“Mama always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.”- Forrest Gump 

Valentine’s Day and chocolates go hand and hand, like peas and carrots.

Remember when you were a child, Valentine’s Day was a big deal. Boxes of chocolate were affectionately given from grandparents, parents, and friends at school. The week before the big day, we shopped for the perfect cards then sat at the kitchen table addressing each of our classmates. We stuffed our little envelops with chocolate or candy hearts stamped with messages like “I love you.” and “You are cute.”  The next day we eagerly delivered them at the class party.

My Nana often gave my sisters and me a box of Russell Stover’s chocolates for Valentine’s Day. Half the fun was picking through the various chocolates to find the one we loved. Each one of us had our favorite. (Mine was the chocolate covered caramels.)

Hence, when Forest Gump sat on the park bench sharing his fantastical life I can’t help but think about my daughter with special needs, Mikelle, and reflect on her own exceptional life.

Like Mama Gump, as a single mother, I felt compelled to prepare Mikelle for life without me. Because, “Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you are going to get.”

Ever since Mikelle, at three years old, reached for the control switch on her first power wheelchair, one of my goals for her has been to be as independent as possible. Real independence requires one to develop a level of judgment and self-confidence. As parents, it helpful to understand, even embrace that failure and risk come with exploring the boundaries of our abilities.

Persistence builds resilience. Experience and eventual success builds a healthy self-esteem.

I wanted Mikelle to have these ABILITIES as she navigated her largely unanticipated world. After all, we never know what we are gonna get.

The question was how much risk was I willing to let her experience? How many mistakes could I handle? After all, isn’t it my job to keep her safe?

Eventually, I realized I wanted Mikelle to understand failure does not define her nor does her disAbility.

One of many instances for me to let go was when as a teenager Mikelle wanted to go grocery shopping—by herself. I suppose she wanted to buy her own chocolates, gifts for all of her favorite people.

The idea of Mikelle traveling by herself in an inner city environment was frightening. Friends and family gave a thumbs down to the idea.

My challenge was to honor her request and ensure her safety. Together, we agreed on a plan.

We started by doing a walk-through, increasing her awareness of possible obstacles. We mapped out a route down a bike path in the park to avoid curbs not properly cut and as many stop signs as we could, narrowing it down to one busy street crossing. Then, we practiced this route many times.

When we felt confident she could cross the street by herself, we took the next step; navigating the busy parking lot and the most active grocery store in the city with the narrowest aisles possible. We introduced ourselves to the store management, I gave them my phone number and asked: “What if Mikelle came to the customer service desk when she arrived, could you provide a personal shopper for her?”

“Yes, we can.”

It appeared we were ready for a test drive. With list in hand and a twenty dollar bill tucked into her wallet, Mikelle headed out the door proud to finally be on her way to the store—without Mom.

I gave her sufficient lead time following her and hid behind every tree along the way. Yes, she checked on me. Periodically, she stopped under a shady tree to swivel around just to see if I was back there.  Seeing nothing, she’d continue freedom’s pursuit.

Laughing to myself, I’d hold tight until she moved on. At the busy intersection, my heart started racing and I ran out of trees to hide behind. The nearby coffee shop proved to be my shield. There I met  a friend who I could send on recognizance, if necessary.

As she disappeared into the cavernous entrance to the grocery store, I checked my phone. She should get through her list in fifteen minutes or so.

Right. My coffee was gone, and so was the fifteen minutes. Soon I was pacing, and my friend joked “Don’t worry, she just picked up some guy and sneaked out the back door.” Great.

Forty-five minutes later she emerges from her grocery cocoon with balloons, flowers and a few groceries. The balloons were for her, the flowers for me.

Love and trust. Preparation and risk. It was a worrisome success, and it taught us both that she is capable of doing more than we both thought she could do.

An Update.

Mikelle did move on to live independently with support on her own for five years. Things changed. I moved in with Mikelle into her place to stabilize her support team.  As she grew older, the types of people working with her changed a bit, the stress of turnover began to take its toll.

I have come to know support for our family members with disaAbilities is indeed like a box of chocolates. You can plan and prepare, but in the end, you don’t know how it is all going to turn out.

If you are a parent who leans toward overprotecting and overdoing for your child, give them extra responsibilities around the house, let them walk a block home from school by themselves—you can hide behind the trees!  Teach them how to laundry, fix a meal, sew on a button, take a small engine apart, build a bird house—keep thinking!

Remember to love and let go in little ways.  Good luck!