Written by Jenna Smith
October is Down Syndrome Awareness Month. Down syndrome (DS) is a genetic condition that occurs in one of every seven hundred babies born in the United States. Many in the medical community view it as a disease that makes life not worth living for those affected by it, which partially explains why so many mothers choose to abort their DS babies.
While it is true that some individuals with DS might frequent hospitals more often than a person without the syndrome and their lives might look different from what is considered normal, DS persons are not a burden to their families and friends. God blessed these unique individuals with the ability to see beauty in the mundane, to laugh at the ordinary, and to love unconditionally. I speak from intimate experience.
On the cold day of January 29th, 2020, my youngest brother was born. Minutes later, he was diagnosed with DS. My seventh sibling, a warm bundle of pink, squishy, blinking wonder, had DS. I stared at the new life in my arms and slowly processed the fact that as fragile as every newborn is, this one was more so. As much as every newborn needs attention and love, this one would need more. It would be a type of attention and nurture that my family had never experienced before.
On the third day of his life, my parents brought Owen to the hospital with breathing problems.
My family hadn’t known our little boy would have medical challenges. Prenatal ultrasounds hadn’t picked up that he had an extra chromosome as well as medical complications. We weren’t prepared to send this baby, whom we had just met, under the knife on his third day of life or for him to be hospitalized for nine days while a g-tube and colostomy bag were inserted into and onto his body.
As the pandemic set in, gradually my family and I learned that even though this little child with plastic on his side and down his throat had a long road ahead of him, he needed from us only what his siblings need: to be cherished and treated as a beloved family member.
We read him countless books, plopped him on our laps when playing piano, and, after finally winning the approval of mom, brought him into the pool. By one week after his first hospital stay, I had forgotten he had DS. He was growing and developing a personality just as every other baby does. He became the sun of our family solar system: his laughter the best reward, his curiosity a joy to behold, his cuddling warmth in our arms a reliable source of contentment.
Six surgeries and one and a half years later, Owen is a beaming, thriving toddler who makes the heart of any onlooker melt and grocery store employees beam behind their masks. He joyfully runs after his brothers, eats everything in sight, dances to the Newsies soundtrack, and provides his mother’s heart unnecessary palpitations when he decides to descend the stairs on his own.
Our family is without question better with Owen in our midst. Our world is better with him and others like him in it. Down syndrome people are blessings to the communities in which God places them. They create ripple effects that you may not notice if you’re not paying attention. Through their challenges, they implicitly teach their family and friends patience, contentment, and a purer form of love–one that does not expect anything in return.
As we celebrate these exceptional humans this month, let us always remember that even if our fellow man is different, be it with an extra chromosome or anything else, it does not mean they are less. Often they are more than we will ever be.