“Every day is a gift. Have you thanked the giver today?”
That bit of wisdom hung in a frame in the basement of our house when I was a kid. My brother and sisters and I rolled our eyes every time we saw it. Talk about corny.
Yet I thought of it recently when my wife relayed something she heard from a friend: Down syndrome is the gift that no one wants until they get it. I smiled when she said it, not because it was corny, but because it was so, so true.
Our family was given the gift of Down syndrome five years ago this month when our daughter Magdalena was born. We’ve been asked more times than we can count whether we knew of Magdalena’s condition prior to her birth. It seems to be the thing that people are most curious about.
We did know. And I can tell you that we didn’t consider it a gift. At the time we considered it a painful and confusing curse. We struggled for days and weeks to understand why God had selected us to carry this awful burden. We prayed for an easier path. We begged for it not to be true.
But it was true. We named her after Saint Mary Magdalene, the first person to see Jesus after his resurrection. We gave her that name because we hoped that she would restore us. We hoped that she would help us to feel joy and laughter again. We hoped that she would lead us out of our terrible self-pity.
We were foolishly naïve then. We didn’t know the gift we were getting. But we couldn’t have known. Down syndrome is the gift that no one wants until they get it.
Five years later, people still ask, “Did you know beforehand?”I always wince when I hear the question. I assume the askers are motivated by more than simple curiosity. I assume they want to know what kind of people we are.
Are we religious nuts? Are we saints? Are we idiots? We must be one of these. Why else wouldn’t we have taken the easier path? What else could explain why we would knowingly bring an imperfect child into the world?
As if this life is a burden. As if the easier path is always the right path. As if the other path is, in fact, an easy one.
And anyway, your kid ain’t perfect either.
I know I shouldn’t be so cynical. I know that when asked if we knew she would have Down syndrome, I should try to be charitable. Perhaps when they ask they are measuring themselves against us. Perhaps they are wondering, “Would I have done what they did? Would I have carried a baby like that to term?”
I should remember that the odds are good that some who ask that question have themselves aborted babies with Down syndrome. It is estimated that over 90 percent of Down syndrome pregnancies are aborted. We’ll never know how many people see in Magdalena not an innocent child, but a painful reminder of their own secret sin.
Perhaps when people ask if we knew the diagnosis they are hoping to hear us say, “No, we didn’t. It was a total surprise.” Perhaps that would help them to understand. Perhaps seeing us as victims would help them to square the circle.
But we aren’t victims. In fact, we’re the opposite. We are supremely lucky. Magdalena isn’t sick. Down syndrome is not a disease; it’s merely a collection of traits, all of which occur, though not all at once, in so-called “normal” people.
But how could Down syndrome be a gift? Surely that’s taking it too far. How could a lifetime of likely dependency be a gift? How could impaired cognitive development be a gift? How could gastroesophageal reflux disease and its expensive, twice daily medicine be a gift? How could two full years of potty training with no end in sight be a gift?
Trust me, it is. The world is better with Magdalena in it. I’m a better person. My wife believes the same of herself. That’s not why Magdalena’s here, of course. We realize it’s not her job to make us better people. But it is one of the happy side-effects of having her around.
Wouldn’t you think it a gift to live every day with someone who is always happy to see you? Wouldn’t you be grateful to have a child who never judges other people, or insults them, or begrudges them?
Do you know anyone who is thoroughly without guile? Would you recognize Jesus if you saw him?
There is one type of person that never asks if we knew Magdalena’s diagnosis beforehand. Mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers of people with Down syndrome don’t ask. They already know that Down syndrome isn’t the worst thing that could happen to you. They already know about the gift.
To some, the notion that we knew of Magdalena’s Down syndrome yet opted to go through with the pregnancy makes us heroes. To others, it marks us as dupes. Both are wrong. We’re just a family. She is just our daughter. Her life is a gift.
I must remember to thank the giver.
From the April 2011 edition of Fairfield County Catholic, the monthly newspaper of the Diocese of Bridgeport.