Downright Joy

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


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Egg and Spoon

After one of the wettest summer months on record, the last thing you’d think I’d be doing is praying for rain. And yet, at 7am on Tuesday morning, as I looked out of the window and up at a dark, heavy cloud, that’s what I did. I prayed for rain.

Thirty minutes later and no rain.

Instead,  I got a text message from my eldest child’s infant school, happily declaring “Sports Day Is On!” And with that, the day ahead loomed larger and heavier in my mind than all the clouds put together.

It’s fair to say I’m not a fan of sports day. Putting aside my own childhood loathing of this school tradition, I now have another reason to dislike it. Fear it even.

My eldest daughter has Hypermobility. A condition that affects her in numerous ways – most of which are not immediately obvious. Poor muscle tone and weak joints combine to make every day, ordinary activities, that much harder for her. From climbing stairs to doing up a zip or a button, there are myriad ways in which she struggles.

And, top of the list of everyday and ordinary is PE. Sports. Physical activity.

Her first Sports Day she missed due to Chicken pox. Then, last year, she spent weeks worrying about it. Though, to be fair, her teachers were fantastic. Lots of support, practice and encouragement in advance of the day. And, somehow, despite coming last in every race she managed to end up on the winning team.

“It’s not about winning, it’s about taking part,” was the school mantra.

This year was different. And although she didn’t spend weeks worrying about it, I did. A week to go and I was checking the forecast daily, ever hopeful that the day would be thwarted by the British weather. Cancelled. I could then relax knowing that neither she nor I would have to go through the trauma.

“It’s not about winning, it’s about taking part”.

No. I don’t believe that either.

Too painful. Too difficult. Too risky. It’s not for me. It’s not for her.

Delete. Get rid. Don’t bother.

Had my prayer been answered, I would have unwittingly missed out on one of the best days of her school life!

First came the hurdles; small plastic tubes barely raised above the ground.

She got to the other end. She didn’t fall. She was smiling. Phew.

Then the sprint.

“It’s not about winning, it’s about taking part.”

Last.

And so it went on.

Last, last, oh, ok last.

Everyone cheered and clapped.

It doesn’t matter. It’s about taking part.

Lies.

Not that I needed her to win a race. I just didn’t want her to be last each time. I could tell her again and again that it doesn’t matter, but as she is the one who consistently sees everyone else from behind then it matters. Whether they are running a race, climbing a climbing frame or riding a bike or scooter. It is soul destroying to be the one that can’t.

Egg and spoon race.

“I’m good at the egg and spoon race,” she told me at breakfast.

“That’s good,” I said. I didn’t believe her.

She only went and won it…joint first with another child.

Hoo blinkin’ ray!

I felt a spot of rain. Great! Let’s stop now. Finish on a high. Quit while we are ahead.

“And now the sack race!” The Head Teacher announced.

M’s nemesis.

She clambered inside the sack. An achievement in itself; she couldn’t do that by herself a year ago.

Ready, steady, go.

M lurched forward and so did my stomach. Children pinging up and down; none of them particularly co-ordinated, but all of them way ahead. She got further than I dared hope but then I saw the look on her face.

A look of worry, panic. Close to tears.

 Parents and children alike willed her on. I am grateful for them.

A teacher stepped in and came alongside her. Then another.

And, in a moment, her biggest fear became her greatest joy.

 They scooped her up, still in sack, and bounced her over the finish line. The widest smile on her face I think I’ve ever seen.

It’s not about winning it’s about taking part.

Oh I see. Yes.

When others come alongside us in our struggles life is so much easier to bear. Joyful even.

There was more. A toddler race followed and younger sister Hazel took part from the comfort of her wheelchair. She took part. She enjoyed it. She was part of a community. She was included.

And to think I could have missed it all if I’d had my way. If my fears had been allowed to cancel Sports Day.

What. An. Idiot.

And, strangely, I am taken back to that April afternoon, 5 years ago, when a Doctor told me my unborn baby might have Down’s syndrome or may even die.

I remember the fear. Fear of the unknown. All I saw was difficulty and trouble. Risk. Pain.

To be avoided. Cancel this baby. Let’s not go there.

Only fear.

No one told me how much this child would enrich my life. How much beauty she would bring. How much laughter, smiles and joy.

I knew nothing of the joy.

Risk. They called her a risk.

I call her a joy.

I didn’t cancel the baby. I wasn’t strong or courageous. I was frightened. Afraid.

But it was the best decision I have ever made.

So to the expectant woman perhaps reading this who has had ‘the test’ and has been told her baby may have Down’s; I get it. I understand how you feel. I understand the fears you may have. I felt that way myself. But if there’s one thing I could change about the way you’ve been told the news it would be to remove that word ‘risk‘ and replace it with ‘joy’.

 There is, it seems, no test for joy. Only risk.

Some fears are definitely worth facing, some risks worth taking.

 

Miriam sack race downright joy

 

 

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Voices

So many voices just now.

Voices of reason.

Voices of hate.

Voices of sound arguments.

Voices of the implausible.

Voices that are angry.

Voices that are incredulous.

Voices that are disappointed.

Voices that are elated.

Voices that are fearful.

Voices telling lies.

Voices telling truth.

Voices twisting truth.

Voices that are scared.

Voices that are triumphant.

Voices that are evil, hate filled, stirring up violence.

Voices that are compassionate.

Voices that give hope.

Voices that speak against injustice.

Voices of the classes. The rich, affluent, well off, comfortable voices.

Voicing.

Voices of the poor; the poorest in society.

Needing to find a way to even use their voice at all. Their views are so rarely sought; they fail to meet the requirements for an educated debate. Their opinion does not count. It is uninformed. It is uneducated. It is unworthy.  It must not be allowed to have influence unless it first becomes those things. It’s too risky. Too flawed.

I think I may have heard this sentiment elsewhere and it makes me uncomfortable.

I recognise my past failure to listen to this kind of voice. I have ignored their cries. Ignored their anger. Silenced their voices. I am not a champion for the poor. I do not claim to know what their lives are really like. But I have judged them and, at times, hoped they would not impact my life too much. I don’t like mess.

And some voices are never heard.

They are silent.

Unable to speak.

Deemed unworthy of a voice at all. They don’t reach the standard of the informed or educated.

They are seen as a “risk“. A problem. Too costly. Too flawed.

In the UK around 90% of babies prenatally diagnosed with Down’s syndrome are never given a voice. Their voices are silenced. Even those that are given a voice may then go onto face ignorance and discrimination. Their voices are ignored. Deemed irrelevant.  “Backward” or worse, “retarded”. Never amounting to much.

I cannot ignore their cries. I cannot stand by as their voices are silenced.

My own little “risk” is nearly five years old. She has not yet truly found her voice. And yet she speaks more loudly, more beautifully, more lovingly and more joyfully than any other voice I have heard. She speaks into my life and the lives of those she meets. Costly? Hugely so, but a price worth paying a thousand times and more. She gives back far more than she ever takes.

Prejudice and intolerance come in many forms and I am not immune from their guises.

Voices need to be given to those who have none. However costly. However risky.

And the risk may be overwhelmingly worth it for all.

Listen for the voices we cannot hear. Voices of those who are actually more alike than different.

So I say this firstly to myself for I am guilty of so much that has not helped others: Shout louder than the voices filled with hate. Listen to the voices who are disappointed, fearful and hurting. Whatever their background, wherever they are coming from. Offer hope not judgement.

“Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.”


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Turn Back The Clock

 

May is nearly upon us and, for me, this means one of my favourite things. Chelsea. Not the football club but the Flower show. Not that I’ve ever been. I’d love to, of course, but the demands of caring for a young family with additional needs prevents trips like that at the moment. One day I will go. One day.

For now, I’ll settle for a week or so of high definition images via the BBC and Mr Titchmarsh & Co.  Pure indulgence. A week of dreaming that my humble little back garden will somehow also be transformed into a panoply of perennials, a cornucopia of chrysanthemums and cordylines.

It never is.

I have dandelions growing in my conservatory roof.

I’ve yet to hear or see the humble dandelion get a mention at Chelsea. I’m not sure they’ve ever even heard of one.  After all, it’s a weed. Not wanted. No place for it. It would spoil the garden. Ruin it, even.

The dandelion is hated. People wage war against it, so much so we spend millions of pounds on products aimed at destroying it.

The dandelion will grow anywhere. Except where it has been eradicated.

Yet the dandelion is also loved. Childhood games spent telling the time with a dandelion clock. So perfectly formed, so intricate, so gentle and so beautiful to look at. Then, as the seeds are blown, delightfully, by a childish puffing of cheeks, they are carried effortlessly away on the breeze. Landing somehow, somewhere and there, they begin to make their own mark in the world. A world that doesn’t really want them. Wishes they weren’t there. Will do all in its power to eradicate them.

When do these same children learn to hate something they once cherished? When does fear replace this childlike acceptance?

I don’t know the answer but somewhere along the road it happens.

Fear.

And so it is with having a child who has an extra chromosome.

Fearful.

At least it was for me, and, given the statistics on how many terminations take place in the UK following a diagnosis of Down’s,  I think it is fairly reasonable to make the assumption that fear has a huge part to play for many who find themselves in the same position as I did.

I was afraid of the dandelion.

I was afraid of how it would spoil my garden. Take over. Damage. Ruin its perfect appearance. Make gardening harder.

Of course, my garden was never perfect, but I strived to make it so. I could not let the dandelion spoil this dream.

I was affronted by this ‘intruder’. I believed the lie. That the dandelion was harmful. That the dandelion was ugly. That the dandelion had no place in my garden.

But I could not eradicate it even though I was told it was possible. Easily arranged. For the best.

And, I am forever thankful, that my fears although real, were never strong enough to take hold of the situation. They were never allowed to go to the garden centre and buy the weed killer. Though, for a while, I am ashamed to admit, I envied those who could.

I began to love the dandelion. I began to cherish its beauty.

And, over time, the shame I had wrongly felt at having a garden with dandelions was replaced by a sense of awe and wonder at this beautiful plant. I discovered its beauty, its benefits and its immense joy. I love how it pops up anywhere, it’s deep vibrant yellow flower forcing its way through the most hardened of soils and singing in the sunlight. Enjoying life. Enjoying being there. Dandelion experts even tell of the health benefits it can bring. Who knew?!

The dandelion is not supposed to be here. Or so you would think.

I wish I could turn back the clock and re frame the dandelion.

It deserves it.

The dandelion makes me smile.

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Limping

Afraid. What does the future hold? Will my children be safe?

These are questions I’ve noticed many parents are asking on social media lately. So much to be afraid of.  Acts of terror creep ever closer to home. Paris. Long awaited trips to Disneyland being viewed rather more anxiously. Life just got a whole lot more scary.

Fears.

And yet for the parent of a child with additional needs these fears are already known only too well. They have loomed large since the day they were given a diagnosis.

Afraid. What does the future hold? Will my child be safe?

Like me, they stare over their sleeping child and ponder these things. Watching them breathing deeply and securely in their cot or bed. Smiling at the way they are lying or the way they are clutching onto a favourite blanket or teddy. Thoughts so quickly turn to the future.

Who will take care of her when I am gone?

Will anyone love her – really love her as I do, when I’m gone?

Will she be bullied because she is different? Because she has Down’s syndrome?

Will she be exploited? Taken advantage of?

Who will speak kindly to her when she is anxious or sad?

Who will hold her hand or give her a hug?

It’s not uncommon for many parents of children with disabilities to even wish that they outlive their child. They cannot see a future for their child without them being there to care for them.

It’s these fears that threaten to overwhelm me. Blink fast, swallow hard fears.

But they only ever threaten me.

I’m a Christian. Completely not cool.

According to the media and especially social media, I am someone to be mocked. Often laughed at, ridiculed, criticised and increasingly silenced.

I can live with that.

I can live with that because my faith is the only thing that can calm these overwhelming fears. The media can’t. Facebook can’t, neither can Twitter. Other people can’t, though of course I take huge comfort and encouragement in the words and experiences of others on a similar journey, whether or not they share my faith. I am thankful for them and value them enormously.

But, if having faith is a crutch to lean on then I am happy to keep limping. However uncool it may be.

The Bible has two particular things to say about Hazel ‘s life. They are my crutches. Whenever those fears threaten to overwhelm me once more I bring them to mind and lean heavily on them.

Firstly that God uses the weak things of this world to shame the strong.

Hazel is weak, undoubtedly.

Down’s syndrome is often seen as weakness. A flaw. Something undesirable. Something to be got rid of. Unwanted.

Not to God. And not to me. I have already seen how Hazel’s ‘weak’ life compares to the selfish, self centred lives of many ‘stronger’ or ‘wiser’ people. She has already brought more joy into our lives in four short years than some people will bring in a lifetime. She shames many. Each and every day.

Secondly, that God has plans for her life. Plans to prosper her and not to harm her.

Hazel’s life is no accident. She was planned. She has purpose. She has a future.

This doesn’t mean there won’t be problems, or challenges. This doesn’t mean she won’t face discrimination or even hate. But it does mean that her life will matter. Her life will make a difference. Her life will be cherished and she will be loved. I believe what God says. I have to. The alternative is too overwhelming for me.

I will keep limping.

Holding tightly onto my faith.

Stamping out those fears as I go.