questions than answers, and Tommy had to be hospitalized. He was given a feeding tube that ran through his nose, and he was pumped full of what I’d consider “baby steroids.” It was pure protein, and he eventually put on weight, and my wife and I started to think things looked good over the horizon. However, during that hospitalization Tommy went through a battery of tests. Our pediatrician assured us that he just wanted to check everything out, and when he was discharged, we felt confident that this dark chapter was behind us.
November. The beginning of November was a painful month, and one could say that the Guns N’ Roses song “November Rain” became a theme song of sorts. We were called at home, and told that we would have to meet our physician the next day. I didn’t think much of it for some reason. Perhaps it was denial. My wife, on the other hand, fretted about the news that was to be delivered. We went to the doctor, who was my pediatrician growing up, and he sat down besides us. He told us Tommy had Angelman Syndrome, that he was intellectually disabled, and that he’d probably never speak and might not walk.
Thud. Thud. Thud! THUD!
What devastation and a ripping apart of the seams of the fabric of life. I remember vaguely running out of the room in sheer shock, and thankfully our doctor grabbed me, as I screamed in the parking lot, “There’s no God!” Crying uncontrollably, and looking at my wife, I didn’t know what to say or do.
It was a numbing experience. Our doctor knew a bit about Angelman Syndrome, as he had another patient with this condition, which affects roughly one in 15,000 births. He told us, “Tommy will love you in a different way.” It didn’t make sense at the time at all. How was a baby with an IQ of nothing supposed to love us, and how could we love a child so disadvantaged?
We were just in a state of shock that I don’t remember driving to the geneticist that he sent us to. She answered our questions, and we had a better grasp of what we were dealing with. I couldn’t stop weeping, and all of the dreams of playing baseball and going with my son on fishing trips were thrown right out of the window. There would be no camping, no love of history to share with him. How could I relate to him on any level?
Yet, while I made many mistakes and am not a perfect parent, I did learn to love Tommy again. My wife said it eloquently, “We just buried the child we thought we had, and now we are going to love this child.” So true, as it felt like the child we thought we knew had died. Yet he was alive more than ever, and he soon showed us that he could love us, and we certainly loved him very much. His laughter and smiles were contagious, as Tommy had a hug that was like a vise grip. He would find joy in the simplest of things, which caused us to finally be able to do so as well. I’ll never forget Christmas with him, when he was interested in the wrapping paper, and he certainly destroyed a lot of my catalogs and magazines. The guys at the recycling center probably thought, “what devoured this Cabelas Hunting Guide?”
An Amazing Tommy
Tommy made incredible progress. He eventually was able to understand cause and effect toys and became quite an eater. A lot of credit goes to my mother-in-law Lia, who is a saint. She never gave up, and was a benchmark of strength during difficult times, along with my parents, relatives, and friends. Tommy never quit either. He loved water, and his favorite toy was a simple bobble-head tiger. I still have it, and although it’s sometimes painful to look at or hold, it does usually bring a smile along with tears. And that’s okay, because I’m glad that he found toys to be so amusing. His ball pit was a place he always wanted to be. It was ridiculous looking, a purple hippo, with a tunnel and those balls in it like you’d see at a Chuck E Cheese. Tommy would spend hours upon hours in there, and would laugh and bounce all over the place.
Eventually he entered preschool at Little Run Elementary, which is the place you want your child to go if he has special needs. The same goes for Waples Mill when your child hits kindergarten age. He loved school. While I enjoyed skipping school years ago, Tommy would be so excited when the bus arrived. I’m especially thankful to all of his drivers, who loved him so much, and their assistants who kept an eye on him to make sure he was okay. He loved that bus, and during the City of Fairfax’s Fourth of July parade, he would smile and bounce when the firetrucks and police cars would crank up their sirens. The louder and brighter it was, the more Tommy found joy.
The seizures started innocuously enough. We were warned that he’d more likely than not have seizures, and that they would begin when he was around two. His first one was when his physical therapist was in our house working with him, and we took him to the local emergency room, as was planned in advance. There he had a massive grand mal seizure, and had to be transported to Fairfax, where he spent time in the Pediatric ICU. Eventually the right medication was found, though there were still plenty of sleepless nights with him in the ICU, watching him smile when we brought his Baby Tad singing frog toy with us.
One time he had to be rushed from our house to the hospital by ambulance, as he was unconscious. I was scared as I handed him to a paramedic, who told me that he was breathing. Yet the ambulance took awhile to take off, and when it did, I followed while my wife was in the back with him. I cried tears, fearful and concerned, all the way as I stayed on that ambulance’s tail, even running red lights behind it. A crash team arrived in the ICU ER, and put an oxygen mask over him. I thought this was it, and they took him away, leaving us to pray in a waiting room for any news. Finally a doctor came out of the doors and said that the seizures had stopped, and that his neurologist would be there to find a medication combination that would keep these from happening.
Tommy made great progress when put on Keppra. He rarely had a seizure, and the ones he did have were mild. There was no need for emergency doses of Valium, and he grew in height and size at a massive scale. His nickname was “Porky,” since he looked like he could play the linebacker position for any football team. Yet he didn’t have a mean bone in his body, rarely cried, and just had a cherubic angelic appearance at all times. Sure, there were times I had to pick him up from school, due to minor seizures. I am forever thankful to my boss for letting me leave work when needed, and my boys have always been supportive.
One particular occasion makes me laugh right now. I got a call that I needed to get Tommy right away, because he was sick, and they were concerned that he was going to start seizing. The crummy car I had was pushed to its limits, and when I walked in, he looked just fine. As I put him in his car seat, he started laughing and smiling. Perhaps he did want to skip school that day.
My father in August of 2009 surprised us. He told my wife and me to meet him at the neighborhood pool, where he had Porky with him. We had no idea of what we were going to see, which was Tommy walking completely fine across the entire pool. It was a moment of pure happiness, and he was smiling while going from end to end. The community knew Tommy, and was so happy to see this event, which we have on videotape. In late August his younger brother Alex was born, and we were so thrilled to have a little brother for Tommy. We had been reading that those with special needs greatly benefit from having a sibling, and although I didn’t want my Alex to ever feel pressure, I was always concerned what would happen to Tommy after we were gone.
A Final Seizure
On November 4, 2009, a parent’s worst nightmare occurred in our house. Tommy was taking his usual afternoon nap, and I took my dog out front to do her business. My brother came out screaming, “Get in here, I think Tommy’s dead.” All I remember is running in at full speed, grabbing him from his bed, and knowing he was gone. I called 911, told them my five-year-old was unresponsive, and for the first time in my life, didn’t know what to do. It was just too much for my mind to comprehend as I held my son, though after prompting from the dispatcher I started CPR. The paramedics, police, and firefighters arrived in just about two minutes.
A lot of that night is a blur. The trauma just blanked out a lot of what happened. The medics worked on my son, and did everything possible to revive him. One of them told me to sit in the front of the ambulance, while they brought him outside, continuing to do CPR. The ambulance just sat there. I remember crying out, “Come on, Tommy, come on, Tommy, beat this, beat this, beat this. You’ve got to live!” The ambulance continued to sit there, which I knew was a very ominous sign, as I’ve been in emergency situations before.
Finally, the ambulance driver popped in, hit the lights and sirens, and we were off to Fairfax Hospital. I remember getting mad at people who got in our way as they brought Tommy into the pediatric ER. A paramedic came to me and said, “I want you to…” and I just cut him off rudely saying, “I know the deal. My son is dead and there’s no God at all.” There was my son, surrounded by doctors and nurses, and they told me to hold his hand as they stopped the CPR. I cried uncontrollably, screamed at God with venom that I never had before, and my wife and the rest of my family arrived.
Thankfully a social worker kept me from destroying the entire room, and we just sat and cried, and held Tommy’s lifeless hands. It was so cruel to just see him lying there, with a vacant look on his face, and a smile on his face. His hands were open. Mitch Albom’s “A Little Faith” talks about this. When we are born, our hands are balled into a fist, so as to say, “I’m ready to face this world.” When we leave, our hands are open, as we’ve learned all of life’s lessons.
I don’t remember much of the drive home. I do know that my father drove us home. Instead of having my son next to me, all I had was this stupid red book about grief. It wasn’t fair. How was a parent supposed to outlive his child, how could God be so cruel? I remember crying out on the front of my house that night, with the outside light flickering on and off once. It seemed strange, and there wasn’t a lot of sleep or eating for days. The hardest part was seeing the clothes prepared for my son. I wanted them out of my house immediately. I also threw out the sweatshirt I was wearing that night, as I never wanted to see it again. It was red, Tommy’s favorite color, and I was just so “out of my mind,” because of my son’s blood being on it.
Seeing my boy in a casket was so painful. There are just no words to describe how hard it is, and when it was closed, it was as if I was being buried. We released a couple of helium balloons in honor of him, and they were having technical difficulties. Yet they somehow managed to catch a wind pocket, and flew high into the sky. One of my Aunts said something profound after we tossed the dirt upon his coffin. She said, “Just like Tommy, against all odds.”
I’m proud of Tommy. He learned to walk unassisted across our living room the week prior to his passing, which was caused by an Angelman Syndrome related seizure. This caused cardiac arrest, and I’m glad that he was unconscious for this series of events. That at least offers some comfort, and I’m not ashamed to say that I cry often thinking about him. I want to become a better man because of him, and I now know and fully understand God’s plans don’t always coincide with what we want. There have been a lot of tears, some prayers full of emotion, but also some smiles and laughter. The past year has been full of some amazing spiritual encounters that have reinforced my belief in resilience. It’s not been an easy journey, and I’ve been saddened again by recent news of other children losing their lives to seizures.
All I used to care about was getting ahead at work, and being successful in life. That doesn’t matter. What does is trying to make a difference, and instead of being hurt by negative energy, harnessing the positive approach of fighting these seizures head on.
I used to be afraid of death. That is no longer the case. While I hope to live until 100 so I can fulfill a rather interesting adventure, it’s not up to me. Yet in the years of life that I have left, much like the jar of sand that is limited, I plan on finding a cure for seizures. It’s not going to be easy, and there will be tears and sorrow along the way. Yet there will also be hope, and that’s why I need the help of many.
I’m just a simple man, but my prayer is that many will embark on this journey, to work to find a cure for those with Angelman or any other seizure disorders. Enough is enough, and I’m convinced if we work hard enough, we can find a cure for seizures and Angelman in our lifetime.
Rest in Peace, Tommy, and all those who’ve had their lives cut short by seizures. A cure is just around the corner if we work diligently enough to get the job done.
Author: Michael E. Ross • Date: 8/17/2011