The forever frontier

My experience of people with Down syndrome comes down to two names: Chris and Corky.

Corky was, of course the lead character in the show Life Goes On and he seemed like a good guy. I have no idea what the actor was like. For all I know he was a real dickhead who got drunk in his trailer and roughed up prostitutes, but the character was a happy guy who tried hard and dispensed a sort of native wisdom.

Corky was alright.

Chris is a guy I knew back in the day. Our parents were friends and I’d see him at barbecues and in the stands at high school sports games. I never saw him act belligerent and if he had any encounters with prostitutes I’m sure he was a perfect gentleman. I know this because he developed a crush on my sister. Any woman would wish their husband was as romantic and attentive as my sister’s aspirant paramour. For what may have been 10 years or more, he called on her birthday and every major holiday. We could have been kinder. We teased her and it flustered her. Kids are cruel.

But Chris is alright.

Aside from my limited childhood experiences with the two C.’s, I had no idea what to expect when it came to raising a kid with Down syndrome. I still don’t. All I know is what its like to raise T.

The first thing that struck me about T. was his level of intelligence. I don’t mean I knew how smart he is, but I instantly knew that he has a capacity to be smart. It is in his eyes, which are focused and bright. The light doesn’t dully reflect off them, but penetrates into a brain that is learning to make sense of the world. I don’t pretend to know how his mind processes the information that he perceives, only that there is a surprisingly sophisticated mind at work. He is curious. He solves problems. He learns from mistakes. He strategizes. This was something of a revelation.

The surprises kept coming. T., like a lot of Down syndrome kids apparently, is something of a mimic. You only need to sit near him for a minute or so before he picks up your mannerisms and plays them back to you. Most of the time its amusing, but every once in a while a dinner guest gets self-conscious after T. alerts them to a subtle tic or idiosyncrasy they weren’t aware they had.

I’m not sure what Chris and Corky and T. have in common beyond their extra chromosomes. In that sense my son and I are a lot alike – just two guys trying to figure out a whole new world. One thing I now know is something that has never occurred to him to question: that he is somehow diminished by his diagnosis. He is not burdened by comparisons to people who may or may not be like him in this way or that.

I wish I were that smart.

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