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In 1987 Pastors Rich and Robyn Wilkerson were the parents of three healthy sons. In the summer of that year, six-month-old Graham developed what seemed like a simple ear infection. Robyn took Graham to the doctor for treatment, but his condition only worsened. In fact, Graham had been misdiagnosed. It wasn’t an ear infection, but deadly spinal meningitis.
Days later, Robyn rushed Graham to the hospital. On the way he slipped into unconsciousness. Then he stopped breathing. As she laid his body on the nurse’s station, someone yelled, “Code blue!” and medical personnel began working frantically to resuscitate Graham’s heart. “This is not happening,” Robyn told herself as she looked on helplessly. Doctors were able to re-start the baby’s heart, but Graham had suffered permanent brain damage.
So began Rich and Robyn’s long journey as parents of a special needs child. “Everything shifted,” says Robyn. “It’s like you’re living in a bubble, and then there’s a rupture. In an instant, you go from what was normal to what is a challenge every day for the rest of your parenting lives.”
Graham’s behavior as he developed was violent and erratic. “At four years old,” Robyn recalls, “he would run down the street screaming and tearing his clothes off. In church he would attack other children. At home, he would bring big knives into our bedroom while we were sleeping. For everyone’s safety, we had to install special locks all over the house. Our lives were upside down.”
It was impossible to take Graham to a restaurant or the grocery store because of his out-of-control rages. “Once we were in the mall and he started screaming,” Robyn recalls. “The other boys started to weep. They said, ’Mom, we have to leave or someone is going to call the police.’”
Robyn confesses that she experienced rage herself. “I wasn’t ready for this, she explains. “I didn’t want this. God had volunteered me for it.”
“Through all this, God had to stand firm in my life because I was so angry,” says Robyn. “I asked Him, Why did this happen to me? What’s the purpose? How could this be your will? Sometimes, God doesn’t always answer the way we want Him to. But He stepped in at the point of our weakness and gave us the strength we needed to parent Graham.”
One particular episode finally changed Rich’s perspective. “Graham was maybe six or seven at the time. He was angry at the dinner table and throwing his food. I had had enough and told him to go to his room.
He ran to his room and we could hear him banging around, pulling all the clothes out of the drawers. It got quiet and I finally opened the door to see him sitting on the bed.” What happened next pierced Rich’s heart. “His name for me was ‘Deh,’” says Rich. “He said, ’Graham stupid, Deh.’ At that moment, I had a reversal in how I saw Graham. In God’s eyes, we are all “special needs” kids in need of His grace. I put my arms around Graham and we prayed together. When he felt better, he ran out of the room. That’s when I put my head in my hands, prayed to God and said, “I am stupid, Deh.”
“When you have a special needs child, it doesn’t always make you first-string popular,” says Rich. “People can be cruel. As humans, we are shallow in our awareness of how valuable everyone is to God. But having Graham in our family has built a heart of compassion in my other three children and given us the ability to see people who need help.”
Graham is now 26 years old. “He is far beyond the prognosis anyone could have hoped for,” says Rich. “God has put a lot of good stuff in Graham and He has a plan for his future, just like He has for all our sons. But He has chosen to heal Graham progressively rather than all at once, and he will continue to live with us.”
What has Robyn learned from her challenge of raising a special needs child? “I thought the worst thing that could happen to me was having a child of mine become permanently less than what I expected,” she says. “But that “worst” thing turned out to be the very thing that propelled me to my destiny—and built me into the person I am now. We are all better people for having Graham in our lives.”
Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing. (James 1:2-4 NLT).
Rich and Robyn Wilkerson are the Senior Pastors of Trinity Church in Miami, Florida. Married over 40 years, they are the parents of four sons, including Graham, a special needs adult, two daughters-in-law and an adored granddaughter.