Looking for love in the right place, for a change.
by Susan Craig
The California sunshine was warm on my back as I unloaded my infant daughter and her bulging carry-all from the car. But it could not melt the cold lump of fear in my heart. Balancing Joanna on one hip I picked my way across the gravel driveway past a clinic sign that read “Help for Brain Injured Children.” Opening the door of the neat re-purposed bungalow, I faced a smiling receptionist. I took a deep breath to steady the trembling inside me. “I’m Jan Whitson and this is Joanna. We’re here for her first appointment.”
Just three months earlier my husband and I learned that our newborn Joanna had an extra thirteenth chromosome. Sitting on the edge of the bright vinyl couch in a tiny consultation room, we had clasped our hands together for support as the doctor delivered her verdict. Joanna would be severely mentally and physically handicapped. She would not learn or grow like other children. She would never walk or talk. She might never recognize us as her parents. I cried for weeks, mourning the loss of the normal child I’d expected. Than I cried again, this time for the future that Joanna faced. But now, at last, along with the other 100,000 women who gave birth to children with disabilities that year, I was trying to adjust to the change in our lives.
“Please have a seat.” The receptionist gestured toward what must have once been the living room. Cold metal folding chairs and a few tired-looking upholstered pieces lined the edges of the space. Most of the seating was taken by parents. Occasionally there was a spot where chairs had been moved to fit in a wheelchair holding an adult stroke or accident victim. The clear area in the center of the carpet was filled with handicapped children. I scanned all this in a flash, and it made the icy fear inside me break out into clammy hands and cold sweat. My gaze dropped to the carpet. Trying to see nothing—“Don’t stare,” my mother had always whispered—I dropped into the nearest empty chair.
Handicapped people frightened me. I didn’t know what to do or how to act around them. My heart was pounding. I couldn’t look up, because there was nowhere safe to rest my eyes. Holding Joanna close, I concentrated on staring at her sleeping face. She looked so normal, but I knew that as she got older her difference would become more and more apparent. In a few years Joanna would become one of “them”… and I was afraid I would no longer love her.
My eyes grew hot with tears as I visualized an older Joanna. I saw my daughter, with vacant eyes and contorted limbs sitting in a wheelchair, needing someone to love her. Imagining her alone, in a crowd of people who turned away their heads and averted their eyes, I slumped further down into my chair.
Fear takes all the joy out of life. It turns blessings into burdens and children into tragedies. God had given this child to me and I believed He had a purpose. I believed He would bring good out of this. But I was afraid. I knew what Joanna needed most from me was love. Right now I could give it to her, but what about later?
Across the room, a child started to fuss. I began to lift my head but stopped, remembering the floor full of uncoordinated bodies and drooping heads. Pulling a bottle from my bag, I offered it to Joanna. For a moment her slate blue eyes opened, then she settled down to nurse peacefully in her sleep. I gazed again at the curling lashes and the little rosebud mouth. I couldn’t let this fear get the better of me. Joanna needed a lifetime of love. She was my daughter! Of course I would always love her. Besides, the Bible promises, “Perfect love drives out fear.” (1 Jn 4:18 NIV) That meant, I reasoned, that the love I had for Joanna would conquer my fear of her future.
I spoke sternly to myself. “No one here is going to hurt you. You love Joanna, don’t you? Now pick up your head and face this fear down.” My back straightened. “Okay, Father,” I prayed, “I’m going to do it.”
The best I can say for myself is that I really did try, but my own strength and love were no match for this unreasoning fear. My head didn’t move. The harder I tried, the more attention I focused on it, the bigger my fear grew. It seemed to me that every person in the room must be staring at me, knowing I was afraid.
My gaze moved from Joanna’s face and fixed on the carpet six inches in front of my shoes. There it stayed. Face flushed and shoulders sagging, I gave up. “I can’t do it, Father. I can’t even love those kids enough to look at them. You’ve got to help me. I need to be sure I’ll be able to love Joanna. I know there’s love inside me, but it’s a long way from perfect. What can I do?”
As soon as my mind formed the words, I felt the answer. Nothing. There was not a single thing I could do. My love would never be perfect. But wait. I’d had it wrong. It wasn’t my love the Bible verse meant. It was God’s love. God’s love was already perfect. The icy lump of fear began to crack.
I remembered a list I had made shortly after Joanna’s birth, to remind myself of “The Facts” about her. Item number one had been, “God loves Joanna.” Item number two had been, “God loves me.” At least part of my problem was that I’d forgotten my own list. Eyes on Joanna, I leaned back in the chair and felt the assurance of God’s perfect love wrap itself like a soft wool blanket around us. Peace bubbled up inside me and the cold chucks of fear eddied away from the center of my mind. God loved Joanna. He loved me. He would take care of the future and He would supply the love. I began to relax. Suddenly someone rolled against my feet. Lying on her back and looking up at me was a little blond girl about five years old. With the absolute enthusiasm of a toddler she smiled. “Hi!”
A warm rush of affection melted the last icy slivers of fear. “Hi.” I grinned as I watched her go rolling back across the floor to the other side of the room. Seeing my smile, her mother got up and came towards me. Glancing at her daughter she said, “She’s gotten pretty good at rolling. We’re hoping to get her to crawl soon.” Then she sat down next to me and looked at Joanna. “What a beautiful little girl you have. How old is she?” Warmth rushed through me. Her words offered acceptance I hadn’t realized I needed—acceptance of my decision to keep my child—acceptance of my desire to love my daughter. I found I could talk easily to her, and as we spoke of her child and mine, I found the key to the compassion I lacked. It was to realize completely that inside those unwieldy little bodies lived children. Beautiful children, loved by God.
We had a long wait for the doctor that day, and I am grateful. It gave me time to talk, to listen, to understand. When I gathered up Joanna to leave the clinic I took one last look around the room where I had learned so much. This time I didn’t see any handicaps—all I saw were the faces of God’s children.
As I tucked Joanna into her car seat, the breeze fluffed her downy hair. Darkness was beginning to fall, but my heart was light. Although the future I had glimpsed held challenges, there would be no lack of love. Joanna and I had God’s perfect love to draw on, in unlimited supply. And it had crowded the fear right out of my heart.
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