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Better than we know ourselves

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A while ago, I went through a phase of devouring those short, popular books on Christianity making the rounds on the interwebs. A couple that stuck out in my memory are Ten Prayers God Always Says Yes To by Anthony DeStefano and Anything by Jennie Allen. I read each book at pivotal moments in my life (read: in between babies, wondering what to do next). Since returning to the Church as an adult, in 2005, and especially since a second, deeper conversion before Miriam’s birth, I have felt, rather helplessly, this inner desire to find God’s call for my life and do it. I devoured these books because I found it so fascinating to listen to other people’s stories on radically following God’s call.

Some of you might point out, with a hearty guffaw, that turning from a life of secular liberalism to a life of orthodox Catholicism, and jumping from our “finished” family of two kids (one of each!) to an open-ended policy and four more kids, might qualify as meeting that goal. Right-o. But somehow, even in the midst of radical change and submission in this particular area of our life, I never felt “all in,” and neither did Todd. We wanted to offer God more. We just didn’t know… more what.

So many crazy ideas crossed our minds. Should we adopt internationally? Or adopt a child with special needs? Build a homestead? Find a way to balance homeschooling with some other kind of parish ministry or paid work? Every time we started soul-searching on these questions, or even took a step or two down one of those roads (cough buying a farmhouse cough ), I got pregnant, and we assumed that was God’s answer. Pat on the back. Carry on. As you were. You make good babies, so just keep building that domestic church.

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“Adopt a child with special needs” was somehow a permanent fixture on the list of crazy ideas. My friend, Amy, the friend who knows my heart, mind, and soul better than any other, had told me more than once over the course of our friendship that she just knew someday I was going to end up adopting an army of kids with special needs. (Pretty sure she used the word “army.”) I just have that kind of heart, she says. I would always laugh it off, slightly uncomfortably. I am an emotionally fragile person, actually —ask my husband and kids! I need peace and quiet regularly, or I lose it. I am prone to depression, especially postpartum or under great stress. This was one of those instances where I laughed and assumed Amy was just needling me, as friends do. But the way she brought it up more than once… it became like an earworm. And I knew then, and know now, that God often speaks to us through those who are close to us.

Anyway, I thought about adoption enough that Todd and I even looked into it, during our in-between-babies spells. It always got back-burnered, to the “maybe once our own kids are grown a little” column.

Aside from that, I had clear historical proof that I could not handle special needs kids or high-stress situations.

***

When I graduated from college, I joined Teach for America. Most of you probably don’t know this about me, and that is because I don’t talk about it much. And that is because I am a Teach for America dropout.

When I filled out the initial application, there was a checkbox to indicate whether you would be willing to teach special education. I shrugged and checked it, assuming I had no chance of being placed there. I had zero experience with special needs of any kind. Who in their right minds would put me, a baby teacher with no experience of any kind, let alone in special ed, into a special ed classroom?

It turns out, not many people check that special education box.

I was shocked to learn, on my acceptance to the program, that I would be given a special ed placement. During summer training, I worked with third graders who needed extra support in the regular classroom, and I learned to love it quickly. These kids were so eager to learn, and so grateful to have the undivided attention of an idealistic greenling like myself. I was all full of optimism, and crammed-in educational theory, and new ideas! It was a tough but great summer.

When my permanent placement letter arrived, I learned I would be teaching special education… in a middle school.

In a self-contained classroom.

In West Oakland.

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(An exact replica of what my classroom decidedly DID NOT look like.)

So that oh-so-extensive six weeks of experience I had gained as a pull-out resource teacher for 8 year olds? Worth scratch. I tried, and I cried, and I begged for help that never came (not from God, of course, this being during my wilderness years.) My seventh and eighth graders not only could not read, but did not know the alphabet. Within three months, sometime between the day one student was chased to school by a man with a knife and the day another student tried to eat thumbtacks and throw a chair out the window—or maybe it was the day I locked myself in the bathroom and had a full-blown panic attack before the first bell—I burned out and quit.

And I don’t talk about it much because it is one of the most humiliating failures of my life. To this day, I think about those kids and how I failed them, how long that classroom stayed empty because of me. I wonder how many of them are still alive, and how many ended up in prison or died on the streets.

So whenever the idea of special needs kids came up, that experience haunted me deeply. I did not want to fail another kid the way I failed those students in Oakland.

***

Fast forward 15 years, and we’re back to me, suburban homeschooling housewife, reading those pop-Christian books about abandonment to the will of God. The idea of offering God my everything was heady and intoxicating. After all, weren’t we trying to become saints? And raise them? What does that even mean if not total submission? Where were we still holding out? When would God show us?

Baby after baby, we assumed that was our answer. And in truth, we were s t r e t c h e d. Thin. Neither of us expected to find ourselves at the head of a family of eight souls. We were not “living the dream.” In fact, we felt, in some respects, a little duped. Natural Family Planning is not a lifestyle choice for the faint of heart. With the support of our community and our families, and God’s daily dose of just enough grace to scrape ourselves off the floor, we were struggling, but making it.

And then, into that breathless, chaotic existence: Oscar. Well. I spent a lot of time asking, “What the hell, God? WHAT THE HELL?”

One of the most infuriating, though well-meaning, responses people get when facing a crisis is the classic, “God never gives you more than you can handle.” Ask anyone who has lived through a crisis whether they felt equipped to handle it. No. Nopity nope nope. And yet, people live through them and move on, somehow. Oscar’s godfather pointed out, “If someone had told you a year ago that you would be going through this, you never would have believed it possible.”

And really, had we not been asking God to reveal his call and plan for us all along? Had we not actually felt that call to children with special needs ourselves?

Had we not, so to speak, checked the box?

I really think there is something to this theory. So many people tell us, “I could never do what you do.” In the times during my life that my path has crossed other families in crisis, I have often had the opposite (unvoiced) thought: “I wonder what it would be like to do what you do.” I had always chalked it up to a morbid streak, or my tendency to over-empathize and borrow other people’s trouble, but I think it’s really this: God, in fact, knows our hearts better than we do ourselves. To wit:

  • Some acquaintances of ours lost their toddler in a drowning accident. At the funeral, the priest recounted that the child’s father had told him, just days before the accident, “God has never really tested us. I wish we had a deeper way to show our love and faith to Him.”
  • Another acquaintance used to see other families raising children with special needs and think, “I could do that.” She gave birth to a child with special needs, and thought, “It’s not so bad. Is that all you have for me, God?” Then another child with special needs. And then a third, with the most profound needs of all.
  • I myself have been witness to a statistically unlikely number of grand mal seizures in public places. In all cases, they were strangers, and in all cases, I was the one who jumped in to actively help. Not because I am a hero, but because I just felt like I knew what to do.

I am not afraid. I was born to do this.

St. Joan of Arc

This has been a hard, hard year and yes, I am sometimes afraid. (Joan of Arc I am not.) But with the benefit of some hindsight it seems to be a turning point for which I feel like I have been training all my life. In a way, it even feels like reparation for the teaching failure in Oakland. This job I can never, never quit.

If you ask God to give you more, to help you find new ways to unite yourself to His Passion, watch out! Because that is a prayer that He always, always answers. If you promise Him “Anything,” He will take you up on it, often by asking for the thing that has been locked in the secret, darkest chamber of your heart for the longest time.

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