My son just finished his sophomore year of high school. Something for any kid to feel pleased about, but for Nicky it was a triumph: for nearly the entire year, starting in October, he's been hammered by severe migraines. He wakes up with them, usually two bad ones a week, usually another one or two not quite as bad. The bad ones come with intense nausea, dizziness, agonizing sensitivity to light and sound, sometimes blurred vision and stomach cramps. Not to forget about the headache that feels like a spike being driven through his skull. Nearly all of them are during the school week—stress seems to be his main trigger, and he goes to a demanding school. It's also a school that puts a tremendous emphasis on showing up for class. It's built around two-hour seminar classes with ten or fewer kids in the room, so there's not much room for just doing work at home and dropping it off. He could be getting straight As in schoolwork but if he missed too many classes he wouldn't get credit for the course.
But he made it. He dragged himself in white as a sheet with big opaque shades protecting him from the light. He got to classes propping himself on the walls with one hand so the dizziness didn't knock him down in the hall. He pushed through the embarrassment and anxiety of being a kid with an unusual impairment at an age when the last you want to be is unusual or impaired. He kissed off everything but schoolwork for weeks. There were small disasters, too, like the homeopathic remedy that made him sicker than usual (the doctor said it should make him better after it made him worse, but after a week of worse he was about to get kicked out of the math class he'd been fighting so hard to pass, so we never found out).
But he made it. With little drama and almost no self-pity, with just a stubborn determination to do it and some unspoken faith in himself that he could make himself succeed, he passed his classes and finished the year. Somehow he even managed to act in the school drama festival in May. He showed courage and discipline at 16 that I'm still struggling for at 51.
My Fathers Day present was just seeing him happy and relaxed, doing his own thing, enjoying the summer moment and not dwelling either on what he'd just accomplished or what he'd suffered for months. He has an instinctive steadiness and humility that I remember seeing in my father. (They do say these things skip a generation.) He didn't do anything but make me an e-card, and I don't care. He gives me more just by talking about the song he's recording or the stupid video he just found on YouTube than any card ever could.
I will admit I had a role to play in his success. So did Jennie, although because she's the 8-to-5er and I'm the one with the flexible schedule, it was mostly my job. For eight months I would wake him up, would reach into his befogged brain and have to drag his consciousness up from the relative bliss of sleep into the stabbing light of awareness. I'd talk to him through his mumbling and moanings and try to figure out how sick he was, whether it was a day he could be left to get himself up mostly on his own or one when I'd have to prop him up and help lift him out of bed or one when we'd have to give up and let him lie there in misery while another absence got added to his school ledger. I kept the symptoms log and supervised the endless and futile medical investigations. I ran some interference with the school administration. But it was a supporting role. I wasn't the one with the pain.
I'll admit that my writing slowed down during those months. I'd like to think I had the courage and discipline (see above) to sit right down and start cranking out my book after two hours of helping Nicky fight through his misery and finally getting him to school, but I learned I didn't. Sometimes it was hard not to just sit there staring out the window wondering how he was doing, or go back to all those online migraine sites, or just go back to bed, until it was nearly time to pick him up. (Maybe it's a measure of my wavering discipline and courage that I rarely made him take the bus when he'd gone to school sick and dizzy. Or maybe that's just what being a parent means.) I know it wasn't just the election and financial issues that kept me from doing much of anything on this book from October until a couple of months ago. But that's not a productive line of thought. Once I was whining about how hard it was to be fully functional and optimistic with a sick kid when my friend Ethan Watters said, "You not only can be functional and optimistic when you have a sick kid—that's when you have to be." I need to reflect back to him the strength he's showing me, and I need to apply that strength not just to the hours I'm helping him get to school but to the rest of my life.
I keep thinking about M. Scott Peck's opening line in The Road Less Traveled: "Life is difficult." Peck reminds me that that's one of life's great truths, although it's one we don't like to embrace. He reminds me that the road through life's difficulty is discipline, and that discipline springs from love. Love of others, love of self, love of growth, love of the world, love of this hard life itself. It's what my son has been learning. Nicky's learning it earlier than I wish he had to, but I believe it will serve him well. And it's what he's been teaching me.