Downright Joy

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


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Honoured

Image: Hans Braxmeier (Pixabay)

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, it wasn’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.

Down’s syndrome.

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.

Restorative justice

noun

  • a system of criminal justice which focuses on the rehabilitation of offenders through reconciliation with victims and the community at large.


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Listen

Photo by Javardh on Unsplash

You’d think after ten years of knowing you, I’d be an expert in you.

You’d think I’d have learnt so much about this thing called Down’s syndrome.

You’d think I’d have learnt so much about what makes you tick. Your likes, your dislikes. Your needs and your wants.

You’d think.

I am your mum after all. To some, like me, the title ‘mum‘ is badge worn with honour in all situations. To others, it’s a lazy or condescending title, used to belittle and control. Don’t call me mum they say. With feeling, with reason.

I hope they are heard.

Some say I’m supposed to be an expert in you, yet there are no letters after my name. They mean this as a compliment I think. To me it’s just a pressure. I am no expert in you. If I were, I’d know what made you cry instantly. I’d know what you were really experiencing as you bit down on your hand, making it bleed in, well I don’t know…is it pain, is it frustration, or is it fear? Help me out here will you? I’m no expert.

I ask you, every time. What’s the matter? But you cannot reply. Not in the way I wish you could. And it takes rather more than a degree or a PhD to interpret the reply you undoubtedly do give.

I try to help you learn to eat, but do you want this food? Is it to your liking? Or is it too hot or too cold? Too difficult to swallow? Too sweet? Too sharp? Shall we just give up and use your feeding tube instead? I don’t know.

And about learning to walk…how are those orthotics feeling today around your ankles? Do they hurt? Are they too tight? Is that why you fall to your knees and stay in one place, or is it because those boots are just so darn heavy?

Why have you taken your glasses off? Did they rub your nose or does the prescription need changing? Ahhh I see they need a clean. Here, let me help you with that. If only you’d said.

What would you say to me if you could?

I am no expert in understanding you. In reality, I know so very little about you. But my face is always turned towards you. My ears are attentive to your plethora of sounds. Your cry. I am sorry I don’t always give you what you need. This is not ok. I wish I could.

Sometimes I may see what it is you want but do not give it to you. This is ok. It may not be what is best, not just for you but for others around you. You are part of us and we all matter.

What matters to me most is that you are always heard, even if you are not always understood. Even if what you ask for I cannot give as it is outside of my ability to either understand or grant or it is in someway detrimental to another.

Heidi Crowter

Our friend, Heidi Crowter…who really is our friend and who we have enjoyed spending time with in the past, has recently been asking for something. Unlike my daughter, she is able to say what it is she wants. Whether or not she gets what she wants is another matter, and one not for me to decide thankfully, though she has my support and my sympathies.

What matters most to me, I’ve been reflecting on, is not the outcome of her case. As others have been quick to highlight, the judge said her appeal was unlikely to succeed. They may well be right and of course, time will tell.

No. To me the most extraordinary thing of all about her journey so far – whether one agrees with her case or not – is what took place last week in the Court of Appeal in London.

Heidi Crowter: a woman with Down’s syndrome stood publicly to speak in the Court of Appeal and was not shut down, either as she spoke, or by the decision of the judges that ensued in allowing her to appeal. All of which happened on International Women’s Day of all days.

Type the words Down syndrome into Twitter, or Google and you’ll soon find, as I did just the other day, words of hatred spoken about people with Down’s syndrome. Words that seek to destroy and shut out people with Down’s syndrome – even from life itself. I even reported one such abusive tweet that referred to another child with Down’s syndrome as “an abomination to this planet ” and that they “wouldn’t consider it as human”. Twitter responded by saying this tweet had not broken any guidelines.

Twitter replied to me, but did they hear me? I’m not so sure.

Whatever happens next in the Heidi Crowter case, that historic moment in the Court of Appeal will never be taken away from her. And I’m no expert, but I am thankful to the two judges who are. They listened to and they heard Heidi. And, I believe they understood and recognised her need to be properly heard in the highest court in the land, regardless of whether her wishes can or should be granted.

That is extraordinary.


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Park Life

Photo by Sarah Kilian on Unsplash

I took you there as a baby.

In a pram.

I wrapped you up tightly against penetrating winds and prying eyes. I pushed your sister to and fro in the orange bucket swing. I must have fed you there too. Not by bottle or blanket covered breast but by nasogastric tube. Your soft, perfect cheek aggravated red raw by a strip of sticky tape that held the tube in place inside your tiny nose.

Gravity feeding, with one arm in the air, holding up a purple syringe. Fortified milk flowed down a tube, disappearing inside the pram. I glance around the park, fearing the double take. Afraid of what people might say, wondering if they might be cruel or insensitive, as had happened days earlier when a stranger had noticed you had Down’s syndrome and a “funny tube”. They pointed right at you and it stung.

Yet, I’m secretly hoping, wondering, if someone would walk by and say something lovely; to make what hurt sting a little less.

Always wondering, always worrying.

Afterwards, we watched the ducks busy on their little island. We did not feed them; no hands were spare for that. They took no notice of us anyway, as we had brought nothing to their table.

I took you there as a toddler.

In a pushchair.

Head to toe in snow suit, thick socks and fur lined boots. I knew your feet would be cold. Unable to warm them up by running around. You were a toddler who never toddled. Your boots always as good new. I pushed you in the orange bucket swing, your sister now at school. In reality, I wedged you in, both hands holding up your floppy body against rigid plastic as we both went to and fro, awkwardly.

I’m sure I fed you there again. Less concerned by the double takes or curious looks. Your beautiful face now healed. A thousand syringes later and with a battery-operated pump to boot, the tube by now surgically placed directly into your stomach. I worried about you getting cold as I pealed back the layers and connected you to the pump.

Picnic table not required, I sat on a bench and we watched the ducks. We did not feed them, there was no room in your bag for anything other than essentials.

I’m sure you must have wondered what they were, those funny little ducks. What did your blurred almond eyes make of them, I wondered?

We stopped visiting the park several years ago and I think our world shrank a little more. I had deemed it pointless as you could no longer access the playground. We could not enjoy it the way other families did. It was unsuitable for you; a public right of way with a caveat. And dogs. So many dogs tearing around the park with exuberance. Enthusiastically sniffing out their daily moments of freedom with no lead to restrain – though the Official Looking Sign said that, for the benefit of others, they ought not.

Silly sign, the dogs did not read it.

Today you visited the park again.

In your wheelchair.

Only this time, I wasn’t there. I have seen some photos your teacher sent me. I see you share your joy and delight at this unexpected trip. I hear your laughter. I see the spring in your step, even from the confines of your chair. A blanket has been placed lovingly over your legs to keep out the cold wind. I wonder who put it there? I’m so thankful and touched that they did; it makes me cry a little. It’s something I’d do for you.

From your chair you watched the ducks. You held a stick. You’ve always loved a stick. Your face tells me that you wondered at all you saw. You shared your wonder with your teachers and classmates. No doubt you shared it with passers-by as they did a double take at the class of wheelchair users and their carers surrounding the park’s little pond. I’m certain they would have smiled too.

And I wondered who was teaching who?

Today you came back to the park. Your pockets still empty, overflowing with untold riches to give away. Pockets filled with wonder. Treasures you woke up with, stored, perhaps, under your pillow? Like some sort of biblical manna, it appears each day. Ready to hand out to those you meet. You are my miniature, giant philanthropist.

I hope you visit the park many more times.

I hope you never hide away. I hope also, that you are never on parade, rather on a par. Experiencing all the park has to offer, as others do, and giving back in all the ways I know you will. Today you were all the things a person should expect to be: surrounded, included, protected, loved, invited, heard, appreciated, present. Though the world may sometimes hold up an Official or Unofficial Sign that says, for the benefit of others and your own, you ought not experience these freedoms.

Silly sign. You cannot read it. I hope you never will.

Today you came back to the park. And, though I’ve had many sleepless nights wondering if this would ever be the case, you were all those things without me. A walk in the park may be harder for some than for others but there are always sacred spaces to be found, and shared experiences to be had.

And, perhaps in the way you do, I now wonder at it all.

Park life.


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Fractured

We’ve been here before, you and I.

The Waiting Room.

Different posters adorn the walls. Antenatal Word Clouds long since replaced by Musculoskeletal Murals.

And the patients. They are different too. No longer anxiously stroking an unknown bump, nervously avoiding eye contact with others in The Waiting Room as they await their scans. These patients rest their hands on crutches. Or support their sling encased arms with a gentle hand. Waiting for their turn, for their particular trauma to be addressed. To be healed.

They smile at you. They can’t help it. You make people smile. In your pink wheelchair, with your pink hair bows. If they feel pity for you, it soon turns to joy.

You do that to people; I’ve noticed.

Which is good, because right now my stomach is churning. My heart is racing. You see, we’ve been in The Waiting Room before, you and I. And I did not expect to be here again.

That Department has moved, the receptionist said, noting my confusion. Go through those double doors and you’ll find it.

And so we sit here again, some ten years since the last time.

In The Waiting Room.

Your name is called out. You have a name. Everyone here has a name. Of course they do. It’s how the staff know who they are dealing with. It’s how they know who is next on their list to be cared for.

Last time you were here you did not have a name. Last time you were here you quickly became an it to those who spoke of you. Including me. Last time you were here you were not known.

I wonder, if I had given you your name when we last were here, if that would have made a difference?

They said they could deal with it last time you were here. When they found out you might have an extra chromosome.

Imagine if I’d told them your name. Imagine if I’d had the courage of my convictions to have named you YOU back then. I wish I had, but I admit… I was scared. I did not know you either.

Now we sit in that room and I wonder if it’s the same chair. The trolley bed is in the same position. It’s the same room I sat in over two years before you were even born, weeks after nearly losing my life and that of your unborn sister. A room that holds so much trauma for me and, presumably, countless others.

The doctor kneels at your feet. You look down at him from your wheelchair, smiling. Laughing.

He gently wraps bandages around your badly damaged ankles and feet. He speaks tenderly to you, telling you what he is doing. Casting moulds for the support you so desperately need. He says you can have colourful casts if you like. He calls you Sweetie. He also calls you by your name. He honours you. He knows you.

This is not the first time he has treated you. Nor will it be the last. He wants only to make your life better. He knows what you need. He knows because he has met you. He knows because he has cared for many people like you before.

He knows you.

Last time you were here a doctor stood over you, whilst I patted you nervously, clutching your photograph. Many photographs were being handed out to people that day and everyday. You looked a bit like a kidney bean…. I’ve kept it, you can see it one day if you like.

You would not remember. He stood over me, over us. Kindly, gently, yet devastatingly, his words brought trauma to us both. And, moments later in the room opposite which I can see from where we now sit, another kindly professional spoke trauma over us both and even death over you. I carried you, like all the other patients in The Waiting Room that day. I also carried the leaflet they handed me, that told me what they thought I might like to do – about you.

I have no ill feelings towards them now; sitting here.  Those feelings have unexpectedly gone; I don’t need to hold onto them anymore.

Instead, I carry a sadness that the Doctors back then did not know what the Doctor who now kneels before you knows. I carry a sadness for every woman, every parent, who has sat anxiously in these rooms and experienced trauma; whatever decision they made, however they made it and whatever their outcome. So much fear, often but not always, of the unknown.

Fear causes stress and stress fractures.

Yet in this unexpected moment, my sadness is replaced by thankfulness. Fractures fuse as the healing process begins.

I am thankful for this room, for these other patients, for this Doctor who knows…who knows you. I am thankful that we have come to The Trauma Clinic today for it is a place not only of healing but of redemption.


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Silent

Kneeling….

A silent letter goes before you, shaping your reason, your purpose, your meaning, as you enter.

Unheard.

A shaft of dust-filled light through a blackened open doorway; bathing her and me in so much warmth, and reaching only just beyond this moment. This heaviest of doors has only ever opened so far and I am grateful for all it never reveals. Today is enough.

I’ve tried to push the door open further. Take it off even. What lies beyond its hinges? Is it what I imagine? What I fear? I wonder if the words she once began to form are beyond it, waiting to return. Or are they lost forever? Silenced. Perhaps.

I don’t even know what it is I hope for anymore, let alone what I can admit to fear. I dare not go there. No matter, my arms have long since grown heavy summoning a strength that I do not possess for a day that I do not own. Today is enough.

I sink to my knees beside her hospital style bed. Her room a contented mix of teddies and tubes, socks and syringes. Devices and daydreams.

I begin where I began yesterday, and the day before that, and all the days before that.  She dangles her damaged ankles and calloused, misshapen feet over the side of the bed and waits expectantly for me to put on her socks. Followed by her hard, unforgiving plastic orthotic moulds, followed by her clumsy, heavy leather boots. I hear every word she does not say. Her sounds reverberate a silent and mysterious speech. Her thoughts so profound she dare not speak them to those who have no appreciation for such mystery.

How can something so irreparably damaged be so beautiful? How can one be so silent, yet so noisy?

I have learnt that what is damaged should not always be thrown away.

I adore her damaged feet. I adore her sounds. I adore her.

I sink into the depths of this holiest of spaces, this silent, unheard place where love dwells and discovery awaits. Where deep calls to deep. Where tectonic plates of pain and despair seismically shift along plates of joy and hope. The cracks formed long ago, and because of them, not in spite of them, I am swept up by this tsunami of love I now have for her. Tsunami with a silent T.

I catch my breath that I am here at all, and so is she.

Kneeling, with a silent K.


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Perle di Saggezza

(Pearls of Wisdom)

Image by moritz320 from Pixabay

Eighteen months ago or so, you will undoubtedly recall, hand-painted rainbows began appearing across the country of Italy, at the start of the Covid 19 Pandemic. Strung from balconies where Italian citizens resided, unable to leave their homes and now trapped in a place of fear and uncertainty. The banners were often emblazoned with the words “Andra tutto bene” which translates asEverything will be ok.”

Some citizens began to sing from those same balconies to one another. Accordions struck up, Sopranos serenaded, Baritones bellowed. And, before long, it seemed like the whole of Italy was singing. As the New York Times put it, Italians had found “A Moment of Joy in this Moment of Anxiety”.  Songs erupted from people who were clinging onto hope as well as learning to be thankful for the expertise of the medical profession that they were now so very dependent on. Something similar happened here in the UK with rainbows appearing all over as well as clapping and cheering for the NHS; though we never quite mastered the singing. That’s best left to the Italians – always.

A song, from the heart, is a precious thing indeed, and Italy will always have a very special place in my heart. Some of my family are Italian and have lived there all their lives. They too, draped a huge rainbow banner over their balcony, and sat behind it daily, looking down onto their fishing boats and nets from their centuries old home in the beautiful town of Sorrento in the Bay of Naples. A place so deeply loved by locals and tourists alike that it has a famous song of its own Torna a Sorriento. Yet this beautiful place was now filled with fear and uncertainty. Hope was called for, fearful hearts needed a new song to sing. And as they sang, so hope spread, even inspite of their circumstances.

Ten years ago, my family GP was the first medical person to say anything positive about what life might be like with my baby who had been born and then diagnosed with Down’s syndrome. We’d just come home from two traumatic months in the hospital NICU and I was struggling to come to terms with her diagnosis. Our GP was the first person to give us hope that we would be OK. That we would be more than OK in fact. His words to me were so much more than medical and exactly what I needed to hear. He said that life with a child with Down’s syndrome would be an incredible journey and I would meet some amazing people. He did not sugar-coat or minimise the challenges we were facing; there was no need, we were already up to our necks in plenty of those, medically speaking. He simply sat on the end of my bed, metaphorically leaned across, and in one sentence, opened a new window onto a brighter view. One filled with a more colourful sky which, from that moment on, began to chase away its gloomy predecessor. A vista that slowly began to fill up with the possibilities of a life of love and of loving.  His years of experience as a family Doctor told him that there was indeed still a life to be lived and loved. Hers, ours. He was not afraid to gently tell me so.

My GP has recently retired and so I took the opportunity to write to thank him and tell him how his words had made a life changing impact on me and my family. I have been told that he referenced my letter in his retirement speech, which has touched me no end.  You see, somewhere over the years, the hope he gave me as a frightened and overwhelmed mum, fearful of what an unknown future might hold for my little girl with an extra chromosome and for our family, has evolved into thankfulness on my part.  I felt it was important to say thank you for something so precious and transformative. For something better than any prescription, test or medical solution, helpful though those things may or may not be. I wanted him to know that I am forever thankful for his wisdom

Wisdom – from the heart, not just a text book – is a precious thing indeed. A pearl of great price.

Facts are undeniable, but finding hope to live with them, beyond them and inspite of them is where a diagnosis can become a beginning not an ending. My sincere hope is that every parent who is fearful on getting a diagnosis of Down’s syndrome, as indeed I was, finds such a pearl. I hope they too will find continued support from those who will help them to prise it out of its shell and wear around their neck as their pride and joy.

Italians know a thing or two about life; about singing songs of hope, of love, of loss, of joy and of sorrow. Their language is rich and heavy with the beauty of these things.

And I think, though I’ve never enquired, that my GP may possibly be fluent in it.

La Vita e Bella, si?


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Listening to you

Photo by Brands&People on Unsplash

Two terrible words were spoken with some force over my non-verbal, severely disabled daughter recently. A moment of frustration by one who briefly had care of my child and ought to have known better, but, for whatever reason, didn’t. I write this not to invite a pile on or indeed look for sympathy. Their words alone have brought enough shame on them, whether they know it or not. And they remain a good person who made a mistake. This is not about them.

But their words did damage.

Not so much to my child; as in an apparent, one-off moment of uncontrolled frustration, the words spoken went literally and metaphorically over her head. She could not/did not understand them, though she may have felt their force. Others heard, however. Worse still, another child heard. And that matters.

In the space of two brutally uttered words, a story was told to anyone in earshot, especially that other listening child. A narrative of shame. I wasn’t there to hear them spoken first hand and indeed I was calm as I wrote them down on a post-it note during a phone call I don’t think I’ll ever forget.

As I did so, my mind began to fill with many more brutal, ignorant words that have been spoken over her by others People who have had an audience of others to hear them.

Risk. Burden. Problem. Tragedy. Sorry. Terminate. Deal with it. Get rid of. Did you know before hand? Didn’t you take the test?

Words that hurt then but more so now, alongside words of comparison that continually attempt to steal my joy. Not her joy, thankfully. That appears to be intact.

Words that suggest she is unworthy of life itself. That being human can’t surely mean including people like her. Genuinely? I think she embodies being human; and….quietly, simply, she includes the rest of us without question.

Lately, I’ve more keenly felt this unworthiness that is pinned onto her life in so many ways. Whether it is the lack of good health care and research that doesn’t just label each problem we encounter as ‘typical Down’s’, or the lack of opportunities for her to be fully part of our wider local community. Then there are the barriers around her physical development that do not seem to be there for children without a Learning Disability. Or perhaps it’s her future, and ours. What will become of her? What kind of opportunities will she have as an adult? How will we/she cope? Who will care?

This incident simply served as a trigger to all those feelings and more.

I closed the call and found myself in pieces.

She lives her life at the very opposite of the words spoken forcefully over her by those who do not know her or even wish to know her. Words spoken perhaps through fear of what they do not understand. Or in anger towards that which appears out of their control. They make sense of these emotions by framing her in the closed doorways of their own prejudice.

She is positioned to suit them. Their narrative. Their take on the world. Their needs. Their concerns. And she remains outside the door. Hurting no one yet on the receiving end of cold, harsh judgements.  Others then hear this narrative and are empowered to proclaim it too.

Yet I am thankful that there are those people in her life whose doorways are open. They position themselves before her, at her feet. In front of her wheelchair not behind it or above it. Many of them. Not least her teachers, respite providers, disabled community support workers and volunteers, her family and our friends and more. People who take up a position not in some kind of worship, adoration or even deference, but a posture that looks up at her in order to learn and care. Not one that looks down in order to control.

The spoken word may carry truth, joy, hope, compassion and ultimately life to the listener. It may also carry fear, anger, pain, confusion, untruth and even bring death to the hopes and dreams of whoever might be listening.

Narrative:

A spoken or written account of connected events; a story.

The narrative about my child, and others with Down’s syndrome or other Learning Disabilities, has been collectively written. It is then spoken out by and to a society that stands above them instead of kneeling down and facing or even looking up at them. Control, fear, and, perhaps, an unwillingness to humbly learn from a different other.  It’s the natural response for many and, before I knew my child, I was guilty of it too. This post is not about the condemnation of anyone. 

I am thankful for those who open their doors, welcoming my child in, then daily kneeling down in front of her to care. Their words and actions are life giving, not soul destroying. They help rewrite her story.

And, because of them, her story has become a sacred text; highly valued and important amongst the Chronicles of what it is to be Human.

Reader, if you’ve read it, please pass it on to someone who has not; for no one should ever be called a stupid girl.


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Clouds

I take off your glasses and wipe away today’s pursuits.

Stratus make way for cumulus.

Your vision always so clouded, yet you look up to search my distracted eyes and smile into them.

I take off your shoes and remove the plastic orthotics that cage your hot, sweaty feet.

I remove your socks to change them and, momentarily, your feet are free.

Your mobility dependent on these devices. Always and forever.

I’d offer you a drink of water but you have not learnt to take it. So you play with the syringe plunger as I tube feed you, directly into your stomach. How remarkable a thing that is – life!

Nine and a half years of it.

Taking your weight, I lower you to the floor to change you; imagining the equipment we will one day be gifted, (for it will be a gift), to do this with dignity.

You smile.

Probably the same smile you gave the person who did this for you at school today.

Clouds are extraordinary.


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Seasons

What’s that phrase…. the one when a writer gets stuck for words? You know, when they can’t put pen to paper or find the words that, at other times, flow so readily….that. No, I can’t remember either.

Whatever the expression is I’ve got it. Had it. Still have it. I haven’t been able to put my thoughts down in print for a while now. Apart from one short article for the Down Syndrome Research Foundation, I’ve drawn a blank. Is that the word? No, no, but it’s something like that. Begins with a ‘b’, I think. 

I last properly blogged in July. By a lake. In a spacious and peaceful place.

A pause

A pause in a year that has drained me of words. And of so much more. 

Oh, this isn’t a lament about how hard life has been in a pandemic. Truth is, I don’t have the words for that particular story. And, even if I did, I know there are so many others who could tell their own difficult story; families like mine, who’ve had their vital support networks pulled, whose tired faces and weary, worn out expressions say it all; dreading the prospect of schools ever being closed again should the need arise. Teachers who (for me) have been the unsung heroes of 2020, continually being asked to go above & beyond what is expected of the rest of us and yet often criticised from all sides. I haven’t even mentioned all the other frontline key workers. People who haven’t spent months at home baking cakes, crafting, doing DIY or bingeing on box sets. And I’m not having a pop at anyone who did those things, but, you know, honestly? Jealousy is something I’ve battled with this year!

No. They don’t need to read my story and neither does anyone else. I’ll keep my thoughts about the last eight months to myself, at least for the time being.

For now, I remain lost for words. Unable to adequately communicate my deepest or even shallowest of thoughts.

Like Hazel.

Hazel is my daughter. Hazel has Down’s syndrome. Hazel is the clearest communicator I know but her language is an unspoken one.

So, like Hazel, I think I’ll laugh out loud at whatever I find amusing, whenever I find it. 

Like Hazel, I think I’ll stare intently at shiny things, bright things, beautiful spinning shimmery things.

I’ll stare at pictures I like, photographs I’ve taken, faces I see. I’ll smile at those. Like Hazel. She smiles at people. Often. Even if they don’t smile back (but they usually do). 

Like Hazel, I think I’ll run my hands over surfaces or textures that I like; the pebbles we collected in a brightly coloured bucket on a Devon beach, one July day. Seaside stones that now form a kind of miniature sculpture on my patio. A shadow of their former glory as the surroundings have changed; but I still like them. They make me smile. They cause me to remember a very happy day spent by the sea after many not quite so happy days in lockdown.

Hazel smiles often. I think she remembers often too. More than most people, perhaps. I’m convinced she regularly deposits joy for herself in her memory bank and withdraws it on a daily basis.

Like Hazel, I will explore my surroundings. I shall reach out and feel silver sage leaves between my fingers or inhale the scent of fresh mint picked from my little herb garden. I say garden, it’s no more than a pot really, but as it exists in my garden that alone brings me joy.

Still, no words needed.

Hazel is nearby. She has a stick in her hand and fallen leaf litter at her feet. She will always choose the opposite textures to me. Sand over stones. Sticks over sage. And leaves. Leaves are her favourite. Especially if they are falling around her. I know she loves them. Once upon a time she would say so.

Leeeeeaaves

As I hold them above her head and let them fall.

Her face lights up, arms stiffen and hands wave.

Leeeeeaaaves

Now, there are no words. She has lost them. Autism, or something, has stolen them. A gradual lockdown, of sorts, in a part of her brain. Not of her making or choosing. It came without warning. No one can tell me if or when the restrictions will be lifted. It’s hard to find the words to describe how I feel about this too. There are some losses, some experiences, that cannot be put into words because words are not always what a grieving soul needs to hear. 

Hazel accepts what is with a peacefulness that passes all understanding.  She is truly a mystery. Marvellously so.

She still loves leaves and the leaves still fall as they’ve always done. Hazel is thrilled by that, just as she’s always been.

If Hazel feels any sense of loss, she does not show it.

Somehow, the words are not needed.  At least not for now and not in these moments. For now, I will take a leaf out of her book. Literally. I’ll hold it the way she holds it. I’ll feel it, turning it over and over in my hand. I’ll marvel at it. I’ll shout with glee as the leaves fall around me. 

Messy and colourful; swirling noisily around me.

Like Hazel does. Like Hazel is.

She was born in the Autumn. It was messy back then too. Hard. The Great British Bake Off was on the television screen in the NICU restroom, in only its second season. Strange, the things you remember. And I remember there were lots of leaves. A carpet of them right outside the hospital entrance. Such a beautiful swirling mess.

Seasons

Like Hazel does, I will try to live in the moment. Not for it, but in it. Not worrying about tomorrow, for tomorrow has enough worries of its own. 

I will not try to find the words to explain to anyone how life is or has been of late. There aren’t any. 

There are just seasons

Waste your time, but do it joyfully. You are here once. Wasting time is a sacred activity.Gilo


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Show me your face

Hiding face

Show me your face and I will show you mine.

Confession time.

When my daughter was born with Down’s syndrome, I am ashamed to admit that, at first, I wanted to hide her away. I tried to dress her in a way that people wouldn’t notice certain features pertaining to her condition; her slightly thickened neck for instance. A well placed chunky knit cardigan dealt with that! As we struggled to come to terms with her diagnosis, though we loved her with every fibre of our beings, my husband and I spoke privately of a hope that she would have some sort of ‘Down’s syndrome light’ variety. A not too noticeable version of the condition that would be acceptable to others and also, it has to be said, to us. As for thinking about other people, especially older people with the condition, this was not something we wanted to contemplate. In our eyes, they were to be avoided. Feared even. In fact, looking at anyone else with the condition was hard to do back then, though I did try to notice the ones I deemed acceptable – just about. All in the hope that my child would be like them.  Not too bad.

Our eyes were focused, not on our child, but on our prejudice.

Eight years later and laser surgery has removed that prejudice and cleared our vision. Thankfully. Or was it heart surgery? Either way it is gone.

This week, a film made about a man with Down’s syndrome, Jamie and his brother and family, appeared on social media. Radio 4 even did a feature on it. You can watch it here if you like. There was quite a reaction to it in our community. Some, like me, loved it, others including people whose lives I hugely respect, didn’t. Among other important things, they worried about how Down’s syndrome was portrayed in the film, especially to new parents or parents to be who might see it. It was absolutely not their experience and it appeared outdated, a backward step even. Some found it sad.

As the dust has settled I can see why they felt like that. I just don’t agree.

A wise person said to me that the film was like a mirror. Reflecting back so much of our own fears and, I think, our hopes too. Well I’ve been reflecting in that mirror since I saw the film and my wise friend is correct.

I’ve spent the last seven or eight years telling people, sometimes through my blog but in other ways too, that there’s nothing to be afraid of in having a child with Down’s syndrome. I’ve told them about all the things children and adults with Down’s syndrome can do now, achieve, be, aspire to; compared to in the past. And this remains all true and valid. I love how our community celebrates this change in all kinds of ways as more and more is understood about the capabilities and learning potential of people with Down’s syndrome. I hope we never stop making this known where it needs to be known. But it is not the whole picture.

So here’s my next confession…

Through my writing, I’ve told people these things, which I wholeheartedly believe and support, against the backdrop of knowing that my daughter is not like most children with Down’s syndrome. At least not most of the ones I know. She is more like Jamie. She sits how Jamie sits. She sounds how Jamie sounds. She has fewer words than Jamie has, yet she was not born forty years ago in some dark, uneducated era where early intervention for people with Down’s syndrome was largely unheard of.

No. She was born just over eight years ago in 2011.  She’s had far more support and intervention in her young life than Jamie would have had in his – at least outside of his loving family – oh I loved them in the film too! Their faults, their failings but mostly their love for Jamie and each other shone through.

Could we be doing more to help her development? Always. Is she still failed by healthcare systems and Government policies towards disabled people? Yes, frequently so. But that’s not the point here.

What’s true is that she is more like Jamie than most other children I have so far met who have Down’s syndrome. That is not to diminish them or their families in any way; I hope I no-one feels that’s the case for it’s not my intention. It is simply that our experience is one that is far closer to that of Jamie’s family. His face, his life, his behaviours and reactions we recognise in our own daughter. His family in ours. Even in the words they used to speak to or about him. And our lives are not some tragedy to be hidden from view.

Unconventional? Certainly. Challenging? Definitely. More so than I have ever admitted in my writing and that, with hindsight, has perhaps not always been helpful.  Even as I write, we should be elsewhere, joining in with an event that most people have no problem attending, even most of those with a child with Down’s syndrome. We are not most people.

Neither are we always looking for lots of inclusive activities to take her to. Though it’s sad there are not more. Because more often than not, even the inclusive ones are unsuitable for her. That will only change when her ‘face’ becomes an acceptable ‘face’, a face that is accepted as it is now, with all its funny ways and behaviours, noises and responses. It will change when her way of communication, as it is now, not as it might or could be, is accepted and welcomed, if not always understood, by everyone, not just a few people. Some call it her level of communication but that, to me implies critique. What I want most is for her always to be accepted, welcomed and wanted as she is. Not because of any intervention or achievement that might somehow make her a more positive advert for her community, however helpful it may be to her or anyone else. I think most parents want that too.

Hazel brings something different to our family. I saw it in Jamie’s family too. She brings people together, to surround her and each other. She brings a kind of healing, she brings mystery. She brings dependency.

Ah, but we need our children to grow up to be independent don’t we? That is, after all, one of the aims of most parents – to help their child grow up to be fully independent and make their own way in the world.

And yet Hazel has taught me to prefer the idea of a society where we grow more dependent on each other, not less.

The reality is far from that though and I think it’s one of the reasons people reacted with concern to the film. I get that.

I don’t think it’s wrong to hope and strive for a society where dependence on each other is highly valued. If our society was like that, then many of the fears that keep parents of children/adults with Down’s syndrome or other disabilities awake at night would not exist. We could be confident that our loved ones are going to be valued, cared and wanted for who they are, regardless of their level of dependency and regardless of whether we are here to care for them or not.

A mirror should always reflect the truth and perhaps I am guilty of distorting the image of our lives in order to gain the acceptance of parents who might be considering terminating the life of their unborn baby, following a diagnosis of Down’s syndrome. Yet the truth still is that all people with Down’s syndrome, whether they are like Hazel, Jamie or whoever, have beautiful faces and can live beautiful lives, whatever their challenges. Their stories, our stories, all deserve to be told and it is a privilege to be part of a community that is dependent on each other.

Let’s not hide any one of us away.

Adam Pearson A British Actor and Campaigner and who is also diagnosed with a genetic condition said recently “The way to eliminate any kind of misconception or prejudice is to increase the exposure”

Show me your face and I will show you mine.

“Fear makes strangers of people who would be friends.” Shirley Maclaine

H in Mirror WM