By Dion Govender
“We suspect that Olivia might have Down syndrome,” explained the pediatrician clearly trying his best to break the news to us empathetically while attempting to conceal his own discomfort at the situation. I suspect it never gets easy for doctors breaking bad news to families. He had to reiterate himself a few times before it even registered with me. I was dumbstruck. I felt claustrophobic, in a bad dream where time seemed to have slowed down to heart shattering seconds. Down syndrome? Our perfect little girl? Tears.
We recently celebrated Olivia’s first birthday – a little person who has not only impacted our lives, but also the lives of many around us; a little person who helped redefine and put into perspective so much of life, faith, success and a myriad of other important factors that make up who we are…
The last twelve months have been a beautiful journey. We have learned, been challenged and are grateful for so much over this year. And because of this, I believe that we’ll be looking at this Christmas so much more differently than previous years. We’ve been conditioned into believing that “stuff equals love” more so over Christmas and the festive season. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a joy to give gifts and I love receiving the iWhatever as much as the next guy, but in Christmas’s passed I have to admit that it became more about excesses than the true ‘reason for the season’ – Jesus.
In many ways, Down syndrome has illuminated the real and true values of Christmas for us:
Be thankful. My wife always shares a little quote that she once read which we’ve adopted for our family: “We wouldn’t choose it [Down syndrome] but we’d never change it.” We’re thankful for this journey we’re on, it’s brought into clear perspective all those people and comforts we are so grateful for and we’re excited about letting them know how we feel this Christmas. This year we’re making “Thank you’s” a part of gift giving. What or who are you thankful for? Pen a hand written note, or better yet tell them how you feel. In our case: over 50% of children born with Down syndrome have Congenial Heart Disease, but Olivia doesn’t. Boom!
Be tolerant. Down syndrome has taught us to be patient with people – and I’m not just referring to people with special needs but ‘normal’ people. I’ve learned that most people’s misconceptions with Down syndrome and other disabilities are based on fear and ignorance. We were ignorant, and because we didn’t have any facts our fears were based on myths. Life’s too short to sweat the small stuff. I’m more gracious with folks and treat them with gentleness when correcting them. Christmas is a great opportunity to be gracious with folks: no cynicism just grace. Isn’t that what Jesus would want us to do?
Dream big. One of the first thoughts I had when we received the news was, ‘I’m never going to walk my daughter down the aisle.’ I was broken. This last year has taught me that we can still dream for our daughter and we should teach her to pursue with passion the dreams that she has for her own life. Sometimes we find ourselves in situations that dictate that our dreams are lost. Old dreams can be replaced with new dreams but we should never stop dreaming.
Christmas is my favourite time of year because there’s a tangible sense of hope in the air. This is an opportune time to reach out to people who find themselves in hopeless situations with shattered dreams. We’re planning on inviting a few specific people over for a meal and to hopefully encourage them to hold on to their dreams. Also, as the year winds to a close it’s a practical opportunity to plan, dream and stir optimism for the New Year.
See the world as Jesus does. Down syndrome has taught us to see people through Christ’s eyes. We can easily label people based on what we see on the outside, what they have done in the past or where they find themselves presently. Down syndrome doesn’t define my precious little girl – it’s very much a part of her life but it’s not who she is. Look at people beyond what you see on the outside or the label that society places on them.
This Christmas my family and I are praying specifically for opportunities to engage and connect with people we might have looked passed over previous Christmas’s. Uncomfortable? You betcha! But here’s the thing, not many lessons are learned in comfortable situations.
I guess the strongest point I’m trying to drive home is that beyond all the great stuff that Christmas brings, people are the ones that matter most. The fact of the matter is that we live in a day and age where we’re bombarded constantly with a message that we don’t need real life connections and the more stuff we get the more satisfied we’ll be. Of course this is a fallacy as we quickly find we’re never satisfied. There’ll always be something better, faster, or shinier before you can even spell A-N-D-R-O-I-D.
So, my hope this Christmas is that I seize every opportunity to engage with real people. There’s a hurting world out there and everyone has a story to tell. I want to encourage you to, just like me, push through your comfort, fears or misconceptions and extend the hand of friendship and spread some Christmas cheer.
Dion is a fashion trend caster, husband to Vanessa and dad to Zachary and Olivia. He is a member of the Common Ground Durbanville congregation.
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