“Mom, just think, if I didn’t have special needs, you might be driving a Lamborghini,” said my now 12-year-old. He was lying in bed, watching the ceiling, pouring out thoughts. I knew he was thinking about that kid from school who had teased him again. There's always that kid.
“No really. It’s true. Think about all the money you and Dad could have by now. Like millions, right? Think how different your life would be…” He sat up. “Seriously, Mom!”
He was my oldest boy who’d undergone open-heart surgery, endured further heart complications— who hadn’t been permitted to attend preschool in California for more than an hour or two because of his hyperactivity, compulsive behavior, his lack of ability to connect with other children. He was the kid who once had a permanent therapist following him.
Today he looks pretty close to mainstream. He's still silly, but he gets good grades, wins gold medals in running and swimming, skis the Swiss Alps and dives into cold alpine lakes almost without flinching. Most most of all— he's incredibly compassionate.
Once he was the boy pulling rooms and objects to pieces— grabbing and hurling everything in sight. Starting at age three, he fled the classroom, playground, store. He started occupational therapy at age two. He wasn’t permitted to attend recess until age eleven, wasn’t allowed to eat lunch with other kids, wasn’t invited to birthday parties or anywhere, really. He was the child eventually homeschooled, visiting every kind of high fee medical “expert” imaginable. He was my boy prescribed meds by too many psychiatrists before he became so depressed at age ten that we thought we might lose him.
“Money? Are you kidding?” I asked him. I watched his half-moon smile, his priceless gem-colored eyes return my gaze. I thought of how well he’d acclimated to his sixth new school that happened to be in Switzerland where we had moved partly to help him succeed. Gratitude isn’t nearly a big enough word, I thought.
“Well, you have to admit. It’d be cool to drive a Lamborghini,” he cocked his head.
“I’m not the type,” I said. “But maybe if you didn’t have special needs, I’d be different.”
“Yea, like you’d think cars and stuff are important.”
“If you didn’t have special needs, maybe I’d be more worried about looking cool.” I thought about me appearing anything but cool over the previous years, often failing to manage his defiance, my stress, his meltdowns, my fear, his loud silly jokes in quiet places, my shaking hands.
“And maybe I wouldn’t like so many types of kids and people. And maybe I wouldn’t even write… I wouldn’t have started special needs support groups. I wouldn’t volunteer to help other kids with problems. I wouldn’t have such special friends,” I coughed to cover my emotion.
He inhaled. “And I wouldn’t know Rich or Joanie or April.” He named the specialists who’ve helped him throughout the years.
“Or Michele or Kim or Wendy or Dr. D,” I added. His jaw dropped.
“You wouldn’t know them,” I agreed.
"And I wouldn't know that horrible lady...what was her name?"
"Mean Doreen," I said.
Life would be so boring.
I could see that my son needed to hear how our challenges, not accomplishments— pull us closer, make us richer. The challenges help slow our pace, highlight the meaning in things.
I could see that my boy needed to know how the vulnerable are most needed by the rest of us. The kid who flaps his hands or kicks a ball sideways or speaks out of turn... the child homeless or sick or a fleeing his country. We need them to undo us, to teach us humility, to show us what resilience looks like. We need the vulnerable ones to unglue us from our selfies, our cliques, our over-packed agendas, our power-driven races to one more race.
I could see that my child needed to touch the lines on my face, the welts in my heart that prove that perfect bodies, perfect moms, perfect kids, perfect families don’t exist.
I wanted to explain that only by receiving judgment from relatives, a pastor, other moms, a few professionals, and some brutal readers— could I learn how to stop judging others.
Without my child’s challenges I might overlook so much.
I might believe in hiding the truth, in pretending that every one of us is not a ridiculous, challenging mess at times.
I might not recognize the needs quite incredibly special in every single child— more special (yes!) even than a Lamborghini.