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Graduation day for Taylor and Tessa

Some of you may have had two children or grandchildren graduate on the same day, but probably not quite like the graduation day we have coming up.

Our grandson Taylor was born 21 years ago with what was diagnosed in his first year as Cornelia De Lange Syndrome, which is a genetic disorder that affects both physical and mental development of a child. As soon as he arrived with his special needs, a new tone was established for his family, which then included mom, dad and an older brother.

Three years later, his sister Tessa, now 18, came along and soon learned without being told that she was one of the primary caretakers of Taylor. When she was only 3½ and was getting Taylor-care directions from her grandmother, she said, "Don't worry -- I can take care of myself and Tay-er too." And she did. Whenever the two of them were together, she was in charge.

When Taylor's older brother Ryan (identified in this column as "Half Nelson" years ago) was in kindergarten, he took Taylor to school to show all the kindergartners how cute a special needs kid could be.

When Taylor started school himself he had some of the speech problems characteristic of autism and was in special reading classes and sometimes mixed into regular classes to absorb what he could. In the process, he learned the alphabet, how to read names, but not really how to read (yet he regularly skims the obituaries today). Also, because he was very social, he became well known by his classmates and other kids in the school.

He also developed a love for books, especially books with pictures, like church directories, yearbooks, automobile books, catalogs, but also dictionaries, encyclopedias and other books, thick and heavy. Free books he picks up wherever he finds them, cheap ones he buys with the few bucks he has. He has hundreds and he usually carries an armful wherever he goes.

Now the family has a fourth child, another brother, Christian, 10 years younger than Taylor. Family meals are not the same at Taylor's house as they are at yours. One day when he was gone for some reason, Half Nelson observed, "Its pretty dull around here without Taylor isn't it?" Somehow over the years the presence and circumstances of Taylor have shaped his family into a unit tuned into his special needs and the special needs of others. Half Nelson has spent time in Tanzania as a volunteer in a hospital full of aids patients and teaching in an orphanage. This summer he's headed for Peru to do volunteer work in a medical tent or school. Tessa has helped collect food for the poor and has spent time in the ghettos of Detroit and Chicago feeding the homeless and in New Orleans pounding nails. Tessa will probably make a career out of some aspect of serving special needs. Their mom has a job working with the parents of special needs children and Taylor's dad has always worked with premature babies, even before Taylor was born, so he's probably the founding father of the Taylor Culture of the family. But somehow that culture is all because of Taylor. He has shaped his family into something it wouldn't have been without him. He's been a blessing disguised as a boy with special needs.

And now, coming through school on separate tracks, Taylor and Tessa have become classmates this past year. They're not seen together in school very often, but when they are, the kids all say, "Hi Taylor," and don't always greet Tessa (though she's the class president). She'll ask Taylor, "How do you know that kid?" The answer is usually one or two words: Church, summer job or special class, but he knows them all. So next week they'll graduate together with their class of 2010. But before graduation day there will be a graduation party at their house. Taylor will love it. When people gather for any event he always asks, "More people coming?" And when the guests leave, he says, "See you in two days . . . seven days, etc." He never gets enough. It will be a great party.

On graduation day, they'll both walk across the stage, Tessa right behind Taylor with words of love and encouragement, and they, along with 520 classmates will get their diplomas. Then their separate tracks will go in opposite directions. Tessa will be headed for college and Taylor will be headed for an adult group home. But the Taylor Culture will live on for years to come. Generations I expect.