Abbie gives birth to triplets and almost dies in the process. She survives with severe brain damage, incapable of speech or movement, but able to think, read, smile, and cry. Her husband divorces her, leaving her in the care of her parents, and has not allowed visits from her children (now 4 years old) for nearly two and a half years. In fact, the children do not know that their mother exists. The father’s reasoning: he doesn’t want to traumatize them or make them feel guilty about being the cause of their mother’s disability; she can’t “interact” with them.
Last Sunday’s Los Angeles Times reported this tragic story in a cover article titled “Disabled, Is She Still a Mom?” It is an emotionally and legally charged situation prompting passionate social debate and precedential legal arguments. What constitutes a parent/child relationship? Can a severely disabled parent emotionally nurture a child?
“There is no case in point that addresses Abbie’s particular circumstance, whether someone in her condition has a constitutional right to parent or visit her children,” admits her attorney Lisa Helfend Meyer. Abbie can answer questions by blinking her eyes, and seeing her children is a definite ‘yes’. So, her parents are asking a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge to order the father to allow Abbie visitation. “Abbie is alive and wants to see her children,” Helfend Meyer argues. “The children need to have a relationship with their mother. The kids need to know the truth.”
Yes, our children need the truth, and they deserve it. Furthermore, as unlikely as it seems to adults, they can handle it. How often we underestimate their ability to understand, their capacity to give and receive love, and the depth of their compassion.
This father’s myopic projection of his guilt and discomfort onto his children punishes them severely. They are not only losing an opportunity to know and love their mother and receive her love in return, they are being robbed of a rich human experience, a privilege that most of us are rarely offered – a loving bond with someone disabled.
A few years ago, I visited a dear friend with my four year old son. She was a woman who never told her age, but I believed her to be in her mid-nineties by then. She had been wheelchair bound for some time and unable to move much at all. Recently, she had stopped speaking, and she no longer seemed to recognize me. As a toddler, my son had accompanied me almost weekly, but it had been several months since his last visit, and when he last saw her she was still talkative and lively.
To say I missed my friend’s former vitality is a massive understatement, but I never stopped cherishing time in her presence. The warmth, wisdom and good humor that always radiated from her transcended her condition. It was enough just to sit beside her, talk to her, or silently hold her hand. She often squeezed back, really hard.
Sometimes one of her daughters was there (both of whom I adore) or her gruff but kind live-in caregiver, who made Hungarian desserts for us. My son liked a crepe with chocolate sauce called palacsinta. (I don’t know what the rest were, but they were yummy.)
That last time my son accompanied me, he chased the caregiver’s cat around the apartment while I sat with my friend. He seemed to have a jolly enough time, but as I started up the car to leave, it occurred to me that I should acknowledge the change he must have noticed since our previous visit. I assumed it disturbed him, and I wanted to encourage him to express it. “Magda doesn’t talk now…“ I began. He interrupted me without missing a beat, “But she laughs!”
Young children do not have expectations. They are acceptance personified. They love freely and unconditionally, and they forgive liberally. They are healers. Uncluttered and baggage-free, they see beyond our adult limitations and have so much to teach us — if we will only let them. Children are honest to a fault and need our truthful presence in return. The rest of what we give them is just gravy (or palacsinta).
Janet Lansbury has guided parents for over 15 years. A former actress and model (Janet Julian), she is the mother of 3, teaches RIE parent/infant classes in Los Angeles, she has been published in the journal "Educaring" and writes articles about parenting on her blog: janetlansbury.com.