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What I Never Imagined About Raising a Child With Special Needs

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This week one of my good friends accompanied his 18-year-old son off to join the Marines. Another friend sent his 18-year-old child off to college.

My son turns 18 in two weeks. Last night he peed in the bathtub.

The gap between our life and the life of a typical family is sometimes so vast that it’s difficult to comprehend. As my wife likes to say, “Sometimes my reality is just too real.”

I remember in the early years desperately clinging to the words “developmental delay” because they somehow implied a time would come when his development would catch up. Those words were the anchor of my hope.

But as my son got older, the gap widened instead of narrowing. Our new normal was constantly being modified and adjusted.

I never dreamed my son would remain nonverbal his whole life. I never imagined I’d never hear the words, “I love you,” much less hear him call me Dad.

I never dreamed he would never be able to walk independently without physical assistance.

I never dreamed we would have to feed him all of his meals hand by hand, bite by bite.

I never dreamed I would never be able to get a good night’s sleep ever again.

I never dreamed he would always need our help with bathing, getting dressed, shaving and all of the other basic needs.

I never dreamed he would never drive, marry or give us grandchildren.

I never dreamed he would watch the same “Wiggly Safari” DVD every day before supper for 14 years.

I never dreamed we would never go camping, fishing, or travel to ballgames like my dad and I had done when I was a kid.

I never imagined he would never learn to read or write.

I never dreamed he would live with us even after becoming an adult.

All along this journey as a dad of son with profound special needs, so many expectations and dreams were surrendered.

And then one day I realized the challenges often provide the biggest blessings in our lives. For every dream that is dashed by the new normal as a dad of a child with special needs, I believe a window is cracked into new insights and revelations from God.

I never dreamed I could love so unconditionally until I had a son with special needs.

I never dreamed I could find joy in the simplest of things until I had a son with special needs.

I never dreamed I could find such contentment in daily laying my life down for my son’s needs.

I never dreamed I would treasure having a teenage boy fall asleep on my shoulders at night.

I never imagined the gratitude I could feel just sitting beside him on a swing at night, speaking blessings over him.

I never imagined the sheer happiness I could have in just making him smile and laugh.

I never dreamed God would use the life of my son so much to completely change me, inspire me and draw me closer to Him.

I never imagined my life would have so many tears and so many moments of despair. But I also can’t imagine it any other way.

No, my life didn’t turn out at all like I imagined or dreamed. But I also never imagined I would want to go back and do it all over again like I do now.

Who knew I could hear “I love you, Dad” every day, despite him not saying a word?

For every dream that went away, I believe God replaced it with a blessing. I never imagined life could be so hard, and yet so good, all at the same time. And I never dreamed the things that created the most challenges would also bring the greatest blessings.

A version of this post originally appeared on Not Alone.

Originally published: September 16, 2015
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