When I was in high school I worked as a lifeguard at several community pools. It was at one of those pools when I first encountered a child with Down syndrome.
I don’t remember his
name, and his age was unclear, but I suppose he was a teenager. He'd
appear often on the pool deck, drop his towel, whip off his shirt and
take a running dive—more like a painful belly-flop—into the water. He’d
swim flat-out with windmill arms for about ten lengths before hopping
out, beet red. Then he’d dry off, don his shirt and exit as swiftly as
he had arrived. I have thought of him often over the years wondering
what his parents were like, who his friends were and what he liked to
do besides swim.
Throughout my college years I
continued to meet a handful of other youths and adults with Down
syndrome, mostly at grocery stores, bagging my food items or retrieving
carts with what seemed to me great care and pride. I happily engaged
with them if they showed any interested.
And while watching the film Fried Green Tomatoes nearly twenty years ago
I was quite moved during a particular scene. In it, Jessica Tandy plays
Ninny Threadgoode, an old woman living in a nursing home who, at one
point wearing a bright smile, talks about her child in a soft southern
"When he was born, the doctor said it would be best if I didn't
see him. He said his mind wouldn't develop past the age of five, and I
should put him in an institution, because the burden of raisin' a child
like that would be too great."
She went on to say:
"I smiled at him and I asked for the baby. Why, from the minute he
was born, Albert was the joy of my life. The Lord's greatest gift. I
don't believe there was a purer soul on this earth. I had him with me
til' he was 30. Then he went to sleep and he didn't wake up. Sometimes
I can't wait to get to Heaven to see him again."
That scene left an enduring impression on me though it would be years before I had a child of my own.
My observations and encounters—and subsequently the film scene—came
together into a kind of mosaic that compelled me to ask myself, even as
a young person, “what if I had a child with Down syndrome?” I wondered
if I might become depressed, fall into a downward spiral and plunge deep
into a black despair. Might I run away or kill myself? My answer was
always a resounding “no.”
No, I wouldn't. I'd remain
the hopelessly optimistic person I have always been. I would prove to
be a wonderful mother to this child. He would become the light of my
life and I would help him realize his full potential. I would love him
for all of his features unique to him.
I am thankful that these questions occurred to me. I have
no idea whether my peers pondered these same kind of realities. Calvin doesn't have Down syndrome but was I having some sort of premonition about him? I don’t
think so. My query might be more adequately explained by the fact that I have always thought it paramount to consider
the life of another and wonder how it would be if it were mine.