The Gifts We Receive
It's almost Christmas, so like any overgrown kid, I'm thinking about the gifts I'm getting this year...and the gifts I've gotten already...from my children. I don't know why I feel like this is easier to understand if I graph it...but it makes sense to me, so I'm thinking of this graph in my head. On the x axis is age, on the y axis is a weird dimensionless combination of kindness and patience, of empathy and compassion, of gratitude and generosity...we'll call it "humanity". Don't worry, I'll plot it out for you in a minute, you don't have to do math or visualize the graph yourself. It would be specific for each person, a measurement of..."humanity" through the years. The chart itself would be almost meaningless unless annotated, a series of rises and falls over time. In general I think (or would hope) everyone's graph would slowly rise over time, but many of us would have a series of unexplained cliff-like climbs (or dizzying drops) and these would beg for notations. My graph would look a little like this: The rises and falls would correspond to important life-shaping events. The things that made us really think, the things that made us really feel, or the things that numbed those things out. Where we learned and grew as people, the line would climb, where we sank into ourselves the line would plummet. My graph would come with these annotations: And I certainly don't intend for the very scientific graph of my life to mean your specific graph would look the same. Maybe you weren't the asshat that I was during my college years, or maybe the slow descent into that period associated with my teenage years were a period of remarkable gratitude and conspicuous maturity in your life that other teenage kids should use as a model of adolescent growth. Maybe your graph looks like this: Maybe. My point is, the older and more mature I've gotten...the "better" I've gotten. But nothing has made me a better person than having a special needs child has. Okay, I swear I'm done with graphs now. Sorry. Getting married changed me. It was gradual, as she slowly wore me down and confronted me with the reality that the world somehow did not revolve around me. I started considering others' feelings. Having my first daughter really changed me. I remember my wife watching CSI one evening. Emma was maybe 1 at the time. On the show a father had left his baby in his car as he went into a store. The car was off, the windows closed, and the hot summer Las Vegas sun baked the infant to death. I was so uncomfortable I had to leave the room. Hallmark commercials moved me to tears. Every night I went to bed and worried about SIDS and abductions and all the other nameless horrors that new parents use to build a healthy sense of paranoia. And all of a sudden children metamorphosed from annoying little noise makers to giggling little joy factories. Waking up in the middle of the night to rock her back to sleep was something I looked forward to, not something I dreaded. Every feeling of protectiveness and love was somehow magnified. And then we had Lily, and nothing at all made sense, and our expectations constantly rewired themselves and our personalities built muscles in all sorts of areas we didn't know we even used or needed. It was an adventure that left us emotionally sore with but developing new strengths; it was emotional weightlifting. We began to see joy in little victories. We became more patient. We learned empathy. I don't want to over-generalize this because I think it sounds insulting to great parents who don't have special needs kids, but at least for me, it forced me to stop observing my child growing up and become an active participant as a parent. I was no longer just watching my child hit milestones, master skills, make friends, do homework...I was involved in the process. I had convinced myself that Emma's easy milestones and good nature were in no small part the result of good parenting, but Lily's struggles constantly had us reinventing our approach, changing things, researching options, consulting with experts. By comparison we hadn't parented Emma at all. She just sort of...turned out. We learned to advocate, we gained patience and developed empathy, questioning our past easy assumptions that a child struggling behaviorally must have bad parents, or was a 'bad' kid. We learned we didn't really know anything, and that ironically, the people who knew they knew the least, seemed to be the ones who were doing it the best. Call it baptism by fire. I'm not saying it wasn't painful, or that it isn't still painful at times. But I will say without question that Lily has taught me more about parenting than any book ever could. She's taught me more about patience and understanding in her 7 years than I learned in the previous 36. She's taught me more about sharing and caring, about being softer and less judgmental, about being supportive and lending a helping hand than I ever would have dreamed possible. I hope those things sound like gifts to you. God knows if 12 year old me had unwrapped a giant box of "humanity" on Christmas morning, I'd probably have said..."what is THIS crap?" I guess maybe it sounds a little overdramatic or altruistic, but really the absolute greatest gifts we can receive as human beings, are those things that make us somehow more human. To paraphrase a movie quote, "They make me want to be a better father."