When I was very young, I became a mom. It was not unusual in those days–people were often grandmothers by the time they were in their late 30s. Like mothers of those days, I was pushed out of my job about halfway through my pregnancy. There was a war in Vietnam, so I was alone when it was time to drive to the hospital. My son was born at 4 in the morning, and one of the nurses had a staph infection, which she transferred to my son. And then everything went bad.
Bilirubin lights turn the incubator blue.
He went downhill fast with the infection. His liver stopped working. He turned yellow. He lost half his birth weight. The doctor noticed that my baby had a single line across his palms–in those days called “simian creases.” It accompanies many terrible genetic diseases–among them Down Syndrome and Kleinfelter syndrome. The chaplain made it to my bed before the doctor and began to discuss picking out a coffin. The doctor followed and told me my son would most likely be low-functional, and never have a normal life.
I was young and alone. I was not allowed to see or hold my son, who was attached to so many tubes I could hardly know he was a real person.
Both sides of the family became silent. I learned what it meant to be alone. I saw a life of incompetence and struggling ahead of me. I was scared. Even at a young age, I was good at sucking it up and moving on. I was sent home 12 hours after the birth, and returned with breast milk the next day. For the next weeks, I stayed at the hospital until they threw me out, and sang to the little bundle amid the tubes. “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,” and “Forever Young.” I have no talent for singing, and one nurse told me it would damage the child, and I should let his last hours be in quiet. I hated her.
He lived. He was stubborn and tough. He came home. No one gave me referrals or instructions for this under-functioning baby. He didn’t sit up until he was 8 months old. He walked late. He talked late. I tried to be brave. He kept me busy. And then he began to talk. In full sentences. Every night, I read him stories and sang to him. At 23 months, he read the stories along with me. At 25 months, he would put his hand over my mouth and say, “You are singing it wrong.” And I was. I can’t sing. Not even hum.
A doctor examined him and told me, “Mothers of retarded children [that was the term in those days] often think their children are brighter than they are. You must accept what God has meant for you.” I don’t believe in a vengeful God who punishes children or their mothers. I was a little older and a lot tougher. Ian and I left the office, both stubborn. He was reading chapter books before kindergarten.
I took him to a new doctor and didn’t mention the past. In a time without computerized medical records, it was easier to lose the “retarded” label. Over the years, it turned out that he was amazingly bright, determined, focused and impatient. He often didn’t understand that others weren’t as bright as he was. Bright children have their own struggles, and we muddled through.
When times got tough, I’d think about those first hard months. And those days were the first thing I thought of when he phoned me two years ago, to tell me he had achieved tenure and been promoted to full professor at Yale University.
It has not been without hardship, loss, sadness and struggle. But it has also been with laughter and growth and just plain pride.
Today is Ian’s birthday and those memories are still strong. I’m so very proud of you, Ian, for not quitting, not giving up, not saying “I can’t go on, ” even when it got tough. I love you. You have made me so very proud.
–-Quinn McDonald is the proud mom, no matter how old the birthday boy is.