Downright Joy

Discovering joy in unexpected places – a journey into parenthood and Down's Syndrome


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Kaleidoscope

Kaleidoscope

Some say that the old toys we used to play with as children were the best. I’m inclined to disagree; I much prefer, on the whole, the technology we have nowadays. iPads win over Etch a Sketch for me any day.

I recall a time when, as a child of the seventies, Science Sets were all the rage. Big shiny boxes with a photograph of a child wearing a white coat and spectacles on the front. Holding in their hands a bottle of some brightly coloured liquid and a pipette. Always a pipette. Test tubes, potions and conical flasks found their way into many a bedroom- turned laboratory.

But they were not for me.

I never had a Science Set. Perhaps I never asked for one, I’m not sure. It seems unlikely, given that the only toy I was interested in experimenting on was a Girls World; hairstyling and make up appealed more to me than staring into a microscope.

I did, however, own a kaleidoscope. One of those garishly coloured tubes with a twisty end and a lens to look through.

A toy which, on the face of it, could not compete with the Science Set. A toy which was easily disregarded and unlikely to make it onto most children’s Christmas lists. Undesirable. Though, if your childhood was anything like mine, then you probably got one anyway – it was the kind of toy your Granny would buy you.

Yet it was a toy that held a secret.

A toy that, when you held it up to the light, something beautiful happened – if you looked inside it. Brightly coloured shapes would form into patterns, shifting around as you twisted it. A new landscape with each turn. Different, each and every time. No pattern ever quite the same. Vibrant. Drawing you into its charm. As you closed one eye, whilst the other peered through the lens, all else around you became obscured.  A toy that took you into a new, mysterious and enchanting world.

Mesmerising.

A toy that did not have to be cleaned up or packed away in its box. A toy that, when most other toys had lost their appeal, kept on giving. All you had to do was take it in your hand, put it to your eye and look up. Look up at the light and take a closer look at the beauty that was within.

Along with me, those mini scientists grew up. Most abandoning their childhood experiments in favour of other career paths. But some continued. Their interests awakened at an early age and their skills honed in a state of the art, technological era of scientific discovery. They are the scientists of today. Brilliant minds pursuing new and exciting technologies.

Some of them have made new discoveries. Most recently in the field of pre-natal screening. They have found more advanced ways than ever before of telling a pregnant woman whether the baby she is carrying has Down’s syndrome – though they are not always as accurate as those who sell the tests  sometimes claim.

More advanced ways to view the unborn life using big grown up Down’s syndrome detecting Science sets.

If only they’d use a kaleidoscope; they would discover so much more.

Look up at the light, see the landscape.

Kaleidoscope 2

 

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Epiphany

I am a treasure seeker.

I love to be surrounded by beautiful things. Not necessarily expensive things – though I like them too. Just beautiful things. Recent treasures I’ve acquired are hanging in my redecorated living room; a picture of a woman gazing out of a window, a bird cage on the table behind her. Anything with a bird cage in it is beautiful to me, there’s something deeply enchanting about them. Then there’s my framed Frida Kahlo staring strikingly out from the chimney breast. These are my latest beautiful things.

My children love treasure seeking too. Over the years my eldest has kept an assortment of valued bits and pieces she has found or been given. A diverse and eclectic mix of fascinations. Conkers happily collected on the way home from school one day, actual fairy dust in a tiny bottle, confetti from a family wedding, bits of paper from friends with “bff” scrawled on them in childish form, usually under a hand drawn princess or something fluffy and adorable.

I remember the time, as a toddler, she literally held onto one particular treasure for days. Ignoring the vast array of toys she had successfully acquired my daughter chose, as her most favoured possession, an empty margarine tub. She carried the margarine tub with her wherever she went and at all times. Her limited language skills at that point meant I never found out why the tub found such favour in her eyes. Its worth was not apparent to me, to begin with, but her love for it was. The margarine tub became important to us all.

Her younger sister also finds treasures of her own. A discarded ribbon from an unwrapped gift will please her often more than the gift itself. A chiffon scarf that can be floated in the air will delight her if she discovers one lying around. And as for autumn leaves cascading down around her on a windy day; well that’s her idea of heaven. Heart singing moments for her and for those who care for her.

Treasure for the soul. Like balm.

Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also….a biblical truth which, whether you have a faith or not is hard to deny.

Most recently, my eldest acquired a new and precious treasure which she now keeps in a glass jar.  A fragment of Myrrh, another kind of balm, given to her as an Epiphany reminder by a man who has spent his life treasure hunting in the Middle East. Canon Andrew White, often referred to as the Vicar of Baghdad; a man who continually seeks out the good in those often vehemently opposed to each other, to bring reconciliation and facilitate peace where only conflict exists. A man who knows where real treasure is to be found. Found among people the world often dismisses, often fears, and often shuns.

My wealth has increased beyond measure since my daughter was born with an extra chromosome seven years ago. My Epiphany.

Hazel has Down’s syndrome. A condition, a group of people, so easily disregarded, yet who, before they are even born, are sought out more aggressively than ever through modern screening methods. Feared and shunned by a society that cannot see the treasure that is within.

Society…they are the ones whose pockets are empty. They have not found this treasure.

My pockets are full and so is my heart.

hazel with grass

#dontscreenusout


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Light up, light up

The wise men have barely reached the infant Jesus to impart their gifts, yet up and down the UK, Christmas trees and decorations are being pulled down as fast as they went up. Only the few holding out for the tradition of 12th night, before they pack away the baubles.

We are the few this year. Prompted mainly by our youngest child’s response last year when we took the decorations down on New Years’ Day. Hazel does not yet understand the why’s and wherefore’s of Christmas; she just embraces the magic of all she sees. Christmas lights being top of her list. To see her, last January, sat forlornly staring at the empty space where our tree had been was too much. Think of a puppy looking for its owner to return from a long day away and you’ll get the idea. Only this went on for days afterwards. She sat and solemnly wondered where on earth it had gone. Why had the lights gone out?

I resolved to do better for her next time.

So this Christmas we went for it. Tree up by 1 December. Lights, lights and more lights. Despite being told by some it was too early. For Christmas lights mean more to Hazel than any present. So much so that a few days before Christmas we were treated to an absolute feast of lights by an amazing charity Give Them A Sporting Chance who so generously took us on an all expenses paid trip to see the Festival Lights at Longleat. Providing us with our very own nurse and extra pair of hands, we were able to literally overdose on a Christmas sensory wonderland of lights!

It was utterly magical. Hazel’s face, as she stared up at a 100ft Christmas tree that lit up in every colour on the spectrum, was a picture! Literally all her Christmases came at once.

 

Longleat tree

A day we will never forget.

Back at home, our humble little Christmas tree did not lose its appeal for Hazel even though she had seen much a bigger and better one on our special day out. It’s not looking its best I have to admit. Not because the needles have dropped – we have yet to brave a real tree; it’s fake all the way here. No. Many baubles and trinkets that started off carefully spaced around the branches are now on the floor – either pulled off or kicked off by Hazel in her fascination with the tree. Branches are bent and sticking out in strange directions. The angel is still sitting proudly on the top as Hazel’s reach isn’t quite that far yet, but it’s only a matter of time.

I refuse to bow to popular opinion that says I should take it down. Just as I refused to take any notice of those who said I was putting it up too early.

Popular opinion perhaps, but it’s my choice.

And so the lights remain.

Hazel sees in that tree something the rest of us don’t. She would happily stare at it 365 days of the year I’m sure.  She is mystified why it has to come down.  She’s got a point. All that excitement, all that expectation of just a few weeks ago. Preparations seem to get earlier and earlier. Some houses in our street were decorated in November! And yet, just a few short weeks later, it seems most people can’t get rid of their decorations fast enough. Put them away, forget about them. Move on. Tidy up.

Hazel sees something in Christmas that most of us don’t. She doesn’t fall for the same trappings as we do. She has no expectations of what should/shouldn’t happen. She cares little for the John Lewis Christmas TV ad and has no excitement about hanging up a stocking on Christmas eve.

She sees no reason to be sad after Boxing Day when all the presents have been opened. She feels no sense of disappointment, as many of us do – that Christmas promised so much but delivered so little.

She sees only lights. The colours. The sparkle. The joy.

I wish others could see things the way Hazel sees things.

I wish parents who are given the news that their unborn baby has Down’s syndrome could see things differently too. Some do, but most* don’t. The excitement of expecting a baby is quickly replaced with fear. I know. I was one of them.

I wish they could see things as we now see them. The few. Instead, they, perhaps understandably, give way to the popular opinion that bringing up a child with Down’s syndrome is a huge problem; to be avoided at all costs. They think it’s their only viable choice.

It isn’t. It really isn’t.

For them, the lights go out and the tree is taken down. Tidied away. As if it were never there.

I wish they could see what Hazel sees.

Light up, light up
As if you have a choice
Even if you cannot hear my voice
I’ll be right beside you dear

Snow Patrol

  • In the UK, 90% of babies found prenatally to have Down’s syndrome are aborted.


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Laugh Out Loud

What makes you laugh? I mean really laugh. Out loud. Guffaw. Face-achingly so.

Slapstick humour? A pie to the face? Or a slip up on a banana skin? The sort that only happens in cartoons….except when it happened to my husband a few years ago, and I’m still laughing.

Or perhaps it’s wit. Great British sarcasm or irony. An evening on Twitter can provide an endless source of amusement, especially in the field of politics, if that’s your thing. And as for US President, Donald Trump…his surname alone provides great joy and laughter for the eight year old in my house.

For my younger daughter, Hazel, with her extra chromosome, I really don’t know what makes her laugh. All I know is, she does. Often.

Laugh. Giggle. Snort. Belly laugh.

She somehow missed the memo about suffering (you know – the one given out with the advice to pregnant women about their risk of having a baby with Down’s syndrome.) But what is she laughing at or about? I genuinely don’t know ninety percent of the time. It’s a mystery. Lately, she’s been waking up giggling. Laughing, alone, in her cot bed. At what?

No idea. But it triggers more laughter. It’s contagious. One by one, we go down with the same condition. We just don’t know why.

Often, she’ll start laughing at other random moments of the day. Really laughing. Again, I have no idea why. There are no visual clues. Nothing funny has happened. No slapstick or custard pies to be seen. Nobody has fallen over or stubbed their toe. No one has made any rude noises or said the word poo. No one has told a joke – even if they did I doubt she would understand a word of it, and our jokes aren’t usually that funny!  And, as she has very little speech, it’s not as if she can tell me what’s so funny.

Share the joke Hazel.

There are, of course, many occasions when we can see the reason for the joy.

Her older sister can be guaranteed to extract laughter from her in that special way only siblings do. The bond is tangible and strong. Clearly, her sister missed that memo…you know, the one about how the siblings will suffer.

Then there was the time recently when a dear friend came to visit and joined in with the bathtime routine. Much hilarity and joy as our friend – who just so happens to make people laugh for a living – introduced a song and a dance to the proceedings. Laughter like we’d never heard coming from the tub.  You really know how to extract the laughter from her, say I. It’s kind of what we comics do says she.

Extracting the laughter. That need, sometimes, to go after the joy. To find it, work for it and revel in it. Life is hard, we may forget to laugh and not experience its benefits.

According to one study: Laughter is a powerful antidote to stress, pain, and conflict. Nothing works faster or more dependably to bring your mind and body back into balance than a good laugh. Humour lightens your burdens, inspires hopes, connects you to others, and keeps you grounded, focused, and alert. It also helps you to release anger and be more forgiving.

In Hazel, the laughter has just been there. I haven’t had to try too hard at all, though I sometimes wish I knew what or who was extracting it! I often pray that she will be surrounded by Angels, seen and unseen. Only now, I wonder if God has assigned her to the safe keeping of the heavenly host’s comedy division – after all, someone’s making her giggle when no one else is around!

Hazel laughs. She also cries. She experiences a whole range of emotions. She knows pain and she does know a degree of suffering, I won’t deny that. In a day of laughter and giggling, like today, there has also been pain and discomfort as she went through yet another feeding tube change. She cried. I cried. How I long for the day when she no longer needs a tube in her stomach to keep her alive. This week alone she has three hospital appointments, none of which will be a walk in the park, for her or me.

Still she laughs. And we laugh with her. Far more than we ever did before she became part of our lives. Far more than we ever cry.

The risk of laughter…side splitting, face aching, snort inducing laughter is never far away. It seems Hazel is way ahead of most people without an extra chromosome on so many levels. She does joy rather well. Joy inspite of pain. Joy alongside pain. Joy triumphing over pain.

For any expectant parents who may be reading this and are faced with this risk, let me be clear. The stakes are very high. Joyously so.

It’s a risk definitely worth taking.

#dontscreenusout


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Consider the Tortoise

Pets.

I’m not a fan of them, as those who know me well will testify.

Brief forays into rabbit or guinea pig ownership as a child were enough to convince me that pets were not for me. A fear of dogs from an early age led to a general avoidance of all things four legged, furry or winged.

They’re just saying hello are words that, quite frankly, make me cross. Leave me alone. I won’t annoy you, so please don’t annoy me…. has generally been my motto around other people’s beloved pets, with one or two exceptions.

But I am fascinated by the adoration and reverence afforded to our nations pet animals. Cats, dogs, hamsters, rabbits, guinea pigs, stick insects and the like.

Why? Why do people go to so much expense, time and effort for these creatures? Surely their life would be easier without them? Just think of the vets bills. And what about the commitment? The lack of freedom when you’ve always got to find someone to feed the fish or put the cat out when you are away? Or the expense of a cattery or kennels or as is most fashionable these days a pet/ house sitter. And then there’s the poo. I’ll stop there.

I don’t get it. But I do accept it.

I have no right to criticise people who are pet owners. They know the costs but they think more of the humanity of owning a pet. The benefits. The joys. All that owning that pet will bring to their lives and the life of their pet. They are not selfish people.

They get it, I don’t.

I do, however, get the desire to care for, love, receive and give affection to another. The humanity of caring, nurturing, treasuring and enjoying another being.

Consider the humble tortoise.

Once freely available and cruelly imported to this country before the law was tightened and permits for keeping them were introduced.  For humane reasons.

Tortoises make great pets according to some. They sleep for months on end, don’t need to be taken for a walk and children adore them. Oh and they happen to live for decades. They may even outlive their owners! A fact that clearly hasn’t put off the increasing number of people who now keep tortoises as pets.

According to a recent article in The Telegraph, we as a nation (UK) spent a whopping £6 billion on our pets last year. Heartless animal avoiders like me might argue that this money would better spent elsewhere. On the NHS, for example, or in our schools.

But whilst I may not understand the nation’s pet obsession, I will not criticise it. Nor will I say that this is a cost than can be avoided…“if only pet owners would stop being so selfish and think how better that money could be spent.

Yet…. these are attitudes that families of people with Down’s syndrome come across frequently, especially in the media. Worse still, expectant parents are faced with an ever increasing pressure for their unborn to be screened for the condition with the rolling out of a new pre natal screening test – known as NIPT. (Non Invasive Prenatal Test).

Why?

It’s so expensive to care for a child with Down’s syndrome.

They are a burden on society.

Well, who’s going to care for them when you’re too old?

They will outlive you. How do you feel about that?

Society is better off without them.

It’s selfish to knowingly bring a child with the condition into the world.

It’s not fair on the siblings.

Your relationship will suffer.

These are, shockingly, all real opinions that have been put to families like mine all too frequently. Not only to us but also to parents who, after hearing them from various sources, decide they can’t go through with a pregnancy that has been declared defective by the detection of an extra chromosome.

My question is this. If, as a nation we can pride ourselves on our passion for pets and place high value on their humane treatment and care – however long they live, why can’t we do that for people like Hazel? For those yet to be born?

Consider the humble tortoise. Mistreated and now, thankfully, protected. Cherished even.

Why, if we consider ourselves a humane society, is protection seemingly too much to ask for those with an extra chromosome? We appear to have forgotten the definition of this powerful six letter word.

humane
hjʊˈmeɪn/
adjective
  1. 1.
    having or showing compassion or benevolence.
    “regulations ensuring the humane treatment of animals”
    synonyms: compassionatekindkindlykind-heartedconsiderateunderstandingsympathetictolerant, civilized, goodgood-naturedgentle;

    lenientforbearingforgivingmercifulmildtenderclementbenignhumanitarianbenevolentcharitablegenerousmagnanimous;
    approachableaccessible;
    rarebenignant
    “regulations ensuring the humane treatment of animals”


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Choosing you

Breaking news….

Babies in the womb are to be routinely offered a new screening test. This new test will allow each baby, or foetus, to screen their parents for a whole range of potential risks.

Very soon all unborn babies will be able to see if their parents carry any risk to their quality of life or future prospects. Screening will be offered for risks such as parents who may be a potential burden to the child in their later years, or parents who may suffer any one of life’s challenges that many people might face such as illness, financial worries, divorce, redundancy or even death.

Babies will be offered balanced and up to date information as to the kind of parents they can expect. Full support and counselling will be offered to the unborn should they choose not to take up their parents. They will, of course, be encouraged to try again for a better set in the future.

So far, only major risks are being screened for but experts say this is just the tip of the iceberg. It is envisaged that the potential for screening out a whole variety of parents is only a matter of years away. Screening experts say that, in the future, foetuses will be able to ask for all manner of things to be screened including the colour of their parents’ hair, or, in the case of males, whether their fathers may go bald prematurely. Some are hopeful that the new screening tests will be further developed to predict the standard of living the babies’ parents will have as well as the types of upbringing they can offer the baby, to include things such as a good school or a university education.

Some experts and parenting groups are urging caution, however. They say there are concerns that babies will even be able to choose their parents based on which football team they support or which supermarket they shop in.

Pro-choice lobbies are hailing the new tests are a major step forward for foetuses the world over. “My body, my choice”, said one campaigner.

However, it’s not all plain sailing. Despite the huge advances in medical science it seems that babies are largely ignoring the new tests. Despite much pressure on foetuses to take the test it seems that take up has been slow. Well, non-existent really. Doctors are baffled as to why babies seem reluctant to find out as much as possible about their potential parents.

It’s a mystery said one.

Or perhaps it’s a revelation.

Revelation noun – “the divine or supernatural disclosure to humans of something relating to human existence.”

 Parent – noun – “one that brings forth offspring”

#dontscreenusout


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Turned out nice again

If there’s one topic of conversation that we Brits do well it’s the weather. I wonder what on earth we would talk about if our weather was always the same. Without this subject, I fear we may never talk to our neighbours or people we meet ever again!

Picture the scene, a busy Post Office, in a suburban town in the U.K.

A queue. Oh we do those well too, queues. Usually in silence and often impatiently. Avoiding eye contact and hoping that no one invades our personal space. Unspoken rules of being British, and, if you are a visitor to these shores or have made your home here then you will have possibly been on the receiving end of one of our glares or tuts of disapproval if you dared to get any of this wrong. Please accept our apologies if this has happened to you. We don’t mean to be so rude. At least I don’t think so.

But you are not alone. My daughter, who has Down’s syndrome, hasn’t learnt those rules either. And I hope in some ways she never does. As we took our place in the queue, me standing and Hazel in her wheelchair with shiny bright pink wheels, waiting our turn, she pretty much broke every one of them.

Firstly, she cheered as we went in, hands waving frantically. Everyone turned and stared at us.

Ssssshhhhh, they said, not actually saying a word.

Secondly, she laughed. Loudly.

Giggled.

At what, I have no idea. Maybe the fact that there were lots of people all standing there saying nothing at all was very funny.  It is, if you stop and think about it.

The Post Master definitely smiled, I caught his eye from my place in the queue.

Cashier number 2 please.

Two more still in front.

A commotion behind us. The whirr of an electric wheelchair. Not pink and pretty, but cumbersome and clunky.

The silent, staring, glaring faces turned again. Then turned quickly back for fear of making eye contact with its occupant. Letter in one contorted hand, control stick in the other.

Fear.

More silence, if there is such a thing as more silence when you already have silence. Relief that they were ahead and not behind was tangible.

I moved her pink wheels to make room in the cramped waiting area for his black ones. As I did, she broke another rule. Or was it a barrier? She reached out her hand and placed it firmly on his knee. And, in a second, the rule was broken, the barrier lifted.

“Hello”, he said

“How are you?” He said, his voice as shaky as his hands.

She didn’t answer. She can’t. Yet.

But she spoke louder and more clearly than all the articulate people in the Post Office put together.

The Post Master smiled. So did the other customers. One stepped forward to help our new friend put his letter on the counter. Another turned and spoke to Hazel, admiring her pink wheels.

Silence broken. Lines of communication opened.

As we left the Post Office, our electric powered friend was already half way up the road. There was no stopping him. Though I’m sure there are plenty more barriers he will have to face in his life. As do we, but, at least for now, in her five year old world, Hazel has no idea those barriers even exist.

Turned out nice again.