For those who don’t know, I’m a Catholic, and I take my faith kind of seriously. I also like to laugh at how quirky Catholicism can be at times. Among all the Christian denominations, we have got to be the most precise bunch. It’s likely because of our ties to the Roman Empire. Compared to the Greeks, who tended to be more philosophical and flexible, the ancient Romans were legal-minded sticklers for precision. How else did they manage to conquer the world?
Off the top of my head, I can think of two ways that our Roman roots show up. First, there’s our almost innate desire to define doctrines to the umpteenth decimal point: mortal versus venial sin, degrees of cooperation with evil, specific requirements for fasting, for receiving communion, and all that. Then there are the numbers. So many numbers. Just look at the sevens for an example: seven deadly sins, seven corporal works of mercy, seven spiritual works of mercy, seven sacraments the Seven Founders of the Order of Servites. Then there are the threes: Father, Son, and Spirit; poverty, chastity, and obedience; Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium. And, of course: faith, hope, and love.
It’s this last trilogy that struck me today. I recalled how St. Paul talks about faith, hope, and love being the only three gifts of God that last, and how “the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13). And it got me to thinking about how these three virtues are the most important things we need as parents—and doubly so as parents of special-needs children. Forget Doctor Spock. Forget Doctor Phil. Even forget Doctor Who. All those self-help books at Barnes & Noble? Rubbish. All those listicles about parenting on Buzzfeed? Worthless. If you have faith, hope, and love, you’ll do just fine.
And because I’m Catholic, I will now tell you the right order in which you need them. *Clears throat*
Every parent begins with this one. A child is born. He is beautiful, innocent, full of promise and potential. We look on this tiny person that is the result of our love, and we are gobsmacked. We have such high hopes for this little baby. Not necessarily that he’ll be an astronaut or a top chef or a CEO—although that would be great. We hope that he’ll grow and flourish and find happiness and love. That she’ll find her own special someone with whom she can make a family of her own. We dream of school plays and soccer tournaments and Christmas trees and family trips. We dream of (and dread) the driving lessons, the first date, the prom, and graduation day. Holding this little blessing in our arms, we can’t help but dream of the future.
Then the child grows up, and we see things that challenge our hope. Perhaps speech is delayed. Maybe he takes far too long to learn how to walk or use the potty. Maybe she doesn’t know how to mingle with her classmates in preschool. Maybe he always cries at the doorbell or any sudden noise. Something’s not quite right, and we worry about the future. Then the word “autism” enters our vocabulary, and we feel hope draining away. What about the prom? What about graduation? What about finding love? Is it all possible?
That’s when we look to . . .
It’s faith that keeps our hope alive. Faith in our child’s innate goodness. Faith that he really does want to do well and to succeed. Faith in the team of care providers that we stumblingly assemble to give him every chance at a full and rewarding life—whatever that means. Faith in a God who would never abandon a child of his.
That faith sees us through the melt downs, the tantrums, the tone-deaf schools, and the unthinking or unaware neighbors. It lifts us up when our kid begins to go south, whether because of regression or oppositional behavior or depression or anxiety. It sustains us through the long, wearying days and helps us sleep at night. When hope begins to fade, faith tells us that despite what we are seeing now, better days are ahead. It gives us assurance that what we hope for will come to pass (Hebrews 11:1). It may not look like what we expected, but it will come. And so we press on, fueled by faith, toward that vision that we have hoped for.
But what happens when even faith wavers? What if the child we have worked with, prayed for, fought for, and even clashed with, simply is not making progress? Maybe he can’t overcome the next hurdle, or maybe he just doesn’t want to. Whatever the case, what do you do when hope has dissipated and you can’t place your faith in any of the resources you once relied on?
You still have . . .
And in the end, you know that’s all you really needed. Your dreams may not be fulfilled. Your doctors and therapists may be at an impasse. Your prayers don’t seem to be working. Nothing is going right, and you don’t know if anything good is on the horizon.
It doesn’t matter. He’s your son. She’s your daughter. And you can’t help but love. Even when you want to throw up your hands in despair, you know that this is your child, and that knowledge brings you back to sanity. It softens your heart, if only just enough to let you take the next step forward.
No matter what happens, love wins out. It may take years, but it will win. Because a child who knows he is loved, no matter what, will always have a glimmer in his heart, and that glimmer will offer some protection, some encouragement, some guidance in the dark days. Just as God looked at us and couldn’t help but love us, even when we felt lost and hopeless, we can’t help but feel love when we look at our children.
So even if he never learns to use the toilet, even if she never speaks a word, even if he ends up living all alone or in your basement, there’s always love. Good old, stubborn love. Because it’s the one thing—the only thing—that will matter in the end.