(Note to readers: if you click on the title, you'll be directed to the article to which I am referring here.)
A while back, Elisabeth and I met a woman in a line at the bank. She was behind me crying very softly. I turned around and asked if I could help her. She unloaded the news of her newly born - mentally retarded granddaughter, her taking-it-hard daughter, and her falling apart family. The woman went on with "it's got to be so hard on you" and pointing to Elisabeth "the poor little dear." As she blew her nose in a tissue she said, "what kind of life is it with all problems she's going to have?"
I wasn't sure if she was speaking rhetorically but either way I couldn't answer. All I could offer her was empathy assuring her that Elisabeth was fine but caught myself like everyone does ending with a sympathetic "I'm sorry to hear about your granddaughter" instead of an opening "what is her name?"
She broke down even more. After I pointed at the empty chairs in the corner of the bank lobby offering to sit with her until she gained composure, I searched through Elisabeth's backpack on her wheelchair for candy or a bottle of water. Instead, I found a newspaper clipping that I had tucked away a few years before. A newspaper clipping I almost threw away.
It was a clipping from an article written by Erma Bombeck that finds its way into every hand of every family of a child with special needs whether they like it or not. I hesitated offering it to the new grandmother because I remember at first taking offense from what was written. But I needed to give her something tangible. I needed to make a connection to let her know things turn out okay.
After I assured her that Elisabeth is a very happy little girl, I asked if she ever read Erma Bombeck's articles. I showed her the clipping and explained how it was given to me shortly after Elisabeth's birth by a mother who had an adult son with CP. I handed the article to the crying grandmother who stopped crying long enough to look for her reading glasses but I stopped her and said, "no, wait until you get home."
Then I took Elisabeth out of her wheelchair and said "Elisabeth loves hugs from Grandmas and being that her Grandma lives far away, can she give you hug?" While this woman was holding Elisabeth's limp, curled 6 year old body, I shared with this woman what helped me understand the responsibility I had being Elisabeth's mother.
Before I became pregnant with Elisabeth, I told her about the photograph of a child in an exhibit memorializing Anne Frank and all the children who perished with her. It was a medical photograph documenting a child ready to be "exterminated" due to her imperfection.
When I saw this picture, I explained, it was like I knew this child all my life. "I cried just like you were crying because I wanted to give her the life she deserved instead of being discarded like an unwanted gift."
"Everyone goes through stages of acceptance differently," I explained, "I went through mine early and you're moving through your own right now. It's natural to get stuck using a lot of our own personal energy and emotional resources blaming ourselves or blaming others and looking for cures and making bargains with God. Just remember what your new granddaughter needs most is a grandmother all children deserve to have."
After giving Elisabeth a hug, the new grandmother asked what she could do for her daughter, "She's still taking it really bad."
"For each new mother," I explained, "the experience and acceptance is different. The best thing you can do is to be the mother she deserves to have. The Mother you were chosen to be. According to Erma Bombeck, I was chosen to be Elisabeth's Mom because I was self absorbed and vain and I wouldn't have time to wallow in self pity or pity for my child. Hopefully you can get your daughter off the hook here, for Erma's sake." And I laughed so hard it echoed through the bank lobby.
The woman looked at me very curious and started laughing, too. "I loved reading Erma Bombeck in the newspaper" she commented and then I suggested getting back in line because the bank would be closing soon.
While we stood in line, I told her about Elisabeth's Grandmother's church club that raised a thousand dollars so she could have her own adapted bicycle because "no child should be without a bicycle." I felt a new confidence growing in the new grandmother as she saw Elisabeth through a new set of eyes trying to get her to giggle again.
The same confidence that was passed onto me as tangible as the newspaper clipping I almost threw away.