My son Adam was diagnosed with Down syndrome two months before he was born, one gray winter day when I was a doctoral candidate at Harvard. Only hours after hearing the news, I waddled my pregnant self over to the library, hoping that researching my baby's condition could somehow calm the storm that raged inside me. As I walked across the campus, where I'd been a student since I was seventeen, the thought that my son would never go to college not any college numbed me, body and soul, until I hardly felt the cold.
Just outside of Harvard Yard, I stopped to drop some change into the outstretched hat of a ragged homeless man. He looked at my abdomen, flashed me a huge smile, and said, "Congratulations, Mamma!" I glanced around, not realizing for a moment that he was talking to me. I had already stopped believing that my pregnancy merited congratulations. At that moment, I thought of Adam as though he were a Christmas present that had broken before it was even unwrapped. If that man only knew, I thought bitterly.
Now, more than ten years later, I love the memory of the homeless man and his
cheerful greeting. It's like looking back on a time of sickness to remind
myself of the joy of getting well. Remembering my dread and fear helps me
appreciate, all over again, the incredible gift I was given when Adam came
I felt this was especially keenly the Christmas when Adam was five. As
usual, all three of my children arose at an ungodly hour and descended on
their gifts like locusts on an alfalfa field. Along with most other American
parents, my husband John and I had spent a good part of the previous month
tracking down the items our children had requested in their letters to Santa.
Katie, the oldest, had asked for a set of bird calls she'd seen in an FAO
Schwartz catalogue. Five-year-old Lizzie wanted one of those dolls they
advertise on Saturday morning cartoons, the ones with repulsively cute names,
that have been engineered to mimic the least pleasant behaviors of real human
babies. I think that year Lizzie's doll had an anxiety-related bedwetting
disorder or something. Adam wanted a whole brigade of toys with names like
Cretin Slime Monsters.
In the proud tradition of delayed gratification my husband John had inherited
from his Nordic ancestors, the children opened their presents one by one.
Katie went first. The FAO Schwartz bird call set had turned out to cost
several hundred dollars, so John and I had purchased what we thought was a
reasonable facsimile. It didn't cover quite as broad an ornithological
spectrum as the pricier set, but it could produce a great duck sound, a good
owl, and several very convincing songbirds. When she saw it, Katie's face
fell. It is an awful thing to see your kid's face fall on Christmas morning.
"Don't you like it?" I asked anxiously.
"No, no, it's okay. I like it." Katie smiled a stalwart smile, but her
lower lip trembled ever so slightly. I began to feel that we should perhaps
have taken out a second mortgage to pay for the FAO Schwartz bird-call set.
Lizzie went next. She tore the gift wrapping off her bedwetting doll, and
then she, too, developed that troubled look around the eyes.
"What's the matter?" I said.
"Well," said Lizzie, "it's not exactly what I asked for."
John, who had fought his way through about seventeen toy stores looking for
that particular doll, burst out, "I thought you wanted a Tiny Whiny Princess
"I did," said Lizzie in her precocious little voice, "but I wanted the one
with the pink jewels, and this one only has the purple jewels."
Within minutes, both the girls had reconciled themselves to their gifts.
Like their pioneer forebears, many of whom had died crossing the Great Plains
on foot in the dead of winter, dragging their possessions behind them in
handcarts, my daughters were able to steel themselves to the brutal realities
of an imperfect world. This was good, because I had been on the verge of
sending them both to military school.
Now it was Adam's turn. He fished around under the Christmas tree until he found a package with his name on it. He tore the paper off, holding his breath, and foundbatteries. An eight-pack of double D's, still encased in plastic.
"Oh, honey," I said, "that's not the real present. The real present is"
But Adam didn't hear me. He was staring at those batteries as if they were so magnificent he couldn't quite take them in. His mouth fell open in astonished ecstasy as he held the batteries up to the light.
"Oh, wow!" he said. "Oh, wow! Mom, look! Batteries!" (Actually, it sounded
more like, "Mom, ook! Aggabies!" but the meaning was clear.
Before we could divert his attention to any other gift, Adam leapt to his feet and began running around the house, locating every appliance, tool, and toy that ran on batteries. The whole time, he babbled excitedly about all the things he could do with this fabulous, fabulous gift. As we watched, it began to occur to all of us "normal" people in the family that batteries really were a pretty darn good Christmas present. They didn't look like much, on the face of it, but think what they could do! Put them in place, and inanimate objects suddenly came to life, moving, talking, singing, lighting up the room. Something about Adam always manages to see straight past the outward ordinariness of a thing to any magic it may hold inside.
So this has become part of my holiday ritual: every winter I go back to that terrible December day when I learned that I was about to become the mother of retarded child. I hear the homeless man saying, "Congratulations, Mama!" and I remember the spasm of anguish I felt as I thought how wrong he was. Now, I like to believe he was on a truer wavelength than I had ever visited. I imagine him knowing the whole story, and showing the same astonished delight I saw in Adam that Christmas morning when he unwrapped his batteries. This little boy may not look like what you asked for, the homeless man might have told me. He may not have the features you requested, or be able to perform
all the right Harvard tricks. But put him in place, and he will light up your
life. You have no idea how much magic is in him.