Imagine what it would be like to be completely happy with who you are. Sprinkle in a child’s innocence. You know nothing about people lying, or having any malicious intent. Each stranger represents a fun new friend you simply have not met yet. Now, infuse a certainty that everything you do is hilarious. Even if people do not laugh at what you do, your smile and laugh are infectious, and they eventually cannot help themselves.
A school counselor once commented about my son, Nate, that he had never seen someone who had a history of hitting and biting that was so loved by his teachers and classmates. Nate came to us with certain limitations. He struggles to communicate, with only a few words that most people would understand. He is less coordinated than your average kid, and has trouble focusing on anything for more than a few seconds. These forces combine to make teaching proper behavior and etiquette far more difficult. This can lead to embarrassing moments like pants getting pulled down in public, or sporting a Spider-Man costume to dinner. It can also lead to moments of unexpected joy.
I grew up with a capacity for cruel jokes about people with special needs. I never tormented anyone, but I am not proud of what I would say to my friends. I matured, but never truly outgrew the belief that “those people” were without redeeming qualities. They were gross. They were different. They were below me.
Nate changed all that. A cynic would say, “He’s your kid. You have to love him.” Parents know it does not always work that way. Various studies have indicated the divorce rate for parents of special needs children is significantly higher than parents of typically developing kids. The parent/child bond does not always form. It can become suffocating, and lead people to bail out. That was not the case with Nate.
Perhaps, it helped that our first child screamed and cried for the first four months of his life. We had seen tough, and weathered it. Nate was born content. He was happy to be held, happy to be on the ground. He was happy. Oh, and that laugh.
People are powerless against it. He laughs when he gets hurt. He laughs when other people get hurt. He laughs at the dog. He laughs at the cat. I can be seeing red after he has made a massive mess, and be smiling seconds later against my will.
There was a seminal moment for me when Nate was around three. He had been in various types of therapy for a while, and it was becoming clear this was not going to just get better. I let myself imagine what life might have been like for me, for my wife, for my older son, if Nate had never been born. There was no judgment in my heart. I just found myself asking my soul a question. The answer surprised me. The life I was picturing was less colorful, less enjoyable, less inspiring. I felt bad that my older son was not going to have a typical brother, but I also learned things about how amazing of an older brother he was and what a kind heart he had because of how he interacted with Nate. It changed what I thought about him, and has contributed directly to a stronger relationship between him and me. I can be an intense personality, and Nate is always there to break the tension. Sure, he is often a source of stress and frustration, but he has also relieved the rest of us of ours. Our family would not work without Nate.
That realization pervaded our household over time. We each made peace with Nate’s limits in our own way, and in our own time. I was proud, and relieved, to find I had the ability to sincerely love the family I had. My wife has used her experience to launch a new career outlet, advocating and educating about areas that relate to special needs children. My oldest son loves his little brother, but has no awareness of how much character he is building through the process. He may be my age before he truly realizes how Nate has helped him to be a better person.
Nate will not always be cute and young. He is already eight, and will soon turn into a gangly pre-teen. Dropping his pants won’t be embarrassing. It will be indecent. Wearing Spider-Man costumes won’t be endearing. It will be inappropriate. I worry sometimes about what that transition will be like. It is part of why we are doubling down on reinforcing social norms and behaviors now. But part of me does not want to force Nate to grow up. His extended childhood has been something that I treasure. One thing I know for sure, though, is we will all be better for going through the experience, and I would not trade it for the world.