My husband had finished his requirements for graduation from dental school at THE Ohio State University, and was given a menu of options and opportunities regarding where he could spend some discretionary free time. He chose to work at University Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, doing dentistry for children with special needs.
He was taught in dental school to look into the eyes of his patients to be sure they were not experiencing any discomfort (okay, pain) as a result of whatever procedure was being done. What he noticed when looking into the eyes of these children with special needs, was how absolutely beautiful, even captivating their eyes were. It wasn’t just the color of their eyes, or the fact that some of them couldn’t even focus their attention on something. It was just “that look”. For most of them, the only communicating they could do was with their eyes. It was fascinating to him to watch their eyes as he worked on their teeth.
In the early years of our marriage and his dental practice, he worked in a few nursing homes whose residents were children with special needs. Dealing with drooling patients with flailing arms, squealing with uncontrolled emotion, was very sobering. It was challenging from a dental perspective as well as an emotional perspective.
He was always thankful to come home where things were calm and “normal.”
When our son Joey was born he seemed quite “normal”, but one night, Joe was caring for Joey so I could get some needed sleep. Joe scooped Joey out of the crib like he’d made a great football catch and took him into the family room to play on the floor for a bit. As he rolled Joey gently back and forth, even rolling a ball to him, attempting “catch” with his infant son, he caught a glimpse of Joey’s eyes that took him back to his experience at University Hospital. He knew “that look”. He picked Joey up and held him close, saying, “Oh God, not my son!”
What Joe knew that night, I was not yet seeing. I noticed that Joey wasn’t doing the things others his age were doing, but the doctors assured us he’d catch up. But the truth was this: instead of catching up, the gap kept getting bigger in what he could do and what he should have been able to do.
For Joey’s first birthday, a few of my gal friends and their children gathered at the home of my parents for a little picnic. All the other children were running around their property, throwing stones into the pond, and eating a kid friendly lunch by themselves. What a shock it was to me that Joey could do none of that. He sat is the high chair, had to be carried everywhere, and needed help putting food into his hand.
A dear friend, whose son was a little younger than Joey, but running circles around him, privately chatted with my mom about the boys. She shared her concerns about Joey. Because she cared enough to share in such a loving manner, it prompted us to begin asking some difficult questions of the doctor and pursue testing. It must have been difficult for her to bring up her concerns, but what a loving gesture that was. She was often the one to call me at just the right times – when I’d gone through a rough day – listening to my concerns, allowing me to cry, and encouraging me.
Sometimes we want to deny what we see. We want to close our eyes, and pretend what’s happening isn’t. We want to turn our heads the other way or even go to sleep. But denial won’t get the help that’s needed. We need to open our eyes, and move forward.
Once we accept what we are seeing, we can begin to take the necessary steps to seek the right doctors and diagnosis – getting the help that will allow our child to learn all they can. The earlier the recognition and acceptance, the earlier we can get help, and the better chances the child will have to gain the kinds of skills and learning they’ll need to make it in this world.
I’ve been on this journey for 29 years and counting, so I’ve had many opportunities to look into the eyes of parents and children. What is very difficult and challenging in the early years, can indeed become a great blessing later on. Today, if I’d be asked to vote whether I’d take this journey again, I know I’d raise my hand and say, “The eyes have it!”