My son, Nathan, is eleven years old and was born with Down syndrome. I fell backward into homeschooling him this year, so as I sit typing, he is blaring music and dancing with an enthusiasm I can rarely muster. He has been dancing for as long as he has been able to stand on two legs - even before he could let go of supports and take independent steps. Often when he dances, I dance, too - in the kitchen, in the car, doesn’t matter where. We dance. I look silly at stoplights throwing my hands in the air with my SUV swaying to the beat, but I don’t care. Nathan has taught me how much fun it is to be silly, no matter your age. You should try it!
A couple of years ago, I came across a talk by Joseph Pearce where he shared, “Most of us are here to learn, but some of us are here to teach.” The statement stuck with me because it’s true. Many would look at Nathan and dismiss him as incapable of learning, never considering that he has much to teach others who are themselves willing to learn.
Nathan has many challenges relative to most of his typical peers. He is not at grade level academically. His speech is not clear to outsiders and even I struggle to understand him at times. His handwriting is atrocious because his fine motor skills are weak. But in other ways, he is light years ahead of many of them. He is full of joy, always. He loves with great abandon. He is kind and empathetic. He is filled with gratitude, routinely thanking us for the tiniest things. He is trusting and generous and affectionate. He is patient with me while I try to understand what he is telling me.
Nathan has taught us how to love through his example, but his presence has also taught us how to love sacrificially. It is more difficult to parent a child who is developmentally delayed, and he will not be “grown and flown” as early or as fully as his older sister - we may never have an empty nest at all. But the love God has for us is unconditional, and so is our love for Nathan.
Nathan hasn’t just modeled patience and gratitude for us, he has taught us to be patient and grateful. Many of the milestones of childhood were hard-fought and long-delayed, but when each was finally achieved, we rejoiced in the wins. We were thankful for them then and we continue to be grateful for them today, long after the moment passed.
October is Down Syndrome Awareness Month, designated as an opportunity to spread awareness about Down syndrome, advocate for inclusion, and highlight the abilities of people with Down syndrome. Like most parents of children with Down syndrome, I want to see my son accepted, included, appreciated, and celebrated like other, typical children. But on a deeper spiritual level, my prayer is that people will see that he is not like typical children, and that is his gift. He has much to teach us about God if our hearts are open to his lessons.
In the kingdom of God, will the eloquent speaker with the brilliant mind be the one sitting at Christ’s right hand, or will it be the one who loved unconditionally, was kind, was patient? St. Paul gave us a clue in the first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 13. As our parish priest pointed out to my husband and me a few years ago, we don’t know how much Nathan learned during his catechism classes at church, but on some level, he understands God in ways we may never comprehend this side of heaven.
Most of us are here to learn, but some of us are here to teach. Thank you Nathan for teaching us some of the most valuable lessons of all.
Andi Sligh is a wife and mother of two children with disabilities and three dogs. She is a lifelong Alabamian, Dr. Pepper addict, Catholic convert, and former engineer who rediscovered a love of writing when she became a mom. You can find more of her writing at https://andisligh.com/