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A Grandmother’s Heart

December 31, 2011

I never asked her how she felt. I never asked my mother what it was like to have a grandson diagnosed with autism. Nearly three years later…I know. A few days ago she shared the thoughts of her heart, and with her blessings I share them with you.  -Sarena


by Dr. Marilyn Chipman

The phone rang.          

          “Mom!  It’s a boy!”

          “Are you quite sure?” I asked.

          “Oh, yes!  We’re just leaving the doctor’s office and we saw the sonogram.  There’s not even a shred of doubt.   I’m pregnant with our son!!”


          I listened to the sound, to the beautiful mixture of words and laughter that came bubbling forth in a stream from the mouth of one whose heart was overflowing with sheer joy.  Although physically we were separated by more than 2,000 miles between Denver and Charleston, we touched each other in spirit over the phone lines.  It felt as though we were hugging each other tightly while dancing and twirling together in glee. 

          A mother … her daughter … joined in love.

          My daughter and her handsome husband had married while still in college, receiving her father’s blessing only after the young man promised her father that his 20-year old little girl would continue to pursue her degree.  She did, graduating cum laude.  As newly weds the happy couple already had chosen a name for a son – Grant.   Five years later she gave birth to a beautiful baby girl whose presence enriched their lives to no end.   Time passed, and six long years later she conceived again.  After eleven years of marriage, the news from the sonogram confirming a male child was indeed cause for rejoicing.  His name would be Grant.

          Born just two days before his dad’s birthday, their fine bouncing baby was healthy in every way.   Daily he brought unbridled gladness to his proud parents, just as his older sister had done.  Over the 2,000 miles distance I was kept abreast of every milestone in his growth … teething, sitting up, crawling, standing, walking.  On three occasions I flew from Colorado’s Rocky Mountains to the Atlantic seacoast just to hold, cuddle, kiss, and enjoy their prince.  My husband had passed away before Grant’s birth, but in Charleston we all agreed that he would have been so happy to dawdle his fine robust baby grandboy on his knee. 

          The phone rang.

           “Mom, I know you keep telling me not to worry about this, but I can’t help being concerned.   All of the tests show that he is perfect for a two-year old … his hearing, his vision, his fine motor skills, his gross motor skills, everything!  We can’t understand why he doesn’t talk.”

          “Listen, sweetheart, you’ve forgotten how many times you’ve heard my story about how I didn’t talk until I was four, and yet now I speak for a living.  Anyway, when I was with all of you at Disney World last month Grant seemed just fine.  And something else, now that you have another new little baby girl, you should try to rest your emotions and not worry so much.    If it will make you feel better, I’ll send you some literature and research on speech and language delay.  He’ll be all right, watch and see.”

          The phone rang.

           “Mom.”   The sound of quiet sobbing.

           “Yes, sweetheart?  What’s wrong?”

          “Mom.  They say he’s autistic.  They say it’s autism.”

          By the time we hung up the phone, the shared tears that drenched both our faces had formed a 2,000-mile long river from her heart to mine.

          Autism?   What was it?  How did it manifest itself?  For years, every course I taught to my university students included a brief section on children with special needs; they would learn more in a later required course devoted entirely to special education.  I taught the chapter in the textbook as theory, as part of the program of study on the way to becoming classroom teachers in elementary school settings.   Autism was simply another one of numerous terms briefly addressed in the chapter.  I discussed special needs from the standpoint of the law, the issues, the rhetoric.  Heretofore, I had no awareness of the emotion, the hurt, the pain.  Now I did.

          The phone rang.

          “Mom, we’re really glad that you are willing to come.  But tonight we had a long, serious, frank and open talk about it.  We decided it would be best if your plane ticket has a return date that can easily be changed with no penalty.  We don’t know how all of his screaming and his meltdowns and tantrums might impact you.  So please, Mom, if you get here and are completely overwhelmed by it all and want to leave, we want you to know that deep down in our hearts, we’ll understand.”

          “The boy’s only three years old!  What on earth could he possibly do that would overwhelm me?   Why do you think I’d leave?”

          “You don’t know what a meltdown is, Mom.  But you’ll see.  You’ll see.”

          I went online to learn more about autism.  As I read the descriptions, within a short time I found myself fighting panic.  I’d wake up in the night and bolt upright, then walk the hallway between my bedroom and living room pleading no, no.  I recognized my complete dependency upon strength from God Almighty, so for several weeks leading up to my visit I gave myself to prayer, fasting, and Bible reading for guidance and help from above.  Whenever my heart was fearful, I read and prayed even more.  Boarding the plane, I literally was clinging to my Lord, my Source of spiritual life.   What awaited me?   

          Arriving at the baggage claim area in the small Charleston airport, I was met by a courageous man, his wife, his oldest daughter, his baby daughter – and his son.  Grant.  My grandchild.   I had the answer to my question.  What awaited me was the most undeniably beautiful expression of unfeigned love I have ever seen in all my years of living.  If deep love alone could heal, there would be no child with special needs. 

       For days I tenderly watched my daughter as she tenderly watched her son.  When his meltdowns were the most severe, she refused to leave his side until the violent moments ceased.  She scanned his small face for some hint of recognition in his far-away eyes, and even when none was there, she smothered him with her kisses.  Although he frequently withdrew from touch, she held him close as he slept so that she could freely cradle him and stroke him over and over again.  His times of pain became her own, his times of emotional anguish became hers as well.  With tears coursing down her face she would sing to him in an attempt to console him.  The vicious meltdowns sometimes lasted a matter of minutes, but others were close to an hour-long … only to be followed by another and another throughout the day.   Despite her exhaustion, she tried to handle her son’s deep frustration with a world that he could neither understand nor control.   When he physically lashed out at her, she had nothing to help her but love.   My heart was breaking.   I stood in complete awe of her courage.  Day after day her slim young shoulders carried a weight that mine had never known.

I learned that, understandably, babysitters for special needs children may begin at around $35 per hour.   That’s just for the one child, to say nothing of other siblings in the house as well. 

 Not the job for your typical teenage girl down the block.  Not the price for the typical budget to afford.

“Before I leave for Colorado, I want the two of you to go out and enjoy a movie.”

“But, Mom, what if Grant wakes up and has a meltdown while we’re gone!”

“Yep, just like he has them while you’re here.  So go out and enjoy yourself.”

Once I had the children asleep, I thought I’d call the dating couple and tell them to extend the night after the movie by going out for ice cream or mingling with the crowds walking around downtown.  I left the message on their cell phone that all was well with their three kids and to stay out as long as they wanted to.   They saw the home number on the caller ID and immediately assumed that something had gone wrong.  Without listening to the message at all, they dashed back to the house. 

I begin to see more clearly the uneven path upon which their feet had been placed.   I realized that seven mornings a week she and her husband rose to face a battle that was already engaged, and from which there was no retreat.  As man of the house, he faced the task of going to work and providing a living while also dealing with untold inner emotions surrounding his precious son whom he loves so much.  He also buffered the tremendous toll on his wife.  Mutual care and devotion was sustaining this family. 

          Far, far too soon the days passed and I had to return to teaching my classes at the university.  Before boarding the plane to return home, I already had circled the days on the calendar to indicate how soon I could journey to Charleston again to be with this special child named Grant.

          On the return flight my thoughts were awash with one emotion after another.  He is her child, but she is my child.  I remembered when she came to me with a barrette that wouldn’t stay in her hair, or with difficult homework in arithmetic, or with some teenage crush that she felt was going nowhere, or with a disappointing turn of events in college.   She would spend hours talking with her loving dad.  All of those problems in her young life were temporary and so very “fixable”.  This was different.   What could I do?

          As I wept and prayed, I realized that our family could unite together in believing that this, too, would be temporary.   Out of the blue I recalled how when she was a senior in high school, the bomber jacket was the “in” thing.  It seemed that all her friends owned this popular but expensive item.  It wasn’t part of my budget. Without saying a word to her dad or me, her two older brothers went together and purchased it for their baby sister, surprising her on Christmas morning.   That was the answer.  In this situation I would ask her brothers, along with their wives and children, to bind together to be a constant source of emotional support for her, always there to undergird her with encouragement, love, caring, faith, and constant prayer.  United together with all of her husband’s dear family members, we could make it through this time of storm.

          In 2010 I flew down to Charleston to meet Grant’s teachers in the public school special education preschool class.  These ladies were phenomenally dedicated, beyond words to describe.  Theirs was a true calling and he definitely made progress under their beautiful level of care.  I also met his speech therapist, a man who patiently and compassionately worked with him.   Grant knew colors and shapes and words on picture cards and concepts.  He knew the names of all his family members and his teachers.  He was beginning to exhibit the ability to socialize.  He was making tiny steps forward.  Physically, he grew more handsome by the day.  To outsiders, he looked like any other average child. 

The phone rang.

          “Mom, we just got a call.  After all this time, we finally are near the top of the list.  We are so grateful because it means Grant will get extensive therapy in addition to what he receives at school.”  The application process for the ABA program had been tedious and the waiting list had been almost two years long.  Yet once approved, a new dimension of additional learning would open up for him.  For this opportunity, his parents were exceedingly thankful to God.

          The phone rang.

           “Mom, hold on a minute.”  I did.  Then I heard a voice. 


          “What??  I didn’t understand.”

After months in the new program, the tearful voice of my daughter exclaimed, “He’s calling you grandmommy.  Listen to him again.”  I did.  Then I cried also. 

At one time it seemed that we were lost on a road in the middle of nowhere.  Now we know that Grant’s road is leading him somewhere.  He does not travel alone, for we journey with him.   Above all else, he is surrounded by the deep love and faith of the people who live in the home with him … his Father, Mother, and Sisters.  Something else lives there also.  It’s called Hope.

          In 2011, the phone has rung many times.  Grant reads and writes, is learning arithmetic, and he is speaking.   I’ve heard him say, “Tie my shoe, please.”  “I’m five years old”.  “Good night, Gan-ommie”.   And most precious of all, “Wuv wu”.   I love him, too.

Sarena James and Dr. Marilyn Chipman

          Grant’s mother has expanded her role and purpose to include advocacy for special needs.  Her talents extend to being an author, scriptwriter, teacher in theater arts, and public speaker, all with the single goal of encouraging others who may be on life’s difficult pathways.  Her greatest delight, however, is in being a wife and mother of three.  Her phenomenal husband is the wind beneath her wings and her best friend.

My daughter.  Truly a mother feels every pain her child goes through, but that mother also can rejoice when there is light and hope in her child’s journey.  Yes, Grant is her child.  And she is mine.

Dr. Marilyn Chipman is an Educational Sociologist in Denver, CO. She is mother of three and grandmother of nine.                      

11 Comments leave one →
  1. Marta permalink
    June 11, 2013 1:28 am

    I don’t always have time to click but felt compelled to follow this link from Raphael’s fb. I’m so glad I did. This is just beautiful. And I didn’t know my new son shares a name with such an inspiring little boy, a name you all had selected long before!

    Thank you for sharing your bravery.

    My grandmother is my hero; special as she is to me, I’m glad she’s not unique in that regard.

  2. Shontea permalink
    January 28, 2012 12:58 pm

    AWESOME, story of God’s love and family love. T he word of God works if you continue to work the word. I enjoyed reding the article, keep on writing we are being blessed.

  3. MIMI permalink
    January 22, 2012 6:33 pm

    A mothers love .a grandmothers strength.AMEN

  4. Tonya McGue permalink
    January 6, 2012 1:55 pm

    Thoughtful. Heartfelt. Inspiring. This beautiful blog entry is filled with love, faith, hope and family. I also see where Sarena received her writing talent and positive, uplifting personality. Thank you for sharing!

  5. January 3, 2012 10:44 am

    This letter is very inspiring to others who are dealing with some sort of disability. Thank you for sharing this letter of hope. What a wonderful exclamation of Love, Hope and support. Thank God for Grandmothers, they are awesome!

  6. January 2, 2012 7:30 am

    I loved this. BEAUTIFUL. THank you so much for sharing this. I wish you and yours a Happy New Year.

  7. Kathy P permalink
    January 2, 2012 3:27 am

    As I read this, I could not help but cry. I think of so much when I think of Serena and Sis. Chipman. How much of a blessing you have both been in my life. You have given me many gifts in living and trusting God. Now here is another. Thank you for sharing the importance of loving to life. I will remember this and lean on the message when I am dealing with my precious daughters.
    I look forward to meeting Grant and the girls. God bless your husband and family.
    I love you both

  8. Shaz permalink
    January 1, 2012 11:27 pm

    Just splendidly beautiful!!!!

  9. L. James permalink
    January 1, 2012 6:42 pm

    What a beautiful article! God uses the power of a family’s love to bring healing to many situations in life. In the end, the giver and the receiver of love and support are both recipents of blessings from each other.

  10. Kirsten Goodwin permalink
    January 1, 2012 2:06 pm

    Thank you for sharing your testimony of how difficult the journey is and has been for you and your family with your child, Grant. My husband are having our son assessed soon to see if he is autistic. God bless you and your family and all you are doing to advocate for children with special needs. It is awesome to hear the positive outcomes of early childhood intervention.

  11. LaDonna Davis permalink
    January 1, 2012 10:37 am

    This is awesome! I see where Sarena gets her gift of writing. Well said.

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