My first pregnancy was a surprise. When–at sixteen–one becomes pregnant there don’t seem to be any guarantees. Abortion, adoption and parenting are all equally acceptable outcomes, society tells us. I don’t agree, but that’s another story for another day. The choice for me was clear: I would raise my daughter. In making that choice, I didn’t consider myself committed to eighteen years of caring for her; I considered myself very much committed to caring for her always, to the very best of my ability, come what may.
I’ve since been pregnant three more times and each time I quite purposefully set out to conceive. The only difference between those three pregnancies and the first was intention. And so when–in my third pregnancy–I was given the option to have an amniocentesis that would advise me of any genetic defects, I declined. Not because I was afraid to know, but because that test carries with it the risk of miscarriage and that was something I was unwilling to gamble on. In choosing to become pregnant, I made a commitment to my unborn child: that I would care for him or her always, to the very best of my ability, come what may.
The end result of that pregnancy was a pink and fleshy baby girl with almond eyes and stubby fingers. Nearly fourteen years later we know a lot more about her than we did back then. We know that she loves movies and ice cream and birthdays. We know that she’ll never turn down a hug, or even a lip kiss from the most licky of dogs. We know that her stubborn streak runs deep and that she knows no shame. We know that she is grateful; she thanks me for the things–clean sheets, breakfast, packing her lunch–that nobody else thinks to. We know that she loves to give presents. We know that she can’t stand to have closet doors or cabinets or toilet seat lids left open. We also know that she has three twenty-first chromosomes. That third one sets her apart from most people, but it doesn’t make her any less loved.
There is a story often told to new parents of a child with Down syndrome. They relate the experience to boarding a plane for a grand vacation in Italy. Luggage is packed with swimsuits and guidemaps. Itineraries promise the grandeur of basilicas and fountains and museums. But when the wheels touch down, you find yourself in Holland. You didn’t pack any coats, or clogs for that matter. There are no canals or sun-kissed vineyards or pizza pies. But there are windmills, and fields of brightly-colored tulips that bend and sway in the gentle wind. There is a whole new world just beyond the jetway, beckoning for you to come. To stay awhile.
Holland, though no Italy, is worth exploring.
Twice this week, with two separate people, I’ve had conversations about raising a special needs child. Both times, the other party has commented that the looming lifetime of care is probably the most difficult thing to swallow.
It’s not, for the record.
The most difficult thing to swallow is grieving Italy. We all have things we might have done, places we might have gone, people we might have ended up with. But when we focus only on what might have been, we risk missing what might yet be.
One thing I know for sure: there are no unanswered prayers. Just unanswered calls.