He is Down syndrome

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Photo by Goodside Photography goodsidephoto.com

The other day I was talking to Aaron and in the midst of our conversation I mentioned, “you have Down syndrome.” He looked at me, puzzled, and replied, “No, I am Down syndrome.”

I thought he had mixed up his verbs and corrected him,  “No, you have Down syndrome.”

He repeated firmly, more annoyed with me this time, “No Mom, I am Down syndrome.” He wasn’t mixing anything up. I was the one mixed up.

Who am I to say who he is or is not? He has the extra chromosome, not me.  I paused to wonder how often parents use language that makes us feel more comfortable and distances ourselves from disability. I know that I’ve been doing that for 16 years. I even used to lecture to health professionals about person-first language. Aaron was blowing person-first out of the water.

Speaking of which, I’m now asking Aaron’s consent to write about him.  (Contrary to popular belief, people with intellectual disabilities can understand consent). He said, ‘sure’ when I asked him about sharing this story.  Plus, he chose the photo that he wanted to accompany this post.

I’m finally waking up to the fact that it is Aaron’s Down syndrome, not mine. And so goes the hard work of parenting: allowing our children – all our children – to differentiate from us. He is not a mini-version of me, disability or not. It is high time that l take Aaron’s lead and govern myself accordingly.

Everybody Grows Up

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My son is almost 16. The education, health and human services sectors tell me that this is a transition time for him. Talk of transition is everywhere.  There are transition pamphlets and websites and apps and roadmaps thrown at me at every turn.

I hereby declare that I reject the term transition and say instead that Aaron is growing up. System-speak is everywhere: calling friends ‘peer support,’ brothers and sisters ‘siblings,’ and going home ‘discharge.’ I am officially dismissing system-speak. Falling into the habit of talking about our kids this way means we’ve given the power back over to the system. Language matters. I’m not going to let them turn my kid into a one-dimensional cliché of what they think a disabled kid is.

My other two kids grew up and Aaron is growing up too. Having Down syndrome doesn’t stop him from becoming an adult.

I’ve been thinking about why families put off planning for our disabled kids’ future. We have to apply for tax credits, try to work a lot to save money (somehow, while at the same time we have to provide caregiving), secure psycho-ed tests, apply to get an adult file open, meet with social workers, find physicians who will see our kids, forecast for life – our adult child’s and our own – after school ends, which includes limited and rather bleak options for post-secondary school, housing and employment.

This all sucks at a time when we should be surviving our kid’s puberty (which all parents have to do with all kids) and celebrating that our child is growing up. We should usher in their adulthood with joy not despair.

I am reminded of the time when Aaron was first diagnosed 16 long years ago. The joy of a baby’s birth is also taken away from families by the way a disability diagnosis is disclosed. There’s a lot of talk then about ‘burden and suffering’ from health professionals.  I say the joy of having a baby gets carted right out of the delivery room.

I’m not going to allow the joy to be taken this time around as my son reaches adulthood. The system tries its best to push me into misery with all their anguished forms, intake processes and assessments.

Growing up should be celebrated, not dreaded. It should be a time of hope and opportunity. Aaron is almost a man now, becoming more and more himself, his character brightly shining through. He wants to be an actor, so we are going to support him with that as far as he goes. I feel lucky to be his mom, to witness his transformation into adulthood.

The other day when we were driving in the car, Aaron turned to me and said: ‘Mom, I am an organic human being.’ Yes you are my son. Let’s celebrate that first. Let’s put you as an organic human being front and centre.

Of course I’ll do what I have to do to get on wait lists, secure funding and fill out forms. But this time I’m going to endeavour to not let the system crap wear me down. I don’t believe in their deficit-based approach. The system is not stealing joy like it did when he was born. I’m simply not going to to allow that this time around.   No way.  No more.  Not today.  I’m going to hang onto gratitude for my son with the extra chromosome as tightly as I can.

He doesn’t just have his mother’s heart-shaped face

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This essay was originally published in the Globe + Mail on October 6, 2005.

I gave birth to my baby boy, and he was beautiful. He was the product of a second marriage for both of us, evidence that broken people can heal. He symbolized hope and joy. He was our love child.

His birth was everything I wanted. No interventions, no medications, a baby who slipped out naturally after a few pushes to meet his parents. Even in the late stages of labour, Mike and I were giddy with excitement in between each contraction. “The baby is coming,” Mike kept saying, and I would grin and nod and kiss my love before another wave of contractions pulled me back under.

We took him home after 10 hours, and he was all wee and jaundice-yellow. He was a quiet, soft, sleepy baby with a sweet mop of hair on top of his head. His round face was mine, and his eyebrows were blond. He was our little peanut, our button. His dad and I fell deeply in love with him.

Then the dark clouds started to settle in. At the end of his two-week checkup at the clinic, the doctor hesitated. I could tell he wanted to say something.

“Do you remember we talked about prenatal testing?”

Yes, I had. I had declined the testing. I knew I’d carry my baby to term no matter what.

I looked him straight in the eye, and took a deep breath. “Are you trying to tell me that our baby has Down syndrome?”

Retrospect is such an easy thing. I had not forgotten the day after Aaron’s birth, when I had gotten up after a long night of scrutinizing my boy and typed “Down syndrome” in the Google search engine. I had broached the subject with Mike, and he had scoffed at me for being paranoid. Then I had asked the public health nurse later that day if she thought Aaron had Down syndrome.

“Yes,” she had said gently, but then she had inspected the palms of his hands and his toes and concluded that he had a heart-shaped face like his mom, and eyes like his dad — that’s all. No other signs. So we filed away this scare in the back room of our heads and carried on. Whew. That was a relief.

But when the doctor mentioned the prenatal testing, I knew. I could hear my heart beating in my ears. I was holding onto my baby for dear life. “Oh,” I said. “Can I use my cell phone here?” I had to phone Mike, immediately.

I don’t recall our conversation. I am sure I sounded as if I was being strangled — and, in a way, I was. I do know that I sat in that examining room, nursing Aaron until Mike arrived. I don’t cry easily and there was a choked bundled of tears sitting just beyond my throat. I remembered to breathe.

Mike wanted to carry Aaron over to the lab in the hospital. He wouldn’t put him in his stroller, and he marched proudly through the hospital corridors cradling his son. It was as if he was saying, “I’m looking after my boy, no matter what!” They drew blood from Aaron’s little arm. Mike and I didn’t talk much — I felt sick as the needle went in and Aaron gave a cry of protest. We had to wait two long weeks for the result.

We were back at home. Aaron was napping in his car seat. The day was beautiful . . . mid-April, sun streaming out of the prairie sky. We sat on the balcony of our house, watching Aaron sleep, discussed how our doctor was wrong, how he was too inexperienced, how he had surely misdiagnosed.

There was a waft of music coming from the house across the alley. I strained to make out what song it was — it was coming from an open bedroom window. A young man lived there with his parents. He had a rare chromosome deficiency and is one of the few people with such a condition to be alive. He wasn’t expected to live beyond a year old, but there he was, 20 years old, blasting music out of his window.

The song finally became clear. It was a song from my memory of junior high school dances. Our neighbour was playing ABBA’s Take a Chance on Me.

The results came back after the two weeks. And yes, our baby has Down syndrome. The deep chasm of grief seemed endless when we found out that the baby we expected was not the baby we received.

But slowly the sun peeked out from behind those clouds, and I was able to get out of bed and go about my business. My baby, now two years old, did not allow me to stay stuck in the grief.

Instead he holds out his chubby little hand as we trundle down the sidewalk, both delighting in this warm fall day. My ABBA-playing neighbour is outside as we pass his house, and his face lights up as I greet him by name. Take a chance on us, indeed.

I See You

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Aaron + his mama. (Shared with his consent).

Last night, Aaron and I got fancied up and went to out to a play. He wore his suit jacket and a black tie and I changed out of my regular mom jeans into a green velvet dress. This was a big occasion for us.

This is the Point was playing at the PuSH Festival at the Cultch Historic Theatre in Vancouver. This play initially caught my eye because the two lead characters, Tony Diamanti and Liz MacDougall, are actors with cerebral palsy. They share stories about their own lives along with Dan Watson (and Christina Serra, represented by video), the parents of their nine-year old son Bruno, who also has CP.

Aaron doesn’t have CP; he has Down syndrome. But I’m not sure the difference in diagnosis matters that much – he lives the common experience of being disabled. He enjoys his grade 10 drama class at school and is becoming more interested in live theatre. A play featuring actors with disabilities is an unusual thing. (It shouldn’t be. But it is). I think it is my job as his mom to show him what is possible.

This is the Point is a real-life montage of stories, shared through live performances and video vignettes. It includes audience participation – we were encouraged to read Tony Diamanti’s words out loud as he pointed to letters on a communication board. I loved this invitation to be a part of Tony’s world – a contrast to the common notion that disabled people must always fit into our abled-bodied spaces.

Before the play began, Dan wandered about the audience handing out Hershey kisses. He then announced, ‘We do things at our own pace,’ to set the tone for the show.

The play is a peek behind the curtain of having a disability and being parents to a child with a disability. It gave space to stories that are told but not often heard or acknowledged by the general public. The play explained communication devices, talked about consent (or lack of it) and touched on abuse.

I think that stories can teach you something new or validate what you already know by creating a mirror for your own experience.

Here’s the something new from This is the Point: disabled people don’t always communicate as we do, they have a sense of humour, curse, are sometimes horny, have sex, fall in love and drink vodka. The question for me is: why should this be new to me? How does being surprised by this reflect on my own misconceptions about adults with disabilities? As human beings, we are all the same. And we are all different too.

This is the Point offered a commentary on my own experience as a parent too. Dan recounts a heart-breaking scene from his local playground, where the neighbourhood kids keep asking about Bruno, over and over again: What is wrong with him?

“Why do I have to keep explaining why I love my son?” asks Dan, exasperated in response.

I’ve felt that pain too. Playgrounds are an especially cruel place, a petri-dish for children whose parents who have never to bothered to explain about disability or kids who are different. At another point, Dan exclaims, ‘Suck it doctors!’ in reaction to the doctors who told him everything his son wouldn’t do. I almost stood up on my chair and cheered.

After the final applause, I leaned over to Aaron and asked what he thought. I wondered how it felt to see disabled people in a play.

“Good!” he said enthusiastically (although he hid behind his suit jacket during the ‘sexy’ scenes). He was eyeing the actors, who were all still on stage chatting with audience members.

‘Do you want to meet them?’ I asked. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘but come with me.’ ‘You go,’ I suggested, always eager to pull back from my hovering mother role.

He took a breath, marched up to Liz MacDougall and extended his hand. They looked at each other, smiled and shook hands.

‘Did you say anything?’ I asked when he returned. ‘No, I shook hands,’ he said. Somehow that handshake – the congratulations, the job well done, the nice to meet you, the thank you – was simply enough.  Aaron does things in his own way and that is how it should be.

Thinking about the play, I thought how rare it is for Aaron to see himself reflected in anything other than fundraising or awareness campaigns. We need more stories like This is the Point in our increasingly polarized world. Not as ‘special’ stories, but as stories as a matter of course, on regular rotation, in the media, performing arts, literature and film.  I promise that when I find them, I will amplify them.  And you can too.

You see, if you open your eyes and bear witness to stories that are different from your own, you never know what you might discover (mostly about yourself).  Bravo to the This is the Point cast and crew.  You made your point and you made it well.  xo.

Far from the Tree Documentary

I lug the book Far from the Tree, all 962 pages of it, around with me to family meetings and client sites at children’s hospitals and disability organizations.  It is a meticulously researched and beautifully crafted book on parenting, and more importantly, on love and acceptance.  Andrew Solomon has written a masterpiece.  This book has moved me so much that I titled my essay that I wrote for the New York Times Far from My Tree. (It is a piece written about my punk rock son, inspired by Solomon’s work).  Solomon has helped me dig deep about parenting all three of my children, who are different from me in their own unique ways.  It made me ask:  did I really have children to create versions of Mini-Me?  Or was it my job to unconditionally love, support and accept them to be full versions of their fine selves?

I’ve been scrounging around to find a way to bring the Far from the Tree Documentary to Vancouver.  GREAT NEWS.  It has been released on Netflix Canada.  If you love or work with someone with a disability, please take 90 minutes of your time and settle in and watch this exquisitely crafted film by Rachel Dretzin.

Solomon has broken the fourth wall to tell his story as an author and what writing a book about parents, children and the search for identity meant to him.

Writing this book set me free.  It broke me out of the narrative from my childhood. -Andrew Solomon

His parallel story as a gay man is gently presented along with stories from Jason, Jack, Trevor, Loini, Leah and Joe.  Jason is 41 and has Down syndrome, like my 15 year old son.  I watched the segments with Jason closely. He’s the son of Emily Perl Kingsley, who famously wrote the essay Welcome to Holland.  (Anyone who has a child with a disability has been gifted this essay by well-meaning friends).  Jason speaks many truths.

Here in reality, everyone is different. -Jason Perl Kingsley

Jason is right, of course.  We are all different but us typically-developing people are terrified of difference and shun this reality. Far from the Tree examines this paradox with little commentary and judgment.  The stories are strong and stand on their own.

I especially loved the film for the space it gave to the people with disabilities to do the talking. Us parents normally take up a lot of airtime, when we should be making room for our loved ones to speak in any way that they can.  I’m learning this lesson slowly as my son gets older.  His story is different than my story.  He lives with disability.  I do not.

Joe is a philosophy professor, has dwarfism and is eloquent with his words.  “What body you are in has everything to do with your perspective in the world,” he says.  “It surprises people when I indicate that I’m not suffering.”

Far from the Tree offers up a lot to think about.  As Joe points out, physicians see normality as the end goal.  But why is that?  To what lengths do we chase the normal?

The dad of Jack, a young man who is autistic and non-verbal, tearfully says about his son,  “He’s abnormal in a really good way.”  Far from the Tree rightly challenges the concept of normal and offers up the question:  what makes us human?

I’ve always thought the disability community and its allies could learn much from the LGBTQ2S world.  As Solomon asks, drawing a comparison between the two worlds:  Is defectiveness a matter of perspective?  How does illness become a celebrated identity instead?

How do we decide what to cure and what to celebrate?  -Andrew Solomon

I wept at the tenderness of this film: the scene of Jason at the museum with his mom, the image of him sitting on his back deck with his two roommates.  Andrew Solomon walking arm in arm with his father, Trevor’s family gathered around the video screen to talk to their incarcerated son.  Loini meeting people like her for the first time at the Little People’s convention, Leah and Joe dancing quietly together on a rooftop.

I thought about my own instinct to protect my son to the point of overprotectiveness. I thought about all the therapy we subjected him to in his early years.  I thought about how hard he tries to fit into the regular world, and what joy he finds with other people with Down syndrome.  I thought about fixing and curing vs. love and belonging.

Far from the Tree, the book, and now the movie, has made me think about all this in a good yet hard way.  I thought about my son and how, as the movie says, he has his own mountains to climb, which aren’t my mountains – they are his mountains.  I thought about how I can support him to do that.  I thought about how it is also my job as his mother to set him free.

What am I looking for from any book or a movie?  I want to be surprised or validated.  Far from the Tree magically does both.  Through stories, it asks many questions that only you can dig deep and answer for yourself.  That’s what good art is all about:  to see another way of reality that is not your own and to help you question what you think you already know.  Far from the Tree is poignant storytelling at its best.  It touches hearts to change minds.

Pura Vida

I wish that every new family who finds out their baby has Down syndrome could see this goofy little video.  I wish that every physician who discloses a Down syndrome diagnosis would watch this too.

This is my son Aaron boogie boarding in Costa Rica last week.  Aaron is 15 years old and has Down syndrome.  He also gleefully jumped off the second level of a boat into the Pacific Ocean (four times) and went for a long hike in the jungle where we encountered a troupe of wild capuchin monkeys.  (That was AMAZING). These were all hard-fought victories for him.  It took many years of swimming lessons for Aaron to be confident enough to put his face in the water, never mind jump off a boat.  Even five years ago, he’d balk at the notion of going for any kind of walk by sitting on the ground and refusing to budge.  It has taken supportive community support folks, Physical Education teachers, Special Olympics, a move to a warmer climate and many meandering walks to the grocery store to get him to the point of hiking in the jungle.

Pura Vida is a popular saying in Costa Rica.  It roughly translates to ‘a slower life’ or a ‘pure life.’  A more literal translation from Spanish is ‘nothing but life.’

While Aaron is not on this earth to inspire us (as explained well by the late great Stella Young), he does live a full life.  I did not know this was possible when he was first born.  Everybody told us how hard life would be, but nobody told us about the Pura Vida.  Our family has made damn sure that Aaron lives a good life (and we do too, through our fortunate association with him).

How I wish I had a crystal ball during the dark time of Aaron’s diagnosis almost 16 years ago to catch this little glimpse into his future.  How I wish that instead of being handed that stupid book about every possible thing that could go ‘wrong’ with babies with Down syndrome that I had been connected with another family with an older child to see that our lives were not over. In fact, Aaron’s diagnosis offered us the beginning of a new life instead.  Yes, in many ways having a son with an intellectual disability has made our lives slower. But a slow life is not a bad life.  It is just a different life.  And don’t you think we all could use a sprinkling of a little Pura Vida too?  xo.

just the way you are

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The older my son gets, the less I am interested in fixing him.  This has been a gradual dawning over the past 15 years, since he was first diagnosed with Down syndrome.  Our family now lives in a bubble that we’ve carefully created around us.  We surround ourselves with people who believe in him.  We purposely chose his high school where educators believe he can learn and grow.  If friends and family are uncomfortable or embarrassed by him they are no longer welcome in our lives.  We have lost many people. Our world has shrunk to the size of those who accept my son as he is.

It was not always this way. When my son was younger, I dragged him to many therapies and interventions.  I think this is something all families go through, which stems in part from the pressure we feel from the medical system to fix our children.  I was determined to have the best child with Down syndrome ever!  I also wonder if part of my need to change my son had to do with my own discomfort with his disability.  What’s the fine line between helping him reach his full potential and making him ‘normal’ so he will fit into the typically-developing world. This meant trying (and failing) to erase his extra 21st chromosome.  If I truly believed that disability is a natural part of the human fabric, why was I trying to change him?

When my son was born, I wanted to change him to be accepted into the world.
Then I wanted to change the world so he would be accepted. 
I finally realized that the only thing I could change is myself.
-Unknown author

This week I was at a CHILD-BRIGHT Annual Meeting in Montreal.  I stepped out of my bubble into the real world of academics, clinicians and researchers.  I realized how soft and warm my self-selected bubble is.  Not everybody feels that people with disabilities are fine just the way they are.

CHILD-BRIGHT is a collection of projects dedicated to child health research for children and youth with a brain-based disability.   Most of the research is conducted within a medical model.  I wrote down snippets of the language used by the researchers:

‘Quality of life’  ‘Deficits’  ‘Intervention’ ‘Problems’ ‘Bad Outcomes’ ‘Subjects’ ‘Populations’

I believe in my heart that most researchers are passionate about what they do because they want to help make life easier for our children.  I do appreciate their dedication to their work.  But I wonder if the dollars would be better directed to creating an inclusive and welcoming world for people with brain-based disabilities instead.  What my son really needs is a less-hostile world.  He needs people with influence to advocate for disability rights, inclusive education, employment, housing + basic assured income. (Advocacy has traditionally been a family’s responsibility.  But we are tired, so terribly tired, and we need help).

I’m not diminishing the importance of research.  But I wonder if we can expand the scope of research to include what matters to families and people with disabilities beyond chasing a cure. Maybe researchers could support families to celebrate (and help the world at least accept) our children just the way they are.