He was born in a time when labels were given to children. The labels were words that remained with them for all of their lives. The words caused pain to the people that loved them, but they had no meaning for these children. The labels they were given meant nothing to them. Words such as retarded, stupid, moron, imbecile, half-wit, cretin, defective, simpleton, and handicapped were used to brand these children. Over the years, those names were softened to include special, exceptional, gifted, impaired, disabled, and disadvantaged. However, when any family member who loves a child diagnosed with Down Syndrome is asked, some of the words they will use are blessed, loving, precious, happy, affectionate, and cherished.
David was born in 1941, the youngest child of my father’s parents, and he was given the harsh label of Mongoloid from the day he arrived. The doctor told my grandmother that he was a vegetable, that he would never have a life worth living, and that he should be put in an institution. The doctor told my shocked grandparents, “He is a mistake of nature. You have four other healthy children that need you. You should just forget about him.” My grandmother, a determined Irish mother, told the doctor that he should be ashamed of himself for saying such unkind things about her love. The thought of sending David away from her loving arms never once entered my grandmother’s head or her heart. I am so thankful that she felt that way because my life without him would have been unimaginable. The life of my Uncle David is evidence that a heart’s ability to love has no limitations.
He has all the identifying physical characteristics of a person with Down Syndrome. He is short in stature, his eyes are almond-shaped, his hands are broad with small fingers, his ears are slightly pulled away from his head, he has a short neck, and his tongue will slip between his teeth when he gets very tired. But so much of what David is should not be limited by his physical appearance. His sense of humor is quick and contagious. His love for his family has no restrictions. His heart and his soul are pure, open, and the essence of his life.
There was no special education for David when he was a child. There were no programs available for physical therapy, speech therapy, or occupational therapy. My grandmother was David’s teacher and she taught him everything he needed to learn. His speech is slow, but his words become easier to understand when more time is spent with him. He recognizes many words that he has to know such as danger, stop, hot, men, on, off, up, down, and go. He knows his name, address, and phone number. He loves to play any kind of sports, but he especially loves football. I used to secretly watch him play an entire game of football by himself. He was the offense, the defense, the special team, the coach, the fans, and the game announcer. When he would come back inside, I always asked him the same question, “Who won the game, David?” He would always grin and say emphatically, “I did!!” He can write his name, and I always love to get a birthday card from David. His uniform signature always follows the word LOVE. He always signs his name using only capital letters, and there is never a comma or a break. His signature is the two words joined as one: LOVEDAVID. I believe his signature is the best description of David. He loves so freely, easily, and that is all he asks of others.
In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, David was “the music man.” Every day after school, I would stop at his house and we would play his records. He had stacks and stacks of 45-rpm records, and we would sing, dance, and pretend we were famous rock and roll artists like Dion, Connie Frances, Paul Anka, and Brenda Lee. We learned all the words to all the songs, and we would stage our own version of American Bandstand. We would use anything we could find as a microphone, and my grandmother must have had earplugs on to muffle our loud caterwauling. I am positive we must have sounded like nails scraping down a blackboard, but David and I were each other’s biggest fans. We always complimented each other on our outstanding abilities and very talented vocal skills. I am a music addict still today, and I know that it is because David was my personal music man extraordinaire. He showed me what joy there is in music and what a delightful escape it is. David helped me to discover music, and he put a song in my heart forever.
David is sixty years old. He is a member of a bowling league, belongs to a club that travels to different points of interest, is a member of an organization that meets weekly to have fun at a variety of activities, loves to go out to dinner, and continues to play his music.
David has ignored the prophecy of the doctor that delivered him into the world. He is not a vegetable; he is more like a flowering apple tree. He brings beauty onto the lives of so many people and reminds us that the fruitful harvest of life is love.