Lessons from Adam

Every morning as I sip my coffee, I peruse the headlines on the internet and scan a few of the articles that interest me. Last week I came upon an article that made me wish I had slept an extra twenty minutes and skipped the internet.  Screen-Shot-2013-08-20-at-1_33_52-PM

On the splash page of AOL there was a headline, “Woman writes outrageously cruel letter to mom of autistic boy.”  The article showed the anonymous letter written about Max, a thirteen year old boy with autism.  I’ll spare you the details, but “outrageously cruel” doesn’t begin to describe how reprehensible this letter was.

As I read the letter, I thought of my nephew Adam.  Adam has Down syndrome and is autistic.  He entered our lives twenty-five years ago, a frail little bundle with huge blueberry eyes that searched mine as I held him for the first time.  His heart was so weak that drinking from his bottle exhausted him, requiring open heart surgery before he was a year old.  Undoubtedly, his special needs were overwhelming to his birth parents, and they released him for adoption shortly after his birth.  It took no time at all for him to claim his spot in the family…and in our hearts.

adam and mjIt’s Saturday, and I visit my sister at her farmhouse.  Adam greets me with a grunt and a hug.  He can only say a few words, but despite severe hearing loss in both ears, he understands almost everything that is spoken.  When he sees me approaching the front door, he usually flings it open and runs away, but today he stays long enough to give me a quick hug and an air kiss.  He hovers in the kitchen, grinding his teeth and shifting his weight from one foot to the other until my brother-in-law tells him it’s time to take the trash to the dump.  He separates the bottles and cans from the paper goods and carries them to the work shop.  And on Saturday, he helps his dad take the family’s refuse to the dump.  It may easily be the only chore he does, but he does it without fail.

After returning from their errand, my brother-in-law resumes working on the outbuilding he is constructing for his tractor.  Adam sits in a chair at the edge of the construction site, swaying to Toby Keith on the CD player and watching the cars and trucks pass by the house. 

You may read this and wonder why God would put such an unfortunate human being on this earth.  While it is true that Adam will not ever support himself, or drive a car, or cook his own meals, he adds to his family in ways that cannot be measured. 

Adam teaches us perseverance. He hates wrinkled socks and whines and fusses if they are not perfectly smooth.  Over and over, he pulls them off his feet and pulls them to his knees again in an attempt to calm his overloaded sensory system. Finally, when they are adjusted to his satisfaction, he can move on.  How often do we slop together a job just to get it done, or give up when a task cannot be completed in a few moments?

Adam teaches us to be non-judgmental.  Adam doesn’t size up people’s appearance.  He doesn’t care how well-educated they are, or if what job they have, or how much money they have.  He teaches us to let go of expectations and take people at face value, with no bias or prejudice.  He doesn’t realize what a powerful lesson that is.  But I do.

Adam teaches us to take time and laugh.  He has a little game which nobody quite understands.  Sitting next to me, he pinches his fingers together, touches his forehead between his eyebrows and then reaches out to touch mine in the same place.  Back and forth, he goes, chuckling as if it is the funniest thing in the world.  His laughter is contagious.  I laugh with him, and my day is immediately better.

Adam teaches us unconditional love.  During most of Adam’s life, my mother lived in the farmhouse with my sister and her husband. She was an integral part of Adam’s life and he adored her.  When I visited my mother in her room, Adam would burst through the door and plop himself on her bed or on the floor in front of her television set.  He did not interrupt.  He did not ask for anything.  He just wanted to be near her. 

My mother loved Adam as much as he loved her.  Night after night, Adam brought his pajamas to her room so she could help him get ready for bed.  Helping him dress, she would evoke from him the only sentence I have ever heard him say.  Signing at the same time, she would start him off, “Adam, I…”

Adam would sign back and yell to complete the sentence, “Love..you!”

During Mom’s last days at the Hospice House, my nephew Jason brought Adam by for a visit.  He ran into the room, and plopped himself down in the recliner next to Mom’s bed.  He was clearly confused by the surroundings, but he knew his Grammie was there.  After a short visit, Jason said it was time to leave.  Mom kissed Adam and started the routine, “Adam, I…”

“Love… you!” belted Adam.  It was the last time he spoke to her.

For days after Mom passed away, Adam would stand at the door of her empty room, pajamas in hand, waiting for his beloved Grammie to help him get ready for bed.  His silence spoke the emptiness that we all felt.

To the person who wrote that nasty letter on the internet, I am sorry.  I am sorry you areadam and horse so biased with your own prejudice that you miss out on the value of those different from you.  I am sorry you are so filled with hate that you miss out on love.  And I am sorry you will never know the wonderful lessons that Adam and those like him can teach.  It is you who suffers most.

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Story Time

Saturday morning while I was having my coffee, I sat in my bed and surfed the television channels.  There were the usual infomercials for weight loss and cleaning products, but something different caught my eye.  On the screen were young babies “reading” from flash cards.  The product, of course, was a program designed to teach your child to read before reaching the age of one year.

Certainly, the little moppets look adorable as they demonstrate their ability to recognize a combination of letters, and perform the obligatory trick that accompanies it.  What parent would not shower copious accolades upon a nine-month old who recognizes the card that spells “up” and lifts her pudgy hands into the air?  The baby obviously loves an audience.  Mom and Dad proudly have her perform at parties to the amazement of their friends and family.  Everyone’s happy.

I however, am of the opinion that this is not exactly reading in the sense of decoding words.  It is sight recognition.  Dolphins do it.  And I have to wonder if we are really doing a baby any favor by trying to turn him into an amazing performing wunderkind before he reaches his first birthday.

Besides, why does a baby need to read, anyway? 

Some of my favorite memories are of my mother reading to me.  She would sit on a double bed and all eight of us would nestle around her.  We held our breath through the adventures of the Red Cross Knight, walked the yellow brick road with Dorothy, and mourned the loss of Kay with Gerda, from “The Snow Queen.”  Long after I could read alone, I still loved the sound of my mother’s voice as it transported an adventure from the page to my imagination.  On rare occasions, my father would take his turn at reading aloud.  To this day, whenever I read poems by Robert Louis Stevenson, the scent of Dad’s starched white shirts and the timbre of his tenor voice again carry me to the sea.

We started reading to my children long before they were old enough to walk.  They would crawl to an open lap, a tattered book in tow, begging for a story.

Books became the catalysts for great dramatic performances.  We would sniff pictures of flowers, take imaginary bites from apples and pretend to be stung by bees.  Each character was given a different voice and accent.  We created melodies for lyrical verses, clapping and singing until we were hoarse.  The Pokey Little Puppy and the Little Engine that Could became family members who visited several times a day.

Our children, like most others, eventually learned to read independently.  Still, they loved it when we read to them.  Like baby birds in a nest, they found safety and security while snuggling close together, shutting their eyes and allowing their parents to weave an intricate path through their minds’ eyes.

They loved to cuddle on the couch and listen to “St. George and the Dragon,” “The Adventures of Robin Hood” and “White Fang.”  Stories such as these sparked their imaginations.  They made crowns and swords out of cardboard and fought unseen dragons.  They camped under blanket forts in the living room and flew to the moon in laundry basket spaceships. Nobody had to suggest imaginative play – they were inspired solely by the words read to them by the people who loved them most. 

It didn’t matter how well we read, or how accurate our translations were.  I can still hear Gabriel’s peals of laughter when I read “Stop, Angus, stop!” with a ridiculous attempt at a Scottish burr, and it didn’t faze Elizabeth that every time we sang a verse of “Jittery Jonah” the melody changed.     

I didn’t realize how impacted the children were by us reading to them until they were teenagers.  One snowy winter night, the power went out, leaving our home dark and cold.  Abby and Elizabeth huddled together under a blanket to keep warm, a kerosene lantern by the couch.  I could hear their voices punctuated by giggles from the front steps, where I was trying to heat soup over a propane burner.  When I entered the house, I realized they were reading “Hamlet” aloud, assigning different voices and accents to each character.  It was a dramatic performance that would have made Shakespeare himself belly laugh.  While I listened from the kitchen, the kerosene lamp glowed a little brighter, the room a little warmer.

In the end, teaching your tyke to read is probably not harmful at all.  I think its real value is in the one-on-one time spent between the baby and the parent.  But for my money, the time is better spent scooping your baby up in your arms, hugging him close and diving into the story together.  He may not wow people at your next party, but sharing the adventure of the story will be worth it all.

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