When you think of superheroes you think of vibrant, young, costumed characters with supernatural powers out to save the world. Superheroes never grow old in comic books or the movies.
This last weekend I spent time with a 91 year old superhero, but she doesn’t wear a costume or a cape. Her mission isn’t to save the world or even to fight crime, but she is a superhero just the same.
You see, fifty-two years ago her life was irrevocably changed by the birth of her disabled daughter. At a time when doctors were still telling parents to put their disabled children in an institution and forget about them, this superhero rejected the advice of the doctors and specialists and chose to bring her daughter home. When told that her baby would never walk, talk, sit-up or do anything that a normal child could do, like all good superheroes, she refused to give up.
She fought tenaciously for each small victory for her child: learning to crawl, learning to walk, speaking her first words at the age of three. She never gave up.
She dedicated herself to fighting every day for education and therapy for her child. She fought against stereotypes and the preconceived idea that her child could not learn, was uneducable. She fought for job training and meaningful work. She fought to find a suitable program to provide a supervised living arrangement for her daughter. And she did it all while raising six other children.
At an age when most people were retiring and slowing down, our superhero found her life as busy as ever. You see, parenting a special needs child is a journey that never ends. Her daughter came home every other weekend to visit, and our superhero provided her care. Travel, vacations, leisure, those things are for other people. Our superhero may have thought and even longed for them, but she never complained that those things were not something she would ever get to truly enjoy.
In recent years the health of her disabled daughter has declined and once again she needs much help with everyday tasks like bathing and dressing. Her lifelong struggle with seizures has left her weak and her walk unsteady. She struggles with incontinence and needs to be woke several times at night to be taken to the bathroom.
I watched in wonder this weekend as our 91 year old superhero, now weak and frail with age, insisted that she is still able to care for her daughter. She gets up with her in the middle of the night and pushes her to the restroom in a transport chair. She changes wet clothing and puts dry sheets on the bed. Knees stiff with arthritis, back hunched with age, she bends and struggles to put socks on her daughters feet. Hands spotted with age rub lotion on her daughters back. Not a word of complaint ever leaves her mouth.
All the while, she jokes and cajoles to get her daughter to cooperate. To get her to lift her arms to put a shirt on she says, “Hands up! This is a stick-up!” Her daughter replies, “Oh mom, you are just teasing me.” She entices a beautiful smile onto her daughter’s face. My eyes fill with tears at the sight of unconditional love and sacrifice that I am blessed to witness.
Many people would deem this superhero’s life unfulfilling and lacking in reward. However, I was there when her daughter turned to her and said, “Have I kissed you good morning yet, Mom?” How many 91 year olds are lucky enough to hear those sweet words?
I am not impressed by the superheroes I see in the comics or the movies. Pretend superheroes don’t stand a chance compared to the real life superhero I lived with every day of my life growing up. But, I don’t call her superhero, I just call her mom.