She has appeared in previous blogs, wielding a bottle of Puffy Paint and wearing a determined expression. She has uttered such maxims as, “A clean house is a sign of a boring woman” and “Disappointment builds character.” She has encouraged me to try everything from sewing on buttons and making lemon meringue pie to painting pottery and firing a bow-and-arrow. Now, the only thing keeping me away from archery is the surprising shortage of ready onlookers.
More recently, she has taught me that a strong woman knows her own weaknesses. But the lesson that I remember most, the one that I can trace back to my earliest years, is this:
“You can do anything. You just have to find your own way to do it.”
My mother gave me the impression that there was no question of me leading a normal, fulfilling life – that I could accomplish whatever I set out to do with the same determination as anyone else. Without reserve, she gave me a constant supply of something, the value of which I would not understand until much later, when I met children whose parents didn’t give them such a generous measure. It was not just love, though my mother’s love is a powerful current – sometimes terrifying in its intensity. My mother gave – and continues to give – the most potent gift a parent can offer her child, belief.
I’m sure others would argue with this assertion, telling my young, non-parent self that love is the most powerful gift you can give your child. Perhaps I’m splitting hairs here by saying that belief is separate from love, but I have known plenty of people who demonstrated great love for me without the assurance that they believed in my capabilities. For those who think that tenderness is enough, I can say only that I know what my mother’s belief has allowed me to do.
Whether it’s because she calls herself my biggest fan or because she says that my singing brings her to tears – or because she has volunteered to be my agent and accompany me on all my book tours – she never ceases to remind me that she expects my best and understands my potential. She never expresses skepticism, never asks dubiously, “Well how are you going to manage that?” Instead, she starts formulating a plan, making suggestions, and asking me about the particulars of any goal I want to accomplish. When I tell her I want to pursue my doctorate, she says, “I can already see you teaching. I see you in front of your class. You’ll get it.”
I cannot imagine what it would be like to grow up with parents who don’t believe in you. When I give talks to groups of disabled students and I hear them say, “You mean I can have a normal life? Get married? Have a job?” my heart breaks. I think about how often my parents have encouraged me – praised every report card, attended every performance of our middle school musicals, supported me through endless chorus concerts and academic banquets, and bragged about me to all their friends and colleagues. I try to imagine what it feels like to be a child whose parents don’t brag about her, don’t light up when someone asks, “What’s your daughter up to these days?” I can’t get into the mind of that child. I’ve never doubted that I deserve the same rights and dignity as any nondisabled person, because I never felt like a second-class citizen at home. And it is not as though these children are not loved; it’s not like they don’t receive tender care. But there’s something missing.
The missing link is what my mother could teach them in a matter of minutes, what she has taught me across many years. It’s not always a pleasant lesson because it requires tough love. It means that she won’t give up on me, that she tells me when my effort isn’t good enough, when she knows I could do more. Her toughness, her resilience, her refusal to accept anything less than what I deserve and what I can achieve has given me an iron core, an inner knot of strength. I don’t pretend to understand it; I am just now learning its power and constancy. And I can’t see it, not in myself. I can only see it reflected in her.
I love you, Mom. You have given me what every child deserves.