Why I’m Sticking With Gratitude

Yesterday, after teaching a morning bootcamp class, I zipped over to the grocery store. The plan was to make it a quick trip. I had a load of things I wanted to accomplish before my afternoon class.

Cool, I thought, the parking lot is near empty, I pulled into a front parking spot, and grabbed myself a big cart (I established a personal rule of no small carts, no matter how small the trip, after the very embarrassing small-cart-incident of unexpectedly hitting a dip in the parking lot, the abrupt stop of the cart almost sending me barreling headfirst, in plain full parking lot view, right over top). The big cart and I safely and efficiently cruised through the aisles, finishing in record speed at the check-out line, with only one woman in front of me, who was already swiping her credit card. Score!

When it was my turn, the woman behind the check-out counter smilingly asked her required questions: Had I had found everything ok, and how was I doing? We then made typical check-out counter small talk as she swiftly swiped my items; what a beautiful day it was, how warm and sunny, and so on. Friendly, yet impersonal. And, I probably would have left the store in about 3 more minutes, with a lift to my step from the ease and friendliness of the experience, but without much further thought as I moved on with the rest of my day. Instead, I turned my head to the new sound of voices entering the quiet of the store.

A small group of kids, all with varying special needs, and their educators, were walking in and grabbing carts. There was a lot of excited chatter amidst the distribution of carts, and once a cart was in hand, a child and their educator were happily off on their shopping adventure. I spotted the back of the blond head of one of Wil’s friends, Nick, as he expertly made his way down the aisle with his cart.

The check-out woman saw me looking their way, and said, “That is a special needs class from Saline schools.” To which I replied, “One of those boys is my son’s friend. They both have Down syndrome. I was hoping to catch his eye, but he went off shopping in the other direction.”

“Oh,” she said, “I was a para-educator for 20 years. My son also had special needs. He went to school at Highpoint (a school for kids with a higher level of needs).” “I know Highpoint,” I said, “I used to work at the WISD and my neighbor recently retired from there.”

“When I started teaching,” she told me, “they were just starting inclusion. I believe in inclusion, but it’s not right for all of our kids. My son needed to be at a place like Highpoint.”

“I understand,” I said. “I’m so thankful for the inclusion my son has right now. We have not had to fight for it, he naturally receives what you had to fight for those years ago. Yet, I also understand what you are saying about inclusion not being right for everyone. Though my son enjoys and benefits from inclusion, I found in certain subjects, like math, the most effective place for him to be is in the resource room. Each child is very different.”

She nodded. “My son was completely typical, then he almost drowned when he was 2 ½. After that, he had multiple special needs, too many to be at a regular school with inclusion.”

She paused, then looked me right in the eye, I could tell she was deciding if she should share something with me, then she did.

“You know, there are some things worse than dying. To have a typical child and then…”

My heart went to the pit of my stomach. I looked at her gently, and all I could do was nod. What words are there for something as heavy as that?

“My son did die, he was only 10 years old. I have 6 children, so, well, that helps.”

But, what can truly help? She did what she could to cope. She helped other parents who had kids with special needs as a para-educator. I have absolutely no doubt that many parents found comfort in her knowing nods and compassionate words when she was responsible for the care of their child each day. I also have no doubt that those kids under her care received her best. You don’t go through what she did, and do the work she did for 20 years if you don’t care deeply about the purpose of that work.

We talked a little more, but by then my items had been checked and bagged, and a man was waiting behind me in line. It was time to go. I told her it was really good talking with her, and we wished each other a good day. I know I will make a point to find her line again.

Back at my car, filling it with groceries, I thought of our conversation. It was heavy, yes, but also, I felt a huge sense of gratitude for that time with her. Gratitude that she chose to share her story with me so that I could connect with her and learn from her in my very own life experiences.

Good days are good. The front parking space, the cruising through the uncrowded aisles, the smile and friendliness of a check-out worker, and the sun burning away the clouds and warming the air. They lift us, they carry us to a certain point, and they even spread, but they don’t run very deep, because they don’t stick. We catch them and hold on to them when we can, and enjoy them, but they are unpredictable and fleeting. They come, and they go.

Stories shared and connections made as in the one at the grocery store have staying power. They stick. I am never left the same after conversations like that, and it’s a wonder, how many I have had just like that since Wil has been born. And, it’s in these very unlikely, common places where they happen.

Last Saturday, I was in the hallway at Katherine’s karate tournament. I happened to put on a necklace that morning that our Down Syndrome Support Team sells. They are beautiful, handmade necklaces, and nothing about them says “special needs” except for the fact that they are sold at our Buddy Walk each year, the proceeds going to our support group. In the crowd of people walking back and forth in that hallway at the tournament, a blond woman stopped, pointed at my necklace and said, “Buddy Walk! I have about 5 of those! I love them, and yours is especially beautiful!”

“Thank you,” I said, “do you have a Buddy you walk for?”

“Oh, lots of them. I’m a special education teacher in Saline.”

We shared a smile, and went on our own separate ways down the busy hallway.

A passing friendly comment on a piece of jewelry in a crowded public place, but it will last longer than the smile she gave me. That compliment drives deeper, because it carries with it a common purpose, a common cause, which we both innately understand in those few words we exchanged.

At a birthday party I went to at a lake, where Wil was happily splashing around, a woman walked up to me, and said, “Your son reminds me of mine when he was your son’s age. So blond, so sweet. I miss him at that age.” And, then we shared stories like old friends reconnected about our kids and our lives, except we had only met that very moment, and our only known connection was Down syndrome. I learned so much about the experiences Wil could look forward to in her stories, and she was able to look back and relive some of her son’s youth.

I can recount many such stories, in restaurants, walking down the street wearing my Buddy Walk shirt, and other such every day places. I believe that I am so easily approached with these experiences is not for any other reason than that I am open to them now, when I wasn’t before. I did not have the “WIL”lingness those years ago that I do now.

Last night, I went to bed overflowing with gratitude. Not because of a front parking spot or the ease of my day, but because I now have opened myself to the gift of looking underneath the surface shine. Diving down deeper, past the pretty and shimmery surface, down through the murky and the messy, the deeper of the emotions, and down, down, down, down, to uncover the treasure chest of connection. That is where the staying power to fulfillment is. That is what sticks.

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