43: Parting the Waters

43: Parting the Waters

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Raising Kids on the Spectrum

Parting the Waters

May you live to see your life fulfilled.

~The Talmud

My little girl stood on the dais, facing a roomful of people. Her fine, brown hair was pulled off her face with a barrette. Huge hazel eyes, rimmed in dark, lush lashes, stared intently at the foreign words on the scroll in front of her. A colorful Israeli prayer shawl draped over her shoulders; her matching skullcap was bobby-pinned to her head. Her family — parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, many of whom traveled far to be with her — sat in the front rows, looking up at her, waiting. My heart leapt into my mouth as Lauren began to chant.

We’d worked long and hard to prepare for this day — Lauren’s Bat Mitzvah — none harder than Lauren. There were those who said it couldn’t be done.

In fact, throughout Lauren’s childhood, “experts” showered my daughter with all the ways she was different from her peers — all the things she couldn’t do. She’d never learn much, never live independently, never ride a bike.

Lauren was our only child, and, like many first-time parents, my husband and I relied on experts for guidance. She had yet to be diagnosed with Asperger syndrome — that wouldn’t happen until she was eighteen — but we knew she had developmental delays and learning deficits. She was diagnosed with nonverbal learning disabilities, which manifests in ways similar to Asperger’s, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Fortunately, Lauren didn’t rely on experts. When Lauren wanted to do something, she did what other kids do — she tried. She worked as hard as she could, for as long as it took to master what she wanted to learn.

One day, my husband and I looked out the window of our home to glimpse the back of a familiar-looking bicycle disappearing down the sidewalk. “Was that Lauren?” Avner asked me. We watched until the bike reappeared, heading our way. Sure enough, there was our daughter, peddling furiously. Not only could she ride a bike, she had taught herself.

What else could the experts be wrong about?

Lauren was mainstreamed in school, meaning she was a special education student who took mostly regular classes. A paraprofessional, a woman who sat in on Lauren’s classes, helped her grasp the lessons and keep up with her studies. Lauren’s assignments were modified to her ability.

How she tried. She sat at the kitchen table, reading, studying and asking questions until she understood the material. She earned A’s through sheer diligence and brought honor on herself and her family.

When Lauren approached the age of thirteen, it was time to think about her Bat Mitzvah. Technically, all anyone has to do to reach that milestone is to read from the Torah. Just one line will do. Many parents of children with disabilities modify the experience according to what their children can realistically achieve. But Lauren ached to be like her peers. And so, we determined she would have her big day. There were no resources for children with special needs in our synagogue, so we created our own plan of action.

First, I became an adult Bat Mitzvah in a group ceremony when Lauren was twelve. The women in my class chose the portion of Exodus that includes Song of the Sea, in which the Israelites flee Egypt. When the Israelites get to the Red Sea, they’re trapped. Discouraged, they’re ready to turn back. But one brave soul steps into the water. Miracle of miracles, it parts, allowing the Israelites to cross on dry land. The sea then closes behind them, drowning the Egyptian soldiers chasing them. It’s a story about not accepting limits, and having faith and courage in the face of fear.

Once I learned to decode the Hebrew, I was able to help Lauren learn it as well. We decided Lauren would have her Bat Mitzvah the next February, when she, too, could read from the portion of Exodus that contained Song of the Sea.

Then we went to work helping Lauren prepare. It took a village. I worked with her nightly. We got her a tutor, a learned man who refused to charge us for his weekly sessions. A dear friend, a cantor, taught Lauren the melody to which her Torah portion is chanted. Many Bar and Bat Mitzvah candidates speak their portions, but Lauren wanted to sing. What is Song of the Sea without a melody? Besides, Lauren’s Hebrew name is Shira, which means song.

As she did with everything, Lauren tried. As hard as she could, for as long as it took to master what she wanted to learn.

The day of her Bat Mitzvah dawned bright and brutally cold. I was too excited and anxious to pay attention to the weather. I didn’t sleep much the night before. I dosed myself with coffee. That and adrenaline gave me the energy to get through the day.

So here we were, an entire congregation watching my daughter as she began to chant. She recited flawlessly. She was a bit off key in places, but that made her effort all the more endearing. Most importantly, she radiated confidence and self-assurance.

When she finished her Torah portion and her interpretation of the portion, she read in Hebrew her haftarah, a passage from Prophets that follows a Torah reading. She then thanked her friends and family for being there and her teachers for helping her reach this day. Then Avner and I made our speeches to her — his recalling how she taught herself to ride a bike and travel the rings on the monkey bars; mine telling her how truly special she was and how she was my Shira, the song of my heart. At the end of my speech, I said, “And now Lauren, if the choir will stop crying, we’d like to sing you a blessing.”

I thought I was kidding. The choir, to which Avner and I belonged, gathered and began to sing a beautiful rendition of Shehekeyanu, a blessing that gives thanks for unusual experiences and special occasions. We started off fine, but when it came time for the cantor to sing the solo, she choked. She was crying too hard to get the words out. It took only a beat for another choir member to jump in and recover the song. Then we all joined in. I was moved beyond words by what the rabbi later referred to as the spaces between the notes — the unplanned occurrences that amplify the meaning of an experience.

The rabbi, too, was moved. While we sang, he began to weep. Lauren, sitting next to the rabbi, comforted him with a hand on his arm and asked if he was okay. When the rabbi got up to speak, he told the congregation of Lauren’s concern for him. “No one’s ever done that,” he said. “Ever.”

The rest of the service went by in a blur. I felt so blessed that day, surrounded by loved ones, watching my daughter shine. Lauren once again faced a seemingly insurmountable challenge with grace and aplomb. Like her ancestors before her, she stepped into the Red Sea, trusting that it would part for her. And so it did.

~Robin J. Silverman

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