Put out the bunting. Ring the church bells. Book the Red Arrows for a fly by. Today has been a truly momentous day. Bigger than the moon landing, bigger than the Royal Wedding, bigger than the final of Strictly. Arun, my disabled son, took his first unaided steps.
We had just come back from Woburn Farmers’ Market having secured a roast for the evening meal and, because our road is being dug up, we had to park in the next street along. I was carrying Arun and he started wriggling to get down. So I put him down and at Clare’s suggestion held onto the hood of his jacket. Now, Arun has been working up to this but has never taken any steps unaided. As I held onto Arun’s hood, he started to walk unsteadily down the street towards our house. I felt he was going quite well and so, being a bloke, I thought I would see what would happen if I let go. What happened was that Arun carried on walking. He didn’t realise I was no longer hanging onto him and so he just kept on going. He took a few steps before he stumbled. I was able to grab his hood in time to stop him falling. And so we carried on in this fashion down the street.
I know that I can’t get carried away. Arun is still a long way from being independently mobile and even from toddling like a regular three year old. I know that he may never be able to walk any more than a few yards and that he may still need a wheelchair to be truly mobile. However, today does represent another small milestone on what has been and will continue to be a long and difficult journey. I feel entitled to celebrate.
Arun has both physical disabilities and learning problems. Clare and I, supported by an entourage (see last week’s blog) of therapists have had to teach Arun almost everything. Normal and healthy babies learn instinctively and effortlessly. Life is a constant adventure of exploration and experimentation. For Arun we have had to work for every advance: because he was born so prematurely his lungs were underdeveloped and stiff so we had to teach him how to breathe on his own; because of his cerebral palsy he found it uncomfortable touching new objects so we had to teach him to reach out and hold toys; because he has oral sensitivity (resulting from the fact he was on a ventilator for so long) he never put anything in his mouth so we have had to teach him to hold a spoon and feed from it; because of his physical disabilities we had to teach him how to roll over, how to sit up, how to stand up and how to cruise. Clare and I have had to be physiotherapists, occupational therapists, speech and language therapists as well as parents.
However, I am not the real teacher in the family. Sure, I have taught Arun a lot but that pales into insignificance compared to what he has taught me. Words like bravery and courage are used freely these days – a footballer is brave, a politician is courageous. I know different. If ever I need a lesson in real bravery, courage and determination I need look no further than my son. What he has achieved and what he has endured would have been beyond most of us. To this day Arun shows strength of character that is an example to me. He is (excepting some “toddler” tantrums) a happy, charming, easy going child who welcomes new people and experiences with open arms. People comment on the fact that he is always smiling in photographs. This is despite having undergone surgery ten times in the first 14 months of his life and battling with significant disabilities every single day.
To continue the theme from last week’s blog, being a parent is a two way relationship. Not only do we have a duty to teach our children but we also have a duty to learn from them. The life lessons that Arun has taught me may be more obvious because he is disabled but those I am learning from his sister, Meri, are no less profound. So, as a Dad, step back and think about your kids and what you have learnt from them. You may be surprised to discover which one of you is the student and which one is the real master.