Tough Questions

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As part of Down Syndrome Awareness Month, I will be blogging everyday for the entirety of October to take the 31 posts for Trisomy 21 challenge. I encourage you to reach out and read the other blogs of fabulous parents as they write this month to bring awareness, too. I’ll be sharing some of their posts on Facebook. If you can find the time, continue reading this month, their stories and children are amazing!

But for now, here’s Post #2…..

When Annie was born we had a lot of tough questions to figure out and face for ourselves. So imagine the questions we were bombarded with by others as we brought Annie home and shared the news of her diagnosis.

My family lives in Rome, Italy. A LONG way from home. My husband’s work brought us here just over two years ago. My husband works for an amazing study abroad program, The John Felice Rome Center, one of the campuses of Loyola University Chicago.

The Rome Center has somewhat of a large history in our relationship. Though not the place where we met, it is the reason we met; a long story for another day. Just eight months after we were married, we found out we would be moving to the place that, as fate would have it, brought the two of us together. Then, just three months later, the day before we moved here, we found out we were expecting our firstborn. We couldn’t have been happier. What an adventure starting our family would be!

When we were packing in Chicago for our big move, I was excited and anxious for our new life abroad. I dreamt about the travel we would do, the food we would eat, the places we’d see together, the memories we’d make. What I didn’t expect, was that one of my favorite parts about living here, is being surrounded by college students. The students here come across an ocean to study in a foreign country. Most of them have never been to Europe before. We witness so many “aha” moments as they experience the world at their fingertips. It really is an amazing thing to be a part of. And a wonderful atmosphere for Annie to grow up in, surrounded always by so much young energy and enthusiasm for life.

Every four months a new class shows up at the gates of our campus. They are usually curious about the family that lives among them. Part of my husband’s job is living on campus. In cases of emergency, he is the go to guy. Our first semester here, the students were excited about the news of a pregnancy. Many of the students from that semester have never met Annie, but were excited about her arrival. The next set of students were even more anxious for her arrival as my belly grew each week. They were here when she was born and here to welcome her to her new home. Many of them didn’t understand or know what to think about her diagnosis. There was much curiosity, as there always is with each incoming class since, about Annie and what her diagnosis means for her and our family.

This is where some of the tough questions began. I knew there would be questions, I just wasn’t prepared for some of them. The great thing about college students though, is that they are so impressionable. They are much more mature than they were in high school and not ashamed or embarrassed to ask questions, even the tough questions. Though most of the questions stemmed from tremendous stereotypes, myths and even ignorance, (heck, even I was ignorant about a lot to do with Down Syndrome upon the news of her diagnosis) I am SO glad the questions are asked. Though hard to swallow,they are never hard to respond to. Answering their questions brings awareness and understanding. They take back with them the facts about Down Syndrome and help to change the stereotypes and myths and spread what they know from meeting my family and, especially, from knowing Annie. The best thing about living here, on campus, is that we bring awareness every day.

When we brought our new bundle home to the university, there were (thank God) congratulatory signs and welcome signs and “We missed you” signs. Though curious, there was still celebrating. But slowly, as we starting bringing the baby out more, the questions came.

Do they have the right kinds of institutions for her in Italy?

Will she be able to talk?

Will she be able to go to school?

Didn’t you have the testing?

Will she have to live with you forever?

So Down Syndrome must run in your family, huh?

Aren’t you too young to have a baby with Down Syndrome? I thought only older mothers had them?

I wasn’t asked this last one directly, only heard by word of mouth, that a young sophomore was wondering if I had taken drugs, drank or smoked during my pregnancy? And if that is what caused the Down Syndrome?

So many misconceptions. So many stereotypes to overcome. But most importantly, an incredible opportunity to right the myths, do away with awful stereotypes, so many minds to influence and change.

(I am certain, that many of you reading this may have the same questions about Down Syndrome. Read on tomorrow for stereotype and myth busters.)

 Of all these encounters I’ve had with these students, my toughest wasn’t a question really at all. More like a confession. And I was NOT prepared for it, though I think I handled it ok.

It sort of went like this…

“When I heard that your daughter had Down Syndrome, the first thought that came to my mind was, ‘less than human’.”  He explained that he had no experience ever being around an individual with Down Syndrome and these were the images that society had placed in his mind. He said he knew many individuals terminated pregnancies because of DS, so he thought “they must be less than human or why would they make these decisions.”  The individual asking me about her, was so ashamed to admit his thoughts, he had tears streaming down his face as he confessed these things to me. I responded to his honesty with my own tears, placed my 100% human daughter in his arms and  said this, “Oh, insert young man’s name, you couldn’t be more wrong. My friend Eric is 27. He was born with Down Syndrome. I have known him since he was born. He is more “human” than anyone I have ever met. He knows the exact moment you need a hug and doesn’t hold back, just comes straight at you with open arms and embraces you in, literally, the world’s best hug. His smile stretches more grandly across his entire face than any smile you’ve ever seen. I don’t know how he does it, but he smiles with his entire self, it’s overwhelmingly genuine and powerful. It can light up the dimmest room. He’s always, ALWAYS happy to see me. And never forgets to ask how I am. If I am having a bad day, and Eric walks through the back door for an unexpected visit, all is made right. His love and enthusiasm for life is so contagious, any and all worries seem to melt away in his presence.” I then said, “If that’s not human, I don’t know what is.”

If I am not certain of anything else, I am certain that young man’s distorted view of Down Syndrome was changed that day. That by listening to my stories and by interacting with my daughter, he will forever view Down Syndrome in a different, better light.

I will never forget these encounters, even though they sometimes sting a little, especially the last one. But I am grateful for the curiosity and honesty. Because how can we do away with the stereotypes and myths if we don’t face them. These students did not mean any harm, they were just genuinely worried for Annie. As Annie has grown and is developing and as her smile brightens up the campus on a daily basis, the questions have become fewer and farther between. She teaches them through just being herself; not really that different than any other baby they might encounter. She makes them aware that people with Down Syndrome have enormous potential and an important place in society. She wows them with her communication skills, her animal sounds, her infectious ciao and kisses, her applause after every song in Mass.

And the best part is, they really 100% open up to her. They fall in love with her, ask to hold her, beg to babysit (and we don’t even pay!) They look forward to seeing her at their calcio games. When I walk through a hall with her in my arms or her stroller, it is extremely rare that I get a “Hello Colleen, How are you today?” But instead I hear the excited squeals of “Baby Annie! Hi Annie! Annie, I love your dress!”, as arms reach at me from every angle to squeeze a baby cheek or grab her tiny irresistible toes, anything for a little piece of her.

At the end of each semester, as I ask students about their experience abroad and what influenced them the most, I am always amazed. Amazed that their answers aren’t: sitting under the Eiffel Tower in Paris, or climbing a mountain in Abruzzo, or speaking an entire conversation in another language with a stranger, camping in the dessert in Tunisia, staring at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel for hours, or taking up an invitation to a home cooked meal in an Italian home.

More often than not, it is the people they met, the friendships they made, and our Annie.

What more could I ask for?

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One response »

  1. What an amazing opportunity you guys have in Rome – teaching and sharing your Annie with so many young people who will undoubtedly have a hand in changing our world in the future. Every 4 months a new group – WOW – so many people you are touching! God MOST DEFINITELY does know what he is doing! 🙂

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