They come to church on Sunday mornings, a father and his son. Although we try not to stare, we can’t help but notice because there is something so beautifully edifying about this pair. The father, large and strong, carries his son, thin and frail, into the church. He places him on the pew and gently props the limp boy, whose arms and legs dangle uselessly, against his own muscular build. The boy is about twelve. We don’t know their names or their story. We don’t know the medical condition that renders the boy so helpless. Yet my husband and I both agree that no music is as moving and no homily as uplifting as the sight of this father and the love he bears for his son.
Over the years, my husband and I have known several families with special-needs children. Some of these kids have autism, some have Downs Syndrome, other have genetic anomalies, chronic illnesses, or medical conditions that require extra care and attention. We have admired these parents for their dedication and selfless love towards their children. But it was not until this spring, when our sixth child was born, did we begin to appreciate the joys and sorrows that accompany raising a child with special needs. Even more, it was not until little Junior was born did I realize what an extraordinary father he has.
My husband has always been a wonderful father. Despite a demanding, stressful job and a long commute, he always makes the time to shower love and affection on our children. He reads to them, prays with them, and plays sports with them. He helps our kids with their schoolwork, brings them out on individual dates, shuttles them to and from their activities, and takes interest in their hobbies, encouraging and helping them out. At the dinner table, Dad becomes the family comedian and cracks jokes until the whole family is giggling and guffawing, and the room is ringing with laughter. He is not just a hard-working provider, but also a mentor, coach, and teacher; truly an exemplary father.
Yet I never loved and admired my husband more than when little Junior made his entrance into this world. Our baby was born with Downs Syndrome and was quickly diagnosed with congenital heart and respiratory problems that landed him in the NICU for several weeks. By his utter frailty and helplessness, our son drew from us untapped wells of compassion and love. I had never seen my husband so tender, patient, and selfless. Despite big deadlines at work, he boarded at the hospital with Junior and I. Every three hours, day and night, he would join me as I nursed the baby in the NICU. Because little Junior had to stay in the isolation box except for nursing, our chances for holding and cuddling him were very limited. Instead, after each nursing, my husband would put him back in the incubator and bottle feed him.
Then he would stroke little Junior’s head softly and stand there soothing him. No matter how long it took, no matter how tired he was, my husband would do this until our son fell asleep. What little time was left before the baby’s next feeding, my husband spent visiting our other children, praying in the chapel, meeting with doctors and nurses, grabbing a quick meal, or wearily stumbling into a hospital cot to catch a bit of sleep. His quiet selflessness and constancy was and continues to be a source of inspiration and strength.
A medically fragile, helpless child yields an uncanny power. It is the power to draw forth generosity and compassion from others. It is the power to force a man to his knees while showing him he has the inner strength to protect and care for his child. It is the power to turn a boy into a man, and a man into a saint.
There are those who claim that children with special needs are a burden to society, unless they can be rendered useful or profitable. But if a father allows himself to be transformed by love for his child, he becomes a far better man than he ever was before. We know many men who, for love of their special needs children, become super-special fathers. These dedicated, self-sacrificing, compassionate dads are our unsung heroes. And the world is a better place because of them.
Whether they know it or not, these fathers play a very special role within the church and the world at large. A severely disabled child, in the world’s view, cannot repay his father for the love given to him. Most likely he will not bring his father honor or prosperity. Nor will he be able to care for him in his old age. Rather, the child will be a constant source of worry and a financial drain. Nonetheless, dedicated, loving fathers care for their children, making countless sacrifices to provide for and protect their most vulnerable children.
In this way, fathers of special-needs children are a living witness of God’s merciful and unconditional love for us. For we, too, can never earn, never deserve, or never repay our Heavenly Father for the love and the graces He so generously bestows upon us. And yet, the more frail, needy, and little we are, the more He pours out his tender, compassionate love. To be a father of a special-needs child is a vocation within a vocation: a singular calling to reflect God’s infinite love for the weakest of His children.
So this Father’s Day, let’s thank all fathers for the love they give their children. But let’s also give a special thanks to the dedicated fathers of chronically ill, medically fragile, or special-needs children for the sacrifices they make. For they remind us that whenever we feel weak and broken, God lovingly holds each one of us in the palms of His hands.