What We Learned From Andrew
AS I drove to work, I found it elating to think about what had happened in the few preceding days. I had just become the father of a son, my second child. Today my wife Betty Jane and our little Andrew would be coming home from the hospital.
Before they were due to be released, however, my wife telephoned. There was a tone of anxiety in her voice. I hurried over. “Something’s wrong!” was her greeting. We sat together, waiting for the doctor to return with the pediatric consultant.
The consultant’s first remark was shattering news. She stated: “We are fairly certain your son has Down’s syndrome.” She explained that our son would likely be mentally retarded. Virtually nothing more of her explanation penetrated. My numbed brain had disconnected all auditory impulses. But the visual impressions continued to register.
She picked Andrew up and drew our attention to one of the things that had alerted her to the fact that something was wrong. The baby’s head dangled limply. This lack of muscle tone was characteristic of newborn Down’s syndrome babies. In a subsequent session with the consultant, we asked her the many questions that flooded our minds as slowly our ability to comprehend returned. To what degree would he be disabled? What could we expect? How much could we teach him? How much would he be capable of learning? She explained that the answers to many of our questions would depend on the environment in which he lived as well as his inherent abilities.
In the more than 20 years since then, we have tried to give Andrew the love and affection he deserves and to teach him all we are capable of imparting. But looking back, we now realize that it has not been totally an exercise in giving.
Before we had time to adjust to Andrew’s presence, loving friends gave us advice they had gleaned from bearing up under their own trials. They meant well, but as would be expected, not all the advice turned out to be either wise or useful. After years of testing, however, their advice distilled into two precious drops of wisdom.
Some tried to console us by saying Andrew was not really retarded. But then an old friend admonished: “Don’t fight it! The sooner you accept his limitations, the sooner you will revise your expectations and begin working with him the way he is.”
That turned out to be one of the most important lessons we learned in dealing with adversity. There can be no healing until there has been acceptance. While denial is often instinctive, the longer denial persists, the longer we postpone coming to grips with, and working within the limits of, the ‘unforeseen occurrences that befall all men.’—Ecclesiastes 9:11.
Through the years when we have met parents whose children could not cope with the normal school curriculum or were in remedial schooling, we have often wondered how many of the children might in reality be retarded or otherwise disabled. Could some of them be among the “invisibly handicapped”—those, unlike Andrew, who have no apparent physical difference and look like normal children? Individuals with Down’s syndrome are easily recognizable. But other types of disabilities have no overt indicators. How many parents cling to unrealistic expectations and refuse to accept their child’s limitations, resulting in exasperation for everyone?—Compare Colossians 3:21.
The second piece of advice that our experience verified is this: Ultimately YOU will determine how most people treat your child. The way you treat him will likely be the way others will treat him too.
Much has changed over the last few decades in people’s attitudes toward the physically and mentally handicapped. But many of these changes have been stimulated by some of the disabled persons themselves, their relatives, and other lay and professional advocates. Many parents have courageously ignored advice to institutionalize their offspring and have, in effect, rewritten the books. Fifty years ago most medical textbooks on Down’s syndrome were based on data gathered from institutions. Today expectations have been completely revamped, often because parents and others struck out in new directions.
Learning More Compassion
It is strange how easily we can deceive ourselves into thinking that we are genuinely compassionate. But until we are personally involved, our comprehension of many problems may often be superficial.
Andrew has forced us to recognize that disadvantaged persons often have no control over their situation. In fact, it has made us face the question, What really is my attitude toward the weak, the slow, and the elderly?
Often we have been in a public place with Andrew and have had strangers, observing our unashamed acceptance of him as a full member of our family, come up to us and share their secret burdens. It was as though Andrew’s presence reassured them that we could empathize with their problems.
The Power of Love
By far the most important lesson Andrew has taught us is that love is not just a function of intellect. Let me explain. One of the fundamentals of our worship as Jehovah’s Witnesses is that true Christianity rises above racial, social, and political divisions and prejudices. Confident in this principle, we knew that Andrew would be accepted by our spiritual brothers and sisters. Ignoring the advice of professionals who said it was unrealistic to expect him to sit respectfully through worship sessions, since his birth we have seen to it that he has accompanied us to meetings and also from house to house in our preaching activity. As anticipated, the congregation treats him with kindness and compassion.
But there are those who go beyond this. They have a special fondness for him. Andrew seems to sense this on a level that is completely unimpaired by his diminished intellect. With these individuals he easily overcomes his natural shyness, and he heads straight for them at the end of the meetings. Time and again, we have observed his instinctive ability to be able, even in a crowd, to discern those who feel a special fondness for him.
The same holds true for his demonstration of love. Andrew is very gentle to babies, older people, and pets. Sometimes when he unhesitatingly approaches a baby of someone we do not know, we stay close by, ready to rescue the child if Andrew inadvertently plays too rough. Yet how often we have felt ashamed of our fears as we watched him touch the baby as tenderly as a nursing mother would!
Lessons We Have Learned
Because all children with Down’s syndrome are similar in appearance, we expected that they would all have similar personalities. However, we soon learned that they bear more resemblance to their family than to each other. Each has a unique personality.
Andrew, like many other youngsters, does not enjoy hard work. But we found that if we had the patience and endurance to walk him through a task over and over until it became a habit, it no longer seemed like work to him. His chores around the house have now become second nature, and only extras are considered work.
As we look back over the lessons we have learned during Andrew’s life, an interesting paradox emerges. Virtually all the principles we learned in raising Andrew turned out to apply equally to our relationships with our other children and with people in general.
For example, who of us does not respond positively to genuine love? If you were ever unfavorably compared with someone whose abilities or experience differed greatly from yours, did you not find that unjust and frustrating? Finally, has it not been true of many of us that tasks that were originally unpleasant eventually became tolerable, even satisfying, when we had the discipline to stick with them?
Though we have shed many tears over Andrew in our human shortsightedness, we have also shared many joys, small and great. And we find that in areas completely unrelated to Andrew, we have grown because of him. We learned that any experience in life, no matter how trying, has the potential to mold us into better persons rather than into bitter ones.
There is something else of great importance to us. We derive much pleasure from anticipating the grand moment when we will witness the reversal of Andrew’s disability. The Bible promises that soon in God’s righteous new world, all blind, deaf, lame, and speechless ones will be restored to radiant health. (Isaiah 35:5, 6; Matthew 15:30, 31) Imagine the joy all will have then in observing firsthand the healing of mind and body as mankind blossom to their full potential! (Psalm 37:11, 29)—Contributed.
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Degrees of Handicap
Some experts divide Down’s syndrome individuals into three groups. (1) Educable (Moderate): those who can acquire considerable academic skills. This group includes some who have become actors or even lecturers. Some have succeeded in living independently with minimal supervision. (2) Trainable (Mild): those capable of learning certain practical skills. While they can be taught to care for themselves to some degree, more supervision is necessary. (3) Profound (Severe): the least functional group, who need much supervision.
What of Andrew? We now know that he falls into the category labeled “Trainable.”