When I drop Carter, age 8, off at school, we enjoy a ritual of words and kisses.
"Work hard!" I say, and he gives me a hug and one kiss.
"Learn lots!" I say, and he gives me a hug and two kisses.
"Have fun!" I say, and he gives me a hug and three kisses.
I said the same words to my older kids (Jacob, 17; Abbie, 15, and Spencer, 13) when I took them to school (though the hugging and kissing rituals are Carter's own invention) when they were young, but not anymore. Even on the rare occasions that I drop them off at school, they are far too old and sophisticated to enjoy the sing-song goodbyes and silly habits of their youth.
I don't know where those three instructions originated. Maybe my mom said them to me when I walked out the door every morning to get on the school bus, or maybe I made them up myself. Wherever those phrases began, I've come to see them as a nearly complete recipe for a successful day, and a necessary help as I learn to surrender to the vagaries of life as the mother of a child who has emotional, behavioral, cognitive, and motor disabilities and delays.
I was like most parents expecting a child: full of hope. I assumed that my children would go further in life than I have; that they would do more, experience greater success, and enjoy happiness far, far beyond my imaginings.
Funny thing is, on the way to my children's golden future, life intervened. Even in the years before Carter joined our family, and in spite of my best efforts, my kids were mostly.....ordinary. They all had talents and strengths, and of course their other parents and I found them to be exceptional in thousands of ways, but for the most part? Ordinary kids.
Instead of feeling disappointed, I was relieved. Delighted, even. None of them was dogged by unrealized genius. They were well-liked by their teachers and peers; they got pretty good grades; they were happy. I began to understand that my real goal for my children was that they grow up to become themselves, people who knew how to work and learn and play; to love and be loved. I surrendered.
But now, in the wake of the profound chaos of the past three years of our lives, when Carter revealed himself to be seriously ill and our family experienced a rupture of unimaginable proportions, I've had to learn about surrender in new ways.
Nothing about living in the moment and letting go of my regrets and expectations comes naturally to me. Far, far easier for me to lay awake at night rethinking past decisions or fretting about the future than to breathe deep and count my blessings in the moment. I worry about how I will manage to keep Carter safe in the future, but slowly, slowly, I am learning to interrupt those thoughts by reminding myself that he is safe right now, today.
How can I hope to help Carter stay stable and balanced if I am not stable and balanced myself?
The simplicity of that three-part recipe helps me: if I have worked hard, learned something new, and had fun, then I am a huge success. Just like I have learned not to measure Carter's academic ability against that of other children his age, but only to his own progress across time, so I can learn not to measure myself against anyone's expectations.