My story from That Time of the Month last night. Thanks so much to Melanie Vare for letting me host and share a story. This was one of the best groups of storytellers I’ve ever seen!
It was my sophomore year of college and I was openly crying while calling my mom from outside the elevators in a lobby on campus. I had just learned the Study Abroad office needed $1000 deposit that week or I wasn’t leaving the country (and probably not Kentucky) that summer. She was eerily calm telling me not to worry. We could figure it out. I wailed, “how can you be so calm!? We don’t have $1000!” Her tone remained steady as she softly replied, “I’m pregnant.” I didn’t realize it then, but this was the day I became a different person. I’m the oldest of four. My sister Portia is 6 years younger than me, and my Brother Colton is 7 years younger than her, so maybe I should have seen this coming. She stuck with the formula. Eight years had passed since she’d last given birth and it was time to breed! But I was 20 years old, the age my mom gave birth to me, making her 40. Who has a kid at 40?
I missed most of my mom’s pregnancy, being in college, then Europe, then back to college. I wouldn’t be around to change diapers and put him to sleep, to babysit like I had with my other siblings. I wasn’t even home when she delivered. He came early. Breech. That’s feet first if you don’t understand birthing lingo. I got a voicemail from my aunt one morning that I had a new baby brother. Insert pounds, ounces and inches accordingly. I didn’t understand those measurements either. I planned on finishing classes that week then heading home for the weekend to meet my tiny new brother, Cameron. A name my mom chose from an email of my approved boy names starting with “C”. I didn’t trust her to choose a name after me, Paulina, Portia, and Colton. Just let one of your kids be able to find a keychain with their name on it for Christ sake. The night before I was going to come home, my mom called me crying. This was the first time I’d spoken to her since Cam was born. I’d been communicating through other family members. My heart sank. What was wrong? The woman who remained calm and steady, the family’s rock was completely shaken. She finally revealed to me what she had known for months. Cameron was born with Down Syndrome. I didn’t know anything about Down Syndrome but I just said the first thing that came to mind, “So, what.” That doesn’t change anything. I don’t know what bad news I thought she had, but Down Syndrome seemed so minor compared to everything I had cooked up in my head.
After college I moved back to my hometown and even bought a little house in the same neighborhood as my parents. Something 18-year-old me would sneer at. It felt almost like I was living back home. I was broke so I ate dinner with my family every night and mooched off their wifi and cable. Of course living in a small town there was a rumor going around that my mom had only pretended to be pregnant while I secretly gave birth to Cameron and passed him off as a sibling. We weren’t living a plot from Desperate Housewives, so we just let people think what they wanted. People in public always assume I’m his mother. I guess the ages do work out better. Anytime someone looks at Cam and then refers to my mom as “Grandma” I just like to step back and watch them dig their own graves as she firmly corrects them. “No, I’m his mother. They’re both my children.” That’s when they usually start looking around for the hidden cameras. Sidebar, don’t assume every caregiver is a parent. They could be a relative, friend, nanny, or even a kidnapper. Don’t assume!
The summer I moved back home was also the summer Cam had open heart surgery. It’s common for people with Down Syndrome to be born with holes in their heart. Cam was no exception. He’d been taking medication for it since birth, but at 18 months the doctors felt he was strong enough to have his ribs cracked open and the holes and valves repaired. I think that was when I truly bonded to him. There were complications and times when all we could do was hope and pray, but he came out of it a different kid. He had more energy than ever before and he’s proud to show off the now white scar down his chest.
Since then I’ve moved to Nashville, only an hour away. Cam stays with me on weekends where he has laid claim to the guest room as his own personal space.
People feel completely comfortable asking if he’s adopted of if we have the same parents. It’s none of their business, but I think you can look at us and tell. Few people have blonde hair, blue eyes, freckles, and a nose you can barely stick a pinky finger in. Seriously, I can barely wear glasses. The oddest thing is the look of pity people have in their eyes when they see you with a child with Down syndrome. Cam does not want anyone to feel sorry for him. The truth is he’s got a pretty sweet life. Probably better than yours. Once my mom asked me, “Do you think Cameron knows he’s different?” I replied, “Yes. I think he thinks he’s a celebrity.” He doesn’t see himself as an outsider, but more likely above everyone else. How could he not? He’s been given special treatment his entire life. Some needed and deserved and other times it was just a perk.
The day I realized just how much special treatment he received was when I took him to meet Santa at Bass Pro Shop one Christmas Season. Anyone who has been to Opry Mills in December knows it’s a chaotic nightmare, but somehow offering free photos with Santa brought people from all over Middle Tennessee. We walked in, saw the line wrapped around the inner perimeter of the megastore, and said, “Well, maybe there’s another less popular Santa we can talk to at KMART.” We walked back out of the store when a young female elf chased us down and said, “Wait! Did you get to see Santa?” “No” I replied, “The line was too long.” She got a spritely twinkle in her eye and said, “That’s ok, because special boys and girls get to go to the front of the line!” That changed everything. She escorted us past screaming kids and exhausted parents to the front of the line. We marched right up in front of people who had been waiting days I presumed. Cam plopped onto Santa’s lap and had a chat about what he wanted, then Santa proceeded to give him TWO candy canes. I heard a kid behind us whine, “Why does he get two candy canes?” I whipped my head around and spouted, “Extra chromosomes equals extra candy canes.” Okay, I didn’t say that, but how cool would it be if I had? After that we were drunk with power. We went to Chuy’s for dinner and were beyond distressed when they informed us it would be an hour wait. I guess you can’t win ‘em all.
Personally I never want kids. Cam will always need me in some form or fashion and I’ll always need him. My mom says if I did have a baby that Cam wouldn’t let me keep it anyway. I already forced my mom to make me his legal guardian. The thing I have learned the most from Cam and the way people treat him is that we shouldn’t treat kids with special needs so special. We should treat all kids that way. In fact, treat everyone in your life that way. Check on them, ask if they need help, encourage them to set and accomplish new goals, but most of all treat them with kindness.