Special needs fill nearly every thought and moment of my life lately. My mind has become a radio station that plays all advocacy with no commercial interruptions. Health care reform and medical home are in heavy rotation, along with the usual med refills and parent-teacher conference stuff. It’s not universally popular music like the Beatles; it’s complex, dissonant sound that requires effort and courage to listen to. Philip Glass, Rachmaninov and creepy crime drama soundscape rolled into one.

So when I found myself heading to Washington DC (yes, for a health care conference, PCORI), I decided to arrive a few hours early to unplug and reconnect with a passion from my life before special needs—art.

The visual arts have always played a sacred function in my life. Although I love words, I experience an entirely different connection with life when I react to image, line and color. Even when it’s challenging, it feels good.

It was a smart move. Strolling through the National Gallery of Art, I was transported through time and space. All thoughts of accountable care organizations and conference abstracts were arrested for a few moments. But the escape didn’t last long.

The museum’s collection includes a number of fantastic paintings depicting the Annunciation—the moment in the history of Christianity when a messenger angel arrives to tell Mary that she will give birth to Jesus. It’s such a pivotal, rich moment in Christian iconography that there are many versions of the scene in the Gallery’s collection.

The Annunciation is special to me, though not for reasons of conviction. I don’t have a particularly strong faith, more a comfort from stories told and retold throughout my childhood.

The reason the subject is special to me is because this angel, this messenger of peace, is named Gabriel. And so is my son, the one I write about in this blog.

Years ago, when I told my deeply religious aunt that we were going to call our son Gabriel, she replied matter-of-factly, “Gabriel. He will be your peace baby.” She was right. He is one of the most patient, loving, accepting, generous and forgiving people I have ever met.

National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Even though Gabriel (the angel) is associated with peace, his arrival must have been quite terrifying. No one expects an angel to show up, do they? He’s got to calm people down so that they’ll listen to him. In most of the stories about him, the first words out of his mouth are

Do not be afraid.

So whenever I see any painting of the Annunciation, I first think about Gabriel (my son), his namesake. Then I think: Do not be afraid. And the juxtaposition of those two thoughts always stop me in my tracks.

Much of the emotion I have around parenting Gabriel is fear. Not all, but much. Fear of the future. Fear of not doing or being enough. Fear of doing it wrong. Fear of not feeling the right thing. Fear of being judged for all of it. Fear of never being able to work through the fear.

So there I am, on my little escapist jaunt, riveted by the image of this magnificent angel, appearing before a young woman going about her day. He extends to her a flower of purity, a lily, and reassures her: Do not be afraid.

Looking at one of the paintings, for one moment I am able get my arms around the fullness of my own parenting experience. The terror and the peace. The peace and the terror. It’s there, in oil on board, just right there in four square feet, inviting me to react, to feel it, to stay with it. So I do.

And then it’s gone. I move on, strolling once again. Through the Dutch masters, through the Impressionists, through the gift shop, back out on to the street, back to the conference, back to life. Both the escaping and the embracing of the fear have worked their magic, and even though the music of disability gets cranked back up again, this time it feels like it’s got a beat I might even be able to dance to. At least, I’m not afraid to try. Thank you Gabriel (both of you) for the message.

Published by Cristin Lind

Facilitator, consultant, speaker for better health and care through patient-professional partnership. Passionate about helping change agents build courage and agency. She/her.

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  1. Beautifully put, Cristin. It’s amazing how these mini visual vacations can often relax and transport us to another dimension where new insights break through. Your words brought tears to my eyes. I resonate with your description of the “dissonant music” on the disability channel. Beginning to catch the rhythm reminds me of what it is like to catch on to a speech pattern that has a very strong accent. Continued blessings on your journey.

  2. Every one of your blogs make me laugh and cry and think…thank you for sharing. Your eloquence stuns me.

  3. Cristin, I enjoy your posts; I think I can not get enough of them. I feel some uncanny relation and/or clarity to my life raising my children reading about you and yours. Of all the books I have read, I found myself reliving the pain of some situations and at times did not finish the book. But your perspective and ability to bring greater reasoning to life and the challenges presented at times, is some what profound. Please continue and well wishes to you and your family.

    Dorchester Dad

    1. I’m so humbled by your praise. I often start out writing mostly to make sense of a situation for myself–when it’s rattling around too long in my head, I know it’s time for a blog post. But knowing that others feel the same way, that’s really powerful for me. Thank you so much for taking the time to say that. (And just curious–have we met? Share only if you’d like, no pressure.)

  4. Thank you for this beautiful text and the thought behind it. You must be a very strong woman and I admire you a lot. Your strength is impressive and has the power to strengthen me, too.

  5. Thank you for touching us with this very personal and rich moment. I will carry your story into Advent with me (only a few weeks away) and straight through to Christmas.

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