Downright Joy

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


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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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The Gift

My Gift did not come wrapped in shiny paper, nor tied with a velvet bow.

My Gift was unexpected, it caught me completely off guard.

I struggled to see that this Gift was for me;

Gifts are not meant to be hard.

 

My Gift came with a label or two; one said “extra chromosome”,

The other read “handle with care”.

The second; I tore off and tied to my wrist.

The first, I hid, too afraid others would stare.

 

All around me other Gifts were being delivered,

Amongst fanfares, banners, balloons and flowers.

My Gift came amid hushed tones and frowns, with questions, fears and tears.

Concerns that had not crossed anyone’s mind at earlier baby showers.

 

How could I look after this Gift? There must be a mistake.

Surely this Gift was not intended for me; it was never in the plan.

And yet, in my Gift I saw a reflection of me so clearly staring back;

Azure blue almond shaped eyes, oh those beautiful almond shaped eyes!

 

My Gift. My Gift is, without question,

The best present I’ve ever been given.

Granted, it took me a while to appreciate; I wish I’d realised before.

My Gift has a beauty beyond understanding, my Gift is easy to adore.

 

My Gift keeps on giving and giving.

Occasionally it might be in sorrow; far more likely I find, it’s in joy!

My Gift is priceless, its worth cannot be measured.

If your Gift is labelled the same as mine, it’s a Gift you will learn to treasure.

Hazel Morley (Neonatal Intensive Care, Bristol) 300911 016

For more real life experiences from families of people with Down’s syndrome check out

www.positiveaboutdownsyndrome.co.uk

Find out more about Down’s syndrome from

Down’s Syndrome Research Foundation UK

 


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If the cap fits

mannequin-732631_1280

“But what do you do all day?” Is a question I am sometimes asked and, well, I don’t like to be impolite but, seeing as you asked (and even if you didn’t) I will try to answer it.

Today I went into battle. On the front line. I pushed back into enemy territory. My efforts were resisted but I persevered.  I took ground that was being strongly defended. I claimed it for my severely Dyspraxic child who needed a service that was being denied. Today I was brave, but I was scared.

Today I was a Soldier.

Today I changed a broken feeding tube, in an emergency.  I bathed an open wound and I administered yet another new medication. Today, as every day, I tube fed my child who cannot yet feed. I was scared, but I was brave.

Today I was a Nurse.

Today I learnt all about Proprioception and how understanding it could really help my Dyspraxic child. But first I need to learn to say it. Today was enlightening.

Today I was a Student.

Today I took my child who struggles with reading to Hogwarts. I read two entire chapters at bedtime. We found Platform 9 and 3/4, ate chocolate frogs and fought bravely against Lord Voldemort. Today was magical.

Today I was a Storyteller.

Today I gave my child a haircut at home. A trip to a hair salon too distressing for a child with sensory issues. Today my home became a salon. One with toys and television and iPads. Today I felt like I achieved the impossible.

Today I was a Hairdresser.

Today I trawled the internet. Endless articles on Down’s syndrome, on Dyspraxia, on Sensory Processing. Today I drank a lot of coffee.

Today I was a Researcher.

Today I made some gadgets and gizmos. Stress balloons filled with cornflour, spinning bottles that rattled with shiny shimmery beads and bells, ribbon twirlers, baskets brimming with tactile treasures. Today I had fun making toys that would help my children make sense of the world around them.

Today I was an Inventor.

Today I attended another appointment to discuss the needs of my children. The sixty something appointment this year. Yes, honestly. I’ve counted. Today I was early.

Today I was an Advocate.

Today I wrote a blog highlighting the discrimination faced by those with Down’s syndrome. I challenged the view held by many that my child should not even exist simply because she has an extra chromosome.  I tweeted my MP. Today I got angry.

Today I was a Campaigner.

Today I watched my anxious child find new confidence in an activity she had previously not coped with. Today was brilliant.

Today I was a Cheerleader.

Today I lost count of the phone calls I made, the emails I sent. Today I opened yet more appointment letters on behalf of my children. I cancelled plans, I turned down invitations. I had to let people down. Today I despaired.

Today I was an Administrator.

Today my glass is half empty. Yesterday, it was half full. Tomorrow is a new day.

Today I am thankful for the glass.

Today I met with Trainee Doctors and told them about life with a child with Down’s syndrome. Today I busted some myths.

Today I was a Teacher.

Today I took my child for yet another blood test. I wrapped my whole body around hers as she wriggled, kicked and generally protested about this latest injustice. Today I tried hard not to cry.

Today I was a Wrestler.

Today I cradled my child as she drifted off to sleep under anaesthetic for yet another procedure. Gratefully surrounded by skilled, caring people who only want the best for her.  Today I could not do any work.

Today I was broken.

Today I visited my child at school to watch her assembly. I saw her walk in. Slowly, gripping the hands of her teacher as she stepped tentatively into the hall. Her legs are getting stronger, her world is opening up. She is surrounded by the support, care and expertise of some incredible professionals. Today I thought my heart would burst.

Today I was the happiest woman alive.

I am a mother to two amazing children,  both of whom have disabilities and additional needs, both of whom make me incredibly proud every single day.

Today, and every day,  I have the best job in the world!

 


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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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Love in every stitch

I am knitting.

There. I’ve admitted it. After all these years, I am learning to knit.

And I am loving it.

I’ve never been a fan, it’s fair to say. There were better things to do with my time; not that I had the time to do better things. I felt superior. That knitting was beneath me. Fanciful yet dull. Not cultured enough.

I suppose I even looked down on those who spent time and money on this hobby. Believing them and their creations to be less than.

Preferring shop bought perfection over (what I saw as) imperfect and clumsy looking.

Frills and frou frou.

I was the same with houses. Give me a modern, easy to maintain, some say characterless, property over an older one with its quirky features and creaky floorboards any day.

I didn’t see the joy.

The love in every stitch.

The story in every room.

All I knew was prejudice – towards knitting and crafting. Towards joy.

Until last week.

In a few short months I have been truly humbled by some new friends. Their love and joy for this most ancient of crafts has made me realise how much I have been missing. Hand crafted items that I once would have been disdainful of, I am coming to regard as things of beauty. Things that have the power to make my heart sing even.

Love in every stitch.

So, last week, I began to learn to knit.

It did not start well. The woman in the shop asked me if I had chosen the right size needles. Did they have the right number on them? She obviously saw my hesitation and suggested I could go back and change them if they were the wrong ones.

I just nodded. I hadn’t the faintest idea what she meant. Her next question stumped me completely.

“What are you knitting? What’s it going to be?”

Again, I had no idea.

But in a moment, across the counter, I knew it didn’t matter.

I knew that whatever I knitted would be beautiful.

Unique.

A one off.

It mattered not what it was, or how long it would take to finish – if ever.

It was mine.

I paid, stuffed the needles and a ball of wool into my bag and left the store.

Excited.

There’s a verse in the Bible that I have always loved…

You knit me together in my mother’s womb …. I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”

When my baby was born with Down’s syndrome I had many other prejudices that needed taking down. Prejudices about people with Down’s. Ideas that they were somehow less than other people.  I craved the perfection I saw in babies without an extra chromosome. I asked why my baby had been given the wrong number. I wondered what she would become. How would she turn out?

Others asked this question too.

Some asked it before she was born. They said I could forget about her and try again. Hopefully get one with the right number. For all my prejudices towards people with Down’s syndrome, this suggestion was abhorrent to me.

Five and a half years on and I know now she does not have the wrong number.

There is no such thing.

She has a different number.

That is all.

Knitted together….fearfully and wonderfully made.

And there is love in every stitch.

hazel-in-hat

With thanks to the knitting & non knitting geese in my life.

Honk honk x


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Making Friends

Just a few weeks ago we took our family to Disneyland, Paris. The culmination of years of dreaming and pleading from our eldest child, and a venture into the unknown for Hazel, who has Down’s syndrome. Our first trip abroad, lots of strange sights and sounds. We wondered how she would cope.

I’ve always thought that anticipation is as much a part of an event as the event itself. The build up. As a child, I spent weeks, if not months, getting excited about Christmas, or my birthday, or our annual family holiday. My eldest daughter is the same. I encourage her in it. Christmas decorations go up at the earliest opportunity. Surprising her the night before we were going to Disneyland was never an option. I wanted her to look forward. Anticipate. Get excited about what the future held. So we told her we were going, weeks in advance, and enjoyed her excitement as the trip came nearer.

So I’ve always felt a little sad that Hazel is not able to join in the anticipation in the same way her sister does. She has no idea that Christmas might be coming. The night before her birthday passed like any other. No staying awake for hours on end, too excited to sleep. And, on Disneyland Eve, to sleep she went and to sleep she stayed until she was woken the next morning by her sister – who was desperate to get to France as quickly as possible. After all, Aurora was waiting...though possibly still fast asleep in her fairy tale castle.

Hazel wasn’t bothered.

But I was.

Feeling sad and reflecting on what I think Hazel may be missing out on in life is a trap for me. It’s all too easy to start a pity party of regret and over-indulge at the table of if only’s or I wish’s.

And, on the journey to Disneyland, I dwelt on this particular if only and it made me sad. Whilst Hazel, not really understanding where we were going or why we were in the car for so long, just carried on looking out of the window. Happily so.

Fast forward to breakfast the next day and we were sitting in the Hotel restaurant. Eldest child unable to eat for the excitement of all she is about to experience. And Hazel…well, unable to eat full stop. Tube fed since birth and largely indifferent to food. Playing contentedly with a fork or a napkin, I forget which. No idea where she was but seemingly very happy to be there.

And then she saw him. For the first time in her life.

Giant shiny black ears, shiny black nose and the biggest hands she had ever seen in her short life….

A familiar face to millions maybe, but not to her.

Mickey Mouse.

I held my breath. Anticipating Hazel’s panic and uncertainty about this larger than life character. Sensory overload never far away. But the opposite happened. Hazel’s face lit up. Literally. It shone. Her eyes sparkled and joy spread from her face to her entire body. Hands waving furiously, body contorting with delight.hazel-and-mickey-downright-joy

A little girl in love.

Hazel experienced joy. True and unadulterated. A joy that comes in the moment, out of the blue, from nowhere. A joy that knows no build up or anticipation. Exploding, overwhelming, joyous joy!

It blew me away. I can’t remember a moment quite like it.

One of the reasons I love Disney are the larger than life characters with their ridiculous plastic smiley faces, and colourful costumes. They need no introduction. Each one……Pinocchio, Minnie, Donald and Tigger, but especially Mickey, took their time with Hazel. Coming down to her level and gently touching her face. Not rushing on to the next person, but making her feel valued. Welcomed. Loved.

disney-princess-meet-2

The Disney Princesses couldn’t compete. Hazel’s joy was replaced with an equally priceless look of sheer boredom whenever we met one. Total indifference. The smiles were fake and she knew it. They tried. Ariel gave it her best shot. ariel-downright-joy

Snow White just gave up.   snow-white-downright-joy

 

 

 

 

 

It mattered not.

Mickey and friends were the true joy givers. Unconventional, with their oversized heads, enormous hands and feet, eyes the size of dinner plates.  Features that in real life may be regarded as ungainly or even unattractive. Yet these were the characteristics that brought Hazel the most joy.  Spending time in their company was a delight.

And now, I wonder if knowing about the surprise in advance would have made the experience any greater for her? I doubt it.

Hazel lives in the moment. She experiences life as it happens and she is all the more joyful for it. More than anyone I know, Hazel lives one day at a time. And, because she does, the opportunities to be surprised by joy are limitless.

It’s always good to make friends with real people from all walks of life.

I like it when people make friends with Hazel.

disney-land-castle

 

 


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Just do it

Just do it.

Or so we were told by a famous sports company back in the day. Whatever ‘it’ was.

If there’s one lesson I’ve learnt since having child with additional needs it’s that we don’t just do anything.

There’s the big stuff. Learning to sit, crawl, stand, walk, talk, and in Hazel’s case especially, learning to feed. We follow a different time-scale to most.

I have an early, painful memory of being handed Hazel’s little red book by a well -meaning nurse, only for her to return shortly afterwards and abruptly pull out the growth charts, replacing them with a special set – exclusively for children with Down’s syndrome.

“You won’t be needing those, you need these.”

My already fragile and hurt feelings were then compounded by a visit from the audiologist who was doing the rounds in the tiny NICU room we were in. I overheard her speech as she went from cot to cot, parent to parent, explaining the routine hearing test their babies would soon be having and how they would probably have nothing to worry about.

Then she came to me.

The tilt of her head did nothing to prepare me for her words. Delivered with a gentle brutality as to send me reeling.

“Of course, your baby might not pass this test”.

I wasn’t prepared. I wasn’t ready to be different.

Deep deep breaths.

Then there’s the smaller stuff that having a child with complex needs means…so that we don’t “just do it”…

Going to the park. Getting a babysitter and going out for an evening. We need a nurse for that.

Dropping in on friends or taking a day trip. The cinema, theatre or pantomime, zoos, farm parks, play areas. Even a simple picnic in the sunshine. Concerns about sensory issues and how Hazel will react.  Changing facilities (or lack of them); all these factors add up and quite honestly often put us off setting foot outside out home.

Hazel’s feeding equipment, routines and reactions make these things harder. Not impossible, but harder.

Even the things we do “do” take far more planning than we would like.

Going to Church, a trip round the supermarket, a children’s party, lunch with friends or family.

Sometimes it’s easier not to even attempt these things.

And, if I could change this, I would. In a flash. Of course I would. Who wouldn’t?

The truth is we can do many of these things, but the word “just” has to be firmly kicked into the long grass.

And that is absolutely ok.

When you “just do” something you may miss the complexities of how it is done. You may miss the joys of achieving the seemingly impossible. You may take it for granted.

But, when you finally “do it”, do the very thing that is so hard for you to do, however easy it might be for others, then the sense of achievement is often beyond measure. The appreciation for what might be a simple pleasure is second to none.

It’s in those moments that my heart sings.

Today held one such moment.

Hazel doesn’t eat. She is 100% tube fed.

We try. We try hard to help her to learn. To help her to want to eat. We play, we have fun with food. We get messy.

In school it’s called “Food is fun”.

But it is hard. So so hard.

 Hard when the walls, ceiling and anyone else sitting at the table is covered in whatever food Hazel has been “playing but not eating” with. Today it was orange. The colour, that is.

Pureed carrot and sweet potato. The clean-up took three times as long as the ‘meal’. It even reached the television which was quite a feat considering that’s in another room entirely.

Ah but surely this is quite usual for a child learning to eat, you may think. It’s a phase.

Yes.  It just doesn’t usually last four years and counting.

We clean up, with a heavy heart and an unspoken envy of families where children just pick up a spoon and eat; or who can go off out into the sun with a picnic whenever the mood takes them.

But not today.

Today my heart sang.

It sang at the smiles, laughter and joy Hazel exuded in her state of orangeyness. It sang as she giggled throughout lunchtime, happy to be with us at the table, enjoying the moment and being part of our family. And it sang because, in all the laughter, Hazel actually took two spoonfuls of the vegetable medley in her mouth!

Food really is fun!

So we will continue to embrace the mess. Savouring, relishing in and enjoying the milestones, or even just the stepping stones along the way.

Golden moments in time that are hard fought for.

One day we will picnic together, all four of us.

But I don’t really ever want to “just do” anything.

Downright Joy 2