This past weekend we attended our friends sons’ birthday party where they had an amazing Wild Animals Educational show. My daughter, Savannah and the birthday boy, Kurt have been friends since they were little children. We have attended a few parties at his home and Maggie, Kurt’s mum throws the best birthday parties for him. When I told Savannah that we would be attending the party, she immediately inquired if there would be animals. She remembered that Maggie usually has an animal show for Kurt’s parties. This made Savannah a bit anxious because unlike Kurt, she does not like animals very much. The only animals she loves are our two Labradors.
As a person with special needs, Savannah requires a fair amount of support in some situations and this time was no different. We had to make sure that she was emotionally and mentally prepared before the party to cope with her anxiety and concerns. One way of doing this was to reassure her that there would be no pressure on her to engage with the animals. We discussed with her that her daddy would sit with her as far away as possible from where the animals would be. She was happy with this arrangement and began looking forward to the party.
On the day of the party, Savannah did not back out from joining us as she usually does and was excited and happy to attend. Kurt, Maggie, her family and friends are some of the nicest people we know and Michael and I were looking forward to being in their company. As expected the party was relaxed and easy for Savannah. She was also very happy to see Kurt. Before the animals arrived, she repeatedly confirmed with Michael that as agreed, he would sit with her away from the animals.
Julian from the WILD ONES Educational Show arrived in his bakkie (South African word for a small pick-up vehicle) full of cages and containers. We watched Julian set up, and Michael and I with some trepidation watched Savannah, watching Julian set up. A few years ago at Kurt’s party, Savannah clung to me for the duration of the party and was miserable and cross because she was so mortified by the animals.
As an autistic person, Savannah’s perception of some situations is different. What might feel fun and exciting to us can be uncomfortable and frightening for Savannah. In order for the whole family to enjoy life together, Michael and I had to make peace with the fact that Savannah will always require some level of support in many situations. Fear is a debilitating emotion and we know that Savannah’s fears are real enough for her, and therefore warrants our respect and patience.
That was the mindset that we had at the party but to our surprise and delight, Savannah decided to join everyone in the area of the garden where the animal show was going to take place. Julian kicked off the show by introducing us to a tarantula. Yikes! I know. I never thought I would hold a spider nor one as scary as a tarantula. But Savannah was watching Michael and I with keen caution, and so I held out my hand and took the spider. Then I held a bearded dragon and a barn owl and the list goes on.
Eli let a Corn Snake coil around him as Savannah watched in amazement.
Then he coaxed her into touching a bunny which we named Peter Rabbit for her benefit. That was one of her favourite childhood books.
Michael who is by no means an animal lover delighted her by holding a tarantula and whistled to a Cockatiel, coaxing it away from my shoulder to his shoulder.
I struggled to fight back the tears when we met the barn owl. Some years back she was caught in a trap and had lost one leg. So she cannot fly and is fully dependent on Julian for her food. As a mother to a daughter who uses a wheelchair and a sister to a brother who is an amputee; that little owl represented the vulnerability and the tenacity that I saw in my daughter, in my brother and in Kurt. More than that, Julian’s care and commitment to this sweet bird spoke volumes about something all of us at the party understand but rarely see outside of our lives as families of people with disabilities.
That is the act of simply caring for one another. Not based on what we will gain or what we will lose, but only for the reason that we are human and we have compassion.
Often people look at Savannah or Kurt and they feel pity. Understandably so because they see themselves as having more abilities than our children do. Often we as families are judged from their limited viewpoint about what we are doing and what we are not doing for all our children. Here’s the thing though: We are here caring until forever. We are constantly finding delight in life no matter what fears and unknowns and awkwardness and frustrations we face. So the pity we get is actually misguided. It belongs to the rest of the world. While our lives take us to difficult places in our hearts:
we know what “unconditional” means.
we know what depths of love and care truly exists in the human spirit, and
we know just how shallow so many lives are because they have not yet learned to give without counting the loss or the gain.
We knew from the beginning that parenting would be a daily exercise of giving of ourselves. It would be letting go of fears and showing up for our children no matter how we were feeling.
What we learnt was that parenting a child who has special needs is sometimes about giving all of yourself. It is about conquering those fears every moment of every day and learning to live with passion and joy knowing full well that your worst fears for your child can become your reality.
We do not know when Savannah will be keen to attend another event so we soaked up the afternoon with Kurt, his family and those glorious animals. We were carefree and delighted as we held tarantulas and snakes. Now that is a great paradox for the life we live, isn’t it?
Being courageous even when our hearts are uncertain.
A very special “Thank You” to Kurt, Maggie, Kevin (Kurt’s dad), Gabriella (Kurt’s sister) and their extended family for being one of the bravest, nicest people we know.