An Unexpected Gift in South Dakota

Division is something we expected to find in abundance on this trip. And it feels like we have encountered it in all its various forms, though I’m sure there is much more to come as we stare down the next 13 weeks before our grand journey comes to a conclusion. What we did not expect to find on this journey was a different kind of division lurking within our own family. 

As one might expect, enormous amounts of time together combined with extremely tight quarters is a recipe for bringing every ounce of dysfunction in any relationship to the surface. This has held true for all five of us as we navigate our way across America, we are simultaneously navigating through our own family history to address the broken places that have been hijacking our collective destiny as a family and as individuals. 

One day in particular brought this reality home in a way we were not expecting.  It was one of our last evenings in South Dakota, and it had been a particularly tough week.

We loaded the kids up to go out to dinner, and as often happens, the moment we sat down, Grace was off like a rocket, touring the tables around us, giving hugs, introducing herself and making new friends. We’ve come to expect this from Grace, but we also do our best to harness her friendliness according to the mood and willingness of our neighbors to receive it.  

This particular evening, I wasn’t in the mood for chasing Grace as she made her rounds. But she didn’t seem to care. She was up every four seconds focusing her hugging efforts on one particular table behind us. They too seemed to love the attention and welcomed her repeated visits to their table. 

What I didn’t know and was about to find out was that the baby sleeping in their carrier next to the table was a beautiful little five-month-old named Willow who also happened to have Down syndrome. Towards the end of the meal when they pulled her out, I motioned to Dave to look. “That little girl has DS,” I mouthed to him. It wasn’t two seconds later that the mom was up and at our table hugging us and thanking us for letting Grace bless their family with her, well, graces. 

They were hurting after a very difficult battle with getting Willow healthy following her arrival. They were in need of a glimmer of hope, a spark of encouragement for their hurting hearts. Grace gave them that. 

It wasn’t long before the entire restaurant was enthralled in the story of these two tables, these two families who walked in as strangers, now laughing and crying together over this thing we found we share in common – two gifts. We left that evening as more than new friends. We left as family. 

Our encounter that night in Sioux Falls was an important one for me. As I held sweet Willow, I was transported back in time to the moments I first held Grace. That day has always held for me a mixed bag of emotional memories. What I’ve been able to experience on this journey, and particularly through Willow, is the freedom to go back and see that day clearly for what it really was – one of the greatest days of my life.

I’ve been able to take the words of fear and despair spoken that day and replace them with the words my spirit wanted to say but didn’t know how.  I’ve been able to speak the word “perfection” over my beautiful child, and recognize how utterly perfect she really is in the present. 

Let me caveat this by saying, I clearly am not under the illusion that my child is perfect – but in her shaping, in her forming and in her arriving, she was and still is, utter perfection. This revelation led me to recognize over the following days and weeks, a massive division lurking between myself and my kids. And the problem was not them, it was me. 

I used to view my children as a mixture of burden and blessing. I loved them with my whole heart, but I also viewed them as little boxes to be checked on the daily schedule of life. Get them dressed, fix their hair, feed them and get them off to school so someone else can ‘deal with them’ for a few hours. I saw those hours away from them as my respite, as my “me time” to get work done, to get errands run and to feel like some semblance of my former self before the mom hat entered the picture.

This trip has totally stripped me of the layers of lies wrapped up in that old existence, namely because it has removed the system of boxes by which we were living. It has so stripped me and to such a degree that I’m beginning to realize how that way of life, that view of children and productivity would have robbed me and them of ever truly knowing each other in the ways we were meant to. The problem wasn’t the schedule, or school, or work, or even how much time we were spending together. The problem was my heart. 

I’m not saying I’ve got this parenting thing figured out, and believe me when I say I still need my “me time,” but not as a respite from my children. I finally have the revelation that my children are a respite. 

Through a process of crawling back into the most painful moments we’ve lived through as parents, I’ve been blessed to discover this rich and profound truth: my children are a gift to me. They are all three a priceless, irreplaceable gift. What I was checking off and arranging into neatly organized boxes that I could “get a break from” were three of the most vital people sent to help shape my life.

I was missing out on a gift not just of knowing them but of knowing myself through them. There are pieces of me that only they could unlock, and despite all the love and devotion I had for them, I have a feeling that the life we were living in Dallas might have prevented me from ever learning the art of enjoying my children. Enjoyment is the key. 

Since we’ve been on the road, I’ve struggled with worrying about the many things a mom can inevitably worry about, from their development to whether they’ll be up to speed with academics, social skills, etc. And the truth is, all that worry did was rob me of enjoyment. Even endless time with them driving across America didn’t help me to see them, thus value them properly, thus allow them be children. It took a divine encounter with a baby with special needs in South Dakota to show me that. 

It turns out, this trip has not been about me teaching them, it has been about them teaching me, patiently coaching and training me in the subject of child-likeness. This is a highly valued and highly marketable skill according to Jesus. He said you have to become like children to enter the kingdom of heaven. 

So at this late stage in the journey, I am happy to announce I am finally getting it. I am finally advancing in this crash course, discovering the freedom that comes with truth. I’ll never again feel avoidance, confusion or doubt about the day we met Grace. I am now free to enjoy the truth about that day. 

But this freedom could only come to me by way of going back, a gift little Willow gave me, and by facing one of the darkest and hardest moments of my life. 

Maybe this is what America needs too.  Maybe our past, as dark and painful as it is, is the gateway to our freedom, and to our destiny as a nation.  

As we press on and explore the beauty and wonder of this incredible land, if I could give one piece of advice from my time in child-likeness academy, it would be this:

Don’t sacrifice your destiny on the altar of avoiding a painful past. Instead, sacrifice your painful past on the alter of destiny and watch it be rewritten.

Also, a deep and profound thanks to Willow and her beautiful family for saying “yes” to a hug. 

– EL

  • Polly Eckert says:

    Oh my, Erin. Got me crying today! Yes. Yes. Yes. They are gifts! Gifts that we receive only as deeply as we can embrace. Purity of desire is the determining factor. Few really have any desire for the depths of it. Yet, it IS the Kingdom reminding us in flesh that it exists and trumps everything else that constantly invaded our peace. Just like Jesus came in the flesh,. Think on that. Can we purely value the depths of innocence? Do we get that there is no counterfeit? That it is rare and off the charts in the work-a-day world? That our heart’s response to protect it is God’s own heart? Thank you. Break through for me. Holy break through.

  • Susan says:

    Real, raw, & relational. Thank you, Erin! ❤️

  • Karen says:

    This is one of the best blogs I have read – it is right on target and I am forwarding it to several Mom friends! Thank you for being real and sharing.

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