This Sunday, I’ll be celebrating Father’s Day as a dad for the eighth time. My first one was pretty easy albeit uneventful, “uneventful” later becoming an eternal goal in our lives. My daughter Penny was born in the spring of 2011, and for the first three months of her life, she exhibited all the signs of a healthy baby girl.
That’s when she started doing this thing with her arm. That’s what we called it, an odd, repetitive motion. We brought her to her pediatrician, explaining that she kept doing “this thing.” He observed her, and within a minute, Penny did it again. He instantly instructed us to take her to the emergency room at Cornell Medical Center, explaining that she was having partial seizures. Within 48 hours I no longer had a healthy baby girl. I had a daughter with Aicardi Syndrome; a severe developmental disability that only impacts girls. It includes epilepsy, intellectual disability (severe in Penny’s case), physical disabilities (also severe with Penny), and communicative difficulties. Penny cannot talk or willfully communicate aside from a whine when she’s unhappy, a squeal when she’s happy, and occasionally tapping the table when she wants an object.
It’s still remarkable to reflect on how the life that I had envisioned for myself and for Penny had been obliterated and replaced with a different one, one far scarier and more uncertain, in the space of a couple of days. Even scarier was how isolating it felt to have a daughter with an illness so rare you could potentially go years without meeting another person affected. My first big break was finding a support group for parents of Aicardi children online. The feeling of belonging and support got me through those first months. It wasn’t only people helping each other and it wasn’t just the moral support, both of which were huge. It was the pictures I saw and stories I read about families having fun with their daughters – the girls getting to enjoy beautiful experiences in their communities, out in nature, on road trips, and in school. I read dispatches from normal life, people simply talking about “normal” stuff, like going to the movies and out to dinner.
Something that was rare in the group (though certainly not absent) were posts by dads. I don’t know exactly why dads are less likely to participate in such groups – if it’s simply not one’s thing, great – but I’ve spoken to some dads who claim they don’t feel it’s meant for them. They feel intimidated by how overwhelmingly female such groups sometimes are, or are embarrassed. It is not, however, because they are less interested. I have come to know some of the most spectacular special needs dads that I could ever meet. I’ve known dads to build entire rooms to accommodate their kids, convert a van themselves, carry a 60-pound daughter miles through the hilly woods because she loves it, change jobs and move the family cross country for better services for their children, and create enough adaptable devices (and Halloween costumes!) to earn an engineering degree.
There’s been a lot written about how special needs dads can be overlooked or are more likely to be silent about their child, so I want to dedicate this Father’s Day to all the special needs dads who are pouring their heart into their kids. I don’t know if I would have even thought to do all I do with my kids without your inspiration. I thank you for that. And thank you from the entire special needs community for doing more than most people even know is possible.
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