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June 21, 2019

The Ficus Tree

Today, as I sit at my desk, struggling to write, I find myself staring at a photograph of a ficus tree that I’ve taped to the side of my computer screen.
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Today, as I sit at my desk, struggling to write, I find myself staring at a photograph of a ficus tree that I’ve taped to the side of my computer screen. The tree stands in the reading room of my local library where I sometimes work—usually more productively because there are less distractions in that hushed space than at home. As I recall, I snapped the photo because it presented a contradiction that I knew I’d want to ponder.

On the one hand, the ficus looks right at home—its green growth a cipher for all the knowledge offered by the books and periodicals so carefully catalogued around it. On the other, its very survival seems surprising, given that it resides inside the basement of a museum-like building, tucked away from the great outdoors.

What the photograph doesn’t show, of course, are the invisible hands that devotedly tend that tree. Probably the same hands that tend the volumes on the shelves. The tree perseveres because the hands persevere. It’s that simple. Were the caretakers to slack off in their ministrations, one would soon take notice.

I cannot make the connection between prosperity and perseverance without thinking of a particular person, without whose labors my family would be living an entirely different life. Her name is Lorraine and she was my son’s homeroom teacher for the past four years.

At first glance Lorraine reminds me of a tree herself: tall in stature, emanating patience and stability, a deep-rootedness that comes from decades of working with “different” children. She understands what it is to fight 24/7 against certain developmental disorders that threaten to pull kids under, like a deadly current. Their speech delays, social impediments, cognitive deficits, and interfering behaviors never take a break.

So neither did Lorraine.

For the past four years I watched her jam-pack my son’s schooldays with academic work, purposeful play, social opportunities, life-skills training, physical activity, and appropriate breaks for him when he needed them. She never stopped moving as she shuttled my son from one modality to the next. It was as if she were a potter determined to keep her hands on the spinning clay until she molded it to her satisfaction, forming it into the amazing vessel she knew it could be.

If Lorraine grew frustrated with her often-resistant clay she didn’t show it, remaining positive and upbeat. Whenever I needed extra encouragement or guidance as a parent, she met with me to listen and offer insight. More than once I beheld her dark eyes shining, either with excitement over a new achievement or with compassion over my and my husband’s pain.

Moreover, I glimpsed stars reflected in those eyes, the points of light Lorraine steadily sailed towards, no matter the state of the sea. Calm waters or choppy, she labored day after day to transport my son to better shores. She’d grasp the oars and row herself if she had to; her blistered hands matching my own, matching those of all the other parents who would never have made it without her.

I’m convinced that my son finally started speaking and following verbal direction, finally became potty trained, because of her tireless efforts. How much easier do our days pass now because she repeatedly took the harder path? Choosing day after day to give the extra energy, do the extra task, set the higher goal, when she could have done much less? “He’s here for a reason,” Lorraine would declare, as if my son’s need were rationale enough for her outpouring of commitment. If only more of us thought­—and responded—that way in the face of another’s lack.

Lorraine has just retired, having seen my son—and so many others like him—safely to the other side of kindergarten. I wonder how big a room we would fill if all those she’s served so indefatigably were to gather together. How many books would line the shelves if we were to record our stories of success in the annals of family history? Would we ever discover, having compared notes, how she was able to do it? What empowered her day after day, year after year?

I suppose that is her tale to tell, and I hope I get to hear it. As for the tale that I tell, it can pretty much be summarized by one more thing that I see in the ficus tree photo. There’s a beam of sunshine cutting across the center of the picture, illuminating leaves and branches. The beam shines through a small, street-level window, one just big enough to allow the vital light in. The tree needs the sunshine as much as it does the work of faithful hands to flourish.

That is what I have beheld in Lorraine, what I push through now to capture. A combination of human perseverance and divine light. For the way that Lorraine has gazed upon my boy with such wonder, how she has consistently drawn from him such joy and inspiration, surely comes from a higher place. Every time she said “yes” to my son when she could have said “no,” a tiny window opened, letting light in. And families with special needs desperately need that light so that the hands that must persevere, on good days and bad, whether they want to or not, do not do so in vain.

Thank you, Lorraine, for the long string of “yeses” that unfurl like pearls behind you. Thank you for letting the light shine through so my little boy could grow instead of languishing in hushed places.

And thanks, too, for teaching me a thing or two about persevering until the words come. May it be your turn, now, to reap in abundance all the blessing you have sown.

If any of you know a “Lorraine” who has made a difference, take a moment to say, “Thanks.” He or she might need that word of encouragement to press through their own challenges.

It’s how we all thrive, no matter where planted: one caring choice after another.