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When My Son Asked Me Why He Has Brain Damage

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If you watched my son on the playground, you’d see an average-sized 9-year-old with beautiful brown skin and a big smile. His mannerisms are a little off and his language a little strange, but for the most part, his disability is invisible.

Mateo has Fetal Alcohol syndrome. My husband and I were young and clueless when we adopted him — out to save the world with love and a Disney-themed toddler bedroom. Now, we know love doesn’t fix everything.

This has never been as clear as the day he stood, sobbing, in my kitchen seven years later, asking if he has brain damage. It’s a yucky term, but we use it so professionals understand his difficulties with following rules aren’t because he’s a “bad kid.” But it’s not a term I want my son, who’s functioning like a 4-year-old, to associate himself with.

It always happens that kids throw these parenting bombs at us when we least expect it. So there I was, mouth hanging open, food burning on the stove top, fumbling for the right words. How do you tell an 8-year-old his brain will never work like his younger sister’s? How do you tell him he’ll always be slower, less coordinated than his peers, and he’ll probably need therapy and medication his whole life?

“Why did my brain get damaged, Mom?” he asked through tears. “Why am I the only one in my class who’s stupid?”

He looked at me, pleading for answers that made sense, desperate for his mommy to fix things, to tell him it’ll be OK, to heal his boo-boos with a kiss. But there are some boo-boos I can’t fix.

I’d like to think I said all the right words that night, and that any number of professionals would give me a round of applause for it, but I don’t know if that’s true. I’m not a believer in sugarcoating things for my kids.

“Can we fix it?” he asked. “Can I get a new brain?”

Trying to hold back my own tears, I hugged him and said, “All we can do is try our best and keep going.”

That’s as close to a motto as we get as parents on this wild, uncharted journey. We don’t know what the future holds or how much he can learn and grow and develop. But we’ll always try our best, and we’ll keep going, one day at a time.

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Originally published: June 30, 2015
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