On August 15th, 2010, exactly one week before our one year anniversary, we found out we were going to be parents. We were leaving our home in Chicago to move across an ocean to make a new home in Rome. I took a pregnancy test an hour before our going away party. We were ecstatic! And it was hard to hide the news from the hundreds of friends and family we were saying goodbye to on this day. We kept our mouths shut and our excitement concealed (or at least camouflaged by our equal excitement of moving to Rome). My husband flew to Rome the next morning. We said goodbye to each other for two weeks. In the meantime, I made an appointment with my OB/GYN in Chicago. She confirmed that I was indeed pregnant, though only around 5 weeks, and set the due date for April 27. She also sarcastically wished me luck as she wasn’t sure what I was to expect in a foreign country for my first pregnancy. Told me to stay away from those delicious Italian cheeses and sliced meats, and of course, the wine. She said they may have their rules, but I better stick to hers.
We knew a pregnancy abroad, on top of the usual challenging adjustments moving abroad could bring, would be tough. As this was my first pregnancy, you can imagine my reaction to finding out that the doctor my husband found for us doesn’t speak English. Three days after my arrival in Rome, we went for our first appointment. The doctor hardly talked to me, she just spoke to Michael and had him translate to me. We saw the heartbeat for the first time. We were told again that the due date was April 27. This is a special date for us, especially for Michael’s family, as it is his grandfather’s birthdate. Things couldn’t be more perfect.
The pregnancy progressed. My Italian didn’t. Michael had to accompany me to every appointment. I say “had to,” but I loved it and I know he did too. I am so glad he was there for every monthly appointment. Our relationship grew stronger than it ever had been. I wasn’t used to being so dependent, but with the language barrier, it forced me to rely on him in ways I never had or thought I ever wanted to before. Don’t get me wrong, there were unpleasant moments. Like the tears after most appointments because I felt he wasn’t telling me “EVERYTHING” the dottoressa was saying. I must insert an example of how the conversations between the three of us would go. Italian is a beautiful language. The words seem to spill off the tongue effortlessly. But things take a lot longer to say. So my doctor would say something like, “È necessario aumentare di peso, MANGIA!! E, hai bisogno di più riposo.” And I would sit there clueless on the edge of my chair thinking I was about to receive a novel of information from my husband. And Mike would turn to me and casually say “She says you should eat and rest more.” Are you kidding me?!!! This was so frustrating. It’s one thing to be pregnant for the first time in a foreign place, but quite another to have entirely no clue what your doctor is saying.
There were “Italian rules” I wasn’t expecting. For instance, I wasn’t allowed to exercise. Walking was fine, but that’s it. My favorite rule was “minimal time riding in cars!” The cobblestones make the ride “too bumpy” for the baby. There were also “Italian experiences,” cultural differences, mostly lovely once I got over the initial shock of complete strangers touching my belly without warning. Anytime I took my coat off at a restaurant or in a clothing boutique, women of all ages would flock to me and place their hands on my growing bump. At the grocery store, the lines would part like the Red Sea as I was gently shoved to the front of the line. A seat, or four, on the bus were instantly given up for me. Italians also feel it’s their duty to give you unwanted advice. “You are SO big, too big! Walk! Stop eating fruits, too much sugar!” “You are too small! Mangia! (EAT!)” “Why aren’t you wearing eight scarves?” This last one would be said to me in 70 degree weather.
I learned quickly how to say “Sono incinta. No grazie per il vino o limoncello.” Also, because we weren’t finding out the sex, to say “Non lo so. Una sorpresa.” All the attention was overwhelming, but completely endearing. As I fell in love with the tiny baby growing inside me, I was simultaneously falling in love with Italy, my new home. Where complete strangers shared in the excitement of your pregnancy, regardless of language barriers. Everything about Italy was warm and welcoming, especially the people.
I couldn’t believe my life. Almost daily, I felt as if I needed to be pinched and awoken from a dream. I was getting ready to become a mother for the first time (my greatest lifelong dream) and I was living in Italy (something I could have never even dared to dream.)
But as I sit and reminisce on my first year here, I’d be lying if I said it was easy. Immediately upon my arrival to my new home, the “morning” sickness set in. I really don’t know why they call it “morning sickness,” I’m pretty sure it should be referred to as “all day sickness.” I was sick ALL THE TIME. I couldn’t keep anything down and I was losing weight rapidly in my first trimester. I had, just three months before I moved to Rome, found out that I am gluten-intloerant. I wasn’t completely adjusted to the dietary changes and being in the land of pasta, pastries, and pizza was like torture. All I craved during my pregnancy, especially in the first months, was carbs. I spent more time sitting on the floor in the bathroom getting acquainted with my new toilet than the streets, piazzas, and monuments of Rome.
Aside from the physical sickness from the pregnancy, I was tremendously homesick. I had a hard time adjusting to life abroad. Most of the time it was a tremendous chore to get myself up and going, I had very little energy. Days that I did drag myself out for an errand, I’d find myself frustrated over “siesta” hours when everything is closed. Or when I craved something in the middle of the night, or after 8 p.m. for that matter, there was no way to get it until the next morning when stores reopened and my craving had disappeared. I could hardly eat or muster up an appetite, my doctor was constantly yelling at me to gain weight, and when I actually had an appetite or felt like eating I couldn’t get to the food I wanted.
But, I LOVED that I was pregnant, LOVED, LOVED, LOVED pregnancy, regardless of how sick it made me. I couldn’t wait to be a mom. Every morning when Mike would get up and leave for work, I would get the laptop and wrap it around my belly and lay in bed listening to Mozart and Beethoven with my baby for an hour. It became my routine. And by week twenty, my little baby was enthusiastically responding to our musical mornings. I would lay there in heaven as I felt her “dance” as the music played. And though I was sick and tired all the time, I counted my blessings that I had the freedom to do this. It was wonderful. I will forever treasure those mornings.
And Mike and I were obviously so thrilled to be expecting our first baby. We would lie in bed for hours at night picking out names and predicting what our baby would look like, what his or her personality would be. We picked all the places we would take him or her first. We planned to bring up this child bilingual and were thrilled for the opportunity to bring him or her up overseas. I recorded homemade baby food recipes. We painted the nursery. Like all expecting parents, we couldn’t wait to meet this kid.
And then Christmas break came. I was due for my 20 week ultrasound, and it just so happened that our appointment for it was at 22 weeks. My entire family was arriving to spend the week with us in Rome the morning of our appointment. I truly believe God works in mysterious ways, because they arrived just when I needed them most. After experiencing the highest of elations that came with welcoming my parents and siblings and future brother-in-law to my new home in Rome, I headed off for my ultrasound with Mike. It was exciting to see our growing baby kicking and wiggling with balled up fists resting on her cheeks. The technician measured the head and limbs and had us turn our heads when it came to the part that would reveal the sex. We watched in awe as she zoomed in on the heart and we saw that tiny heart beat. Tears welled in my eyes, I was SO happy. And then we sat down at the conclusion of the ultrasound and the doctor had to tell us that they found something, an “abnormality.” For the first time in our entire pregnancy a translator had to be brought in. This was serious and scary.
Our doctor explained that I had a single umbilical artery. Umbilical cords typically have two arteries and one vein. Mine only had one of each. She explained that this could be a marker for a few different things. It indicated a 25% chance that the baby would be born with Down Syndrome, a higher chance that the baby would have a serious heart defect that would require operation after birth, or that the baby would be unable to survive the pregnancy, or that nothing could be wrong and the baby would be born completely healthy. I crumbled. As I composed myself a little more, the doctor then said, “You need to make a decision and fast, you only have five days if you’d like to proceed with testing.” We had initially decided against genetic testing. I was confused. Why now? Why just five days? The doctor then explained that we only had five days because the fifth day was the last day we could legally terminate the pregnancy. If I crumbled upon the news of the abnormality, I was completely shattered at the last bit of information. Never, we would never terminate the pregnancy. Once I said that out loud, I was able to again begin to compose myself. I asked, “Why else? Why else would we go forward with testing at this point?” Her only response was, “To prepare. To prepare for a diagnosis of Down Syndrome.” We didn’t know what to do, we knew there was a higher risk of hurting the baby during the procedure of amniocentesis this late in the pregnancy. Our initial reaction was “No.” Our doctor told us to go home and sleep on it. Home. Where I had eight people waiting for me to come with happy news of how the ultrasound went.
I walked in the door and fell into my sister’s arms. She let me cry (sob) for a few minutes before demanding to know what was going on. We talked through it. With her medical background she was all about odds and finding stories where the single artery meant nothing. She kept me optimistic that our baby would be “fine,” would be one of the 75% of babies with single artery umbilical cords to be born completely healthy without Down Syndrome or a heart defect. She calmed me down. We joined the rest of our family at my favorite restaurant in Rome. We had a wonderful meal until Michael got a call from the states. His grandmother had passed away. A big day for bad news.
In bed that night, I turned to Mike and asked what he thought about naming the baby, if it was a girl, after his grandmother he lost just that day. Mike’s grandmother was baptized “Anne Kathleen,” but always went by Kathy. I suggested naming her the same, but taking the first name and calling her Annie. Mike’s eyes filled with tears as he said, “it’s perfect.” We had been 100% set on a boy’s name, but had been discussing girls’ names almost nightly (since both of us had a feeling this baby was a girl) and had a list of about 10 that we kept going back and forth on. “Annie” wasn’t on the list.
The next morning we were heading to the train station before 7 in the morning to spend a day in gorgeous Assisi. Mike and I had decided the night before that we would not go forward with the testing. We would enjoy the rest of our pregnancy. We didn’t need to prepare, because we already loved this baby and would love her no matter what “defect” she had. But as you know, no parent wants anything to be “wrong” with their baby. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t pray for her not to have Down Syndrome. I wanted a beautiful, happy, healthy baby like all expecting mothers. We called our doctor from the platform of the train station in Assisi to share the news that we were not going to go forward with testing. She let out a sigh of relief and told us she was proud of us and that she believed we made the best decision.
About a week later we had an appointment to meet with a pediatric cardiologist for an ultrasound of the baby’s heart. Science is amazing. Seeing your baby inside you through ultrasound is one thing. But being able to see your baby’s heart, all four chambers and watching the blood flow through a heart the size of an olive, is astonishing! The doctor told us he found nothing. That the baby’s heart was completely fine. Surgery wouldn’t be needed after he or she was born. He also pointed out that 60% of babies with Down Syndrome have heart defects that require surgery. Since we knew during the pregnancy that she didn’t have a heart defect, we figured that lessened her odds of having Down Syndrome. Great news! Our baby had a healthy heart. We began to breathe.
We traveled in January with our Spring semester students to Pompeii and the beautiful Almalfi Coast. I was starting to feel better and able to hold my food down. I ate three gelati almost everyday! My energy returned and I was up for exploring Rome. I walked everywhere, begin to get deeply acquainted with my new city. I found the best way to learn a new city is to let yourself get entirely and completely lost. And being pregnant was a major bonus here…everyone was eager to help a lost pregnant lady. My baby bump was growing and everyone was beginning to join in our excitement. A baby on campus!
Around month seven, I got terribly sick. I spent fifteen hours in the hospital. I was having early contractions and losing fluid. Once they filled me up with I.V. fluids and felt it was safe to send me home, I was put on strict bed rest. I had to be put on a medication to stop the contractions. And Mike had to give me four shots in the rear daily. Not fun! I was just a couple weeks away from the 35 week mark. This was our goal. We had to make it to at least 35 weeks. After almost three weeks of bed rest and a strict diet of white rice with olive oil (YUCK!), I was feeling better and able to be back on my feet and out and about, but was warned not to push myself. The baby’s due date was a full month away.
On March 31, Mike’s student-life assistants (colleagues who also live here on campus) convinced me it was time to take some pictures of my pregnant belly. They had been trying to get me to agree to a “photo shoot” for months. I was not having it. After months of their pleading and sending me pics of other pregnancy pictures, I caved. Around 4:00 p.m. I let them doll me up and pretty much roll my enormous self to different spots around campus. I hated every minute of getting my picture taken, but LOVE and treasure the photos that I wouldn’t have if they hadn’t coerced me. And the best part is that at the time the pictures were taken I didn’t know what was coming the very next day, just 24 hours later!
That same night I was hosting a chili night for some of Mike’s colleagues . Our living room was filled with love and laughter. Around 10:00 p.m. as I sat down after finishing the large load of dishes, I began to notice that my stomach was tightening. I called my best friend back home and she ensured me that if I was talking through the tightening and wasn’t in any pain, they weren’t “real” contractions. We started recording them anyway. Every twelve minutes. By the time I went to bed, every ten. By morning my contractions were six minutes apart. But I was in no pain. My stomach would get tight and stay so for about a minute and then would go back to normal. This couldn’t be real labor! By noon they were about four minutes apart and I stopped by Mike’s office to tell him he should probably call the doctor. I walked in and was surprised at the very upset look on my normally laid back and happy husband’s face. Before I had the chance to get a word out, he looked up at me and said “I hate this day more than any other day!” When Mike was young, his even younger brother Andy was in a terrible accident. While he was walking to school a truck hit him and he was paralyzed. The date of the accident happened to be April, 1. A hard date for the Beazley Family. Tears welled in my eyes as I said, “I know. But I think your baby is going to be born today.” God works in mysterious ways, and now what was once a very sad date for our family is now a day of celebration, Annie’s birthday.
I left Mike’s office, grabbed the journal I had been recording my contractions in, and headed down to have lunch in the school cafeteria with some of my girlfriends. As we were eating my friend Carla looked at me strangely and said, “What’s this? What are you doing?” I replied, “Oh, it’s nothing. I am just writing down my contractions, but I don’t really think it’s anything, I’m not in any pain.” She then pointed out, “Colleen! You realize you are writing something down about every minute.” “Yeah,” I said. “They’re about a minute and a half apart.” “WHAT!!!???” simultaneously came out of the mouths of all the ladies at the table. I just laughed. I still wasn’t convinced these contractions were real.
After lunch, Mike told me that the doctor wanted to see us around 3:30 to see what was going on. And that she suggested I might want to start packing a bag for the hospital. I went home and called my mom. Her response surprised me. She said, “Colleen, when I was in labor with you it was the same. I was at your dad’s ten year high school reunion, and the entire evening my stomach would tighten about every two minutes, but I felt no pain, no discomfort. We stayed until almost 1:00 a.m. and then headed to the hospital in Chicago. When I got there they couldn’t believe how far along I was, they said I should have come in hours before.” This is when I became certain I would be meeting my baby in the next 24 hours.
I started to pack and 3:30 crept up on me. We headed to the clinic. Giorgia, our obstetrician, informed us that I was indeed having real contractions, but the baby wasn’t progressing at all and I had lost too much amniotic fluid for her to feel comfortable to induce. We would be having a c-section, and I was to go home and grab our things and meet her at the hospital as soon as possible. “We’re going to meet your baby today!”
“As soon as possible.” You’d think those words would have left us with some sense of urgency. Instead, I think they put us in a state of shock. We were going to meet our baby, and probably within the next couple of hours! We were dazed. We slowly made our way back to the car and headed back home to finish packing. I need to remind you here that we live on a University campus. It’s rare that I can leave my home without being stopped to talk to all the people who are always around. There isn’t an entrance where running into people is avoidable. I love this! But sometimes, like when you are in labor and in a hurry, it can make it impossible to get from our front door to the car in under 20 minutes. We told the people we passed we were heading out to have this baby. I think they were surprised by how casual we seemed upon sharing this news. We finally got to our home and I realized I wasn’t ready. I didn’t have ANYTHING for the baby. I grabbed ONE yellow (the most gender neutral color) baby sleep sack I had received from my mother-in-law that was sized 0-6 months! It was entirely too big, but pretty much all I had. I began to panic. I wasn’t ready, why am I not more like my incredibly organized and always prepared sister, Molly? She would’ve had the suitcase waiting by the door for months ahead of time. She would’ve had the perfect outfits for either a boy or a girl neatly folded on top. She would’ve had incredibly cute comfy clothes and pj’s for her hospital stay. I grabbed some sweats and an ugly cotton robe and shoved them in my bag. We got halfway out the door and I realized we were forgetting something. “Mike! We need to get the carseat!” And, “We need to get it out of the box!”
We called a cab. At this point it was nearly 5:00 p.m. A universal time for one thing, (maybe two if you include afterwork cocktails) TRAFFIC! I felt as though an earthworm would have beat us to the hospital. What should have been a 15-minute car ride turned into an hour. I nervously called both our families to deliver the news that we were going in for a c-section, that they should know their niece’s or nephew’s name in a few hours.
We got to the hospital at exactly 6:00 p.m. Our whole team of doctors had been there an hour waiting for us. My quirky anesthesiologist who I had only met a week before, met us at the door of our room. He got to work straight away and within five minutes my spinal block was complete. He was good, really good. I hardly felt a thing, yet still as the needle entered my lower back, tears streamed down my face. Mike was there to hold my hand, but then was swept away to make payments and fill out paper work. I was left with two nurses that didn’t speak a lick of English and a doctor that had very broken English but could sing every upbeat Beatles song. I think I must have heard all of Abbey Road while I waited for my husband to return and my body to go completely numb.
About every five minutes the nurse would come in and poke me with a safety pin to track my numbness. At about 6:45 I was ready. Mike was nowhere to be found. About five minutes later, (the longest five minutes of my life) he returned flustered. He was gone for so long because he was on the phone with the credit card company back in the states who weren’t allowing a payment in the amount of what a C-Section would cost to go through. We had about two minutes together in the room before our anesthesiologist and Giorgia returned to wheel me up to the operating room.
Though heavily drugged for the c-section, the next twenty minutes are incredibly clear. I was in a small very bright room with light blue or green tiles and lots of surgical metallic surfaces all around me. There were about nine doctors and nurses in the room all dressed in teal-ish green scrubs. I hadn’t been in the room but for thirty seconds and a light blue paper curtain was hanging above my mid-section to ensure I couldn’t see what was going on. Though I really wished I could’ve watched. My husband didn’t and for the next five minutes we were arguing over him watching our baby come into this world. It was important to me that one of us see it, plus I wanted him to give me the step-by-step of what was going on. It was important to him not to have to witness the love of his life being cut open. He won this battle when my quirky anesthesiologist came to the rescue and in his broken English calmed me down and said, “He can’t watch, I tell you.” He held my right hand and Mike crouched down to put his face against mine and held my left. And then at 6:59 p.m., in what seemed only thirty seconds later, Giorgia was holding my baby up in the air and exclaimed “Baby Emma! You have a girl!” Our reply was “Nope. Anne Kathleen.” We hadn’t shared any of our baby names with anyone, but our obstetrician had insisted we share our names with her during one of our routine monthly check-ups. When I was four months pregnant we thought the baby would be named Emma if a girl. I guess we forgot to tell Giorgia the change in plans.
And then even before I saw her, the uncontrollable tears came. I am sure only those who have given birth can understand this. It was as if a switch had been turned on or a fire hydrant busted open. I had never experienced emotion like this ever in my life. I was finally a mom, I had a daughter.
And then they placed her very gray and tiny 2.8 kilogram body on my left shoulder because I couldn’t hold her due to the anesthesia. Her tiny body fit in the crevice of my shoulder and collarbone. Her tiny face was so close to mine. It broke my heart that I couldn’t wrap my arms around her. Could only lie there and stare as her incredibly limp and gray in color body rested on my chest. And in an instant, I knew. I knew she had Down Syndrome. And though they took her away only seconds after they placed her on me, it wasn’t fast enough. I, in that awful moment, wanted them to take her away. And most horrifyingly, I wasn’t sure I wanted them to bring her back. I was so scared, this is not what was supposed to happen. Wasn’t it enough that I had been so sick? Wasn’t it enough that I had to have a c-section and almost a full four weeks early? Wasn’t it enough that I had to do this alone, without family present? Couldn’t anything be easy for us? The uncontrollable tears didn’t falter, but my emotions immediately went from one extreme of elation to grave despair. And then the most selfish pity party I’ve ever had. Why me? Why, why, why? What did I do to deserve this?
No one had told me anything was wrong. No one had even whispered the words Down Syndrome. But I knew. And after about thirty seconds of feeling I didn’t want this child, didn’t want our baby to have anything “wrong” with her, the guilt and worry set in. They took her away and I wouldn’t see her again for at least another hour. I lay there on the operating table completely numb and speechless while Mike called his grandfather and our parents back in the states with the happy news that our daughter was born, Anne Kathleen, Annie. But I wasn’t celebrating as he shared the news and celebrated with his family and mine. I was devastated. Two obstetricians began to put me back together. One sewing from the right and the other from the left, until they met at the center. And as they stitched me, one, two, and then three layers of my body, I thought, “They’re putting me physically back together, but I can never be fixed from this.” I’ll never be the same, never.
They wheeled me back to my room and I let myself drift into a deep sleep. And when I woke I asked Mike if and when the doctors had come in to tell us she had Down Syndrome. He said they hadn’t. I told him they were wrong, she had Down Syndrome, why weren’t they telling us this. In the next minute my tiny baby was wheeled in the room in her enormous yellow shirt. She seemed to be drowning in it. Her body so helpless and limp lost in the fabric. And as they placed her in my arms I felt as if I was drowning too. Lost in grief and worry and utter devastation. I asked the nurse that brought her in if everything was okay, she replied yes and quietly left the room. I looked at Mike and said the words again as tears streamed down my face. “She has Down Syndrome.” He replied, “They haven’t said anything, they would tell us, as far as I am concerned she’s fine until they tell us otherwise.” But I was angry and confused. I knew. I knew. I knew. Why wasn’t anyone else acknowledging this devastating news? I examined her closely. The eyes, her flat face, her coloring. It was so obvious. I wanted to scream. I wanted to run away, but my legs felt like two gigantic whales beached on the mattress beneath me. I couldn’t feel them or even move them with my arms. I was right, I was drowning.
I wanted my mom. My mom would make it better. She always knew what to say, had the most amazing perspective. I needed my sisters. They would fix this. They were the only ones who could even begin the task of putting me back together. But they were an ocean away. I remember Mike getting my dad on the phone for me, and he asked if everything was okay and I said that the doctors hadn’t sad anything, but “No. things were not okay, she was not okay. I believed she had Down Syndrome.” My sister, the nurse, called and went over physical features with me. “Does she have a single crease in the palm of her hand? Is there a big space between her big toes and the next? Are her ears low or folded? What do her eyes look like?” She spent hours on the phone with me assuring me that the doctors would have told me, that she was sure I was being crazy and everything was fine, that my daughter didn’t have Down Syndrome. That first night I just stared at Annie numbly. Held her in my arms, let her lay on my chest. I stared. I worried. I grieved. I kissed her over and over, but with tears of sadness streaming down my face. I did everything but celebrate my daughter’s first hours of life.
And then around midnight they took her away to sleep in the nursery. Around three in the morning I woke up in hysterics, sobbing uncontrollably. I hit the call button for the nurses and basically screamed at them to bring me my baby. They didn’t understand me at first. I had to calm down, I had to figure out how to communicate to them my needs in Italian. In about five minutes my daughter was at my side. I hadn’t until this moment even acknowledged her name aloud. I was too weak to lift her from the basinet and Mike was sleeping so I didn’t want to disturb him, so I turned on my side and pulled her as close to my bed as possible. I held her tiny hand in mine and I whispered, “Annie.” I must have repeated her name thirty times as tears streamed down my face and, so regrettably that it took me hours after she was born, I let myself love my daughter. “I love you. I love you. I love you.” I didn’t sleep I just stared at her until the sun came up and our first visitors arrived. I just stared at my baby ashamed at my thoughts the first hours of her life. Maybe I was wrong. The doctor’s would have told me, maybe I am just being crazy. Maybe she doesn’t have Down Syndrome. But it didn’t matter, she was mine, and I loved her with or without it. She was Annie and I loved her more than I ever loved anyone on this earth.
Around 9 in the morning Giorgia, my obstetrician, led two other doctors and a nurse into the room. By the looks on all four of their faces, I knew exactly the news they were here to deliver. Giorgia introduced the pediatrician, who then introduced the geneticist. They began with a congratulations. “You have a beautiful daughter.” And then they dropped the bomb. There were some concerns, some physical characteristics that made them suspect Down Syndrome. Mainly the tone in her muscles, which I had realized the night before was non-existant. They said they needed to run some tests to be sure. I was mad, angry. I had spent all night trying to convince myself that I was wrong. And now here was a team of doctors standing at my bedside confirming my greatest fear, my intuition had been correct. I’ll never forget that pediatrician and can’t ever forget the geneticist (who is now Annie’s amazing primary caregiver). They were so kind. They broke the news that there was currently a hole in Annie’s heart, but that they believed it would close on it’s own, that we would see in a few days. That she most definitely would not need open heart surgery. And that there was a small possibility that she would need a minor operation on her heart to close the hole. And also, that she failed her hearing. But ensured us that many newborns fail on the first test and comforted us by letting us know they would retest her in a couple weeks. They spoke of support groups and shared incredible stories, trying to bring hope for Annie back into the eyes of her incredibly scared parents.
The two men left with the nurse and Giorgia practically climbed in bed with me as she held my hands. She didn’t let go for almost two hours. We cried a little together and then she was strong as I cried and cried endlessly. She told me to cry now, but that I was never allowed to cry in front of Annie. She needed me to be strong. She then shared her own moments just after Annie was born and she and her colleague had finished stitching me. She told me she of course knew Annie had Down Syndrome from the moment she lifted her into the world. That it took everything for her to stay composed while finishing up the surgery. That as soon as the two of them were alone washing up in the scrub room, she began to cry. Her colleague then took her hands and told her not to cry for us, that his brother had Down Syndrome and it was the best thing that happened in their family, a gift. He told her to be happy for us, that this baby would bring so much love into our lives. Giorgia’s compassion and support that day will never be forgotten.
She left the room and I crumbled into my husband’s arms. I sobbed and once I could even lift my head, I choked out the words, “We have to go home now. I can’t do this here.” Our dreams of spending at least the first years of our daughter’s life in Italy were finished, at least I thought they were. It’s amazing what time can change. What time and a good support system can heal. My mother-in-law was on a plane the next day and arrived on the third day of Annie’s life. Her presence was a heavy weight lifted. My brother Tommy, who had been studying in Italy but was away in Amsterdam for the weekend, arrived on the same day as Mike’s mom. Our friends from Italy, our family here at the University, were there everyday. There was rarely a moment when our hospital room wasn’t filled with people. On Annie’s third day, Father Al, our campus Chaplin, came and anointed Annie. At the time we were really concerned about her health and her heart. It just so happened when he arrived to bless Annie with the Sacrament, so did about fifteen others. The room was filled with love and support. Most of our family was an ocean away, but our friends stepped in. After only seven months living here, they showed us we were part of a family here too, one that would help us in any way they could. I am forever grateful to all of them. We love all of you and you will never know how much you have done for our family, especially Annie.
Two years ago, Mike supported my decision to leave Italy and return to the States where our family, our strongest support system is. Where I can understand the therapists and doctors and can attend support groups without a translator. But he also suggested we see how it goes. One test at a time, one doctor’s appointment, one therapy at a time. If we felt we weren’t meeting her needs our plan was to then return home. But until then, we would take it ONE DAY AT A TIME. And we have learned there is no better way to live.
Annie just turned two. We are still living in Italy. Our decision to take things a day at a time was the first of thousands of lessons our daughter has taught us. To live day to day. To enjoy every moment. To count our blessings. Every day since the moment Annie was laid on my chest has been better than the last. It has been quite the journey and of course has had its challenges. We are in love with her doctors and therapists here. And the day we find out we will be leaving Rome will be extremely bittersweet. Our lives are filled to the brim with love. The number of people who love our daughter is uncountable.
I can’t imagine my life without Annie and I can’t imagine Annie without Down Syndrome. She is just the way she was meant to be. As I remember my thoughts on that train ride to Assisi the day we decided to not go through with testing: that I wished for a happy, healthy, beautiful daughter; I can’t help but laugh. I thought Down Syndrome would take that away from me. God has taught me that He truly knows what’s best. Annie’s Down Syndrome has only magnified her happiness, her beauty, and made us not let a day go by without stopping to appreciate her health. Annie has taught us to focus on all the things that are most important in life. Faith. Laughter. Perseverance. Thankfulness. Forgiveness (it took me a long time to forgive myself for my initial reaction to Annie’s diagnosis). Friends. Family. Celebration. And most importantly LOVE. All these things outshine the tough times. My life has more clarity than ever before, and I am certain that is a direct result of my daughter’s tiny extra chromosome.