I met a woman a few years ago who was the epitome of kindness. I was half her age and possessed only a fraction of the patience and motherly knowledge she naturally had. I longed to have Joan’s grace and inner peace as those seemed to be a constant aura that surrounded her.
Joan and I met at church when I was a very young mother. At the time, I had three children under the age of three. It was also when Ronan’s delays and disabilities were becoming more apparent, and when it felt like I would never again have another quiet moment to myself. I was in constant research mode but hadn’t connected his problems to his vaccines yet. Ronan’s intense sensory issues broke many of our planned activities which also started to frustrate me.
Since church was always a place I felt at peace, I kept trying to go even though Ronan would protest quite loudly. Joan didn’t let Ronan’s outbursts bother her, so I always enjoyed seeing her after Mass. Our conversations were short, not just because of how wiggly Ronan was, but because Joan, even though retired, was still busy and had a full social schedule. I, no matter how refreshed I thought I looked, was utterly exhausted and in the constant presence of my three kids children. Interruptions were frequent as was the growing worry I had for Ronan, but Joan didn’t mind. My frazzled state and the young entourage I traveled with never fazed Joan; she always took time to give me a quick hug and to say “hi” to my little ones each time we saw her. I was grateful for the happy “hello” and was touched that she offered a few minutes of conversation before darting off to enjoy a round of golf or head out for a luncheon at the country club.
At a time in my life when I felt the most overwhelmed, Joan’s simple smile inspired me. She was entering the later stages of parenting—watching her children grow into adults with families of their own. I was just starting out—struggling to raise three very small children, one of whom would soon be labeled with special needs. I longed to be done with the diapering days but feared I’d never graduate out of them. I was knee-deep in worry, toys, messes and my own despair. I prayed that it would be as simple as Ronan outgrowing his odd behaviors, but his issues were becoming more and more complex. It didn’t help that I felt somewhat alone in our small town having very few friends to confide in. When Joan walked into my life, I was comforted with this new friendship because she was always able to boost my spirits. Not wanting to dismiss friends just because they were closer to my grandparents’ age, I looked to a few older women for guidance. Joan was one of those friends.
Living locally only for a few months as a “snowbird,” I knew Joan and I would have just a little bit of time to get to know each other before she was called back to real life elsewhere. I looked forward to the times I would get to run into Joan. When I would see her after Mass or in the parish hall, I felt a peace come over me. I welcomed the generous smile she offered and her open arms whenever I was able to fall into them. There was something about Joan that made me believe that things would someday be okay. That being a very young mother to three tiny humans was going to work out. That whatever was making Ronan so sick would someday be solved. That I didn’t need to stress out as much as I did. And that life is precious, and to never forget that. I welcomed those comforting thoughts and her generous wisdom.
Joan’s peace and love for life was infectious. I appreciated the support she offered me and was really going to miss her when she went back home. Before she left I promised Joan that I would remember what she shared with me: to slow down, to be more positive, to reflect on the gifts I have been given, and to appreciate the life I was living.
In the months that followed, I pondered what Joan had said to me. She had seen the struggle Ronan had to deal with and oftentimes prayed over him asking God to not only bless him but to bless me as well. In her observations, Joan reminded me that yes, Ronan’s increasing delays were adding an incredible burden to how I was feeling, but how I handled the stress and worry were going to reverberate to other people, especially to my young children who constantly surrounded me. I had told Joan that I felt guilty for not knowing enough to help Ronan, and that I felt terrible that I couldn’t balance my other children’s needs. She was gentle in her reply, “It will work out. It might not be what you expect to happen, but be calm on the inside and you will be able to manage everything on the outside.” Oddly, the next time we would meet, I would be saying those exact words to Joan.
The following winter Joan returned. As we embraced, I could sense her heavy heart. Her youngest son, who was in his mid-thirties, had just been diagnosed with Asperger’s. Not knowing too much about the disorder and having to depend on communication from the specialist her son was seeing hundreds of miles away, Joan felt lost. She said that after reading about Asperger’s and seeing how her son’s life mirrored the signs and symptoms, her son’s behaviors, choices and life-long struggles finally made sense. It was a relief for her to have a definitive diagnosis but also crushed her—she said that if she’d only known, she could have supported him differently. If she’d asked the right people for help earlier, maybe he wouldn’t have had such a difficult time growing up. If they’d had resources available before she started snowbirding, maybe she wouldn’t feel so guilty leaving her son behind for their four-month getaway. After unloading how devastated and uncertain how she was going to handle everything she’d learned, Joan wept.
Since I’d seen her last, I’d done a great deal of research on the autism spectrum since that diagnosis had been thrown around for Ronan. It was now my turn to give some advice! I shared book titles, websites, support group information as well as nutritional and biomedical ideas. It was overwhelming for Joan to take in, but over a few conversations and helping her learn how to navigate some of the same issues I had to for Ronan, Joan felt more confident that she would be able to help her son across the miles.
After she managed to work through the initial shock and worry of her son’s diagnosis and secure the right professionals he needed for support, Joan eventually returned to her always-optimistic self. I was not so lucky to feel as confident yet. Ronan was now in a full-time center for school and therapy which gave me a little bit of a break, but his needs were now very intense. I was now in full-research mode but also making sure I made time to take a break to sort my thoughts. It was in those breaks that Joan and I would get together. Grateful for the time and attention she continued to offer my family while she was far away from her own, I enjoyed every minute Joan and I spent together.
I hadn’t gotten to know Joan’s family’s past as our conversations had always focused on the present. Taking a break from how to help our boys, we talked about many, many other topics. Joan was a phenomenal story teller and had a wonderful way of intertwining life lessons in many of the stories she shared. The story that stood out the most is the one that might explain why Joan was so insistent that I appreciate life even when aspects of it tried to bring me down.
Joan always dreamed of having a big family as she was an only child. Growing up in the city in the mid-1940s with her mother, their early years as a family were incredibly difficult. Joan, who was the product of a rape, was raised by her mother during a time when unwed mothers were shunned. Going against what was typical practice at the time, Joan’s mother insisted that she would keep the baby despite how she was conceived. When her mother’s friends rejected her, strangers took on her physical, emotional and spiritual care with no question. Encouraged not to, Joan’s mother sought refuge with the nuns and was given momentary peace as well as a safe place to stay for the remainder of the unplanned pregnancy.
Captivated, and probably with my mouth agape, Joan continued. She shared more intimate details of how her life began. Joan would never know her birth father, his name or his background. What she did know and believe, was that it was her mother’s love and determination that made her first breaths possible. I sat in awe. Here was this woman, some sixty-plus years later telling me how the impossible became very real. I couldn’t help but be inspired by Joan again.
As I listened to Joan, it was thrilling and humbling to know how very different her birth story was compared to every single one I’d heard before. From the moment of Joan’s birth, she was shown only love and acceptance by those who immediately surrounded her. No wonder Joan was glowing from the inside out! For years and years, she humbly and graciously carried that initial peace and love showered upon her. What a different perspective Joan’s life was, and what more of a treasure she became for me. Her attitude and outlook were beautiful reminders of how I too should live and act despite the difficulties I was facing. I had no excuse to let my early-mothering days drag me down like I was letting them.
Joan and I stayed friends each winter when she returned to my town. She continued to inspire me during those stays. The more I got to know Joan, the more I realized what an impact each one of us has on each other’s lives. I don’t mean within our own families or in our intimate circle of friends, but farther than that. Joan has five children. Her oldest four are married. Each of those children has families of their own which means Joan has grandchildren in several cities across the country. Adding up how many offspring and grandchildren Joan had numbered 35. Thirty-five!! That doesn’t include in-laws, or cousins, or aunts and uncles. Joan was the beginning of that family, and because of her, her family’s circle of life was also growing.
I learned so much from one person who happened to slip into my life when I needed her the most. Call it fate, destiny or just a coincidence, but when our roles reversed the following year, I couldn’t have been more proud to hold Joan up when she needed help the most. I was proud to be a source of hope for her and her son, and I know she felt the same for me and mine.
As an older mother now, I am still learning and still growing into my role as a mom. With every one of my children’s stages, I have experienced valuable life lessons. Those lessons and their outcomes affect my children and quite possibly will affect their future children, too.
I know full well that life is not a guarantee, but how I live it and who I surround myself with has given me better direction and meaning. We never know when we will encounter someone who needs us, or who, through our own actions, will be inspired by us. Had conditions been different, if Joan’s mother hadn’t made a stand to protect her child’s life, or if Joan’s life course ended before it had a chance to begin, I may never have had the opportunity to meet someone who helped me believe in myself and in what I had to do for my children, and especially for Ronan. Why not let today be the day you promise to see the good in others and to bring some sort of joy to someone close to you? Bring them the gift of hope today for none of us know what tomorrow will hold.
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