Two weeks ago, my third son turned eighteen.
Unlike his brothers before him, there was no college talk at Ben’s birthday party, no time spent looking for the car he’d been saving for, no tooling off on his own to celebrate with friends.
Instead of worrying about what he would do with his newfound adult independence, we spent the months leading up to his birthday navigating a maze of information about whether we should go to court to obtain guardianship, draw up a durable power of attorney, or have him file a health care directive—which Ben can’t fill out himself, because he can’t actually write. It’s . . . complicated.
Adulthood often looks different for those with intellectual disabilities. For their caregivers, birthdays sparkle and sting in tandem as each year’s answers bring new and scarier questions. “What does the future look like for Ben?” we often hear—a question which encapsulates a whole series of conundrums:
- Will he ever live alone?
- Will he ever have a job?
- Will he ever learn to cook?
- Will he ever drive a car?
- Will he need to go on disability?
- Will he manage his own money?
- Who will take care of him if we can’t?
And the most frightening of all . . . what if he’s left all alone?
We’re closer to answers on some of these questions than others, of course, and most of our days are filled with the joy of living with and loving the amazing person that God created when He made Ben. But when we let our minds wander, it’s easy for those questions to spiral out of control and we wonder: how can we face such an uncertain future with grace?
5 Things Tippy’s Teaching Me
In the latest season of The Deep Well podcast, Erin Davis and Dannah Gresh pay tribute to Tippy Duncan, their longtime mentor. While they set out to reflect on all the things that Tippy had taught them over the years, the focus of the podcast season eventually shifted toward what Tippy is still teaching them as she walks into her latter years knowing that dementia is setting in.
I watched the fourth episode with an ever-increasing lump in my throat as Tippy taught me how I can face the uncertainty of Ben’s future with faith and grace. Here are five things I plan to latch onto the next time my thoughts threaten to spin me into the whirlwind of uncertainty.
1. Accept that some things are just going to be hard. It’s okay to feel a little sad about that.
When you watch or listen to these episodes, you’ll learn quickly that Tippy is unfailingly honest. One precious moment in episode 4 came right at the opening when Tippy said, “I am beginning to accept some things that are going to be very hard for me, and I'm going into a very dark place in my life. I’m okay with it now . . . ”
She pauses. “Although—just then—I felt a little sadness.”
Elisabeth Elliot, whose life held no shortage of uncertainty, famously said, “In acceptance lieth peace.”1 I think Tippy would agree. But as she acknowledged, even with acceptance and the peace it offers, sadness sometimes lingers. Have we accepted that Ben’s life will probably look vastly different than our other children’s lives? That we may never experience the “empty nest”? That he may never get married and have children, like he often talks about? Yes.
Is that acceptance tinged with sadness? Yes. Most definitely, yes. And that’s okay.
2. Look back and learn that God can be trusted. You might be a little scared, but you’re going to be okay.
When Erin asked Tippy if she had asked God for the peace He provided, she said she couldn’t remember, exactly; it just came upon her slowly. “I’ve been through a lot of trials and tribulations in my life,” Tippy said, “I’ve learned that I can always trust Him. It always works out okay.” But again, Tippy honestly acknowledged that her trust in God did not exempt her from periods of anxiety:
And so, I just talked to [God]. I said, I know what’s happening. You’re going to be with me, and You’re going to be holding my hand, and I’m going to be okay. I might be scared every once in a while, but I’m going to be okay.
In those moments when my fears creep in—which, if I’m honest like Tippy, occur more often than I’d like to admit, I too can look back upon all the times that God has been faithful and trustworthy. The ironclad promises of His Word are the guarantee that He will be faithful and trustworthy in the future. I might be a little scared every once in a while, but He’ll be holding my hand.
3. When you feel weak, rely on “trust muscle memory.”
Tippy’s past includes battling with anxiety, so perhaps it came as a surprise to her when God provided “peace which surpasses all understanding” (Phil. 4:7). It didn’t surprise Dannah Gresh, because as Dannah said,
I’ve seen you soak your mind and your heart in the Word of God. I’ve seen you saturate yourself in the presence of the Holy Spirit through prayer. I’ve seen you choose to trust God. And now, it’s kind of like your trust muscle has been built up to a point where it kicks in on automatic.
My lifelong battle with anxiety has provided me, too, with a measure of “trust muscle memory” that I can rely upon when I feel weak. But, like Tippy, I need to do my part: saturating myself in the Word and in prayer, choosing to trust God, even when it’s hard.
4. You don’t have to understand it now.
During their conversation, Dannah asks Tippy, “Do you ever want to pray for the Lord to heal you? Tippy answers rapidly, “No.”
Dannah asks again, “Really?” Tippy replies, “I don’t, no. I’m not going to ask Him to change His plan for me. I don’t have to understand it. I just have to accept it.”
People sometimes ask me, “Do you know what caused Ben’s autism? Do you think it was vaccines? Was there anything different about your pregnancy?” The answer to every question is, “I don’t know” or “I don’t think so.” And I don’t really need to know.
Would I pray to change it? That’s a tougher question. Do I wish that my son would not have to experience some of the challenges he faces every day and those he will face as he gets older? Of course. Do I long to tell him that he’ll become a bus driver just like he’s always dreamed and get married and have children and live happily ever after? Yes! But at this point, that does not seem to be what God has for Him.
Would I change some things if I could? Sure. But would I change him? Absolutely not. Every cell in his body and every bit of his soul has been knit together by a God who makes no mistakes (Psalm 139:13). Not a single one. I don’t have to understand why. That’s God’s business and His alone.
5. Don’t wait to say it.
In the touching conclusion to this episode, Dannah asks Tippy about her legacy—what
she wants people to say about her life when the day comes that she is no longer able to understand or respond. But Dannah and Erin didn’t want to wait to say it. They know, as so many do, that life is too short to wait. Tippy wanted to know that “her girls” loved her and appreciated her. That’s what Ben wants to know too. Tippy says that’s what we all want to know . . . and she’s right.
Don’t wait to say it.
Your Uncertain Future
Tippy’s future is uncertain; so is Ben’s. But guess what? Yours and mine are too. We all face a future that is completely unknown to us, no matter how well we think we’ve crossed our t’s, dotted our i’s, and numbered our days. Thankfully, the Lord doesn’t give most of us the imagination to fathom the challenges, disruptions, and trials that are headed our way. Why? Because though the future is dim and uncertain to us, it’s not the least bit uncertain to Him. “Remember what happened long ago,” says, the Lord,
for I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and no one is like me.
I declare the end from the beginning,
and from long ago what is not yet done,
saying: my plan will take place,
and I will do all my will. (Isaiah 46:9–10)
Tippy is facing the future with grace, and she knows she’ll never be left alone. God will be faithful to you and Ben and me just the same. That’s what Tippy’s teaching us.
Watch episode 4, “An Uncertain Future,” below.
We’re calling this “Tippy Week” on the blog, which means this is the last of four posts inspired by “Tippy’s Teaching Me,” the newest season of The Deep Well with Erin Davis (which Laura mentioned in the post above). This season is extra special—not only does it feature Tippy Duncan, a woman whose everyday faithfulness profoundly affected both Erin Davis and Dannah Gresh, but it’s available for you in audio or video. We hope you’re as moved as we are as you join Erin and Dannah in Erin’s hometown as they pay tribute to the woman who taught them how to love and live well.
1 “Loneliness: In Acceptance Lieth Peace · Elisabeth Elliot,” Elisabeth Elliot, December 3, 2023, https://elisabethelliot.org/resource-library/lectures-talks/loneliness-in-acceptance-lieth-peace/.