As I read this Ensign Magazine article about serving children with cognitive disabilities, I thought of the experience my wife and I had with Christoper. He was a little boy with thick, dark, straight hair and shiny dark eyes that often conveyed how he felt.
Despite being born with severe physical and cognitive disabilities, Christoper was adopted as an infant by a family in our ward (congregation). This family loved Christoper deeply and did everything they could to address his needs. This was helped by the fact that Christoper's adoptive mother was a registered nurse.
Christopher was usually seen in public in his specially built wheel chair that was decorated in the colors of his favorite basketball team. He had little control of his small arms and legs. He was unable to speak. But he was able to show how he felt. This was never more apparent than when he would smile at someone with a look of unbridled gratitude.
At some point, Christoper's parents and the leaders of the ward Primary (children's auxiliary) organization decided that Christopher should attend Primary classes and events along with the other children. He did not advance each year as did other children. He moved from level to level as his parents and leaders felt the time was right.
Christopher was far smaller but also far older than the other children when he joined the class of 11-year-olds that my wife and I taught. We received some basic training in dealing with Christopher's needs and then we forged ahead.
Frankly, it was pretty uncomfortable at the outset. But the children in the class were mostly great with Christopher. Many of them had spent time around him for years. They were familiar with his needs and knew how to interact with him. We learned a lot from these children.
Christoper didn't attend class every week, as his health was rather fragile. He was once absent for a month, having nearly been taken down by a simple cold. Some Sundays Christopher could only spend part of the Primary time with us. Sometimes I couldn't tell whether Christoper was much aware of what was being taught. Other times it was obvious that he was engaged in the lesson. Although he couldn't sing, Christopher usually seemed to quite enjoy hearing the other children sing.
When the year drew to a close, we bid goodbye to all but one of our class members. Christopher remained as we welcomed a new batch of children. Before long, my wife and I were called to different callings. Others took over our group of 11-year-olds and Christopher.
Looking back, I realize that, while I became more comfortable over time dealing with Christopher, I always felt a bit awkward having him in my care. I was constantly afraid that I might make some kind of mistake.
I once allowed Christopher to have a lollipop (which I understood was OK for him). But when he clamped down on it and started to breathe in an agitated manner, I became concerned that he might choke on it. When he wouldn't release the candy, I ended up prying it from his mouth. He calmed down, but I was left feeling unsettled.
Having Christopher in our class was sometimes distracting to the other children. This raised class management and teaching challenges. But we were always able to work through them. I tried to remember the Savior's admonition regarding little children being the epitome of the kingdom of heaven (Matt 19:14).
We continued to see Christopher at church after our release from teaching 11-year-olds. Then one day we received word that Christopher had unexpectedly passed away. His mother related how he had seemed fine when the family put him to bed as usual. A family member checked on him a few hours later and all seemed well. Then a few hours later, a family member discovered him still and lifeless.
After nearly two decades of lovingly caring for Christopher, each family member felt bereft of his presence. The whole ward mourned. Despite having been Christopher's Primary teacher for a while, there was no way for me to fully comprehend what the family was experiencing, but I ached for them.
I'm not sure how my months of contact with Christopher impacted him. But it left a lasting impact on me. Sometimes we are called to serve in uncomfortable situations. We are always blessed when we serve valiantly. And at least some of those blessings are enduring.