As their daughter celebrates her 25th birthday, David and Mercedes Rizzo contemplate how they have grown in faith and as parents.
Twenty-five years seems like a long time. When you think of it that’s two and a half decades. It’s a quarter century. Twenty-five years contains a lot of milestones including graduation from high school and, for many people, college and graduate school. Life’s full of adult responsibilities, romance and opportunities. Sometimes people are married by age 25. Twenty-five is a big deal. The cost of car insurance even goes down.
Our daughter Danielle just celebrated her 25th birthday. Danielle has autism. She loves her birthday. In fact, she tells us daily using her iPad to communicate the exact date her birthday falls and how old she is. Mostly she loves birthday cake and parties. Still in many ways, things are not so different for Danielle than for the average 25-year-old.
Every year on her birthday we celebrate Danielle and the special gift she has been to us. We marvel at the positive impact she has on so many people she encounters. People seem to see in her something special. Perhaps it is her innocence and her joy that they see. Perhaps it is a sort of invisible holiness that is not seen but rather felt and heard, something like the wind moving through leaves on a bright autumn day.
Since this birthday was a milestone birthday, we tried to make it extra special. This included some pampering with a trip to the nail salon, something Danielle really enjoys. It makes her feel beautiful and she loves it. We had a traditional birthday dinner with her favorite foods and birthday cake with her siblings and a few other family members. Danielle was surprised when her brother came in with his new puppy in tow. She enjoyed petting the dog and running around with him in the backyard.
Living in a family with a loved one with special needs is not always easy. In the beginning we felt profound grief. We had to mourn the daughter we imagined we would have and raise instead a little girl with a significant disability. In those days Danielle had challenging behaviors and almost no ability to communicate. There were times when we were angry at God and doubted in His plan for our family and the journey we found ourselves on. We’d stand with hands raised toward the heavens and wonder if our beautiful daughter and the rest of us would get through it.
Now she’s 25 and we know that our trust in God was not misplaced. We know that Danielle is a true gift and has grown in so many ways, and we have too. She is twenty-five and rocking it! On days like Danielle’s birthday, when we can look back and reflect on the gift of her life and the past twenty-five years, we think of a song written by Diane Warren:
Danielle is 25, and looking back we also feel like Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist. After his son was born, Zechariah prophesied that John would play a major role in salvation history by heralding the public ministry of Jesus. As parents of children with special needs, each one of us can see ourselves like Zechariah, standing over our own child with hands raised in a blessing as we repeat these words:
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give his people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the daybreak from on high will visit us, to shine on those who sit in darkness and death's shadow, to guide our feet into the path of peace. (Luke 1:76-79)
Copyright 2023 David and Mercedes Rizzo
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About the Author
David and Mercedes write and speak from a faith perspective as parents of a child with autism. They are available to speak, and have appeared on radio and other media. Visit DavidAndMercedesRizzo.com to learn more. Follow them on Facebook at Autism With The Rizzos. Authors of Praying For Your Special Needs Child, (Word Among Us Press) and Spiritually Able and The Adaptive First Eucharist Preparation Kit (Loyola Press).