Alan Afualo
Yakima, WA
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I didn't get it. Just a few years ago, when all my fellow bachelor buddies were settling down, getting married, and having kids, I didn't get it. I got the settling down and getting married part, but I didn't get the having kids part. It's not that I didn't like kids; I enjoyed being an uncle to my nieces and nephews and participating in the many family activities with my cousins and their kids, as long as I got to go home to peace and quiet and my own space afterwards. When an old roommate had his fourth child, I told him I didn't get it and asked him to explain it to me. With a grin that could only belong to someone who "got it" he simply said, "They're awesome!" You can't know until you have your own, but "they're just awesome." He said it with the pride and unbridled joy of someone who had just climbed Mt. Everest or won an Olympic gold medal and knew that mere words could never describe the feeling.

I'm happy to say that I get it now. Four years ago I found the person I've waited for all my life and three years ago I married her. I even got a bonus in the deal, her daughter Erika who was six at that time. I became a husband and a father at the same time. Being a brand new father to a six-year old seemed to be a piece of cake. She was well behaved, charming, and a joy to be around, and she was old enough to engage in two-way communication. Friends and family would ask me how I liked being an instant dad and I'd tell them, "Nothing to it! Bring them on!"

And they did. Two years ago we rejoiced when we found out that after our first attempt, Christie was indeed pregnant. We did all the things that expectant parents do. We started picking out names and collecting the necessary baby items we would need. With the first ultrasound we learned that our baby was a boy and that he had a very slight increase in the risk of having Down syndrome. We weren't worried. The odds seemed so small, sort of like the odds of climbing Mt. Everest or winning an Olympic gold medal. Just in case we met with a genetic counselor, took some more tests and didn't think much more about it. And then came the phone call.

If you are the parent of a child with a disability you know what I'm talking about. It might not have been a telephone call. It might have been a conference with the doctor or specialist or team of experts. Maybe it was carelessly blurted out in the delivery room, but at some point you learned the fundamental truth that your child wasn't what you expected.

The next few days involved the predictable grieving over the loss of the child we had been imagining for the last four months. I don't recall ever feeling any denial that my son would indeed be disabled. Barring any gross negligence on the part of the medical staff, the tests were pretty much conclusive and incontrovertible. Our personal and religious beliefs precluded any thought of abortion. This child was ours to keep and raise and love. The child we had loved for these past months was gone. I already knew that little boy. I knew what he would look like on his first day of school. I could see him riding his bike without training wheels, going off to college, getting married to a wonderful girl and becoming a father himself one day. But he was gone now and we had to start all over from scratch, getting to know and love this "stranger" who had taken his place in the womb.

Since that day, there have been countless things that have given me strength and courage, and helped me come a little bit closer to being the father that I want to be. The first of these is my belief in a loving God, and that whether by design or by happenstance, this child was now in our care. I never entertained the notion that we were somehow being punished. Also primary is my love for my wife and family, and the strength we have together.

Another source of strength that came early on was the reply made by my mom when I called and tearfully told her that her newest grandson would have Down syndrome. She thought for a minute and then quietly said, "I can't think of any other parents this little boy could be luckier to have than you and Christie." Every day since, I have felt inspired to live up to that assessment. When I look into my son's shining eyes I can't help but be grateful that this beautiful boy came to my family instead of to someone who might not have wanted him or had the capacity to love him. The thought of him lying unwanted and unloved in an institution somewhere brings tears to my eyes.

Speaking of bringing tears to my eyes, he does so in many ways. In my life before Mason, (by the way, we named him Mason) I was pretty much a stoic. I could watch Old Yeller and make jokes at the end. Tearjerker movies didn't phase me. I could understand the emotional impact of those situations but I rarely felt the need to cry. Now, I don't feel the need not to. Being Mason's dad has uncovered an empathetic side of me that had previously seldom revealed itself. I laugh with you when you tell of the amusing things your child has done. I soar with you when you brag about their accomplishments and I fume with you when you hit those bureaucratic brick walls. I cry when I am touched by your love for your child. It doesn't feel like some wimpy touchy-feely thing. It feels good, honest, right.

Another source of inspiration in my attempt at being a worthy father comes from a story related by James May at the first Fathers Network function I attended. A new father had shown up at one of the dad's meetings and, after listening to a few of the fathers lamenting about some of the challenges of raising a child with disabilities, took the opportunity to share, "After trying for some time to conceive, we now have a son, who has Down syndrome. I say Down syndrome, Down schmyndrome! All I know is that I have a beautiful boy, and I love him and he loves me, and that's all that matters." Those are words to live by.

Being a father also comes with challenges. One of the biggest of these is fear. Will I be able to be a competent dad? Who will watch out for my child when I am not with him? Will he be provided for if anything should happen to me? Will others love him or will they be afraid of him? Will they make fun of him? Will he have friends? In order to overcome these fears I need to do the best I can to advocate for him, educate those who may be ignorant, and work to have him included wherever appropriate. But most of all I will always let him know he is loved, unconditionally.

You fathers in the Fathers Network are my heroes. You teach me what it means to sacrifice for your kids. When I hear about the mountainous struggles you have to overcome on a regular basis I feel a little guilty that I have it so easy. My trials seem so minimal compared to those of many of you. I am constantly amazed at your tireless efforts and your positive attitudes. I feel privileged to learn from your experiences and to share a brotherhood that is uncommon in today's society. But most of all, I am moved by your love and dedication for your children.

As for my son, we did get to know and love that little "stranger" and now it seems like he is the same little boy we knew in the beginning. He never changed, we did. Once again I can imagine him on his first day of school, on that first solo bike ride, and growing up to be a fine young man that I will be proud of. It's funny, but I can't remember anymore what that "other" boy looked like.