“Here”, Tess said, “put your hand here.” As we lay on the grass and listened to Mozart during a summer concert, she took my hand and placed it on her swelling abdomen. In her womb the child moved to the music. We wondered if the child would be a dancer or a musician or a football player.
The child was born early a few weeks later, a healthy baby boy all rosy. A caul, part of the placenta, completely encased him. Legend says that a child born in a caul will never drown and have good luck. I helped slow the birth by placing my hand on his head as it crowned to help prevent tearing. But when a nurse rushed into the room and pushed me aside, the baby jumped out, eager, complete with all ten fingers and toes.
When the doctor arrived and hour later, he said, “I knew something was wrong, a little Mongolism maybe.” Mongolism is a disused term for the disability now called Down Syndrome. The doctor’s words pierced like a knife. What would we do? A host of questions arose. “How could it happen? We did everything right. What trick of God would cause a child to be born with a disability?”
I called a priest friend and his wife. Mark and Elizabeth had adopted a child whom they later discovered to be profoundly disabled. I thought they might provide some guidance. I told him my thoughts. He said, “I don’t believe in a God who causes children to be born with disabilities. I believe in a God who reaches out to us with arms of love.”
It still amazes how Mark’s simple insight changed me. I had known the truth of what Mark said to me as if it were in my bones. Yet the residual theology of my Puritan ancestors of sin and punishment remained in the water I drank. Even the notion of Karma intruded into my thoughts. Clearly, my expectations and theologies would have to change and the child would be for his mother and me an exploration into the heart of love.
The day after our child’s birth a harried social worker arrived. We sensed her discomfort there in the hospital room with the baby’s mother and me. “You don’t have to keep this child you know,” she told us. “There are places for children like him.” I was stunned. Tess, my wife said, “He is our son and we will love him no matter what!”
My admiration and love for her fierce protectiveness of the child swelled. A lioness woman, she spent the next 20 years as an advocate with schools and government for our two children with special needs. The elder, dyslexic and brilliant, was able to fool us and her teachers through the second grade by memorizing words on a page even when she couldn’t read the text.
We named our newborn, Christopher, partly in solidarity with the recently de-canonized Saint Christopher, and partly because the name’s derivation from Greek or Italian, “Christ-bearer.” We gave him the middle name Mark, after the priest who visited us in the hospital.
One summer day at the beach on the Jersey shore, when Christopher was six or seven, I suddenly realized that I had lost track of him. I scanned the beach. I didn’t see him. Frantic, I looked to the left and found him dog paddling in deep water off a part of the beach with a steep drop-off. There he was, calmly treading water in the salty brine, just as if that is what one does when one finds himself over his head in the ocean. Thank goodness of that caul.
Chris began to swim with Special Olympics and later with his High School Swim team. He can beat me easily now in a 20 yard race as if it were no effort, his lean body cutting through the lake.
Christopher grew more slowly than other children. We had to learn his pace, to remind him often of simple tasks, and to find ways to help him achieve his goals. We kept an almost constant watch on myriad agencies now involved in providing support. He showed me that we all learn differently and at different paces and stages.
I learned that life isn’t about how smart you are. Chris will never be a college graduate, but he writes poetry. One of his poems begins:
The rambling man
Like the preachers son
Is looking for a place
To call home.
When he wrote those lines two or three years ago he had just moved to Heartbeet, a Camphill style community in the mythic “Town That Food Saved,” Hardwick, Vermont. He’s in love with Annie, his committed friend and soul-mate, who also lives at Heartbeet. In May the couple was engaged in a ceremony on the lawn at Heartbeet. With an engagement ring in his hand, he knelt on one knee and proposed to Annie. With her ecstatic”Yes!” he placed the ring on her finger. She held her ring finger up and jumped for joy. The facets of the stone refracted the light from the afternoon sun.
Five years earlier the couple had declared their desire to live in a committed relationship. With the help of the professional staff at Heartbeet, the two worked on personal goals and relationship skills. Chris needed to learn to speak up for himself, for example, and Annie needed to stop speaking for Chris. The two are talking about a commitment ceremony.
Perhaps this is the greatest hope and joy for any parent, to know that one’s child has found a person to love and who loves him in return.
Christopher has lived up to his name. So do all children. They are our great teachers, the ones who inform the inner life of the heart. They show us to move to their different rhythms, their pace and style of life. And we long for them to find a place to call home.
“The rambling man
Like the preacher’s son
Is looking for a place to call home.”
So wrote Chris, and aren’t we all? Now after a 36 year search, he works the land, writes poetry, harvests the rich abundance of the earth, has a community at Heartbeet that cares about him and his growth, and has found the great love of his life. As much as we wanderers ever do, I believe he’s found his place: with friends, with his love, close to the land and at peace with himself. I think he’d tell you that he’s arrived at home.
When I see him next, I’ll ask him. By then he may have another poem.
Heartbeet can be found at : Heartbeet.org.