Dad couldn't deal with handicapped individuals. He changed the subject when a special needs child became the topic of conversation. If you don't talk about it, you don't need to recognize children born less than perfect. He never voiced it, but his actions and attitude spoke volumes.
Ironically, I taught a class that included several handicapped children. Maybe his attitude is what made me so bent on helping these children. My dad didn't want to hear about them when I came home to visit. He abruptly changed the subject whenever I tried to tell a story about one of them. I hoped he'd see that they were no different than any other child. They laughed, they cried, they wished for special things, and they had likes and dislikes.
When our first baby arrived shortly before Thanksgiving of 1966, our anticipation and joy turned to shock, for Julie was a spina bifida baby. Along with silver blonde hair, big blue eyes, and skin that shone like satin, she had an open spine and paralysis of her legs, bowel, and bladder. My husband relayed the sad news to both sets of grandparents. The message we received from three of them showed nothing less than hope and acceptance. My dad had nothing to say about his first granddaughter. He visited me in the hospital and pledged his support and love to me for rough times ahead. Sadly, his visit didn't include a peek into the nursery.
Within days, Julie became a patient of a well-known neurosurgeon at a children's hospital in Chicago. He closed the opening in her spine and inserted a shunt to drain fluid from her brain. It was so much to endure by one tiny soul. I wasn't able to stay with Julie, as a difficult delivery, a slow recuperation, and distance kept me at home where I agonized over our separation and spent a great deal of time in prayer.
My mother and I spent our phone calls talking about Julie. I tried to live with hope, but sometimes hope is a fragile entity. Mom's positive words buoyed me up when I occasionally fell into despair. I spoke to the nurses daily, and we went to visit our little girl every weekend. To us she was perfection.
One night during the second week, my dad called. "I went to see Julie today," he blurted before even saying hello. My heart skipped a beat, and I clenched the phone. Dad went on to describe all he'd seen at the hospital, how impressed he'd been, and how beautiful Julie looked. His voice quivered more than once as he talked to me. Tears flowed down my face at the knowledge that my dad was beginning to accept a handicapped grandchild. I knew how hard that visit had been for him.
It was the first of many such visits. Dad worked several blocks from the hospital, and he spent many of his lunch hours walking through the cold, rain, or snow to check on Julie's progress. His reports to me were descriptive and filled with love for both his daughter and granddaughter. I could detect a little more acceptance on his part with each visit to her. One evening he called, and I noted excitement and pleasure in his voice as he told in great detail of seeing Julie receive a Christmas doll from a hospital auxiliary volunteer. The woman tied the tiny doll to Julie's isolette within her line of vision while dad watched. He described the doll from head to toe as well as the red satin ribbon used to fasten it. They were words I needed to hear since I had not been present, words I came to treasure.
Dad's visits came to an end in the middle of January when Julie died. Despite our grief, I gave thanks that my dad had come to accept a less than perfect child as part of our family. Her time here was limited, but she taught Dad a lasting lesson, and the bond between my dad and me grew stronger than it had ever been. A loving God worked yet another small miracle using a tiny soul who worked her way into her grandfather's heart, one short visit at a time.
This story was originally published in a Guideposts anthology titled Miracles of Hope.
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