The Gift of Special Needs

A few months ago (spring 2018), Denise and I were at an event in Bellingham for parents who have kids with special needs.  At this even, we struck up a conversation with a woman who was hosting the event, and has dedicated her career to working with kids with special needs and their families.  It was an lighthearted chat, she was an easy person to talk to, and we were having a relaxed time together talking about our three kids and what our family dynamic is like. 

I think she leaned into that relaxed space, so in deciding to take a step closer to us, she opened up about the struggles she was having with her sixth-grade daughter.  In the span of a few short months, her cheerful, effervescent, happy child had morphed into a brooding, aloof, and annoyed-with-mom teenager.  She was scared, and confused, and in observing that we have three kids and a daughter who is sixteen, she wondered what advice we might offer.  

My answer surprised myself, and I think I felt the freedom to be so open with her because she’s dedicated her career to working with kids with special needs and their families.  I said to her, “The best advice I can give you is to go adopt a kid with special needs, because having a kid with special needs has made me more patient, made me slow down and pay attention to the person who is right in front of me, made me listen to the child that I have rather than the child I wished I’d had, and made me look at my own failures and still love myself and my family.  I would have never worked this hard at parenting without that.  Now, I know you’re not really going to do that, but you’ve probably encouraged parents with special needs to be more patient, to slow down, and to attend to the children they actually have (rather than the children they might’ve wished for), and you’re going to need to find some source to cultivate that in your own life.” 

We talked for awhile about how to live this out, and the rest of the conversation went well, and we left the event on a hopeful note.  And as Denise and I walked to the parking lot, we reflected on the poignancy of our advice.  It really is true.  While I would never want to distill the ’secret of parenting’ to a single bullet point, I can freely admit that having a child with special needs has made me a much better father.  I am more patient with all my kids, I am more attentive to all my kids, and I am much better prepared to talk about the good and the bad, the beautiful and the awkward, the easy and the hard parts of life.  I am more free to love the people in my life as I cultivate a life of patience, awareness of how my actions affect others, and how to communicate my love in a way that makes sense to these foreign and incredible people who call me Dad.  

So when I think about Church, I hope to have a place to invite this woman I met, and let her get a taste of what this life is like.  I want to be a part of a church community where the voices of the mentally and physically handicapped are active and celebrated and woven into the fabric of a community of worship, so that we all can experience a taste of the Kingdom of God together. 

***Note that my grandfather was born on this day 95 years ago.  I miss him dearly, as he was such a profound influence on my life and my faith.  His daughter, my mother’s sister, was born severely mentally handicapped, and the gift of my aunt’s life influenced all of us.  Being in relationship with the handicapped has always been a part of my story.  While there are many stories I could’ve written today, I’m not surprised to be writing this one, and I have tears in my eyes as I think about how much fun it would be to go fishing with my grandfather and watch him love on me and my family.***