The following is a poem I wrote about my son, Owen, who has Down Syndrome, before he was here. When I wrote it I was scared and nervous, and as I mentioned, getting ahead of myself.
June 29, St. Louis Coffee Shop.
“How can I love you if I don’t know you?
How can I know you if I can’t speak your language?
How can you know me if you can’t speak mine?
I have no good answers.
I can’t finish these thoughts in meaningful ways.
(That is to say, with resolution.)
Maybe the best resolution is to admit I’m getting ahead of myself.
In the times when I can’t find resolution, that’s usually why.
But I’ve loved you in my thoughts forever now.
Perhaps I’ll see our commonality when I can look into your eyes.”
Today is World Down Syndrome Day. And I don’t really know what to do besides wear this ribbon… because I can’t show you these things he’s showing me. He can. He’s amazing. That’s his power. I can only tell you. And that’s just not the same.
I have read essays that compare Down Syndrome to a super power, and I’ve read counter-arguments by DS advocates who say that calling DS a super power is a little misguided. They want their loved ones to be seen as people, not as something different like an angel, or a super hero. And I get that. But I’m sort of an expert on super heroes, and I’m starting to see the point. A super hero is someone who can do things the rest of us can’t, and uses that power for good. So while I don’t want to think of Owen as something other than just a person, like the rest of us, that super hero thing DOES pretty much describe him perfectly.
Let me explain why. He’s taught me more in six months than I fear I’ll be able to teach him in the next 18 years. He informs everything else in the world around me, and yes, sometimes even in ways I’m not sure typical children do. When we found out we were having a baby, I thought I was about to be handed this young life, and it was going to be my job to mold this boy into a good man. So why is it that six months into this, I feel like it’s been the exact opposite? This wise little creature has silently entered our world, and with his eyes, and his face, and his tiny arms and legs flailing, he’s molded us into better people.
The other day I was on the treadmill, and I was really struggling to finish up. Too much distance and not enough breath left. My mind went to Owen. I thought about him on his tummy, his head turning red and the vein in his forehead popping out, while he pushes himself up on his arms, flailing his legs… trying so hard to do… what? I don’t think he even knows what he’s trying to do yet. But he knows to try… even before he knows what he’s trying. Thinking about him fighting… inspired me to push myself. It inspires me every day, at work, at home, in my conversations with other people… I think to myself, “If he can fight, why aren’t I fighting? If he’s working hard, I need to work hard. He wakes up every morning with a big smile and just starts trying to talk. Babbling, alone in his crib. He’s starting from square one, and yet in some ways, he’s the man I strive to be. He’s just good. And if he’s good, then I need to be good.
I learned very quickly why jokes at Owen’s expense weren’t funny. That was evident pretty quickly. (Although, as I’ve mentioned, it wasn’t evident before he came along.) But by proxy, I learned that good jokes don’t have victims. By the way, I joke a lot. And when I look back, seemingly all of my jokes had victims. Maybe it was a victim who wasn’t around. Maybe it was a victim who even sort of had it coming. But usually there was a victim. The best jokes, by the most creative minds, don’t have victims. I’m not saying they can’t… not saying “You can’t say this, or you can’t say that, or this isn’t funny, etc.” But I’m just saying you can be better. You can be good. You can be like Owen.
I’m sure there will be lots of times when it’ll be time to show Owen how to be more like his daddy. When he’ll need to learn to shave, or tie a tie, or why lying is bad, or how to work hard and take pride in yourself. But I’ll never forget in this little partnership we’re building… that he taught me first. First I had to learn to be more like him.
My son is now six months old. If he could read my poem, from when I was scared, I think he would say this:
“I love you, daddy, but you’re silly. Don’t worry… I’ll teach you a new language. A language we can both speak. A language you speak with your eyes, and your face, and your arms, hands, and fingers. You’re having trouble seeing the world. You’re missing things. I’ll give you new eyes. My eyes. Then we can play together.”