Young family’s life turned upside down by dad’s illness, son’s autism

By Bill DiPaolo
Special to The Palm Beach Post

Caitlin and Chris Earp won’t let meningitis and autism ruin their children’s lives.

“Frustration. Anger. Fear. I feel them all. Yeah, sometimes I get mad at him,” said Caitlin, 33, nodding to her husband Chris as they sat at their kitchen table. “But we’re here for the kids.”

Chris, a North Carolina native who ran the quarter-mile and threw the discus in high school, is totally disabled from meningitis. The seizures won’t stop. The 29-year-old cannot be left alone.

Caleb, a huggable youngster who loves to draw the alphabet on the living room wall, has autism. The 10-year-old and his mom struggle to keep up with online classes from the Palm Beach School for Autism in Lake Worth.

And then there’s Charlie, the couple’s 5-year-old daughter, born the year her dad was diagnosed.

On a recent Friday afternoon, the family was enjoying their time together.

Caleb grabbed a visitor’s hand and pointed up to the latest letters he crayoned high on the living room wall. Chris laughed about how Caleb climbed a table to do the drawing. Charlie snuggled their two calico cats, Fiona and Special Sprinkles.

“Mommy puts on my makeup. Then we make videos,” said Charlie, blinking her blue eyes surrounded by sparkly purple mascara.

But what’s simple on the surface is much more complex.

Caleb, who is growing increasingly strong, bites and scratches when he gets frustrated. He once lit paper towels on fire in the kitchen when he tried to cook macaroni and cheese. Police found him at 2 a.m. one morning swimming, naked, in a canal near their home close to Palm Beach Gardens High School.

Chris slipped in the bathroom once and hit his head. He has trouble remembering. And speaking.

Caitlin recently stopped at the laundromat. She left the three briefly in the Jeep while she went to check on the clothes.

Charlie called, panicked. Caleb and Chris were arguing.

“I can’t leave them by themselves,” she said. “I’m the one they all depend on.”

Welcome to Caitlin’s life.

That life was going smoothly six years ago.

Caitlin, who grew up on The Acreage, met Chris online. They arranged to meet at Caitlin’s friend Ashley’s home near Chris’s home in Durham in 2014. Chris worked there making Toyota transmissions.

“I was so nervous. I liked her right away,” said Chris.

A picnic on a river was the couple’s first date. They got married the next year. 

Chris adopted Caleb. The family moved back to Palm Beach County where they felt Caleb could get better care for autism.

Chris got a job as a security guard. He planned to take college business classes.

Caitlin worked part-time at Publix in Boynton Beach.

Then, while Caitlin was pregnant with Charlie, Chris’ headaches hit like a hammer just after Valentine’s Day.

“His fever spiked at 106 degrees. He had a sore neck. His headache was unbearable. He laid down in the dark bedroom. He kept screaming “I can’t make this pain stop,” said Caitlin.

After weeks in the hospital, Chris came home.

Chris tried going back to work as a security guard. The seizures continued. 

Playing kickball with the kids, helping Charlie learn to ride her pink tricycle and mowing the lawn were all part of Chris’s routine.

Now he needs a walker. His short-term memory is faulty. There is no hope to stop the seizures, say doctors.

“I want to work. I want to provide for my family. I can’t,” said Chris, struggling with the words.

The Earps live on $1,800 a month in disability payments. Monthly rent is $300.

Caitlin had to quit her job at Publix. To make a few extra bucks, she buys clothes at thrift shops and resells them online.

“I can make $20 on a nice jacket,” she said.

But that’s just the start of the family’s problems.

The clothes dryer busted a few weeks ago. It’s still busted because they can’t afford repairs or a new one.

They need new locks on all the doors since Caleb got out and ended up in the canal.

The radiator wheezes on their clunky 10-year-old black Jeep. The odometer reads 227,000 miles. The rear seat belts don’t work. The air conditioner conks out. The steering wheel wobbles.

Charlie has outgrown her pink tricycle with the pink basket that is parked outside the front door.

Caleb needs a tablet for online learning.

“This was a productive family. It’s heartbreaking. Caitlin is the sole caregiver,” said Roxanne Jacobs, executive director at Grandma’s Place Inc., a family support program in Royal Palm Beach. Caleb attends a couple times a week.

Rearranging the toys, clothes and other stuff in the back seat of their Jeep, Caitlin said her mission is clear: keeping her family together and happy.

It’s hard, she said.

“The other day, I just cried and cried and cried. For about an hour. I couldn’t stop. Chris just rubbed my back. But we’ll get through this. I love making him and my kids happy,” she said.

CAITLIN’S AND CHRIS’ WISH

Following an attack of meningitis, 29-year-old Chris Earl is on total disability. He and his wife, Caitlin, 33, have a 10-year-old son, Caleb, who has autism. The family also has a 5-year-old daughter, Charlie. Caitlin is the sole caregiver in the Palm Beach Gardens family. The family needs a new vehicle to replace their 10-year-old Jeep with 227,000 miles, a new clothes dryer, a tablet for Caleb and a bicycle for Charlie.

Nominating agency: Grandma’s Place Inc., Royal Palm Beach.

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