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What My Grandfather’s Gardening Taught Me About Special Needs Parenting


My paternal grandfather was an excellent gardener. He was the only grandfather I knew growing up because my other one died of cancer when I was barely 3, though I have one fuzzy memory of him as well. Both men loved their grandchildren; it was obvious, but I grew up seeing firsthand my paternal grandfather’s love of gardening and the fruits of his labor in his gardens. All around the house where my dad grew up there were flowers and fruits and vegetables in gardens and pots. There never seemed to be a lifeless stalk.

I was lucky enough to ask my grandfather before he died in 2007 what he will miss most, and he simply said, “All the kids.” All he ever wanted was a big family, and he got one. By that time he had about 30 grandchildren and eight or nine great-grandchildren. Around then I realized that he was a better and gentler gardener of children than he was of plants, that there is nothing more manly than hoisting your children and grandchildren up in the air only to cover them with hugs and kisses on the way down. Or chasing and tickling them and singing to them, leaving no doubt in their minds that whisker burns and aftershave would be on their cheeks long after you’re through with them.

Photo Shoot 5-14 Cody Air sm sz

He only knew my oldest son, Nick. He didn’t live to meet Cody, though in my heart I know he has. I openly wished I would eventually become half as good a gardener of living things as he was.

But parents are eternal gardeners if we’re doing the job right. At least that’s what I believe — especially with special needs children. We plant endless “seeds” in our kids and work tirelessly at providing sunshine, nutrition and encouragement, hoping that our little seedlings of progress eventually sprout a healthy stalk — knowing that it’s harder and infinitely more rewarding than in our typical children, though we love them all the same.

As usual, this morning I woke up all three little boys and got them changed and dressed for the day in our little ritualistic ways which are especially important to Cody boy. As I finished dressing Cody and pulled his shirt over his head, I grabbed his head for him to look at me and gave him a kiss on the cheek as I always do for all my boys. But today without prompting, Cody paused, grabbed my head, stared into my eyes and pressed his lips against my cheek in response.

My grandfather popped into my mind right then as I sat there stunned by Cody’s gesture. Seeds sure can produce wonderful things, can’t they?

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