The day my 5-year old daughter came bursting through our front room door, breathlessly demanding that I make her older brother stop calling her a bad name, I braced myself for the worst. What “bad word” had finally found it’s way into my children’s vocabulary?
“He called me a Canadian!” she cried indignantly. “A what?” I asked, thinking that I hadn’t heard this right. “A Canadian!” she repeated, stamping her foot to punctuate her outrage.
Before I could respond, the door flew open again. This time, her older brother shouted out his defense, “I did not! I did not call her a Canadian!”
Okay, what was the deal with Canadians? Other than tuque hats and the regrettable importation of Justin Beiber, what was so unforgiveable?
“I called her a comedian!” my 9-year-old son explained.
“See? See? That’s what he called me!” she shot back, vindicated. Canadian or comedian, it was all the same insult to her. I burst out laughing (not a good thing to do, we have since learned, when our daughter is being serious), only fanning the flame her outrage, until I was able to convince her that her honor had not been besmirched.
Like most siblings, my kids have had their share of arguments over the years. But unlike most of our friends and neighbor’s families, our daughter has had to endure things most of her friends would never understand. Although she is the youngest of our three, all two years apart, she is in many ways our oldest, because her brothers both have Asperger’s Syndrome.
Like so many neurotypical siblings of disability, the presence of autism in our family’s life has meant that, by necessity, our daughter has experienced a childhood in which her disabled brothers have had more of our time, our money and our emotional reserve. It has been a life that, in spite of all our efforts to make it otherwise, has been patently unfair.
Enduring an almost steady diet of parenting attention deficit, combined with the frequent stresses of her brothers meltdowns, public awkward moments in both her school and in our neighborhood, and the injustice of inequitable discipline in which more is expected of the younger than the older, you might conclude that our daughter would become angry and resentful and well within her rights to demand a different family.
But then, at times, so have her father and I. There are times we have all wanted to run away (boys included), but like any thing we finally lay at God’s feet and beg Him to redeem, God is also redeeming our family’s life with this disorder. And I am witnessing His redemptive work (very slowly, but surely) that is creating something beautiful in all our lives—especially my daughter’s.
Like Jesus, who would often walk away from the never-ending needs of the crowds, we have learned that we, too, must get away from the stresses of our daily lives to tank up on peace and quiet and, in our daughter’s case, to finally give back to her a small fraction of what has so often been denied: our exclusive attention and our time.
Last week, she and I boarded a train for an overnight trip to Chicago to stay in the historic Palmer House Hotel. True, an overnight trip to the Windy City is no two-week vacation to the balmy breezes of the Caribbean. But for our wearied hearts and minds, it was just what the doctor ordered.
There have been times, however, that we have needed help beyond the reach of a train ticket, when we have become so lost and our family dynamics so frayed that we have sought the help of additional family counseling. Like the canary in the coal mine, it has often been Sarah’s health that has triggered our awareness that we were in need of more help.
She is old enough now, however, at the sage old age of 14, to verbalize something I never thought I would hear. She really does love her brothers and she cares deeply for them. There was a time, when they all attended the same school, when she did not want to be around them, but she has come through these years all the stronger, more confident of who she is, and less willing to give into the dictates of her culture or her peers.
Now in high school, Sarah invites her brothers to eat at the same table as with her friends, she gives them cultural cues, and even helps her father and I to see where we can help them more effectively. Although we have never asked her to step into this role, she is becoming in many ways, her older brothers’ keeper.
More importantly, her life with autism has translated into a compassion that compels her to draw those on the outside, in. As is the case with those who endure hardship, God transforms it into a sensitive heart. While my daughter has suffered in ways I would never have wanted, God is redeeming and using it, teaching her to be a blessing to others in return. Beauty out of ashes.
Question:”To all who mourn in Israel, He will give a crown of beauty for ashes, a joyous blessing instead of mourning, festive praise instead of despair. In their righteousness, they will be like great oaks that the LORD has planted for his own glory.” Isaiah 61:3
What characteristics of strength do you see in yourself or in your children that are a result of your experiences together?
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