Monthly Archives: January 2017

My resistance

The first year I was teaching in the writing program Lucia was diagnosed with Aicardi-Goutieres Syndrome just a month after her first birthday.  I remember that despite the cake and the guests, there was a somberness to that first birthday.  Lucia couldn’t eat the cake we made, because she’d just begun feeding through a tube a few months prior.  We worried that she’d spit up violently during the party like she often did or that she’d scream in pain most of the time.  But mostly we felt intent to celebrate because we didn’t know how many birthdays we’d have and we were desperate and determined to have that first one even if it wasn’t perfect.

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Lucia’s first birthday party.

Later that summer I began to wonder what God was doing.  

I’d spent years doing research in China studying foster families who raise children with disabilities; disability in China had become so unexpectedly a professional, academic interest.  And then we had our own child with special needs and it all felt a bit too close for comfort.  People wondered about the order of things: surely you planned to study disability because of your own child?  No, it was the other way around?  They’d shake their heads disconcertedly, unnerved, perplexed.  It felt reductive to presume God had been equipping us in China to be Lucia’s parents or a bit simplistic and crass to pronounce that Lucia’s disability and our relationships with families in China had all been a part of God’s plan, but it was also hard not to see it that way either.

But somewhere along the way, I began to embrace what God was doing even if I didn’t gully understand it.  I began to dream that summer about a writing course about disability, but would students want to take such a course, I wondered.  When we develop our writing courses our directors always encourage us to get inside the minds of 18 year olds arriving at college, and so the most popular classes are on madness, New York, extra-terrestrials, and film.  Would a course on disability really be something freshman students would care about?

I’m not sure how popular my course has been, but every semester, two groups of twelve students walk in the door.  Many of them come because they have a family member who has a disability, and they want to understand and talk about it.  Some of them are just curious.  I’m sure for several of them, my course wasn’t their first choice and they just ended up there by chance.

But I try to make the most of that chance.  

The course considers disability as a form of diversity, a form of difference, and challenges the students to think beyond what they thought they knew about disability to reconsider how disability can teach us more about what it means to be human.  At an elite, ivy league university, the thought that people with intellectual disabilities might be insightful when it comes to our knowledge about humanity it a particularly challenging, counter-cultural thought.  For some of my students that dissonance, having a brother back at home who struggles to speak because of his autism, while they are thousands of miles away, toiling for the mere self-improvement of their own mind, is nearly too much to bear.  During a routine writing conference, one such student broke down and told me, “I just had to take your course.  When I look at all the ones on campus, it is the only one that seems to matter.”

I am not a miracle worker, but I do try to offer those students shelter and companionship within the world of academia.  I know just how inhospitable such a world can be to the daughter I love most, the daughter who has taught me more about myself, life, and God than nearly any other human being on the planet–and yet to so many, she is broken, disabled, lacking.  Together with twenty-four students each semester in this small, windowless classroom, we encounter just that kind of prejudice and exclusion toward people with disabilities, and I invite them to see otherwise.

What happens each semester is powerful.  

Not only are there brave, open-minded students who have little contact with people with disabilities but come because they want to learn, but there are students with disabilities in my classroom who find that they are not alone and they are valued.  There are students who leave impassioned to work with and learn more about people with disabilities even though they came in somewhat hesitant.

And at the end of the semester, when I have the students write narratives and Op-Eds about what they’ve learned about disability, I am overwhelmed.  At the end of a semester of rigorous academic writing, they are invited to share their hearts, and I sit there with my coffee and my computer, humbled and honored to be invited into their beautiful, painful lives.  So many students have written about how religious leaders have been so limited in their understanding of disability, hurting their family members, denying their humanity.  So many have written about their own struggles with learning disabilities or mental illness that they’ve often kept to themselves on a campus that doesn’t have time for any inkling of weakness.  Still others find the language of disability and difference a provocative opening to reconsider their experiences of race, class, gender, or body issues.

Every semester these disability narratives blow me away.

I learn so much from my students.  Indeed, it was with that first class that I began to write about my own experiences–“I’m Not Sorry” was my disability narrative that I wrote alongside them, because I told them that I couldn’t ask them to be so brave if I wasn’t willing to try, too.  These students have made me realize that the collision of my personal and professional life is both a gift and a responsibility.  As I read over these narratives this past week, I realized that students leave my classroom better equipped to appreciate what is sacred in people who are different from them.  And the hope that welled up in my heart when I read those narratives was distinct and surprising and so thrilling, because these students will resist attempts to belittle those who are different and those with disabilities.  I know they will.  These students will use their knowledge for good.  It is because of these students that I can’t help but find purpose in my life and Lucia’s life; the opportunity to serve them and to grow alongside them is just too precious, too unique.

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A few days ago, I snidely posted the following words to my social media account,

“Apparently there’s an inauguration today. Meanwhile, I have rearranged my office for maximum coziness while I get to read the exams where my students explore what they’ve learned about disability and difference over the course of our semester. How’s that for a protest, Mr. Trump? Three semesters (and counting) of students who will value and advocate for people with disabilities: we will make America great with or without you.”

So you see, this class, while it’s not overtly political is a distinct act of resistance in a world that is far too close-minded, cruel, and careless when it comes to the lives of people with disabilities.  It’s resistance that comes from knowledge and hope and love.  It is the resistance that I choose and that has chosen me.  And I will carry on because just a few years removed from Lucia’s first birthday, I no longer question God at all.  Rather all I can do is thank God for God’s incredible vision and a life so humble and yet, so grand.

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Thanks again.

We, like so many other parents across the globe, took our almost three year old to her first political protest on Saturday.  And like so many, it was not necessarily the words of the speakers or the size of the protest that mattered so much, but the experience of standing alongside others in that damp, dreary weather and feeling the light and the warmth of knowing we’re not alone in the fight for the rights and dignity of all people in this country.

But when another pastor came up with his family to tell us that he had first started to take his now teenage son to protests when he was about Lucia’s age I have to admit that I was a little dismissive.  Lucia would probably not be conscious of this protest anymore than ones she might attend in the future–in other words, I was emphatically aware of the cavernous difference between his able-bodied son and my disabled daughter, of his typical family and my not so typical one.  Minutes later an elderly woman wanted to present Lucia was the paper crane she’d been fashioning while she stood beside us.

 

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Photo credit.

“Kids must be so bored at these things,” she whispered.  “Perhaps she’d like something to play with.”  

“Oh, well she can’t really use her arms,” I replied dryly.  

“Well, can she see?” she persisted.  

“No, not really,” I replied again, rather impatiently.  

“But she can feel,” I finally acquiesced, flapping the tiny wings of the little bird against Lucia’s cheek to the woman’s contentment.

Even then, despite this woman’s resolute patience, I felt a pang of ambivalence.  I perceived her persistence to be a reflection of her own desire to give her gift, whether or not it might be appropriate to give or whether Lucia could really receive of it.  Despite the myriad of people who encircled us to tell us that they liked our “#disabled lives matter” sign and smile at our toddler with special needs, I realized how was possible it was to feel disconnected to the 7500 people with which we stood.

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Protesting at the Trenton Women’s March.  My photo.

Nonetheless, not only the Trenton march, but the hundreds across the globe, especially the march on Washington, were an enormous success, and on Sunday as we stood in the church hallway, the other pastor and I chatted excitedly about what it feels like to be part of history.  I remarked on how deeply moved I was by all the supportive responses to the piece I published on Thursday on this blog and Friday in the Huffington Post and how emotional it was when friends texted me photos of themselves marching in name for our daughter, Lucia, and disabled people across the country.  But then again, almost before the words were out of my mouth, I realized I didn’t like how they sounded: I realized I was being dismissive again.  I said something like how loved we felt, how Lucia had been so happy all day, but of course, she didn’t understand much of what really was going on, although it still meant something to us, to her parents.

“Oh, I don’t know,” my colleague replied graciously and carefully with something like,  “I think love is love.  I’m not sure we really know how people love, how it works, or how they receive it, but I think we can feel it.  I think everyone can feel it.”  

I swallowed, a big lump rising in my throat, and I thought about the pastor and his kids and the woman with the paper crane.  I thought about the 7500 people marching in Trenton and millions of others across the globe.  I thought about the words I’d written last week, and I realized that in the midst of calling for Lucia’s rights and for real love for her, I, too, have the ability to silence her.

It’s not up to me to decide what’s love or whether or how Lucia receives it.  I realize that as much as I understand the reality of my daughter’s differences, I am not in a position to fathom what love really feels like to her, how she receives it, and how she experiences it.  Those are my own limitations, and it’s not for me to constantly assert her differences when other people see common ground, or to presume that there’s a right or a wrong way to love her.  I realize that perfect love isn’t about the most appropriate gift or words or gesture, but it’s about the desire to engage, to stand with, and to keep trying, even when the caverns seem massive and deep.

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Amy Gabriel of marches in South Jersey.  Photo by Dave Hernandez (Burlington County Times).

So with a humble heart and a contrite spirit, I realize just how tremendous and miraculous your outpouring of support has been, how deeply thankful I am to all of you not only because you’re fighting the good fight, you’ve got my girl’s back, and you’re doing everything you can to be a voice for justice, but because you remind me and are teaching me everyday about what love really means.  You’re teaching me what it really means to let go and let Lucia love and be loved by you.  And it’s not necessarily how I would have imagined it.

But thank God for that.

Thank God that despite our limitations, God somehow uses people to enable love to break through and remind us that God is love–that perfect love looks like undeniable kinship between so seemingly different families, paper cranes, spirited marches, letters to Congress, Lucia’s happiness, and so much in between.  

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Our happy smiles on Saturday.  My photo.

Love is love and God is love and that’s why, despite our best (and flawed) human efforts, we’re never really alone.

—–

P.s. The Betsy DeVos vote has been postponed until Jan. 31 so that gives you a week to call your Senator!  See my previous post post-script (hehe) on why DeVos is bad on disability rights and how to call.

P.p.s. The Jeff Sessions vote could be as early as tomorrow!  Call your Senator now to oppose and read this article to see why he’s bad for disability rights, too.

P.p.p.s. Letter writing is effective!  Learn how here and please write to your Congress-people (you have one rep and three senators) asking them to protect state and federal Medicaid for families with disabilities!

Breaking the silence: why I’m asking you to be an advocate for children like mine

I’ve noticed that when I write posts about our life with Lucia and I tell you about our family’s journey in getting to know, understand, and love our child with disabilities, we are met with such love, encouragement, and support.  These posts have been such a deep point of connection for me with all of you because they show me how much you value children like Lucia, who have special needs.  They encourage me that you see value in difference and that you understand some of our challenges, delight, and struggle, and this is no small thing.

But I’ve noticed something else, too.  

I’ve noticed that when I post a video to my Facebook page showing Donald Trump mocking a reporter with a disability or an article that explains some of the challenges people with disabilities face if Medicaid or Obamacare are to be cut, or even an article that questions the President Elect’s secretary of education nominee’s understanding and value for the federal government’s protection of the civil rights of people with disabilities, there is no such outpouring of love and support, no litany of encouraging comments or outcries for justice.  Save for a few courteous likes, in fact, you are mostly silent.

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Photo credit.

So with sincere confusion and heartache and much trepidation, I want to ask, friends, why the silence when it comes to these issues of justice and provision and daily life for people with disabilities?  Is it because we remain deeply divided in this country and that divide extends to the question of how best to care for, empower, and support people with disabilities?  I guess I understand that.  We are divided in this country about so many things.

But I want to tell you something–the main reason I began writing Lucia’s story this past year is because I realized that it was so worthy of being shared and that she has so much to teach us.  But somewhere along the way, I also realized that when I write about my daughter with special needs on this blog, I do so in an ardent effort to bridge that very divide between us.  In fact, I write Lucia’s story (sometimes gingerly and ambivalently) precisely because she doesn’t and she may never have the words to tell it herself.  I write Lucia’s story because so many people with disabilities don’t have the hands and feet or the energy to call or march or lobby or fight for their own rights.  Of course many of them do, and that is why we have federal legislation like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) because so many people with disabilities worked so hard to ensure that such persons are not denied basic rights to citizenship, employment, and education, but the ADA came along only in the 1990s and the IDEA is still imperfect and under threat even today.

There is so much to be done.

We live in New Jersey because when it comes to children with special (medical) needs, the NJ state program is one of the best around.  But we lucked into that with Lucia being born here rather than in say, Indiana or Texas.  And we can’t move out of this state because so few states offer the comprehensive skilled nursing care and Medicaid-sponsored secondary insurance that Lucia’s needs require, and these are the services that allow our child to get the care she needs so both my husband and I can work.  In so many other states where benefits are scant, one parent must stay home, and even when they receive benefits, it is these parents’ hard work that actually saves the state and the federal government hundreds of thousands of dollars a year because it’s way cheaper for parents to care for their kids in their homes than for governments to institutionalize them.

But these are all best case scenarios–yes, that scenario in which you must quit your job but you get some benefits and you get paid minimum wage to care for your medically fragile child in your home, or our scenario where you have such great benefits but you’re literally trapped in the state, you can’t consider other jobs outside your state or a home closer to family because those states don’t have coverage–those are the best case scenarios.  The worst cases are states that have so substantially cut their Early Intervention or Medicaid programs that families can’t afford these very expensive services that their kids need to grow, or worse, survive.  The worst case scenarios are ones where children still sit idle in classrooms with no appropriate or adaptive equipment because states don’t have the necessary funding or won’t put it toward the challenges of kids with special needs.  The worst case scenario is a country that becomes so divided that we fail to care for these kids and their families at both the federal and state level, a country wherein we’ve forgotten their rights and thus denied their humanity.

So when you hear politicians threatening to cut Medicaid and deny federal laws that protect children with special needs rights to education, will you remember our family and other families like ours and resolve to stand with us and not be silent?  Will you realize and acknowledge that so many families who care for people with disabilities are currently scraping by with so little (nobody gets rich off of disability), and cuts to federal and state programming make it hard for their parents to work, hard for their kids to go to good schools, and hard for such children to get good medical care, supportive seating that helps them go places, and braces to walk, run, and stand?  (There is still no comprehensive mandate across this country to enable these families to live sustainable lives–we’ve left that to the states and so many families are living the worst case scenarios everyday.)

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Lucia smiling with her father.  My photo.

These are the things I’ve perhaps neglected to tell as a part of Lucia’s story, because they’re personal and painful and arduous and inglorious but not any less true.  But if I can’t humble myself to speak these truths, and if this part of being different goes unknown in this country, then I’ve become complicit in this silence as well.

So thank you from the bottom of my heart for loving our family, for supporting all of us, and for sharing our story.  But most all, thank you for being part of a less raucous but no less valid and valiant movement in this country to seek understanding across our differences.  Thank you for considering this challenge to advocacy–the charge to love us by lifting your voice on behalf of my family and others and to seek the best for all people, especially people with special needs.  When you think about it, beyond Donald Trump’s mockery and Hillary Clinton’s platform, people with disabilities were again surprisingly absent from all this political jarring and sparring and posturing: where was the outcry against police violence toward people with disabilities (#criplivesmatter), or the righteous indignation over the exclusion of disabled people’s rights from the progressive Women’s March platform?

Let’s change this country, friends.  They’re going after kids like mine, and it’s not right.  

Let’s break the silence.  One phone call, one story, many voices, together.

P.s. If you’d like to get started today,

  • Please call your Senator and oppose the appointment of Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education and Jeff Sessions for Attorney General.  You can read here and here why we don’t trust them when it comes to protecting our children with disabilities.
  • Sign up for news and alerts to fight for disability rights.
  • Talk to a family you know about their struggles and advocate on their behalf.
  • Carry a sign at one of the marches this weekend that makes it clear that you value and support the rights of people with disabilities–let’s make these marches truly progressive and inclusive!

 

 

 

It was always good.

A few months ago my husband said something to somebody about relishing the times when Lucia was a little baby (even though she was screaming all the time), because they were lovely and quaint and we’ll never get them back.

I remember so vividly how I just looked at him like he was an alien when he said that, because I couldn’t have felt more differently.

But I think I finally know what he meant.

I’m not sure, but I think there might be some great misnomer out there that life with children with special needs is abominably hard and painful all the time rather than also delightful and sweet and radiant and good.

Like one might assume that being in the hospital all the time sucks, and it really, really does, but then again, it also creates these long stints where we get this built-in family time and we really talk to each other and love and care for each other.  Our memories might be punctuated by hospital stays, but they’re also punctuated by moments we got to know our kid better and our love for her became fiercer.

Or what about the moments in between the screaming Lucia did as a newborn when she collapsed into our chests or fell asleep with her head in our hands?  Or how even though feeding her seemed to be practically killing her, walks in the fresh air were a balm to her soul?

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Baby Lucia and I on one of those early, perfect walks in the woods.  My photo.

I think what my husband realized even more than me is that the hard months that came very quickly after Lucia’s birth, the challenging diagnosis, and all the hospital stays can’t, don’t, and won’t crowd out the truth or mar the delight we have in her and the fondness with which we always think on her and the family she has made us.

There can be, and there is in life, so much that is distinctly and perfectly good even when it’s hard and rotten and difficult.

This year when I looked back to my very first post of 2016, when I started sharing Lucia’s journey and ours alongside hers, I was struck by the words I used to describe it all:

“My husband and I have become parents to a precious child with profound special needs.  It has changed and will change our life forever.  And it is good.”

It is good.  It has always been good.  

There was the truth right there, writ all over my announcement to the world of who Lucia is and how our life has been and will be with her.  Do I often wish that we could heal her wounds swiftly and eliminate her pain?  Of course!  Do I pain to see her struggle to do simple things and sometimes just survive?  Why yes.  Do we all not know what to make of some of these challenges and decisions sometimes?  Precisely.

But does God, in all of his infinite wisdom find her so perfect and so good that there’s not a question in my mind that we are distinctly and deeply blessed?  Definitely.

“It was good,” God said when God made all of creation.  And he meant it.  Though life may be flawed and time may bring wounds and pain and hardship, all goodness is transcendent, true, and from God.

And I am deeply thankful to see and know Lucia in all her goodness, one day at a time.

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Some 2017 smiles.  My photo.  Happy New Year!

 

 

What I Learned in 2016

Publicly 2016 has been a year that will go down as one of the most violent, tumultuous, and cruel.  I had been thinking of it that way myself, until I came across this article that speaks to some of the less covered triumphs of the year, and until I did my own year in review on the blog.

I was shocked to realize that it was only just a year ago that I began sharing Lucia’s story on the blog, and although this year hasn’t been easy, she continues to teach me more about life and love and God than practically any other human being on the planet.  She’s inspired a whole category of posts (22, make this 23, in fact) on disability, and she’s made me realize how valuable it is to share journeys of hardship and strength with one another.  Thank you all for letting me share!

As I’ve done many years before, here are some of the lessons I’ve learned from life and God and Lucia in 2016.  Follow along with me and find your own redemption in 2016.  Looking through these lessons always reminds me how emphatically present God really is in our lives, how far I’ve come in terms of my understanding of God, and of course, how much further I have to go.

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Art credit.

Here’s to 2017!  May it be bright, peaceful, and chocked full of spiritual wisdom and hope for all of you.

  1.  I’m not sorry–nope, not one bit!
  2. Sometimes the faith of others can carry you through.
  3. We are all needy.
  4. Forgoing security for faith is, well, what the life of faith is all about.
  5. Modern medicine doesn’t have a monopoly on what it means to live a meaningful life.
  6. The Church needs people with disabilities!
  7. I have learned to hope again.
  8. It’s all ministry.
  9. Luck’s got very little to do with it.
  10. I embrace difference as a spiritual discipline.
  11. Conviction is a luxury.
  12. Who could have imagined life would be this grand?
  13. Let’s not make grief unpalatable.
  14. Joy often comes in the midst of despair.

 

P.s. Here are some lessons learned and looks back at previous years on the blog if you’re curious:

2011, 20122013, and 2014