When I received my daughter Emily’s diagnosis of a chromosome 5 long-arm deletion nearly 20 years ago, access to information regarding disabilities was minimal. There was no Internet. We had no personal computer. I received one very bleak case study from the genetic counselor, and was told, “She’s still the same person, take her home and love her.”
Of course I did that, but I struggled to do more as the doctor’s words “mental retardation” and “early intervention” echoed in my head. I was desperate for information, for compatriots in this foreign
community, for predictions of what my daughter’s life would be like. My lifeline was my CDO newsletter and parent network. I later discovered Unique, and I subscribed to Exceptional Parent magazine. I received some valuable information, but nowhere did I find a child just like mine. I found myself constantly trying to explain to others what I didn’t even understand myself.
I wish then there had been the uplifting and relatable stories of The Mighty back then, the ability to Google her conditions and to find a few others like her in a Facebook group. I would have loved to have others’ online cheers for her inchstone successes, and to commiserate over the unique sorrows we faced. It is wonderful that those resources exist today. But she is still rare among the rare. Getting early services was easy, the needs of my verbal but largely unintelligible daughter clear. At 3, she had the developmental abilities of an 18 month old. I was warned that she would likely never learn to read. She started in a pre-primary impaired preschool and received speech, occupational, and physical therapy. I had some guidance and some support. The cloud was lifting.
As we fell into our “new normal,” life became happy again. My initial quest for answers softened into a day-at-a-time perspective. With the help of some excellent teachers and professionals, I could once again have mom as my primary role, putting educator and therapist secondary. And I realized that no child arrives with his or her fortunes foretold. So I could let go of trying to figure out Emily’s future, feel more content with the knowledge that we would be there to give her what she needs, when she needs it. I learned to let Emily be my guide for many things. I learned, as parents do with all children as they raise them, to interpret her body language and temperament. With her clues, I could avoid most crises and melt-downs. She knew more than anyone what she could do. My role was to coax and encourage, watch and listen.
There were, however, battles. Battles with insurance companies, with school personnel, and yes with my husband and with myself. Battles to get people to listen to information about a disability that has no syndrome name. Battles to be seen as the authority on Emily by the doctors charged with treating her. Battles to get school administrators to address bullying. Battles within myself to ignore the judgments thrown our way from friends and strangers alike when they would witness things they did not understand, and to figure out when to respond or explain. Battles to answer questions with elusive answers: what surgeries and treatments, what therapies, am I doing too little or too much, how much do we push her academically? Socially? Physically? How do I keep her identity and mine separate when our lives are so entwined? And the biggie now: How do I help people understand that disabled and capable are not mutually exclusive?
As we begin the journey to navigate Emily’s life as an adult, the lack of clarity persists. Organizations and individuals want proper labels for her, but they don’t exist. Maybe it’s a human tendency, to create neat categories to put folks into? Emily doesn’t fit into any easy category and never has. She did indeed learn to read. It took 6 years, but she hasn’t stopped since. Against all odds, she finished high school with a true diploma and now attends classes at community college. She delights in working with the 3 year olds at the Easter Seals preschool where she volunteers. She enthusiastically cheers for her Special Olympics swim teammates and gives her all to the sport. She has gifts and talents and loves putting them to use. She has a heart and soul that inspires all of us who know her to be better people. She has persistence and perseverance, creativity and kindness. But she also needs help crossing the street safely, buttering a piece of bread, and brushing her hair. She has very serious medical issues and real disabilities including developmental, vision and speech impairments.
I still struggle with how to explain her chromosome deletion to new people. Maybe that’s better. If I had a tidy label that people widely understood, in their own way, it would not tell the whole story of who she is. I would name the condition and people would think that’s her. It’s not. Not for anyone. We are each a messy array of personality traits, strengths and weaknesses, abilities and deficits. This array is impossible to fully discern from outward appearance or generalized category. Perhaps this understanding is one of Emily’s greatest gifts to me, recognizing potential and beauty in every individual.