Recently one of my friends directed me to a quote that ended with the phrase, “Raising a child with special needs doesn’t TAKE a special family, it MAKES a special family.” I’m a lover of quotes, but this one especially resonated with me. Not just because I’ve adopted two children with special needs and am part of a special family now, but because I grew up in a special family.
When I was three years old, my baby sister made her premature entrance into the world and was diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy. I have no memory of any other kind of life. As a young child, I tagged along with my mother to doctor’s appointments, therapy sessions, and hospital visits when my sister had to stay overnight…or for a couple of months. In fact, one year my Christmas “wish list” was full of items from the gift shop at the children’s hospital. When my sister got older and was able to attend a camp for children with special needs, I went with my parents to “camp out” nearby to see my sister on the weekends. And not unlike the China adoption community, my parents became part of their own little community of special needs parents. I grew up surrounded by kids with needs on all ends of the spectrum, just like my kids are growing up surrounded by children adopted from China. I saw how much their parents loved them and would stop at nothing for them. I knew more than the average person how special kids with special needs truly are. I had felt it through my own love for my sister.
And yet, when we first started our path to China adoption my husband and I didn’t consider the special needs route. One thing I learned early on is that being part of a special needs family requires sacrifice…and not just for the parents, but for every member of the family. I had waited hours in the lobby for my sister’s appointments. I knew about medical bills. We went on trips that were special needs friendly and skipped out on many of the popular vacation spots because they weren’t. We bought cars and homes that complied with my sister’s needs. We rocked our handicap tag. And I had seen my parents with a fire in their eyes that almost scared me as they fought the system on my sister’s behalf. I had a fire in my own eyes and a swing in my fist when a boy on the school bus made fun of my sister. Growing up, my family wasn’t your average family…and that’s exactly what I wanted now that I had a family of my own. Something easier than I had known as a child.
But when I was just a little girl, God planted a seed in my heart. The first time I looked into an incubator and saw a tiny baby with tubes hooked up to it I fell in love. And as I researched China adoption during the LONG year I was waiting to hit the big 3-0 and meet the minimum age requirement, that seed grew every time I saw the words “special needs adoption program”. Finally I came across a website called No Hands But Ours and I knew there was no turning back.
I’ll never forget the day my husband and I announced to my parents that we had decided to adopt a child with special needs. My big, strong father (who could very easily be mistaken for Paul Bunyan) looked right at me with his solid stare and said, “You know what you’re signing up for. Are you sure you can handle it?” I reassured him that we did know the path before us wouldn’t be easy, but we felt children with medical needs deserve a loving family. His tender reply to me was, “Yes they do. Maybe even more than the others.”
When we started researching needs and preparing our medical checklist, my parents were almost comical. Especially my mom. For every need on the list, they seemed to have a story about a child they knew with that need and nothing on the list seemed unmanageable to them. My mom was listing off the medical procedures to repair needs I had never heard of like they were perfectly routine. Because to them, they were. My parents and the friends they had made through the special needs community didn’t get to do down a list and choose what needs they were open to. They had their child’s needs thrust upon them unexpectedly and found out how many different versions of normal there really are. Like the beginning of the quote I mentioned above they learned through first-hand experience that “God doesn’t give children with special needs to strong people. He gives children with special needs to ordinary, weak people and then gives them strength.”
I have a special family. My parents are the best. Definitely rock star caliber. When I was growing up, they somehow always found a way to meet my needs and my sister’s needs…both physical and emotional. They showed me through their actions that just because someone is differently-abled doesn’t mean they possess less worth. In fact, they taught me that sometimes the biggest blessings are the people who are just a little bit different from the rest of the world. The ones with a unique walk, their own language, a special chair, or an extraordinary combination of chromosomes. My parents lived out a life of sacrificial love and instilled in me a selflessness (whether I wanted it or not!) that equipped me to be the wife and mother I am today. They taught me to be flexible and to be prepared for the unexpected. Because they had to be. And when my husband and I decided to join the circle of special needs parents ourselves, they were our biggest cheerleaders. As grandparents, they adore all their grandchildren and spoil them rotten. They schedule their vacations around our surgeries so they can help out. They tag along to appointments when they’re in town. My mom knows the gift shops in our children’s hospital almost as well as she knew the ones at the hospital my sister was in thirty years ago. And in their own right, they’re also becoming members of the China adoption community.
My biological kids are growing up in a similar manner to the one I did, only they’re being raised to embrace a different culture as well. And aside from the same lessons they’re learning through their siblings that I learned through mine, they’re also having the lessons instilled in them through their love for their aunt. They get so excited when we pick her up to spend the day with us or just order pizza and watch a movie while we hang out at her apartment. Before my sister walked unevenly down the aisle at her wedding on our father’s arm my girls proudly performed their flower girl duty and dropped rose petals to lead the way. My biological children get asked the same types of questions that I did about their “different” siblings. And they are learning to handle them with grace…for the time being, at least.
We’re a very close knit family. My parents spend a lot of time with their daughters, sons-in-law, and grandchildren. And when we all go out together…whether it’s for dinner or on some touristy, fun adventure…the eleven of us make quite the crew. Two Chinese kids with surgical scars, the woman who walks with an unbalanced gait…and the rest of us who just love them all like crazy. There is nothing “average” about us. But nothing is better than being part of a special family…unless of course it’s being part of a multi-ethnic special family. Sometimes the most difficult journeys are the ones most worth making.