When my daughter is protesting with an imitation of a fainting spell, or my son is peddle kicking and arching his back, I find it helpful to keep an image in my head to help inspire me: I'm a squire equipping a knight; or I'm in a pit crew team trying to get my racer back onto the track; anything but the way I feel, a desperate parent trying to dress a child.
But the process of getting my son's left arm into a sleeve is a step beyond the ordinary dressing challenges. This left is the arm that is affected by cerebral palsy. It's not an easy arm to work with and finding both a process and an image that helps me has not been easy.
The process, after much trial and error, goes a little like this:
- Find the loosest shirt or onesy available.
- Pull it over his head.
- Insert the right arm.
The images vary depending on the level of difficulty that I'm facing.
In ordinary situations, I try to imagine that I'm a surfer floating on a board, waiting for the wave that the ocean will produce. This is helpful as sometimes there will be an involuntary contraction or extension of his arm that I can use to hook in the sleeve opening. Or sometimes, I can coax a movement by massaging his shoulder and eventually thread my own hand into the sleeve to meet his half way and gently tug his hand out. It helps me to use the energy and motion that may already be there first, rather than fight against it.
When he can't or won't move his arm, I'll have to reverse the process (and the image). I'll stretch the garment as much as possible to avoid pressure on his joints or fingers and try to catch his arm at an angle that I can slip it over his fingers gently. This is a little like bringing the garage to the car, but it seems safer than manhandling him.
When it comes down to it, and I have to guide him, I've had to improvise an image from a separate medium; I've borrowed a teaching from the famous golf instructor, Harvey Penick. Mr. Penick illustrated many of his lessons with images. In the chapter on the golf grip, he relays an image that the professional golfer, Sam Snead used to teach a good grip: "hold the club as if there is a live bird in (your) hands, with just enough pressure that the bird can't fly away but not so tightly that the bird can't breathe."
It's advice intended to keep novice golfers from tightening up on the club so much they loose all feel of a good swing; it's advice that I've improvised to help me to handle my son gently and keep him safe. I hope that both men would approve.
Sometimes though, even this last image fails me, and I'll just undress him down to his diaper and let him play.
"Naked, naked, boy!" my daughter will sing to the tune of The Village People's Macho Man when her brother is in this state; scooting around the living room, hooting it up, bare and (for the moment) liberated and happy.
It's frustrating when I've exhausted all options, but it's temporary. Eventually we get him dressed.
But I wonder what it will be like trying to teach him to dress himself someday; and who I'll be able to turn to for a way to do it. How to close a button, tie a shoe (velcro or not, he'll need to know eventually), put on a tie. There may be enough progress in his arm by then to make these tasks easier, but it's hard to know. I wonder where I'll find inspiration to inspire him.
But I suppose that's the answer in itself. At some point, no matter how frustrating it might be, I'll need to let my son figure some of this out himself. And I know from the responses I've received on this blog and also from my first post on Motherlode that he'll be in good company The responses from both adults with cerebral palsy and parents of children with cerebral palsy and other challenges have both humbled me with their generosity and given me hope with the stories of their success. We'll figure out a way.
I think of those responses and know that there will be another Harvey Penick out there to provide guidance when the time comes; another unexpected teacher. And maybe then it won't need to be me or my wife who finds the teacher, maybe it will be my son who finds them.