This past May, as my immediate family gathered in my backyard to have a virtual high-school graduation for my middle son, eighteen years of memories rushed through my mind. It was at that moment that I realized my son had beat the odds and exceeded all the expectations that were made of him.

When he was two, we were told by several doctors that, after years of developmental and speech delays, my son would have special needs and would experience challenges and difficulties his entire life.

For several years after these initial diagnoses, I pored through research, talked to any doctor I could find who would agree to see him, and borrowed against my 401(k) to pay for speech therapy, occupational therapy, and applied behavioral-analysis therapy. When he was five, it was recommended that I enroll my son into a special-needs classroom, but after one day, the teacher pulled me aside and told me my son needed to be placed elsewhere. She said if he stayed in that classroom, he would more than likely regress. I thanked the teacher, picked up my child, and walked out. 

For the next few years, I was determined to keep him in a mainstream classroom. I lied, evaded questions, acted like I didn’t know what people were talking about when they asked me questions about my son’s progression. My career took a back seat. My marriage suffered.  Family members told me I was subjecting my son to therapy he didn’t need. But I was determined to continue on our path.

It was hard. I felt alone. It would break my heart when my son would ask me why it took him so much longer to do his homework than his older brother. There were nights we did homework and everyone ended up in tears, all of us…Mom, Dad, and our son. But I noticed something: My son was a fighter. Slowly the gap started to close; he was three years behind other children at his grade level, and then he was two years behind children at his grade level, and then he was one year behind children at his grade level, and finally, there was no gap between my son and other children his age.

There were times when I thought I was being too hard on him. There were many times when I thought, forget it, “they win,” it wasn’t worth it. I thought long and hard about giving up and taking the “easier” path. There were days when I felt like I was a failure as a mother, not only to this child, but to my other two children—my older son and my younger daughter. After a lot of soul searching, prayer, and words of support, we marched on.

While I was focused on my son’s developmental progress, he was focused on finding his voice.  He became passionate about the arts. At an elementary school musical-theater performance, he earned a soloist part in a song, and then with the next show, he was given his own song to sing. I will never forget the day when a family member called me in tears after I sent her a video of him singing Frankie Valli’s “You’re Just Too Good to Be True.” We cried for hours as she recounted our journey and how much pride she had in my son at that moment. In eighth grade, he was cast as Simba in his school’s performance of The Lion King.

In high school there were more benchmarks and more achievements. My son started applying to colleges, and like his brother, he was accepted to seven of the eleven schools to which he applied.

As I watched him switch his tassel from one side of his graduation cap to the other, there was no more second-guessing the decisions we made. There was no more questioning myself or thinking I was a failure. Every decision I made was to get my son to this moment, and I realized I was looking at the strongest and most determined person I know. After eighteen years of holding my breath, I finally exhaled, because at that moment I knew my son was going to be okay. He was on his way to start the next chapter of his life, to pursue his dream of becoming a digital filmmaker.

Henry '94 is a vice president for news at CNN, and a devoted and proud mother of three who lives in Atlanta. She is a co-chair for DBA Atlanta. 

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