Hope, an Essential Ingredient

When my daughter was born, I experienced total bliss, a mixture of blessedness, joy and contentment. Birthing a girl was the answer to my prayers, since I was able to give her the names of my mother and mother-in-law, both recently deceased. We named her Zlata Esther—Zlata after my mother, and Esther after my mother-in-law—and we called her Zlatie.

Her first year of life was filled with happiness, as I watched her attain all the milestones. Though Zlatie was slightly delayed with crawling and walking, my competent pediatrician was not at all concerned. “She is a perfectly healthy baby. All her needs are met immediately, so there is little need for her to explore her surroundings. Enjoy your happy child. She is any parent’s dream,” he reassured me.

He was right. Zlatie was undemanding; she rarely cried, and never asked to be picked up. She would follow me with her eyes, but was content to remain in her crib or playpen.

By the time Zlatie reached eighteen months, however, I was becoming alarmed by her complacency. I expressed my concern to the doctor during each monthly visit, and he finally reluctantly agreed to refer her for a neurological exam.

The neurological exam at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital proved inconclusive, but a prominent psychiatrist gave a diagnosis: autism.

In 1964 this condition was virtually unknown, still in its infancy. I was overwhelmed, and unsure of how I would cope. An audience, yechidus, with the Rebbe was what I needed.

I was accompanied by Zlatie, who looked adorable with her long curly brown hair framing her small face. She was dressed in her blue and white embroidered pinafore, with a big brown bow in the back, and her shiny black patent leather shoes.

Zlatie held my hand as we walked into the Rebbe’s room. The Rebbe observed us closely and motioned us to sit. He watched Zlatie intently as she gingerly climbed into the chair. Then he removed a paper and pencil from his desk drawer and placed the items before Zlatie. She immediately took the pencil, held it properly within her small hand and began to scribble on the paper.

The Rebbe’s face was aglow. “This is wonderful,” he said in Yiddish. “Her reactions are perfectly normal. I don’t understand why you feel so dejected.”

His words were so comforting.

At the completion of the audience, the Rebbe reached once again into his desk drawer and took out a shiny silver dollar. Zlatie immediately stretched out her little hand and took the dollar. The Rebbe smiled happily, and recommended an evaluation with a well-known doctor.

The Rebbe instilled me with hope, an essential ingredient for the parent of a child with special needs. He inspired me to help Zlatie develop to her fullest potential. He gave me strength and courage to persevere. She reached many milestones—not always at the recommended times, but that was not important. She ate independently and used cutlery appropriately by age three. By age four and a half she was able to dress herself, adeptly fastening zippers, buttons and belts, and tying shoelaces. “Double knot,” she would proudly exclaim about her mastering the skill.

The Rebbe advised me to proceed as if Zlatie were an ordinary child. This would be a major component of her success. I understood from what the Rebbe was saying that action was the key, an optimistic attitude was essential, and endless worry would be detrimental.

Finding Balance

Shortly thereafter we visited a certain psychiatrist, renowned for his highly acclaimed book on exceptional children. He stared at me condescendingly. With great authority he stated, “This child will never be able to live an independent life. Do yourself a favor and find a residence for her. Forget she was ever born.”

His callous pronouncement horrified me. My daughter, my innocent child, had never asked to be born. G‑d had given her to me, and she was my responsibility. Steely-eyed, I glared at him, pulled Zlatie off the chair and stomped out. Only later did I allow the tears to flow.

Brokenhearted, devastated, I came to the Rebbe once again. After sleepless nights of tossing and turning, I entered his study. There was so much I wanted to say, so many questions to ask. The Rebbe looked at me with great kindness and compassion. His eyes were filled with deep understanding. I was unable to control my tears; they flowed freely as deep sobs broke the silence. I clenched my fists, silently berating myself for wasting precious time with my emotional outburst.

Finally, with great difficulty, I regained control and the audience began. I poured out my heart to the Rebbe, updating him fully on Zlatie’s condition. The Rebbe listened intently, nodding his head, immersed in my words. Then the Rebbe asked, “Tell me about your other children. How are they doing in school? Do they have friends?”

This was the Rebbe. He reminded me, in his unassuming way, that G‑d had blessed me with four other children, and that I needed to be a mother to all of them. With an uplifted heart I left his room, armed with a new realization of the importance of viewing the whole picture, of finding balance.

Excerpted from Dignified Differences: A Special Soul