‘Children with special needs,” Gov. Sarah Palin said during her acceptance speech at the Republican convention, “inspire a special love.” As someone who grew up alongside a brother with Down Syndrome, I can attest to that observation.
But these special children, and the special adults they grow up to be, inspire something else of equal importance. When these little, unexpected ambassadors of God enter our lives, they offer us the opportunity to rise to that greatest of all challenges — to treat others as we would want to be treated. Their presence, in short, elevates all of us.
#ad#So, from the perspective of a brother of one of these children, allow me to offer Track, Bristol, Willow, and Piper some unsolicited advice: You are most likely still trying to understand how your lives have changed now that you have a brother who will, in one way or another, always depend on you. He will require loads of attention, an unlimited supply of patience, and love — the sort of love, it is worth noting, that one usually never bestows on a sibling! It is the sort of relationship that, in time, will more closely resemble the bond between a parent and child than between two siblings.
Chances are, you don’t know other families with a Down’s child at home. Your friends and neighbors most likely won’t be able to offer first-hand advice on handling the challenges ahead. Trig may provoke stares from those you pass on the street, or the occasional hurtful comment from someone who just doesn’t understand. Caring for him may drain you of the energy you would prefer to devote to other pursuits.
In short, Trig sets you apart as well. Much will be required from you in the years ahead. But, if my experience is any guide, you will be immeasurably better off with Trig in your lives. And, unbeknownst to you, others will watch how you treat Trig and will quietly benefit from the good examples you undoubtedly will set.
Allow me to explain.
It wasn’t until my brother John lost his battle with cancer ten years ago that I truly appreciated how much he influenced those around him. A dear friend from my elementary and high-school days expressed it most eloquently. “You and your parents” he wrote in one of the many moving letters I received after his passing, “were just doing what came naturally, I guess, all those loving years with John, so you might not have realized the collateral effect.”
What was that collateral effect?
“The people who knew the Francs counted themselves very lucky, indeed, that you made John part of our lives [emphasis added]. Particularly in high school, to have John around Loyola High School or basketball games and other events took some of the high-spirited aggression of teenage boys and turned it around. Given what we now know about teenagers (as parents), that was at least a small miracle. So thanks to him, and to you, for opening up a better side in many of your cohorts.”
I came to realize that this was the theme of John’s life and, if the Lord indeed works in mysterious ways, this is the reason John entered my life and the lives of those around me. He made us better people, bringing forth “the better angels of our nature.” Indeed, “a little angel” is how my teary-eyed mother described Trig upon seeing him on the stage at St. Paul.
And it’s undoubtedly why the Lord has entrusted Trig to you and your family.
#ad#Our tight-knit neighborhood near the Lower East Side of Manhattan, known as Stuyvesant Town, is one of those park-like housing developments built after World War II that eschews a regular urban street grid for numerous playgrounds, benches, lawns, shade trees, and other amenities one normally doesn’t find in Manhattan. John took full advantage of this layout, plopping himself down on one of those benches and allowing his naturally outgoing and friendly personally to touch his neighbors. Normally grouchy personalities softened, smiles replaced perpetual frowns, and harried New Yorkers somehow found the time to pause and ask how he was doing — even those who really didn’t know who he was. Far better known than I, he could have been elected Mayor of Stuyvesant Town; to many, I was simply “John’s brother.”
As Trig grows up, be sure to integrate him into your lives. Make sure he attends your sporting events, accompanies you to the school play or high-school dance, or spends a weekend with you when you leave home to attend college. Take him to movies and to all your favorite restaurants. Let him tear open the wrapping paper on all your birthday and Christmas presents. Don’t hesitate to hold his hand in public when you walk down Main Street, even (especially) after he reaches adulthood. Be honored to be known simply as Trig’s brother or sister.
Another friend, this one a college chum, recalled one of the times John spent a weekend at our campus. My roommates and I hosted a rather boisterous party with plenty of loud music and dancing. With great ease, John coaxed every woman onto the dance floor. He was the life of the party. Two decades later she observed how he coaxed something special out of her that night: “There was something about being there with him that night that reminded me what play was all about and that sometimes it’s awfully fun to be a little bit childish and naughty.”
May Trig bring out the child and the better angels in all of us. Congratulations, and God bless.
– Michael G. Franc is vice president of government relations for the Heritage Foundation.