Few people would choose a child like mine
My mother-in-law is sick. Very sick. It’s quite surreal for us because she is the centre of the family. It’s painful to watch someone with so much energy and with such zeal find themselves in tremendous physical discomfort as old age encroaches.
This post though wasn’t prompted by her illness. It was prompted when I saw this on a Facebook timeline “The wise woman builds her house, but with her own hands the foolish one tears hers down”, from the Book of Proverbs in the Bible. I immediately thought of my mother-in-law or “Ma” as we affectionately refer to her.
Mothers of sons tend to have a pretty fixed picture of the ideal daughter-in-law for their beloved sons and Ma was no different. I was definitely not the ideal daughter-in-law. Becoming a mum at eighteen; married and divorced by twenty-one years old and having a daughter with a disability; doesn’t exactly say “I’m the right girl for your son”.
However from the beginning we both knew it would take an effort from both of us to make our relationship work. What surprised me the most was how little effort it took for Ma and Savannah’s relationship to work. From the minute they met, Savannah belonged to Michael’s mum. For Ma the adoption process was a mere formality to give Savannah the same name as her and her family. It certainly helped Ma and I to navigate our relationship with a deeper sense of care.
A few years later when I was pregnant for Talisa, I prayed for a boy. I was afraid that when Michael and his family had another girl; their “own” girl; then they would draw the distinction between Savannah and the second girl. In some families positions and birthrights can be contentious points and the root of much discontent. Also many natural families do not easily accept and value their own child with a disability. I can now admit that with all of this in my mind, I was terrified of having another daughter. I didn’t think I could bear the heartache of watching my already socially challenged child facing rejection.
Because of the rough start I already had I understood too that “belonging” to a family was not a guarantee. I wanted all my children to enjoy that privilege equally, yet I understood I was hoping for something quite ridiculous given the circumstances. On the day Talisa was born Ma phoned me. She said clearly “Thank you for my second granddaughter. I am blessed with two girls when for so long I had only sons and grandsons”. I wept.
Six weeks later Michael, Savannah and I took the new baby to meet her dad’s family in Durban. Extended family poured in to congratulate us and to celebrate with my in-laws too. A few people remarked that finally my mother-in-law had a “daughter” of the house. Ma never missed a beat in reminding the jubilant visitor that she had a granddaughter for a few years already and that she just happened to know this new granddaughter since birth.
Since then Ma in her resolute way ensured that Savannah and Talisa grew together in love and pride for each other and for the family they belonged too. Being a parent in the community of people with special needs I know that very, very few people would CHOOSE a child like my Savannah. In fact many families fall apart in circumstances like these. Not all families can make the sacrifices that caring for a person with a disability requires and even fewer can make those sacrifices without being boastful about it. My husband and his family did just that and they have never spoken about it. They consider it an offence should anyone defer to their relationship with Savannah as being special or if they are told that they are amazing people for “looking after that child”. They do not justify Savannah’s place in the family to anyone. It’s just what family does.
So here we are. My mother-in-law who is really sick, being bossy to me about making sure that Savannah’s 21st birthday is spectacular. It is her granddaughter after all and what Ma and her girls want, they usually get.
As I celebrate Savannah’s 21st birthday this week, I am mindful of how blessed I am. Even though it’s so painful that Savannah is experiencing complex medical problems and my mother-in-law too is experiencing such pain and discomfort; I am grateful to both these women for weaving their beauty through my life. Savannah with all her complexities has taught me that a frail body can house a powerful soul. Ma taught me that when you say you love God with all your heart, all your soul and all our strength; then it’s not hard to love His children.