Lessons from Virginia
I remember a page from our premarital counseling workbook that asked me to rank a list of potential hardships according to which one would impact me most were it to materialize.
I can’t recall what topped my list, but I can tell you what fell in last place: Having a child with special needs.
It’s ironic to me that I only remember that one exercise from all of our premarital counseling, and I have to laugh at the naivete of my answer. But even if I’d known I’d have a daughter with cerebral palsy, there’s no way I could have prepared myself for the intense suffering that lay ahead.
Virginia was born in October of 2003, and due to gross medical negligence, she has severe cerebral palsy. I cannot put into words the pain of those first few years. Virginia’s suffering was extreme, and she cried almost constantly. Nothing about motherhood was even close to what I’d imagined. My heart broke daily as I watched her struggle.
I thought our family would never have another happy moment.
But I was wrong.
Over the past few years, the pain and shock have begun to lessen, and our family has started to smile again. Obviously, I’d take away all of Virginia’s suffering if I could, but I’m finally in a place where I can acknowledge some of the blessings that have come from our tragedy.
For starters, Virginia’s life has taught me a lot about the profound relationship between suffering and joy. It takes time, but joy always rises from the ashes of suffering. The hard things I’ve been through allow me to experience joy on a much deeper level – and to appreciate moments I might otherwise have taken for granted.
Virginia’s injuries are somewhat isolating, so we tend to spend a lot of time together as a family. Nothing lifts my spirits more than witnessing the bond between my children and realizing that Wills and Eliza love to hear Virginia laugh just as much as Findley and I do.
Virginia’s suffering has also changed my perspective on life. I don’t sweat the small stuff anymore. It doesn’t matter to me if Wills makes the varsity basketball team or if Eliza is a National Merit Finalist. What does matter to me is that they become individuals with a heart for those who suffer. I’m already beginning to see the seeds of compassion in their young lives.
Virginia embraces life with a vigor that’s taught me firsthand how to seize each moment. For a long time, I was frozen in my sorrow, too overwhelmed by what lay ahead to celebrate today. But I’ve learned that life isn’t ever going to be exactly like I want it, and if I wait for things to be perfect, I might miss a chance to make her smile.
Virginia needs me to infuse as much joy and laughter into her day as I possibly can. We eat a lot of ice cream at our house, and we never miss an opportunity for a dance party.
Having a child with special needs is an invitation to a slower paced life. I’ve tried to embrace that invitation. Yes, I sometimes mourn the fact that we can’t eat Chick-fil-A in the back of the car in route to ballet lessons, but when I’m honest with myself, I realize I’ve been given the chance to spend time with my children and build strong relationships within our family. There are lots of activities we have to pass up, but the result is a unity I wouldn’t trade for anything.
The physical and emotional support that I need to take care of Virginia is humbling. I feel lucky to live in a place that really feels like a village at times. Our first Christmas here, we went to see Santa Claus ride into the village on a fire truck. The entire hour we were there, we didn’t see one person whom we knew. When we got home, I realized Virginia had lost one of her new gloves. Oh, well, I thought, I’ll never see that again.
When I went to get the mail the next day. there was her tiny pink glove. I still don’t know who returned it – or how they knew it was Virginia’s- but it seemed magical to me. That gesture made me feel like people could tell we had our hands full, and they were doing what they could to lighten the load. I felt very welcome.
I often come home to homemade bread on my doorstep or a note of encouragement in my mailbox. Tammy at Gilchrist knows to make Virginia’s milkshake a little on the thin side. Mr. Joe at the Western always offers to push my grocery cart so I can maneuver her wheelchair.
Having children, especially ones with special needs, reminds us all that we really do live in community. We need to push ourselves to get to know our neighbors and encourage those who bear extra burdens. Virginia is a tremendous blessing not only in our lives, but in the lives of all of the people in our community who have come to know and love her.
When I think back to the workbook page from our premarital counseling, I realize that not only would it have been impossible to wrap my mind around the heartbreak of having a child with special needs, it also would have been impossible to get even a glimpse of the joy and love Virginia brings to my life.