What’s the correct name for it?The sparkle you get on the surface of the sea especially in summer…… as sunlight catches the ripples, usually on a calm day. A gently moving carpet of glittering diamonds, shimmering and shimmying as far as the eye can see.
I’m not sure there is a name for it. It’s far too beautiful a sight to be contained by a single word. It takes my breath away every time I see it, which is not that often as I do not live by the sea.
I wonder if I would tire of this sight if I did? It’s a sight I long to see every year. Most years I’ve been blessed enough to see it. It makes me smile. Every single time.
I don’t have a Bucket List. You know the sort of thing, a list of places I want to visit in my lifetime, and or experiences I want to have at least once before I die. A cruise perhaps, or a trip to the Northern Lights. I’ve never fancied jumping out of a plane but I wouldn’t say no to a Trip on The Orient Express. Or Vienna. I’d quite like to visit Vienna. But I don’t have a Bucket List. I don’t really have a list at all.
Bucket lists are hard to fulfill when you are the main carer for someone you love. A list filled with experiences that may never happen simply because to make them happen would require the movement of both heaven and earth for most carers and the one(s) they care for. I don’t think many would deny that being an unpaid carer involves a level of sacrifice and loneliness that most people will never have to give or experience…unless they become one themselves, that is. Not only that, but the name Bucket List doesn’t sit well with me, it feels sort of depressing; though of course I know that one day I will ‘kick the bucket’ like every other mortal on the planet.
Personally speaking, having a Bucket List is a pressure I can happily live without. Don’t get me wrong, I would love (I think) every one of those experiences I mentioned and may have dreamt about as well as more, should they ever come my way. For now, and for the foreseeable future (which is a strange thing to say I always think, because the future is not really foreseeable for any of us) I am content to enjoy those experiences that often come with no name but that make me smile, make me catch my breath. And there are some I don’t enjoy at all that are also to be collected, valued even.
Some happen to me occasionally, like visits to the seaside. Others daily, hourly. Often.
Like the moment my daughter, who has Down’s syndrome, laughs out loud at who knows what. It’s a mystery but it’s very funny.
Or the moment she is given shoes that don’t rub her little feet red raw anymore, along with splints that fit correctly. She marches off, instead of hobbling. Her legs still tire, and when they do she beams as she sits back into her wheelchair. She cannot tell me her joy or her pain in words as she has none. These moments sparkle as much as the sea sparkles in the height of summer.
Or the moment her sister instinctively helps her off with her coat or shares an armchair with her. Though she shares more than an armchair; she shares her time, her attention, her love. Getting back in return seemingly nothing sometimes, but in reality everything and more. What is the name for that? Some say siblings of people with Down’s syndrome suffer. They give it a name, even though they have never sat in the same armchair, or taken off her coat. How dare they so falsely name an experience of which they know so little.
Sometimes it is the moment just after another procedure, operation or clinic appointment. Heart heavy with loving her through yet more trauma. Hers and mine. Tear stained walks along hospital corridors, telling myself and her “It’s over now, it’s ok, we’re going home”. Knowing that it’s only over until the next time. Knowing that it doesn’t really get easier.
Even the kindness of the medics can be painful and I have been known to crumple.
These moments are harsh, but they are also profoundly beautiful. The love swells, mingled with pain, making it ever more precious.
Oh but I do have a Bucket and I am very fond of it. It’s not shiny, it has holes and probably needs a good clean. Yet it is filled with experiences I would never have imagined possible before I was gifted the responsibility and privilege of caring for this disabled child and her sister.
Many of these experiences have no name, some are incredibly painful, others joyful beyond measure; and I treasure them all.
The barriers have been going up lately at an alarming rate. As we move into a new stage of life with my daughter who has Down’s syndrome, so her needs have increased whilst the help she needs is held back.
I’ve wondered at times if the joy I’ve written about here would follow us through the years, or would harsher new realities emerge to crush it? Am I a fraud, claiming Downright Joy when faced with increasing barriers surrounding care needs as well as a few more challenging behaviours? Then there are days of staring into the unknown of what if’s and how will we cope’s of her future? Those are bad days, where joy is elusive.
Authorities are increasingly, or so it seems, putting more and more hurdles in our way to jump over. Not just authorities, but every-day life sets out its barriers at the start of each day. Road blocks all around us, forcing us to divert, often at the last minute. Satellite navigation voices sounding more and more urgent telling us to turn back, we’ve missed our opportunity. Find another route.
Is this what they meant, eleven years ago, by referring to her as a burden?
And yet I don’t recall them mentioning these things back then. In the sonographers room we were quickly told what she probably wouldn’t be able to do. No one told us about the things she wouldn’t be able to have.
Yet, after she was born I quickly learnt that the doing wasn’t all that important after all. We all do things differently anyway because we are all different. But the having is a different matter because we all have needs, even if those needs vary.
So why did they not tell me about the things she wouldn’t be able to have as opposed to the things she wouldn’t be able to do?
Was it because that would shine a very uncomfortable spotlight on us? On society, on Government policies, on community and on our own value systems? A spotlight on lack of resources as well as unwillingness to pay the price of putting others needs before our own. It’s an uncomfortable conversation very few are willing to have.
Sacrifice. Sacrifice is an ugly, painful word to many.
A word often now devoid of its sacredness.
No. Instead they focused on her. On her extra Chromosome. She’s the one with the problem. Not them, not us. And if she were to make it past the 3rd trimester then she would still be the one with the problem. Not them, not us.
They made sure I knew this before I turned down their final solution. But they did not tell me everything.
They did not tell me that there will be so many things she can’t have “because we won’t allow it.”
At birth, she’ll be given a different Red Book to every other baby on the ward. Because she’s different.
They did not tell me this.
As she grows up, the clothes we sell on the High Street won’t fit her, she is the wrong shape. The shoes we sell will not support her mis-shapen feet. But we’ll provide her with a pair that do fit; however we’ll repeatedly let you know just how expensive they are. Please do not ask us for a new pair until these have completely worn out, useless and are falling apart.
They did not tell me this.
Oh and she won’t be able to use the same toilet facilities we do because they will not meet her needs. Please do not ask for ones that do. They are far too much money. You’ll have to lie her on a filthy floor instead. Better still, don’t go anywhere, stay at home instead.
They did not tell me this.
Her school will be different. Good but different. She will be hidden away there from her community but still cared for and loved there by those who know her worth.
I already knew this and it gave me hope.There are good people in our communities and especially in our schools. We need them so much.
She can join in the very limited activities that we will pay other good people to provide, but you will have to attend countless meetings, fill out numerous forms and open your life to intense personal and painful scrutiny in order to access the funding we have set aside (under lock and key) for people like her.
They did not tell me this either.
There will be so many more experiences she cannot have, but not because she cannot do. And when, eventually, she leaves school, the opportunities for her to be part of her local community in a meaningful way will probably dry up to virtually nothing.
They did not tell me this. But others who are further along this road than me are already signalling what (doesn’t) lie ahead.
Doing things differently should never be a barrier to being part of a community. Love can always find a way, but love has to be an action not just a feeling. Love is a commitment. Love is hard work. Love is sacrificial.
The cost of living crisis began a very long time ago, but many did not notice.
What is spoken over the unborn with Down’s syndrome is a discourse agreed long before their parent(s) set foot in the clinic. An unspoken discourse….
All things considered, we’d rather you didn’t come in. Don’t take it personally though. No, no, see it as a kindness! To you, to your parents and to the rest of society. The intelligent, sensible thing to do. We really can’t afford to be quite THAT welcoming. Look, we’ve even developed this great new test which will help matters enormously. Routinely even; It’s no big deal, really. It’s for the best.
Diversity? Yes of course we like diversity. But only the diversity we like.
Obviously, we will leave the decision up to your parents. That’s the accepted thing to do. We won’t tell them what you can’t have in your life, just what we think you can’t do in your life. Make it a matter of personal choice, thus absolving us of our collective responsibility.
Theycan be the ones to take the blame; your parents. Not us.
Either way you lose.
When the cost of living is deemed of higher value than the cost of loving we all lose. To diminish one of us is to diminish us all. I now see exactly where the burden comes from, and it isn’t from my daughter who has Down’s syndrome.
I am glad that they didn’t tell me these things; even if they knew of them. Telling me what she would not do was enough of a barrier to overcome. A prediction based on a value system I do not share.
It seems to me that we’ve got this idea of scrutiny entirely the wrong way round.
We are scrutinising the wrong thing. Instead, the camera, the tests, should be focused on the scrutinisers, on our society, on us. Searching our genetic make-up, and finding out how and what went wrong? When did we allow these anomalies to creep in? When did we become a society that is so focused on perfection, on achievement and success, so focused on ourselves? When did we forget that in order to truly live, we need first to love.
Downright Joy is found in the daily sacrifice.
It’s in the harshest of environments. It is breathtakingly humbling, eye-wateringly costly, yet remains the greatest privilege and honour of my life to receive.
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.
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 inPompeii 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.
A funny thing happened the other day…. I think I may have attended the Best Wedding Ever. Or at least, the Best Reception Ever. The actual Wedding took place two years ago but plans for a large celebration were scuppered by Covid. Thankfully, seasons change and the Bride and Groom could now be truly honoured by many more than were able to attend the original ceremony.
I’ve since been reflecting on why this celebration felt so special. Of course, all wedding celebrations are special, but this particular wedding celebration was like no other. For a start, the Bride and Groom had Down’s syndrome. How many weddings have you been to where that was the case?
It was more than a celebration. More than a just a party. A joy filled day and night of people with Down’s syndrome – and there were many – and people without Down’s syndrome, quite simply enjoying one another’s company and letting their hair down. All the usual things you might expect to find at a wedding; colourful outfits, smart suits, table favours, speeches – including the best one I’ve ever heard from a Groom, cheesy wedding songs and disco lights…. Simple extravagance. Wedding-y.
Yet also quite profound.
Alongside those who were getting married, giving speeches or playing musical instruments, living their lives to the fullest, planning and dreaming of their own special day, was my daughter who also has Down’s syndrome. And though I do not possess a crystal ball, I am realistic enough to know that she is unlikely to realise those same dreams, even if she were able to dream them in the first place. She is far less able than many with Down’s syndrome. Yet, in that wedding reception I felt a sense of love and care towards her that I’ve rarely come across anywhere else outside our own community. As she wandered around the tables of seated guests in her own autistic, non-verbal yet noisy world, present yet elsewhere; I sensed a belonging. No-one stared or looked away as they often do in these situations. They smiled. Not out of pity either, but out of love. They reached out to her without hesitation. They honoured her just as they honoured the other guests who had Down’s syndrome. We did not strive for inclusion. That was a natural given. And though I joked about ‘life goals’ when she inadvertently led the Conga from her wheelchair, itwasn’t a joke at all. Even the DJ said it was the best Conga he’d ever seen.
At breakfast the next day, I saw very few hangovers, though we had all enjoyed plenty of wine.
Instead, I saw other guests who also had Down’s syndrome, excitedly talking about when it would be their turn. Their wedding day. Even if they hadn’t actually got a partner. They were now daring to dream the same dream.
This Wedding was not a celebration. It was an Honouring Ceremony.
A safe place to be. An honouring place to be. Where the least became first.
A day when people who have Down’s syndrome were truly honoured, not routinely mocked, feared, shunned or despised. Yet, within the space of just forty-eight hours, this realisation came home to me and my family with a brutal bang.
My eldest child, just 12 years old and a young carer to her sibling who has Down’s syndrome, soon found that the Wedding Bubble had burst. Saturday’s honouring of people with Down’s syndrome, people whom she loves, turned into Monday’s mocking of them.
A fellow classmate, in their impatience over tech that wasn’t functioning correctly, directed two words at my daughter. Forcefully.
‘That computer’s got Down syndrome,”
They said it twice. Once to her, then to an adult. For laughs.
Except my daughter didn’t laugh. She cried. She left the room in shock and missed the start of a test she had been about to take. The other child was taken aside, reprimanded and shown how their words could never be funny, only hurtful. Mercifully, restorative justice meant that heartfelt apologies were made and fully accepted. The child was genuinely contrite and, they felt bad.
A lesson learned the hard way, yet there should always be room for a way back. Room for restoration.
A child used those words. As a slur, or, at best, in what they thought was an acceptable joke. Words that were their first choice. A specific, identifiable condition. Down’s syndrome. Not Learning Disabled or another condition. They targeted Down’s syndrome. And the irony of them having their own Learning Difficulty made that all the more distressing. How does a twelve year old learn to say such a thing? To target a group of people so thoughtlessly, or so heartlessly? For laughs. I can only think it is because they had heard it before. Likely many times. Something like this….
Down’s syndrome = equals stupid.
Down’s syndrome = worthless.
Or, perhaps more likely in this instance….
Down’s syndrome = funny.
A familiar portrayal that’s been on run and repeat for as long as I can remember.
And so, in response, I do the one thing I can do to alter this course.
I honour my precious Down’s syndrome child. And, before the entire community points out my language (or apostrophe use – hey I’m in the UK, it’s what we do), I used the words exactly how I meant them. My precious Down’s syndrome child. My precious child with Down’s syndrome. One and the same. Mine. Precious.
It is my honour to honour her. To serve her. To get on my knees when she needs me to. To set aside the things I might like to do so that I can be there for her, with her, alongside her or right behind her. Never in some kind of martyrdom, simply a response to what caring for another really is. A privilege.
To honour her because she exists, because she breathes, because she is.
I am all for honouring people with Down’s syndrome. Others have, and continue to set Down’s syndrome apart from the rest of society in brutal ways, both in word and deed. They do not honour people like my daughter or those at the Wedding. And as I doubt that achieving equality can ever balance the scales of this injustice, so I determine to set her apart and tip the scales in the opposite direction.
I will honour her. To honour is so much more than to celebrate. It is not dependent on any accomplishment, however noteworthy. The wedding was an honouring occasion. It was filled with love and kindness. I hope there will be many more weddings for people with Down’s syndrome, (and I really hope I’m invited to some of them too!)
I’m so done with the push for inclusion. I’m done with the push for equality if I’m honest. In all walks of life. Truly honouring someone who has been dishonoured brings restoration. And when something is restored, it means it is set right. It is no longer unequal. The scales are re-calibrated.
Honouring that comes from a loving heart can achieve so much more than any equality act or piece of legislation.
Restoring honour to those who have been the most wronged, the most dishonoured, is a good place to start.
People with Down’s syndrome are, I believe, close to, if not at the top of that list. Hierarchy takes many forms.
And there is always a way back, if we allow it. Wrongs can be righted.
The dishonoured can be honoured and restorative justice can work for the good of us all.
a system of criminal justice which focuses on the rehabilitation of offenders through reconciliation with victims and the community at large.
It’s a thing of beauty, my daughter’s favourite toy. It stands apart from the usual plastic playthings a child of her age may be drawn to. There’s a quality in the workmanship that can only be admired.
Bejewelled with rubies, sapphires, amber, amethysts and emerald ‘stones’, it spins on its wooden base with the lightest of touches. A little encouragement is all that’s required to make it dance.
Place it in the path of sunlight and it positively sings with joy.
And yet it’s fragile. Prone to tumbling off the table and clattering loudly, ungainly, disappointingly to the floor. Brushed off, knocked down, discarded.
And unless I am there to pick it up and put it back on the table, that’s where it stays. You see, my ten year old, non verbal, autistic daughter who has Down’s syndrome has never learnt that when something or someone disappears from her view, it or they are actually still there or somewhere else. Existing or existed, but now hidden. She has not learnt that her favourite toy can be experienced or even enjoyed again if only she would look for it. So she turns her back and walks away. She forgets the joy the toy brought and moves on to her next experience.
Out of sight, out of mind.
Until last week.
Last week was different. What changed, and why, I have no idea. Others more widely educated in these learning processes can explain. All I know is the toy dropped as it often does but this time she went looking for it. She bent down, she picked it up and it was she who put it on the table then continued to play with that which brought her joy. Her delight carried on as before, but her world had, in that moment, opened up and my delight was off the scale.
A first. An action I had given up on ever being possible.
This time, there was no turning away and moving on to another experience. This was the one she wanted and she took hold of it with both hands. She noticed it had gone and that now mattered enough to go looking. My assumptions about her were wrong.
Rubies, emeralds, amber and sapphire danced again in the columns of warm spring sunlight that streamed across the table.
An ordinary table in an ordinary kitchen on an extraordinary day.
A pleasure that was hers for the taking and she was finally able to seize it.
Some ten years ago, after many weeks, she came to be discharged from the neo natal unit that had been her home and our place of safety. A kindly consultant handled our departure and, sensing my unease at having to leave what we knew, told me of how much the world had changed even in a relatively short space of time. Just twenty-five years earlier her cousin had been born with Down’s syndrome and was routinely put into an institution.
Out of sight, out of mind.
The sadness in her eyes stayed with me. The if only was palpable.
She knew there were so many colours waiting for this baby. My baby.
I noticed she spoke only of her cousin in the past tense.
I hope someone walked with him and pointed out colours.
Like in a rainbow; though I imagine he noticed them first.
Last week the colours got a little sharper in our Down’s syndrome world. And now my daughter knows she can at least hold them in her own hands.
I see others similar to Hazel, they are picking up brushes and painting rainbows like I’ve never seen before. New colours coming to the fore in a shifting landscape. Emerging artists taking up residence in a world that still struggles to embrace their art form. Their Down’s syndrome.
We should not take their palettes away thinking they cannot paint. Neither should we begrudge what they find or what they are given. I have found they will share their lives, their experiences, their possessions willingly and extravagantly. They are not the ones needing lessons in humanity. From my little window on the world of Down’s syndrome Ive noticed they are often the first to show empathy to anyone who is treated differently.
When another cries in the room, my daughter cries too. Every time.
Instead I want to stand back and watch them pick up the colours that matter to them. However they pick them up, whatever their understanding or ability is. What will their world look like to them? How will they depict it, shape it, colour it? Who or what will they paint into it?
I no longer want to assume I know what’s best for my daughter or for others with Down’s syndrome, or anyone else for that matter. I do not speak for them. They are not voiceless and never have been, it’s just our world paid no attention to their voice or afforded their particular art any worth. The loss of colour to humanity must be, I have often thought, incalculable. No. Instead, I want to learn from them, from the experts, the artists. I’m convinced we can all move forward into new and more vibrant life experiences when we do.
Of course I’ll have my own opinions, and in future I’ll try harder to keep these to myself if I cannot be sure they will do someone, somewhere some good. But I do want to see a people group who, though in the past were routinely placed in institutions and are still discriminated against simply because they have Down’s syndrome, are now brought front and centre where their colours can be seen as they were always meant to be. Not because they are better than anyone else, but because they’ve spent more time than anyone else under the table.
Out of sight out of mind.
Some say diamonds are a girl’s best friend. I say it’s emeralds and rubies, and they can be friends to anyone.