Case in point: for several years after Lucia was born, because she needed and loved (and still loves) to be held, I struggled to find just ten minutes a day when my hands were free to sit in silence. But in the last ten months, I’ve finally realized something: I’m much better at praying when I’m holding Lucia. If I’m in my office alone, like I was this morning, I’m surrounded by my books and my responsibilities and distractions, and when an idea comes to me, my hands are instantly busied, trying to scratch down that idea on paper before it flees. My eyes flutter open and my attention floats away from prayer to the day ahead of me.
But if I’m holding Lucia, I can’t use my hands. When my eyes open or rest upon something, they often rest upon her, subtly bringing me back rather than away from the intention of it all. Lucia’s voiceless expectation, the hopeful way her eyes dart and wander and peek up at me lead me back to the very present act of holding her, and being with one another–and our just being with God.
What I often count as an aberration, an intrusion from the true beauty and solace of our backyard view of nature–the screech of a large truck coming to a halt or a car horn blaring–Lucia accepts with diligent curiosity, reminding me just how fickle and narrow my own attempt at spirituality can be.
Indeed, it is only through this quiet discipline that I’ve come to realize that acceptance, such willful abiding in God’s presence, is anything but passive. Rather it’s what I continue to yearn for after all these years, and that God has placed beside me a great spiritual teacher in my tender daughter is not so much a great irony, but a sweet revelation. I’ve always believed that you do not need words to pray, yet even my own beliefs can assert themselves so willfully that the prayer become secondary. But I’ve never so palpably felt the resonance and profundity of that quiet as when I’m in God’s presence with Lucia alongside me.
It was one of the last few days of the semester, the time when spring is tempting summer and so this particular student and I had elected to head outside to talk. As we settled onto the picnic table, she thanked me earnestly for all that she’d learned over the course of the semester, for my passion for ministry and students and for the class, but as she looked toward the exam she was to write, she had just one final question, she said.
“Do you really believe, Dr. Raffety, that people with disabilities have gifts for ministry?”
I could hardly believe what I was hearing, questioning whether I’d heard or understood her correctly, as she went onto qualify, quite sensitively, but definitively her disbelief in what I had believed to be the central tenet of the course–the one thing I’d been trying to get across all semester. It was a mixture of righteous indignation and bitter disappointment and bewilderment that took over me in that moment: just how might I convince her? Where could I even begin?
But might it work much the same way with gifts? I wondered. Because able-bodied people are looking for certain types of gifts in people with disabilities, gifts they’ve seen before in other able-bodied people and thus recognize, perhaps they literally don’t have the ability to perceive other gifts because they’re hovering under the surface, imperceptible to the able-bodied eye?
Less than a month into our study, a young woman from one of the families we interviewed died. I’ll still never understand how just a day after her sudden death, her mother had the wherewithal to contact a group of lowly researchers to let them know, but she did. One of our research assistants dutifully went to the funeral. Not only at her packed funeral but in a subsequent follow up visit, her parents shared the tremendous impact the young woman’s life had had on so many people around her, but also what they believed to be her unique abilities. As I listened to the interview, I noted how confidently her parents asserted, “She was an excellent judge of character. If she didn’t like someone, it was because she could tell they weren’t genuine… We often learned to take our cues from her reactions to people because she could really tell so much about them just from being with them,” her mother added. All this hypersensitivity and supreme ability from a 30 year-old woman who had physical and cognitive disabilities, limited purposeful movement and no words.
Was this family, especially still fresh in the throes of grief, generously but falsely attributing super powers to their daughter with disabilities? Or might it truly be possible, perhaps especially given their daughter’s presumed dis-abilities, that she had a unique way of interpreting and interacting with the world that has something to teach us?
I’ve always smarted at literature that pronounces the gifts of people with disabilities in terms that are limited and narrow–they’re notable for their wonder at the world, their slow ways of being, their vulnerability, even their joy. Those don’t seem like bad things on the surface, but the sparseness, simplicity, and uniformness of them, the suggestion that people with disabilities fall into these staid categories primarily because of their disabilities does not take full stock of their complicated ways of being human in the world that include but aren’t reduced to their disabilities. Of course, yet another suggestion, that people with disabilities exist as objects, not subjects through which able-bodied people can get in touch with their vulnerability and brokenness as distinct aspects of all our human nature, is also quite offensive.
There’s nothing broken about my daughter, thank you very much.
However, if I’m honest with myself, I’m not sure I’d ever contemplated how my daughter’s own differences in communication, brought forth by her disabilities, palpably registered in her limited movement, vision, and verbal invocations, might yield not just gifts of relationship or gifts of perspective but simply, gifts. I had long noticed that even when Lucia’s gaze was positively fixed on the ceiling or when she seemed little aware of her surroundings, when her father walked into the room, she’d giggle knowingly and even turn to smile in his direction. With low vision and limited head control, it’s pretty clear that she’s not seeing him, but sensing him otherwise; we’ve suspected that she “knows” him by the sound of the weight his carriage (and only his) induces upon our creaky floorboards, because she doesn’t react to anyone else coming into the living room that way.
I’ve long believed that Lucia also knows we’ve come home to our house and entered the garage by the way the light darkens inside the van and the bump into the threshold, at which she always starts smiling and giggling. But just a few days ago, she started smiling even as we pulled into the driveway! And when we came home late from our vacation a few days prior and deposited her asleep into her bed that night, but she ended up in our bed when she was crying the morning after, when I carried her downstairs into the living room, even before I could pronounce that we were home she beat me to it, erupting into giggles, without so much as turning her head to look around the room!
And so, a few days later when the child study team from Lucia’s school called and kept talking about how difficult Lucia is to reach, teach, and communicate with, I kept thinking, are we talking about the same kid? Sure, she doesn’t roll over and she can’t purposefully reach for objects, yet somehow, despite having low vision and not being able to purposefully turn her head with much precision, she knows who her father is. What’s the problem here, again? I wondered. My perspective had been so altered by what we had been seeing in our research study that I couldn’t see Lucia the way they saw her; in fact, I corrected them on it. I told them I didn’t want to hear anything more about how difficult my daughter was. Wasn’t it their job to perceive where communication was already happening and magnify it? Why were they approaching her as if something was wrong with her when it seemed something was wrong with them? (They didn’t like that very much.)
When I responded to my student’s question in May, I spoke from my experience regarding Lucia’s gifts for ministry and the gifts of some people with disabilities in our congregation. Just a few days after, I discovered this beautiful article from Amy Julia Becker, that could have been the anthem for my course, intentionally titled, after all as it was, “Ministry with People with Disabilities.”
But I feel convicted that even my own musings as a researcher, a scholar of disability, and a parent have been necessarily limited and incomplete. Looking back on months of our ethnographic study with families with children with disabilities who are nonverbal, nearly every single one of the families notes the gifts of their children with ease; a dramatic portion of them question whether their children are really cognitively impaired or if it’s just the world that’s disabling them. It makes so much sense–we believe that intelligence and gifts come in so many different forms. We say that all the time, but perhaps we don’t really believe it. But it was from the family of the 30-year old girl in our study, the person who had lived the longest, whose family arguably knew her the best and was the most familiar with her, from whom the most precise, dynamic assertion of gifts came.
The conviction of this research project has been that people with disabilities have so much to teach us about communication and joy and spirituality if we would just have ears to listen. But my student wasn’t the only one who needs to be rid of her own prejudice and obstacles and ableism to really appreciate the gifts of people with disabilities. That’s a lesson I’m learning everyday. Indeed, I might have replied:
“Yes, I do believe people with disabilities have gifts for ministry, but sometimes I may struggle to see them. That doesn’t mean they’re not there. It means I have a lot of growing to do. But I’m thankful that God has granted me a glimpse of them and I will continue to pray that I can learn to see differently and honor what God is doing in them and through them. I pray that God grants you that, too.”
As we roll Lucia away from the face painting station on Saturday, a bright blue and yellow seahorse on her flushed cheek, I overhear the student ask the next little girl who’s climbed up into the chair how old she is. “Four,” she replies effortlessly. “Oh, you must be in preschool then?” the woman asks.
Lucia is four. Lucia is in preschool. But she doesn’t climb up on chairs or talk. I rather marvel at the young girl’s speech and motor-skills until I remember that my kid is the one people sometimes describe as “really disabled,” that my kid is the one who’s developmentally behind, delayed, atypical. It’s only in brief dissonant moments like these that I sense that my kid might be “other” to someone else or that our life might be considered atypical, because of course, to me, she’s just another four year-old with face paint, and we’re her parents.
But I’ve often felt like I’ve glimpsed something other-worldly in my daughter when she laughs, because the giggles tumble so uncontrollably out of her taut little body, erupting out of her, they seem to send ripples throughout the room. When we’re in public, I love to catch people, especially otherwise grouchy looking people, finding those giggles downright contagious, moved by the pure joy of the sound of her laughs, the generous, inclusive flash of her wide smile. She lacks words, but in these moments words are obliterated, unnecessary. She can’t really move on her own from her wheelchair and yet when Lucia laughs with true abandon, completely undeterred by anyone else around her, it strikes me that she is uniquely, utterly free.
Earlier that Saturday morning when Lucia and I sit there lazily in the living room, still in a stupor from a sleep study we completed the night before at a hospital an hour away from home, my husband says something astounding. He reminds me, the anthropologist, that the oppressing milestones of developmentalism inflict not just stress, but moral judgment on many a parent. Feeling as though it is up to you to usher your child through life’s varied stages with utmost precision is constraining and exhausting. And by that yardstick, our four year adventure in parenting is one colossal failure.
But then, we’ve also been set free.
We live life and we parent simply for the joy of it all. We don’t worry if we’re doing it right, because all we can do is seek comfort and happiness for our girl. We’re hurt when she hurts, of course, and there are times we wish we could fix things that we can’t. That pain that she feels and that hopelessness that we often feel are not to be understated. And yet, because of all the things we can’t do as parents and perhaps some of the things Lucia can’t do herself, we’re also very free.
We can’t hardly do anything but love her, and so we do, one joy-filled day at a time.
And it’s weird, precisely because Lucia does so little, I feel like it’s easier not to get lost in what she does, but to get to know her for who she is–a generous, patient, gregarious little soul–and it reminds me that none of us are the sum of our accomplishments anyway. So why do we let ourselves treat our kids that way? As if life is mostly gain and growth, when they’re all we’ve ever wanted, just as they are. Maybe it’s because deep down we’re not sure we’re really enough just as we are as people and parents. We could always be doing more, right? We are our own enemies of freedom, our own robbers of joy.
But before you say that we’re extraordinary or that Lucia’s extraordinary (okay, well that may be true!), let me tell you something else: there’s little in life that we actually control and when it comes down to it control is not at all what it’s cracked up to be. What’s extraordinary is that in a world of such chance and circumstance and chaos, we three get to live life together. We get granted these moments of joy and freedom that are other-worldly and grace-filled.
Now as a Christian, I tend to think joy is a gift from God, but whether you’re a person of faith or not, you may be able to agree that joy seems to come from elsewhere and only deigns to nestle itself between people with audacious graciousness–it’s always granted, never earned. That’s the one thing I guess we’ve come to understand about parenting, too. Its freedom is granted, but it also requires our willingness to let go of all the things we think are so important to receive it. I’m sure it may look like many of those things have been stripped from us, wrested from our control in becoming Lucia’s parents, but I just don’t see it that way.
Because when Lucia’s gone, I doubt I’ll remember or cherish how well she stood in her stander, how efficiently she swallowed bites of puree, or even mimicked the sounds of our voices, but I’ll never forget the sound of her laughter. I’ll pine for it, like I pine for nothing else. And I’ll pine for the way that laughter bid me to laugh alongside her, when I wouldn’t have had the courage to laugh with such abandon on my own. Without Lucia, I wouldn’t be a parent. Learning to love Lucia, I, too, have been set free.
The other evening a few of my friends indulged me in asking about my summer research project on disability and joy. I yammered on a bit about my excitement about what I might learn from families with persons with disabilities who are nonverbal, and then my husband spoke up. He talked about the presumed extremes and edges for families raising children with disabilities, especially children with rare and life-threatening conditions like ours. “Either you’re at one extreme, devoting all your time and energy into fighting this disease and finding a cure, or you’re slumped over on the couch, defeated and depressed, resigned and remorse that life is so cruel and painful.”
Of course, I’m paraphrasing. Although my husband has spoken of these extremes often, down to the very way he first framed our public announcement of Lucia’s diagnosis, I’m not sure it had ever occurred to me how these hostile extremes prey upon and distort the reality of life as we know it with Lucia. Why didn’t I think to frame my project this way, I thought? After all, isn’t it this insidious framing that makes the pairing of “disability and joy” so presumably unexpected and rare?
These stereotypes about parents of kids with special needs, made it and continue to make it really hard for me to open up as Lucia’s been in a really trying and uncertain period of feeding intolerance. In our first ethnographic interview for the project this week, one of the parents spoke eloquently about the burden of communication that’s placed on she and her husband to keep the world appraised of her child’s medical status and progress report. A few weeks ago on a Sunday where I’d finally resolved to open up about how overwhelmed my husband and I felt about Lucia’s feeding difficulties, I quickly found myself sandwiched between two platitudes–the one about God giving special kids to special parents and the other about kids being able to overcome their disabilities with hard work, and I just wanted to scream.
When well-meaning friends jump so quickly to wishing life was otherwise for us and striving to help we and Lucia overcome all her challenges, I feel shortchanged and silenced, because it starts to feel like our life’s everyday difficulties come as such disappointments to others, and then I feel the burden of having to help others find narratives of progress amidst our very chronic, circular story. Of course you wish the best for us, but when that comes at the cost of your narration and my silence, I can’t help but feel you’re wishing away so swiftly and expertly the difference between us, without acknowledging that that difference is where my family and I live. I know it may sound harsh, but in these moments I often feel as though people would rather experience my family’s thriving or failing as a spectator sport, watching from a distance, finding some sentimentality in it, and then going back to their regularly scheduled lives, buffered by that comfortable (manmade) chasm between us and our seemingly very different realities.
I’m aware that neither my humble ethnographic project nor my blog posts can suddenly or significantly alter the cultural scripts surrounding families with family members with disabilities (let alone people with disabilities, especially people who are nonverbal, but that’s for another post…), but I do believe there is great power in helping families tell their stories as they want them to be told.
When I came home from church that evening a bit emotionally battered and bruised, I thought about why those conversations stung so much. They stung because the truth was that amidst great hardship, I didn’t feel that things were just hard on the eve of Lucia’s fourth birthday, I also felt exceedingly grateful. And so I began to write parts of this post and I resolved to try again. Yet another Sunday, I told my story with its mix of grace and hardship and beauty and pain and joy, oh yes, deep, resounding joy, to a few members of another family during coffee hour. I remember the concerned look on their faces, their heads nodding, I don’t remember much of anything they said, but I certainly remember how I felt. To be accepted as I was, not really by their words, but by their nods and their faces and their hearts, was like a balm to my soul.
They did me the honor and ministry of letting my story hang between us, but what may have been slightly uncomfortable to them felt so freeing and resonant and powerful to me. I realized that I have tentatively decided to share my story on this blog over and over not always even so that others can understand, let alone feel better, but so that in this swarming world that buzzes and pulses and consumes and compresses my daughter’s life into sound bytes and platitudes and pity, I can simply hear my own voice. I know it sounds selfish to put it that way, but perhaps the battle that parents with kids with disabilities are fighting is not primarily one against disease or difficulties but against the perception that their kids lives don’t matter or that their kids aren’t like other kids or their families aren’t like other families, because they can be summed up in stereotypes that pronounce their differences in cruel, inhuman ways. The isolation isn’t primarily physical but social, one where you find yourself telling a story that should be yours but that either no one else wants to hear, or everyone else wants to narrate, resolve, and redress for you.
But stories always have more complexity, a life of their own, and depth beyond what we can ever imagine. They’re just one more fabulous aspect of what makes us human–that we all have a story to tell.
Thank you for letting me share some of mine. And thank you, most of all, for really hearing it.