Growing up, I balked at standard-issue girls' play like dolls and pretend-weddings. Why even rehearse for marriage and motherhood? Weren't those reserved for the graceful and attractive?
I had right-left disorientation, a cognitive disability that made me struggle with spatial relationships the way a dyslexic person struggles with language. I was the last kid to learn skills like shoe-tying or unscrewing a lunchbox thermos. I couldn't drive till I was 28. After wearing a brace for congenitally displaced hips, I had legs of uneven lengths. This condition eventually triggered fibromyalgia, a painful, debilitating neuromuscular disease. Desperate to ignore my laggard, out-of-kilter body, I was easy prey for the stereotype of disabled people as asexual and unfit to nurture. The life of the mind became more than a source of delight and competence for me. It became a protective casing, which I hardened around me.
At 13, I was cracked open by a decidedly non-rational event: a near-death experience. I lapsed into a coma and encountered the Divine as an infinitely deep sunflowering of Love at the heart of everyone and everything. Nothing, I learned, matters more than giving and receiving this Love. And—surprise!—I learned that my particular way to this Love involved early marriage and motherhood as well as intellectual work.
Emerging from the coma, however, I discovered I had diabetes. For the rest of my probably shortened, progressively more disabled life, I'd have to constantly monitor the very body I'd been evading. Childbearing would be difficult. The longer I waited, the harder it would become. By high school, I'd intuited a second threat to my fertility—the severe menstrual pain the doctors dismissed as "just cramps."
At BMC, some classmates described marriage and motherhood—the very relationships I longed to attain—as counterrevolutionary. Though I was not quite ready for children, I'd begun seeking a partner while still in high school. Confoundingly, my romances occasioned both delight and a dogged suspicion I was a total flop at intimacy. My tastes of honey seemed worse than none—and diabetics weren't even supposed to have honey, were they? I concluded I had nothing to offer a partner. Still, I explored other options for giving life to myself and others, especially children.
At 22, I received another Divine jolt. Walking to a meeting for tutors of inner-city kids, I suddenly, inexplicably, couldn't take another step. I was plunged down into all my old fears of being laggard, whacked-out, fatally flawed. Inside myself I shouted: "I'm not going to that meeting!"
I wasn't anxious about tutoring children; what was this all about? Immediately a calming, though baffling, answer arose, from deep inside myself, and from somewhere larger: You'll learn soon enough. All is well. Proceed. As suddenly and inexplicably, I could move again. I made it to my destination and met a woman who rapidly became a friend. Soon she was eager to introduce me—me?—to a "very nice" and unattached male neighbor: "I think you'd like each other."
Yes indeed! Terrified as I was to risk more rejection, I felt instantly, ecstatically comfortable with Jon, whose insight and compassion came out in uproarious humor and wordless deeds. Miraculously, he thought I was as wonderful as I thought he was. We were engaged within three months.
We wanted kids, but not immediately. Then, against the odds, a tiny, fragile, tenacious presence took root in me. Though horrified at the financial, emotional, and medical hardships of continuing this surprise pregnancy, I felt strongly that the baby and I both deserved to live. Should she be disabled, well, I knew something about that. Her father agreed.
Barely a year after college, Jon and I became spouses, veterans of intensive obstetrical care, and parents of an alert, boisterous daughter, Sarah-who was later diagnosed with learning disabilities unrelated to any of my impairments.
Sarah later proved our sole chance at biological parenthood. In my 20s those "cramps" were finally diagnosed as severe endometriosis, treatable only by hysterectomy. Now in our thirties, Jon and I are happy—usually!—to be long-married parents of a wily, vivacious teen who, since conception, has had a knack of turning things upside down for the better.
Jon and Sarah are not the totality of my way to the Divine Love. Who can be everything to another? I'm glad for my professional work. Yet allowing this family into my life was and is—well, revolutionary.
Author's note: Mary Beth Krane Derr, a writer with a background as a psychotherapist, read her poetry at the 1999 Parliament of the World's Religions, Cape Town, South Africa.
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