The piazza was almost entirely empty – eerily empty for a Friday afternoon – as we cut through to the final destination of our bus stop. It was a perfect June day, not a cloud in the sky. I remember noticing a couple sharing a panini on a bench under an enormous palm tree. But other than that, no one. I remember thinking, “Where is everyone?”
I wouldn’t have noticed them had the piazza been in its normal hustle bustle form. After passing the couple and their prosciutto and mozzarella, there they were, the only people between us and our stop. They must have been twenty yards in front of us, walking ahead, not toward us.
And though I could only see the backs of them, I knew. The way you recognize things others wouldn’t because you have experienced it first hand.
An elderly father and his daughter walked hand-in-hand. Her head hung low, even from behind I could tell she wasn’t taking her eyes off the ground. Her stature was short, her head a bit smaller, her arms hung loose and short at her side. She looked slumped over, even from behind.
I don’t know if it was her stature, her walk, or just my intuition; but I knew. I knew she was like Annie.
I don’t know what overcame me that day. Maybe it was because, living in Italy, I hadn’t had that many opportunities to connect with other families with children with Down Syndrome. Because of my language barrier I have found it difficult to reach out to the programs and support groups here. I stick to the comfort of online support and attend meetings and playgroups only when I am in the States. It wasn’t that this was the first individual with Down Syndrome I had ever seen in Italy. Ever since Annie was born, I see and notice individuals with Down Syndrome everywhere. On the bus. At the market. Outside of churches. In restaurants. Living in our neighborhood. I notice, I always notice. I had just never reached out. Maybe I wasn’t ready; maybe I lacked confidence because of my inability to communicate in Italian. I don’t know.
But something nudged me that day. I started walking as fast as I could without looking too anxious, Mike called out from behind me as he pushed Annie in the stroller, “Where are you going? What are you doing?” I ignored him. I was on a mission.
Somehow moments later I found myself just a couple yards behind them. The father must have been in his early seventies. White hair, wrinkled skin, a hunch to his walk, well-dressed, like most Italian men. The woman wore a long sleeved purple shirt and blue jeans with sneakers. Her hair was dark and graced the edge of her face and top of the back of her neck in a short bob. There was no conversation between the two of them as I approached.
I cleared my throat and then I thought, “Now what, you fool! You don’t even speak Italian!” But somehow the words exited my mouth. “Mi scusi. Buona sera.” The father turned and I recognized the worry in his eyes. The fear I feel when I am not sure how a stranger will react to my daughter’s syndrome that is so obvious because of her appearance. “Will this stranger cringe at the sight of her difference and excuse herself and walk away? Will she reject the young woman, my daughter, attached to my arm? What does this woman want with us?”
But then the girl, who moments before had her eyes glued to the floor seeming to avoid all eye contact, sheepish and shy, immediately transformed. She turned to me and held her head up high. She was in her early forties. She had a beautiful complexion and deep dark brown almond-shaped eyes. She smiled and without a moment’s hesitation dropped her father’s hand and walked straight up to me and reached out with absolute confidence and kindness. She introduced herself and shook my hand. She asked my name and that’s as far as I understood. I panicked…”Don’t just stand there woman, say something, she’s waiting.” The father was apparently confused by this encounter. I explained that I was American and couldn’t speak much Italian and turned hoping Mike and Annie were close so he could save the day like he always does and be my translator.
They were. And as Annie rolled up, I saw the recognition in the father’s eyes. The confusion faded away, was replaced by an understanding smile. And before I knew it, the woman was shaking Mike’s hand and playing with Annie’s toes. She confidently introduced herself to them and asked how they were doing. She told us excitedly of her and her father’s plans for the day. They were going to an amusement park to ride all the rides. She shared what a fun and great day it had already been and that she planned to ride her favorite ride at least three times. The purest joy and proudness radiated from her as she told these strangers about her day.
We spoke in the middle of the piazza for a few minutes and then her father urged her on, reminded her that those rides were waiting. There was no mention of the words Down Syndrome between us that day; just two families bumping into each other and sharing a friendly encounter. We walked together then for a bit and when we arrived at our stop said our goodbyes. The father whispered, almost only lipped, the word “Grazie.” I am sure it was merely meant as a “Thank you, it was nice to meet you.” But as they crossed the street to walk away, I noticed the girl didn’t resume her slumped over, face to the ground stature. She walked with her head up and seemed even a little taller than before. So maybe my simple “Hello” made a small impact. Maybe it made her already wonderful day a bit brighter. I’d like to think so, but don’t know. I’d like to think that we gave them even a little bit of what they gave us that day.
What that simple hello did for me, I will never forget. It reminded me that Annie will bring so many special encounters like this. That families of individuals with Down Syndrome share an incredibly deep and special bond. It’s like we already know each other without even speaking. It gave me the confidence to reach out more often, language barrier or not. It showed me the tremendous potential of confidence and kindness in Annie.
But most importantly, it gave me a glimpse of our future with Annie. Here’s a parent of an adult with Down Syndrome, with years of experience beyond any I have met, and the best part is: he’s on his way to take his forty year old daughter to the amusement park. Excitement painted on her face like a six year old’s at Christmas. Her zest for life and fun completely contagious. And I thought, “Wow. I can’t wait!”
Annie already radiates so much excitement and joy over the littlest things. Seems so content and happy with whatever each day brings. I am certain she’ll be making sure we’re having fun and living everyday to the fullest for the rest of our days. We already call her our “roller-coaster baby” because of her sheer joy at being tossed in the air and her non-stop laughter during a bumpy stroller ride.
She may not be able to do certain things that other eighteen month old toddlers are enjoying, like being put down to go and run around a playground, or climbing the steps to a slide, or jumping on her own through a sprinkler. But my bet is that we’ll catch up. We’ve got plenty of time. That Annie will have and experience all that fun a million times over. And that when she’s forty, she’ll be dragging us to the roller coasters. That she’ll constantly be reminding us that life is a ride and to enjoy it everyday. And baby girl, the ride’s already been so great.