Lytonya Jackson is a wife and the mother of a 9-year-old son, so she had enough to worry about before that first blackout happened this year on New Year’s Day.
But her diagnosis of epilepsy at age 29 is only one of many challenges the family is facing this holiday season. There’s also the matter of three preteen cousins who moved in temporarily but have since become a permanent part of the household.
So what began as a family of three is now a family of six, crammed into two bedrooms.
On top of that, all three cousins (ages 2, 5 and 6) are big fans of Santa, which means toys and magic are expected no matter how many hints she drops about money being tight.
Her best hope now, she says, is the Salvation Army, which has pledged to provide toys this year for nearly 12,000 low-income children. Many of the toys will be purchased with money donated by Observer readers to the Empty Stocking Fund.
“I don’t know that they will still be with me next year, so this could be my only chance to show what Christmas can be like someplace stable and safe,” said Jackson, now 30, who won legal custody in 2013 but remains locked in a family tug-of-war over the children.
“Children have to have a Christmas. They need to know that someone is paying attention to their needs ... That’s what I want for their Christmas.”
There’s another added twist to the story: Jackson is going in for brain surgery in the spring to ease the seizures, and she says it’s possible memory loss will result. “I may have to relearn a lot of things.”
The Salvation Army says about 5,000 families are registered to get toys this year, many of them headed by parents who have jobs but still can’t make ends meet because their pay is low and hours have been cut.
Jackson started the year with a full-time job but says she had to leave it in May under doctor’s orders.
She says her husband, 40-year-old Leon, also has medical issues, suffering from Brugada syndrome, a condition that makes him at risk of sudden cardiac death.
It would be easier – if not common sense – for the couple to give up and let those three extra mouths to feed go into foster care, or to another relative. But Jackson believes any parent who’d “give up” a child to someone else was never meant to be a parent at all.
Jackson can’t say much about the world her three cousins come from, other than to note there were addiction problems on that side of the family.
“I thought I was only getting temporary custody, but then the paperwork came in the mail and it said that I was getting permanent custody,” says Jackson. “My first reaction was a sense of panic. But no child belongs in foster care, so my intention is to keep them.”
Her husband is not surprised at that attitude, claiming she “rescued” him from a life so troubled that he was practically on a first-name basis with arresting officers. “My wife will go to her death trying to change the world,” he says. “Doesn’t matter whether it’s me, everybody’s kids, or every dog and cat in the world, and we got ’em here. She’s trying to take care of everything and everybody.”
Despite the family’s financial setbacks, the children have improved and begun to flourish, Jackson says. One boy has a learning disability and is doing better in school, and his brother is on the A-honor roll, she says. The 2-year-old is also crying less and has started calling Jackson “mom.”
As Jackson gets closer to her surgery, there’s a twinge of fear as to just how much it will impact her memory, including the possibly of not remembering this Christmas.
If that happens, she hopes it will be her four children who remind her of how it went.
And she’s counting on their stories being filled with joy.