A Wonderful World?

The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing
which stands in their way.
~William Blake

I do not cry easily.

But without warning and with sudden explosiveness tears poured out one morning – the surprising release of emotion, cathartic and intense.

I was reading a magazine article that my sister-in-law had passed along to my wife and me about another family’s challenges, profound challenges, with two sons who were born with severe developmental disabilities. There was an immense power in the family’s story. Their experiences had many similarities to ours. Their fears and worries for the future were much like ours. Their daily lives had to be ordered around their sons’ unique and demanding needs as ours are. Their careers had to be compromised to raise their sons with dignity and love as ours have too.

But what caused my emotional eruption was an accounting of the father’s own sudden and unexpected shedding of tears, at a pub with his buddies, witnessed by his brother who wrote the article, upon hearing the song, What a Wonderful World, the Louis Armstrong classic.

I hear babies cry … I watch them grow.
They’ll learn much more … than I’ll ever know.
And I think to myself … what a wonderful world.

… Yes I think to myself … what a wonderful world.

It’s bittersweet, hearing that song. I could resonate strongly with the emotions of that father. It’s bittersweet, life with a child who has disabilities. Our son rarely ever cried. He didn’t … still doesn’t … have that emotional ability. He never grew like his brothers. Today at age 23 he’s very short and slight, unusually so. He hasn’t learned much more than I’ll ever know. In fact, he seems permanently stuck in a two-year-old mental world. He doesn’t talk. Still wears diapers. Can’t feed himself without creating a huge mess. Can’t dress himself. But can undress, and will, at the most inappropriate times. In fact, he wears a shirt buttoned to the neck and a necktie every day, no matter where he’s going or what he’s doing. He doesn’t know how to undo them; so they enable him to stay dressed. He pulls his mother’s hair when he wants her attention. Hits me, because my hair’s too short to pull, when he wants mine.

In short, he’s a handful. He rarely stops moving, even in his sleep. He throws whatever he can and loves to hear the sound of something shattering on the floor – and our startled reactions to it. If he doesn’t get his way, right away, and just as he wants it, he’ll bang his head on the living room picture window or the family room glass door. And his head’s gone through a few windows that way. He knows that will get a reaction right away. The floors are always sticky because of the things he spills. The walls are streaked with the residue of food he’s thrown. All our furniture is banged up, scratched, stained. His loud bellowing interrupts our conversations. His relentless badgering for us to do whatever he wants does not relent. He is obsessed with the beach. So he packs bathing suits, towels and sunscreen all day long when he’s at home – every day of the year. He’ll throw himself to the floor of the grocery store if we don’t pick up packages of hot dogs or bottles of soda or – for some reason – packs and packs of paper napkins. In church, he claps repeatedly, disrupting the service and squawks incessantly if he doesn’t like the music. He demands attention and knows how to get a reaction – and attention – by the inappropriate and often dangerous and destructive things he does.

Yes, What a Wonderful World is a bittersweet song for me. Caring for our son and meeting his needs is a relentless and draining job. There is so little about him that makes our lives easy. There is so little that is uncomplicated with him. We can do very little that is unplanned and not well thought out. Little happens spontaneously. I’ve had to alter my professional life considerably because of him. It’s hard to maintain and sustain many friendships, because of the limitations his care imposes. Interests outside of work and home are nearly impossible for us. Life is absolutely harder for us because of him.

But, yes, in spite of all that and every other stressful, challenging day we have with our son, I can declare that it is still a wonderful world. In spite of our son’s limitations, those he inherited at birth and those his realities inherently placed on us, there is still so much more that is good.

His eyes, steel blue and vibrant, when they actually focus onto mine – so utterly rare for a person with autism – will melt my heart. His smile, with its wildly crooked teeth and food often caked around his mouth, will melt my will and warm my spirit. His laugh, raucous and uninhibited, generously employed and full-throated, will melt any anger at whatever frustration he may have caused moments before. And when he leans in to allow me to hug him or kiss him, forget it. That alone will melt into my soul and leave me in complete and utter love.

I know that so much of what he does (and so much of what he cannot and does not do) is out of his control. I know that his developmental disabilities, severe and multiple, bring limitations to him and to us. But those limitations have truly shown me what it means to love unconditionally. To love regardless. To love in spite of. To even love changing adult diapers. And washing layers of finger prints and mouth prints off the windows several times a week. And saying “I love you”, and never hearing it back.

And yes … it is a wonderful world. I never asked for it. Never would have wished for it the way is. But it is our world and as hard as it so often is, I still think it to myself all the time.

And that can easily, actually, make me cry … with complete and utter joy.

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