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.

miguelito’s little green car

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My son Aaron was involved in a fun project with talented Edmonton-based photographer Leroy Schulz.  It is called Miguelito’s Little Green Car.  Aaron joins the ranks of celebrities like Kate Middleton and Gordon Ramsay who have had their photos taken by Leroy with this little green car.  (Aaron was especially thrilled to have his picture join Snoop Dogg’s).

Leroy explains the intention of the project:

This project is meant to remind us that we are all connected. Thousands of people from around the world from all walks of life are interconnected through the green car.

The photo itself is fabulous  It was taken on our terrace last week just before the big snow on the west coast.  I especially love Aaron’s interview and how he describes himself.  He speaks with brevity and communicates what parts of his identity are most important to him – you will note that his YouTube channel ranks up there.  He spends hours of his time working on Dangerously Waddingham.

I am in Grade 10 and almost 16 years old. I was born in Edmonton but now I live on a mountain in Burnaby, British Columbia. I have Down syndrome. This means I have an extra chromosome in my DNA.

I want to be a YouTube star!

Indeed, we are all connected, no matter (or does it matter?) how many chromosomes we have.  Being human is simply enough reason to be connected. Do not fear the differing chromosomes.

While I adore initiatives like Rick Guidotti’s Positive Exposure program, I’m also a big fan of the organic inclusion of disabled people like my son in regular campaigns – not as a ‘special’ addition, but just as a matter of course.

Bravo to Leroy for expanding the diversity of the Little Green Car’s portfolio.  This is much more than a picture.  Aaron’s inclusion in Miguelito’s Little Green Car project demonstrates to our son that he matters too.

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.

intelligent lives

The year after our baby boy was diagnosed with Down syndrome, colleagues at my husband’s workplace – a department at the Ministry of Health – were gathering donations in my son’s name for our local Down syndrome awareness walk.  Peggy, one of my husband’s co-workers, was asked if she’d like to donate.  She responded:

Why should I contribute to someone who contributes nothing to society?

Fifteen years later, that comment still stings me like a slap across my face.  As a new mom, I was naive as to how the world values – and does not value – people who have disabilities, including little babies like mine.  Peggy was my rude wake-up call.  (There is a tiny bit of irony that someone like Peggy worked for the Ministry of Health).

Peggy’s response begs these questions:  What determines a person’s worth?  Is it how much they contribute to the economy? Is it how smart they are? Is it their IQ score?

Last night, the documentary Intelligent Lives was screened by UBC’s Centre for Inclusion and Citizenship.  Dan Habib is a well known filmmaker and disability-rights advocate.  His youngest son Samuel  has cerebral palsy and was featured in his first documentary Including Samuel.  I watched this film almost ten years ago, when Aaron was five years old and it struck me then how much the inclusion of Samuel in the elementary setting benefited the other children in the class, not just Samuel.   Habib has a TEDx Talk on this same subject.  Research backs theory this up – for references, see my post What Inclusion Means to Us.

There are many people like Peggy in the world who feel that disabled people like my son are a burden.  Intelligent Lives challenges this ableist view in two ways – first by following the stories of three young adults with intellectual disabilities as they travel through their lives searching for belonging.  Micah, Naieer and Naomie’s stories are human stories, as they figure out their own identities along the way.  Woven in with their tales is actor Chris Cooper’s steady narration explaining the dark history of using IQ testing to determine potential.  As he says, low IQ was a one-way admission ticket to an institution.

IQ testing and scores have been used in the past to set immigration policy, determine a soldier’s rank, institutionalize people with disabilities and to support eugenics, including those policies in Nazi Germany.  What is particularly chilling is that IQ testing and scores are still being used today, in 2018, by our governments to determine need and ability.

I’ve been railing against IQ testing for people with intellectual disabilities for a long time.  In the Province of British Columbia, a child with Down syndrome cannot access respite funding or therapies or programs run by disability support agencies unless the families prove their child has an intellectual disability.  This is done through psycho-educational testing, which includes an IQ test.  Wait lists for this publicly-funded testing run from months to years or you can pay $3,000 out of your own pocket to have the test done by a private psychologist.

I have to prove to the government that my son with Down syndrome has an intellectual disability.  If he tests too high – over 70 – he will be turned down for services, even if he ends up with a score of 71.

Habib’s film strongly attests that IQ tests meaningless – and even worse – that IQ testing is racist and ableist.  The tests are not adapted or modified when they are administered to children with intellectual disabilities, which means my son takes a test where he is set up only to fail.  To me, IQ testing treads on my son’s dignity as a human being and is a stupid way to prove he needs therapies and that our family needs support.

IQ scores serve only to put people in boxes.  Intelligent Lives points out that people have multiple intelligences that we need to broaden our understanding of what intelligence actually is.

The deeper question for me is why do we have to prove that people with intellectual disabilities have value and worth in the first place?

If I could travel back in time, I’d march right over to Peggy’s cubicle and tell her this: Having an advanced education or a fancy job or even a high IQ does not make you a better person than my son.

My son has value because he is a human being and that’s simply enough.

 

 

 

The Wonder

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My kids: Ella, Isaac + brand new Aaron, 2003.

Note: this essay is based on my talk at The Wonder Years Workshop at the Edmonton Down Syndrome Society on February 25, 2018.  It was a true honour to speak to this group of new families who have babies with Down syndrome.

My youngest son is now almost 15 years old. The trajectory of our entire family’s lives changed when his doctor uttered the words ‘Down syndrome.’ I’ll never forget that moment – I can remember every detail – how the room smelled and even the shoes my doctor was wearing.

Aaron’s diagnosis was a significant time for me, bordering on the traumatic. The baby we expected was not the baby we got. I irrationally blamed myself, thinking I was too old and I had grown up too close to the refineries – irrational thoughts when I was neck-deep in grief.

As the years have passed, the intense grief has faded as I’ve realized that there is loss associated with parenting all children. No child is perfect and all children are hard work. But with typically developing children, we learn this lesson gradually as they grow up. With our kids with Down syndrome, we are told this immediately upon diagnosis. For me, it felt as if I had been hit by a truck.

We must honour the healing that comes from the dark times. For many months, I felt like I had a suffocating blanket thrown over my head. I was mourning the loss of the so-called perfect baby. I had to grieve for the baby I thought I was going to have in order to accept the baby I got. My baby boy did not allow me to stay stuck in the grief. Looking back, there were many factors that helped me move forward to see the light again. I want to share my story of gradually appreciating the wonder that is our son.

Coming to The Wonder Years is an important step to start building your own community. Finding other moms who had babies with Down syndrome saved me. Fifteen years ago, there were no moms groups, no EDSS office space – but us four moms with our tiny, flexible babies with almond eyes – found each other. We would get together every month at each other’s houses with our wee ones. Helga, Veronica and Karen were my saving grace. They knew what it was like to have an unexpected child with Down syndrome and we could talk to each other freely and without judgment.

Today Aaron is friends with these (now) teenagers, who he first met when he was 5 months old. He and Helga’s son Vincent spend a glorious weekend each summer on their family boat in the Okanagan – endlessly jumping off into the lake, tubing and engaging in rowdy burping contests. Aaron and Veronica’s son Andrew Face Time each other regularly – I can hear the two of them roaring with laughter on the iPad in Aaron’s room. These friendships in my new community began by helping me, a lonely sad mom – but have evolved into deeper relationships for our entire family, including our son with Down syndrome. Aaron needed to find his own people too. However you find your peeps – through in-person connections, via social media – it doesn’t matter. When you are ready, reach out. You will need each other throughout the years.

My personality is good for people – for love – like my family. –Aaron, age 15

Having Aaron in our lives has changed our entire family. He has infused all of us with wonder. He has two older siblings who were 6 and 9 when he was first born. His sister Ella, now 21 and in third year nursing school, reflected back on how Aaron has made a difference in her life:

Aaron has taught me to be more patient and more inclusive, accepting and nonjudgmental at an earlier age than most of my peers. Honestly, it is cheesy to say but he truly is a bright light in this world. He’s kind, smart and HILARIOUS and he changes the lives and opinions of everyone who takes the time to get to know him. He’s why I wanted to be a nurse – not to cure sick people, but to see the spark that is so often ignored in vulnerable populations.

Aaron’s older brother shares similar sentiments, adding that Aaron has greatly strengthened his compassion. And my husband, Aaron’s dad, emphasizes that Aaron has challenged him in ways he didn’t expect, but also warns not to underestimate your child’s ability to learn or enjoy the things you enjoy. (For example, Aaron loves swimming competitively, watching Oilers’ hockey and eating hamburgers just like his dad). The majority of our children’s genes come from their mom and dad – it is only the one chromosome that is extra. Don’t forget that our kids are more like us than they are like Down syndrome.

My friend KC offers up this wisdom: throw out the milestone charts and celebrate every hard-won achievement. Only surround yourself with family and friends who love and support you and your child, she says. Make connections with other families within your new community and keep them close. And be flexible in the direction you choose – there are lots of decisions about therapy, preschool, recreation that will need to be made. You will make the best decision at the time and it is okay if that choice doesn’t stay the same. As your child grows and changes, you will too. This constant recalibration is hard for those of us who want control and a crystal ball in life. I’ll add: listen to your heart; it will always tell you what to do.

Speaking of hearts, please remember to be kind to yourself in this new life. Find yourself safe spaces where you can feel all your feelings.   You don’t have to be strong all the time. Do more of what nourishes you. Often we search for meaning once we’ve had a child with Down syndrome – we do this through our necessary advocacy work to make the world a better place for those with differences. This is important work, but also remember to take time for yourself, your partner and your kids too. Changing the world is exhausting so it is crucial to take breaks and allow others to take their turn to change the world too. It is hard to be vulnerable and ask for help, but that’s what I’ve had to do.

As Natalie Merchant says in her song Wonder:

 I believe, fate, fate smiled
Destiny laughed as she came to my cradle
Know this child will be able
Laughed as my body she lifted
Know this child with be gifted
With love, with patience, and with faith
She’ll make her way.

You and your child can – and will – live a good and rich life. Have love, patience and faith (whatever faith means to you) and listen closely to your child with Down syndrome. You and your baby are valued, worthy and loved. I promise that your child, above all else, will be the one to help you find your way.