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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Merry Go Round

Half way up the stairs.

We made it half way up the stairs. She is on her stairlift. I am holding down the control button.

The alarm is, well, alarming. It’s shrieking….. I’m no longer green. I’m red I’m red I’m red. And this is as far as I can go today.

I disagree with alarmist opinions, I always have.

Yesterday you were green. They said you were fixed. They said they couldn’t see anything majorly wrong. They looked, they tweaked, they said they did their best yesterday and indeed you were green. They hoped their remedy was permanent. 

So did I; the cost is mounting and climbing higher than any stairlift could ever go.

Red, green, red, green, red, green

You, me, me, you. Today we both turned red.

I brace myself to lift her down from her predicament. Praying we do not topple. And I did actually pray.

Is this what it feels like to be rescued from a fairground ride? Stranded in mid-air whilst all around go about their business down below, busy on adventures of their own. A whole community, just down there. Out of reach.

We are high up. Hoping for help, though it does not come. Praying. Feeling very small, very alone. At least one of us is. The other not so. She has always loved fairgrounds. The lights, the colour, the spectacle, the drama. She is laughing right now. Unconcerned. All the fun of the fair is in her eyes as it always is. This is what blessing looks like.

Oh I too love the funfair, don’t get me wrong. It’s true I’m not all that keen on the Helter Skelter or those swingy things that send you hurtling through the skies at breakneck speed. And the Dodgems – well they are just plain dangerous if you ask me. But find me the Hook a Duck stand to try my luck with, or a colourful Carousel with painted horses and I’ll happily hop on and go round all day.

A fairground is a place where screams are many yet, no one hears them. They are not required to. Laughter, joy, screaming, fear, exhilaration, merge into one, giant, merry-go-round. Pleasure and pain. Pain and pleasure. Pleading to get off then getting back on for more. Fearful moments soon overcome by joyous ones, then replaced by fear….and so it goes on.

We are downstairs again, yet we need to be upstairs. She needs to sleep so we cannot stay here. Now there’s another obstacle in our way. It’s the same but different. Still alarming, still flashing and now IN OUR WAY. Reminding us of the journey we now face. A perilous one. An uphill struggle; each of my steps must now be carefully and very slowly taken for fear of us both tumbling down the stairs. The chair is not moving, no matter how hard I plead with it to work. Please just work. I scream a scream that no one hears. Not even her, thankfully. Only one of us feels the fear on this particular ride. The other knows only love and trust. This is what blessing looks like.

One day I will laugh at this too, just not today.

One day the plan will come together. A crowd will gather around us. Tradesmen and women will set to work to help her; and to help me. The stairlift will no longer be required to transport her to sleep each night. She will sleep downstairs, safe and sound in a new environment that can truly meet her needs. One with new rides to experience, buttons to press, levers to pull, hoists to take her into orbit. We will laugh with great gusto at ourselves in front of distorted fairground mirrors, knowing that our true self remains intact. Dignity will be restored. Hers and mine. This is also what blessing looks like.

Just not today.

Tonight we will dream of carousels and candy floss and all that this fairground means to us; we are certain we do not ever wish to leave.


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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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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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Herons and Cranes

miguel-pinto-VhaZJ_7YW9o-unsplash

I’ve been spending a few days in a relaxing and isolated place, booked pre-pandemic, overlooking some fishing lakes. As I write I can see three, sometimes four, herons gliding gracefully over head. Such extraordinary looking creatures in flight. And, once on the bank they adopt sentry status, scanning the lake for fish whilst giving a masterclass in superiority. Until they call out that is. A sound akin to finger nails on a blackboard. Beautifully harsh. Something about it grates and leaves the listener uncomfortable. It jars. Profound beauty and harshness held in tension. The herons take flight and with them my breath.

My daughter’s life, her whole existence, is profoundly beautiful yet also harsh. We live, she lives, with the tension of these truths. And, as a consequence, she takes my breath away daily.

Many, even sometimes those in our own community, see the disabled life as something to be avoided. I know I did when Hazel was born. I’ve written about it before..how I hoped she would have some kind of Down syndrome light version of the condition. Not too bad, manageable, successful even. There are no limits on people with Down syndrome is how the new mantra goes. They can learn to read and write, go to school, get a job, play sports, live independently, be models, actors, politicians, get married and so on.. All true and all good, I don’t deny it for a moment. They often do.

So don’t worry, we tell new and expectant parents; It’s only an extra chromosome. Keep calm.

I disagree.
It is not only an extra chromosome.
It is a profoundly beautiful life.

Not because of any achievement or indeed any similarity to a life without an extra chromosome. It’s beauty is in its existence. It should not need to be championed or given a reason to be accepted. It is already beautiful, profoundly so.

My attempts, early on in Hazel’s life, to disguise her ‘disabledness’ (which probably isn’t even a word) thankfully and spectacularly failed. Hazel comes with an array of visual reminders of it; a feeding tube for starters, then there’s the equipment, hoists, stairlift, adaptive chair, a hospital style bed, not forgetting bifocals for very poor sight and also soon to have hearing aids. Hazel is non verbal and makes all kinds of noises that loudly announce her presence to the world wherever we are. There is no disguising Hazel! Oh, and she laughs. A lot.

Hazel has also been learning to walk. At almost 9 years old she can now walk around the house or familiar places with gusto. Stomping and lurching as she explores familiar spaces now revealing previously hidden vistas and treasures. Her achievements are tremendous and we celebrate them daily.

And yet. Remove her plastic clunky orthotic devices and her world shrinks once more, her weakened frail ankles collapse and she falls to her knees in a single step. Those unattractive plastic devices are, to me, of profound beauty and huge importance. They are enabling her to discover new and exciting things for herself, though her wheelchair is never far away.

Wheelchairs. Feared and avoided by many parents of children with Down’s syndrome, particularly in the early years. I know this..I was one of them. So much so I opted for a buggy that looked somehow more er, um… acceptable. I thought that having a wheelchair made her look more disabled. Well. Yes I suppose it does. But that is only a negative if you also hold the view that being disabled is something to be shunned. It depends on your assumptions about disability. My assumptions were so very wrong. I mean, it’s fine if you don’t need one, but it’s also fine if you do.

Is Hazel worse off because she uses a wheelchair? Is she worse off because she wears orthotics? Or is she discovering joy every single day in new places because she has them? Is she to be pitied because she is shortly to be wearing hearing aids or will people share her joy as the sounds we take for granted enter her world for the first time? And if they don’t work, if she doesn’t take to them for whatever reason, will that be seen as failure or will she be allowed to live her life in the way she feels most comfortable?

To me, her disabilities just make me more determined to travel further into her world and see it though her eyes and ears. I desire to make her pathways less fraught with obstacles and trip hazards. Where those obstacles cannot be removed I want to help her find another way over the terrain. This is what Hazel needs from our community, from those who care for her, from medical professionals, teachers, and especially Governments. Policies, medical research, social and educational opportunities that will enable her to really live her best life; whatever support systems she needs or we may need as parents to help her. What she does not need are assumptions that her life is not worth living. That she is failing or in need of pity because she looks more disabled than another. That her life is less. Neither do we need assumptions that, as her parents, we can do it all, that we don’t need a helping hand from time to time. Caring is a very precious and undervalued thing indeed. Assumptions can be devastating, checking them and challenging them can bring change to entire communities.

A friend of mine often says to diminish one of us is to diminish us all.

Just this week I was reminded of the heart-rending story of a disabled community in Japan- the Sagimahara Institute – where, on 26 July 2016, a man attacked and killed nineteen residents and injured twenty six; thirteen of them severely. His intention was to ‘obliterate’ hundreds of people who he deemed unworthy of life. A drain on their carers.  He believed he was doing society a service.  The tragedy became Japan’s worst mass killing since the Second World War.
An extraordinary video called Sachiko’s Story Nineteen Paper Cranes tells the story so movingly and asks the question,
“Why does the world assume that a disabled life is not profoundly beautiful?”
I will not spoil the story – do watch, you’ll be glad you did – but what followed in response to the killings was truly beautiful.

Landscapes can be harsh environments to live in and journey through but at the same time profoundly beautiful. We need to adapt to their contours, their peaks and their valleys. Not circumvent them or leave them off the map. Or, worse still, destroy them altogether.

This is my daughter’s disabled life and it will always be profoundly beautiful.

#dontscreenusout


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Rainbows & unicorns

rainbow in trees

Missing Person:

Goes by the name of Hope.

Last seen somewhere around New Year’s eve.

Reward for anyone who has information on her whereabouts.

I wanted to give my first child the name Hope – or at least her middle name. I didn’t in the end. Husband said at the time that the name reminded him of a hospital; a kind of Mercy Mission of Hope reminiscent of his former Catholic upbringing. So we opted for something else.

(Apologies to anyone reading who is called Hope by the way – I still think it’s a lovely name.)

Hope is the reason I write this blog. I may not possess many academic qualifications in life but I do possess hope. And I think I am qualified to speak about it.

Hope is what I have been given over and over throughout my life, in so many situations. Even when there seemingly was no hope. I was given it. I didn’t create it. I didn’t fabricate it. I didn’t conjure it up. It was given to me and I took it. But I did look for it. More than I looked for anything else.

I was given it when I thought I’d never be able to have children.

I was given it when I was hours from death in Intensive Care as all my major organs were shutting down. Intensive Care is a place that, understandably, generates fear for many right now. For me, it generates hope more so.

I was given it when my daughter Hazel was born with Down’s syndrome. My GP gave it to me. He told me what I needed to hear over and above the voices of doom that had told me what a terrible thing it is to have a baby with Down’s syndrome.  He gave me hope that life, although never the same, would still be worth living…and not just at some point in the future when everything was back to normal. It would never be back to normal. But it could be, would be worth living.

Hope was given to me when Hazel was so very seriously ill and we did not know if she would survive.

And here’s the thing. The hope I had was not reassurance that she would be ok, that I would be ok,  or that we would be ok. We weren’t ok. Neither was she. She was very, very ill. Dangerously so, and I had been too.

The hope I was given, was that through it all, somehow, fear would not have the final word. Fear of what was happening would not define how we lived, how we responded to each other or to the situation we found ourselves in. Hope meant that the fear we were so readily inclined to feel would not have the final say in our thoughts and uncertainties we carried about the future. We knew things could get worse, we did not live in some kind of false hope that all would be well. It might not be.  But life would have hope. Hope is about the here and now as much as it is about the future. If anything it matters more, here and now, than in 2, 3 or 10 or 20 years down the line. Fear is to be expected but hope is vital. Now.

And Hope is missing.

Right now, in the middle of a pandemic, hope is being looked for but it is largely being concealed by fear. Fear seems to choke the life out of hope. Fear grips like nothing else can. Fear is spread whether through word of mouth, news images, misinformation, or simply because there is danger and we are afraid. Fear is the natural response. There is real danger. People are dying and families are hurting; I do not seek to minimise anyone’s pain or suffering for a moment.

But fear does not have to be the only response.

The hope I have is that my life and the lives of those I know and love, however long or short, will not be dominated by fear. It’s the life I see my daughter who has Down’s syndrome living too. She lives a life of daily acceptance. It is a life that is permeated by hope, not fear. Yet she has had more than her fair share of difficult experiences. Still she does not fear the way most people do.

Hope has been given to me out of love. When I was so ill it was from people who lovingly did their job and saved my life. People who cared and people who knew that my fears, however well founded, were not the only thing at play. My faith too plays a part. A God given hope that can confront fear even when facing the threat of death itself – which I have – of my own and that of my children both inside the womb and out.

And perfect love drives out fear – a simple, yet profound bible verse I choose to take hold of and speak out over my own life, my own fears.

It is vital that people are given hope. Not false hope, but real hope.

Hope doesn’t necessarily mean a way out of something, such as a vaccine,(important though that is) or even a way through something. Hope is not about believing in Unicorns. Hope means being able to live in the moment without being paralysed by fear of what may or may not happen. Hope means being able to carry on when all around you are telling you to do or live otherwise. I’m not talking of being reckless here or promoting selfish behaviours. I’m just saying that there is another story to be told, another truth to take hold of. Fears may come to pass, they may not.

Hope speaks of living free from those fears.

Parents who find out the baby they are expecting may have Down’s syndrome are rarely offered hope. They are offered lots of other things – many of them good and well intentioned. Information they receive is improving. It should no longer be outdated (though often is), due to the efforts of many in our own Down’s syndrome community.  Yet even we’ve convinced ourselves that is all they need. The right information in order to make the right decision for them. Yet how many women go to their prenatal scans simply looking for information? Most are also looking for hope too. If, as most parents of children with Down’s syndrome will tell you, life is still worth living and full of hope, then why is that not the first thing women are told when they find out their baby might have Down’s syndrome? Is it because fear has a stranglehold on hope? Fear has the final word. Hope is not even allowed to enter the waiting room, let alone the discussion in the scan room.

In times of crisis, personal or global, hope is needed more than ever. Rainbows have appeared in windows and balconies around the world. People are looking for hope in a world gripped by fear. Rainbows are real even if unicorns aren’t.

Perfect love drives out fear. People with Down’s syndrome are, in my experience, people who love unconditionally – often more than most. And, as a consequence, fear is driven out. It has no place in their lives in the same way that it so often has in others.

My daughter Hazel has Down’s syndrome. She brings hope as well as joy to this world. And hope is needed more than ever.

People with Down’s syndrome are needed more than ever.

#dontscreenusout