Those words have been rattling in my brain this March, the month in which my father died 22 years ago. My thoughts have moved beyond the deep, personal grief I felt in 1997. Now my wish is to describe Harlan Stratton who, along with Jesus, shaped my perception of who people truly are.
Harlan Stratton loved his wife. He picked out her birthday and Christmas gifts carefully. He looked through the newspaper ads and phoned the store to quiz the clerk for a long time about whatever gift he wanted to buy. Once he made his decision, he arranged to have the gift delivered when Mom was at work.
He loved his three children, and he understood how we thought and what made us happy. He gave us rabbit kisses. (There’s no way to describe them. You had to be there.) When I was home sick from school, laying on the couch, we would watch Captain Kangaroo together. He laughed as hard as I did when the ping pong balls came pouring down. His presence made me feel safe.
Dad loved people. He was always happy to see them. Always.He enjoyed playing cards with his friends after they got off work. He didn’t play to win. He played to talk, to tell stories, to make people laugh, and to laugh with them.
He had a terrific sense of humor and a thousand-watt smile. Mom remembers a time he and a friend decided to stay up until one of them ran out of jokes. They were still at it when Mom got up to make breakfast.
Dad never allowed discussions about politics to become cut throat. He listened respectfully to the views of others and never tore them down. Perhaps that’s why I was years into adulthood before I comprehended his personal political leanings. He only expressed them in a comment which referred to his right arm, severely weakened by illness–It’s my Republican arm. Not good for much of anything.
He loved his work as a cattle farmer and an extension agent. He was happiest in the show ring at the county fair when he was judging cattle. He lived for those hot, July days when young people led livestock in a circle around him and listened keenly to his advice about showmanship.
He was never, ever a picky eater. He ate with gusto whatever was served and always complimented the cook. That said, his favorite foods were a good steak, ice cream, and homemade baked goods.
Dad loved to go to church when he could. He listened intently to the sermons, but he came fully alive after the service when old friends and new acquaintances came over to say hello.
Are you getting a sense of who my father was?
Can you picture him in the show ring at the fair?
Eating a good steak?
Chatting after church?
How different would that picture of him be if description had begun with his disability?
If the first things you knew were that he had multiple sclerosis?
That he used a wheelchair?
That others had to cut his food and help him in the bathroom?
Because he’s my dad, not a disability, I led with who he was because I wanted you to know him.
As the church, we need to do the same.
We need to get to know people with disabilities for who they are.
We need to ask them about their interests, their work, and their families.
We need to introduce them to others with similar likes, passions, and personalities rather than with a similar disability.
Eventually, the disability will come up. But it should never come first. It should never be a person’s defining mark.
Because she’s a daughter, a mom, a sister, a niece, a cousin, an aunt, a grandma, a friend.
He’s a son, a dad, a brother, a nephew, a cousin, an uncle, a grandpa, a friend.
She’s a beloved creation of God, and so is he.
Would you say it with me now?
She’s my ____________, not a disability.
He’s my ____________, not a disability.
Jolene Philo grew up with a disabled father and raised a child with special needs. She has also welcomed kids with special needs into her elementary classroom for 25 years. She is the author of several books about special needs parenting, caregiving, and special needs ministry. She blogs at DifferentDream.com and speaks around the country about special needs parenting and inclusion ministry. Jolene and her husband live in Iowa, are parents to two adult children, and are known as Grammy Jo and Papoo to their three adorable grandchildren. You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.