One of the many reasons that we moved to Columbus, OH, was because of the very large Down Syndrome association (DSACO: Down Syndrome Association of Central Ohio). Over 500 families belong to this group, and they have been such a huge source of support for us, both before and after Julia's birth and death.
One of the many things DSACO did for us was to connect me with other "heart moms” whose children with DS had the same heart defect as Julia. These women were such a huge source of support for me. I remember one woman's encouragement about heart surgery was that it was like a second birth. “Except this time,” she said, “your child will truly come alive.” I did a lot of emailing with them, but I never met their children, due to our quarantine, until after Julia died.
So, I made it a recent priority to meet these two beautiful girls. First, Natalie and I played with M last week. M is 20 months old and is full of zest for life. She is feisty and active, and I can foresee that she will not be held back by low expectations! She is absolutely beautiful, with striking blue eyes and long blonde hair. I hadn’t prepared myself for the emotions I would feel during this meeting, as it was our first play date since Julia died. As soon as I met her, I sobbed.
So many people have thoughtfully asked if it’s hard for me to see children who are the same age as Julia, or if they shouldn’t talk about their children. I’ve told them that I did so much grieving of the loss of “normal” when Julia was born that seeing typical children actually doesn’t get to me all that much. But meeting M was a deeply beautiful, sorrowful encounter for me. I grieve the loss of the joy we would have had with Julia as she climbed her mountains.
Like any smart toddler, M didn’t warm up to me right away. But eventually, I was able to coax her into my lap. She had gotten tired and thus allowed me to enjoy cuddling her. “She likes hands,” her kindhearted mother told me. The next ten minutes held a beautiful ritual that I won’t forget. M traced my hands with her fingers, over and over. She threaded our fingers together; she touched my wrists. She waved my hands in space, observing closely and quietly what happened as she controlled my movements. Were it not for Natalie and I needing to get home for naptime, I would have continued that ritual for much longer.
As I buckled Natalie in to the car, I felt the need to explain to her why M’s mom and I did not intervene more strongly when M pulled Natalie’s hair (Natalie was a champ when this happened; I have had so many moments recently where my heart has just burst with pride at Natalie). “Did you notice that M’s eyes looked a little different than yours?” I began. Natalie looked at me, wondering where this was going. “M has Down Syndrome, and Julia had Down Syndrome, too. When people have Down Syndrome, it takes them a little longer to learn things. So M didn’t pull your hair to be mean…she is just still learning how to get along with you.” Natalie mulled this over. “Does that make sense?” I asked. Natalie responded, “I have blue eyes, and M has blue eyes, and Julia has blue eyes. And we all have Down Syndrome!”
WOW! Convicting moment for me. I had chosen to focus on what Natalie may have noticed as being different about M, both with her eyes and her speed of learning. What did Natalie do? She focused on what was the same, on the beauty of our shared human experience. I am learning so much from my toddler, just as I learned from Julia.
A few days later, Natalie and I met four-year-old G. G had a crash in the hospital similar to what Julia experienced, but after four weeks, she was able to go home. Natalie and I loved playing with G, and it was so much fun to see G taking care of her younger siblings. I admired her dappled auburn hair and her precious smile. She was just like any other child: she was so verbal and active. Unlike some other preschoolers :), she was great at sharing and was so very sweet.
On this day, I was ready for any emotions I might experience, and as such, my only tears came when G’s mom related to me some of the hurtful comments people had made about her daughter. Comments like, “We want to offer you prenatal testing to make sure you don’t have ANOTHER child with Down Syndrome.” If that had been me, I think I truly may have slapped that medical provider. We wanted and loved Julia, and all that comprised who she was.
|Sisters playing together|
You see, Taylor and I feel like we’ve been let in on a precious secret. I know the truth now, in a deeper way than I ever did before: that these children, these people, are so much more valuable and beautiful than how the world judges them. They know something that the rest of us are not in touch with. I can’t put it in to words, and so I hope to encourage you to get to know children with special needs. I am not saying they are perfect; I am just saying that these special people enable us to know what is truly important in life. The medical issues and daily concerns are so taxing, but who these children are defies explanation until you get to know them.