Downright Joy

Discovering joy in unexpected places – a journey into Down's syndrome, Dyspraxia & Autism


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Lemons and Pomegranates

I recently took time out from caring for my disabled child who has Down’s syndrome and took a trip to Italy to visit family I had not seen for a very long time.

It was also an opportunity to spend more time with my eldest child, and introduce her to a whole new cultural experience as well as meet some of our family for the first time. For one entire, exhilarating week, we wandered the cobbled streets of Sorrento, savouring the sights and the sounds of this beautiful coastal town in the Bay of Naples. 

Lemon trees lined our pathways, Orange trees also. In the narrow back streets, shops and bars jostled for space and competed for customers, their baskets filled with ruby red pomegranates and lemons the size of grapefruits. Leather goods spilled out of doorways giving off an intoxicating air of ‘We are Quality and we know it.

Sorrento, according to Greek mythology, was home to Sirens, who lured sailors onto its rocks with their mesmerising songs. Today, tourists and locals alike gather above those rocks, lured not by song but by sunsets. A place to stand and pause, capturing a memory or two against the vibrant colours of blue, fiery reds, orange and deepest yellow hues that fill the skies.

A short train ride along the coast finds the ancient city of Pompeii and its neighbour Herculaneum. In AD 79, a cataclysmic eruption of Mount Vesuvius, known to locals as His Majesty, destroyed the lives of over 16000 inhabitants and the livelihoods of those fortunate enough to escape the suffocating clouds of ash or the pyroclastic flow.  Wandering through Pompeii’s ruins, our local tour guide brought this legendary city to life as she told us stories of some of the people who once lived and worked here. The rich, the poor, the everyday and ordinary lives and their extraordinary blueprints for so much that we know and use today. Who knew, for example that house builders in Roman Pompeii knew the design for LEGO centuries before LEGO did? Our guide told us much of what she knew; human stories of human lives, achievements, hardships, joys and sorrows. Baking bread, shopping for clothes, going to the theatre, gossiping in the town square. Every day life of men, women and children, living and thriving in community.

‘Lego’ type design found on building blocks in Pompeii

One of the most remarkable outcomes, at least to me, of the story of the Volcanic eruption in AD79 is how the surrounding area eventually recovered from this catastrophe. The whole region is famed for its produce. Olive groves aplenty, vineyards, oranges, lemons and much more are to be found on the slopes of Vesuvius in abundance. And, according to historians and geologists, the land became far more fertile as a result of the eruption. The economy recovered relatively quickly and future generations enjoyed the spoils from the enhanced rich soil. They thrived. His Majesty Vesuvius brought life as well as death.

When my daughter, who has Down’s syndrome, was born I was given a poem. The poem was about a planned holiday to Italy being diverted in the air and landing in Holland instead. This poem is well known in the Down’s syndrome community and is a bit like marmite in the way it divides opinion. Personally, I found it to be well meaning, but deeply disappointing. No offence to the Dutch; I’d love to visit their country too one day. But I will not allow anyone to steal Italy from my heart or my dreams.  Having a child with Down’s syndrome is not a diversion or even a different destination; who knows where any of us will end up in life after all? Neither is it a catastrophe as some think or express.

What happened in Pompeii was a catastrophe. Having a child with a disability is not.

I do not minimise the challenges that come with bringing up a child with Down’s syndrome. I never have, I hope. The opposite in fact. I have no desire to ‘lure’ any parent faced with the news that their baby might have a disability into a false sense of security, when the journey is clearly fraught with, at times, hard, rocky places. But modern day Sirens still go off where disability or, in particular, a diagnosis of Down’s syndrome is concerned; bringing fear, panic and urgency in decision making. They need always to be tempered, in my opinion, with a softer, sweeter song. A song not of falsities or deception, but of hope. There is still life to be had, to be lived, to be enjoyed. And in many ways it is a life more vibrant and verdant than before.

I do wish that my daughter’s life, and the lives of others born or unborn with disabilities are seen first and foremost as the humans that they are. Perhaps, if they were, there would be no need for a Down’s syndrome community or a disabled community.

Just a community would be enough. 

A community more welcoming, more supportive, more vibrant, more fertile, more prosperous and hope-filled for all its inhabitants, its humans, than ever existed before. Thriving.


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Merry Go Round

Half way up the stairs.

We made it half way up the stairs. She is on her stairlift. I am holding down the control button.

The alarm is, well, alarming. It’s shrieking….. I’m no longer green. I’m red I’m red I’m red. And this is as far as I can go today.

I disagree with alarmist opinions, I always have.

Yesterday you were green. They said you were fixed. They said they couldn’t see anything majorly wrong. They looked, they tweaked, they said they did their best yesterday and indeed you were green. They hoped their remedy was permanent. 

So did I; the cost is mounting and climbing higher than any stairlift could ever go.

Red, green, red, green, red, green

You, me, me, you. Today we both turned red.

I brace myself to lift her down from her predicament. Praying we do not topple. And I did actually pray.

Is this what it feels like to be rescued from a fairground ride? Stranded in mid-air whilst all around go about their business down below, busy on adventures of their own. A whole community, just down there. Out of reach.

We are high up. Hoping for help, though it does not come. Praying. Feeling very small, very alone. At least one of us is. The other not so. She has always loved fairgrounds. The lights, the colour, the spectacle, the drama. She is laughing right now. Unconcerned. All the fun of the fair is in her eyes as it always is. This is what blessing looks like.

Oh I too love the funfair, don’t get me wrong. It’s true I’m not all that keen on the Helter Skelter or those swingy things that send you hurtling through the skies at breakneck speed. And the Dodgems – well they are just plain dangerous if you ask me. But find me the Hook a Duck stand to try my luck with, or a colourful Carousel with painted horses and I’ll happily hop on and go round all day.

A fairground is a place where screams are many yet, no one hears them. They are not required to. Laughter, joy, screaming, fear, exhilaration, merge into one, giant, merry-go-round. Pleasure and pain. Pain and pleasure. Pleading to get off then getting back on for more. Fearful moments soon overcome by joyous ones, then replaced by fear….and so it goes on.

We are downstairs again, yet we need to be upstairs. She needs to sleep so we cannot stay here. Now there’s another obstacle in our way. It’s the same but different. Still alarming, still flashing and now IN OUR WAY. Reminding us of the journey we now face. A perilous one. An uphill struggle; each of my steps must now be carefully and very slowly taken for fear of us both tumbling down the stairs. The chair is not moving, no matter how hard I plead with it to work. Please just work. I scream a scream that no one hears. Not even her, thankfully. Only one of us feels the fear on this particular ride. The other knows only love and trust. This is what blessing looks like.

One day I will laugh at this too, just not today.

One day the plan will come together. A crowd will gather around us. Tradesmen and women will set to work to help her; and to help me. The stairlift will no longer be required to transport her to sleep each night. She will sleep downstairs, safe and sound in a new environment that can truly meet her needs. One with new rides to experience, buttons to press, levers to pull, hoists to take her into orbit. We will laugh with great gusto at ourselves in front of distorted fairground mirrors, knowing that our true self remains intact. Dignity will be restored. Hers and mine. This is also what blessing looks like.

Just not today.

Tonight we will dream of carousels and candy floss and all that this fairground means to us; we are certain we do not ever wish to leave.