In an interview, I talk about how having my daughter Christina who has Down syndrome inspired me to slow down and listen to God more in my life. Through my renewed prayer life, I felt called to share this rediscovery of joyful trust in God by becoming a writer. I began my blog Cause of Our Joy in 2006 and wrote articles for Catholic periodicals like Faith & Family, Canticle, and Celebrate Life magazines, and the National Catholic Register.
Soon I met other Catholic moms like me, who were discovering blessings through raising their special needs children, and I wanted the world to hear their stories. I began collecting them in 2008 and in 2011, I published the book A Special Mother is Born to accompany moms and dads in their journey of parenting a child with special needs.
Here is my story from the book, A Special Mother is Born.
“God would never send us a special child,” I mused, caressing my pregnant belly, “our marriage isn’t strong enough.” I was deliriously happy to be pregnant at 39, for three of my five pregnancies had ended in miscarriage, and my younger daughter, Isabella, was an independent four year old. Last summer, I had returned from a homeschool conference with an aching heart, longing for a translucent-skinned newborn nuzzling my neck.
When my pregnancy lasted past my danger zone, I was ecstatic, and refused the triple screen blood test. “There’s nothing you can tell me that will make me end my baby’s life,” I told my doctor, putting the subject of prenatal diagnosis to rest. Or so I thought. Five months along, I was attending Sunday Mass, absent-mindedly watching the
parishioners with Down syndrome from a local group home when, from out of the blue, I
heard an internal voice. “You’re going to have a child with Down syndrome,” the voice
Astounded, I tried to dismiss it as a hormonal fixation, until, in line for Communion, the voice spoke again. “I want you to accept this child as a gift from My Hand, when you receive Me.”
Now I knew there was no escape. Jesus had a call for my life. How would I respond? I choked, “Yes, Lord, as long as you bring my husband along for the ride.” I received His Body in tears.
My husband, Francisco, was floored, thinking that I had finally gone over the edge. I also began to doubt the message, since there had been so many normal sonograms. “And besides, Lord, I’ve seen these mothers of special children. They’re saints. You could NEVER compare my impetuous personality with theirs.” That, I decided, was the clincher. God gave special children to saintly women. I was safe.
Never tell God what He is capable of doing. During the remaining months, I struggled with self-pity, and even, for one instant, regretted my pregnancy. Two days after the incident at Mass, Fr. Frank Pavone’s EWTN Show “Defending Life” featured a pair of sisters, the younger of whom had Down syndrome. Her older sister described her as a blessing for the family: She worked all day, attended daily Mass, prayed the Rosary, and whenever there was a family conflict, she was the one who brought about a reconciliation. She ended the show singing a love song she had composed for Jesus. I saw this as a confirmation that I had indeed heard from Jesus at Mass, and that His grace was molding my heart.
The time came for little Christina Maria’s arrival. At her birth, the delivery room fell deathly silent. Alarmed, I glanced over at the pink, wriggling baby in the isolette, and asked “What’s the problem?” The doctor didn’t respond. Francisco tried to tell me in Spanish that Christina was a “mongolita” (Spanish for Mongoloid), but I didn’t
understand. So, on the way to my room, the nurses circled my gurney and said, “We
regret to tell you that this child has symptoms consistent with Down syndrome.”
I was ready with my response. “This child will never take drugs, go Goth, or shoot up a
schoolroom. She’ll learn the Faith and keep it her whole life. She’s my best chance at
getting a daughter to Heaven, and I consider her a special blessing from God.” My
answer came from a book, Pregnancy Diary, by Mary Arnold, which I had read regularly
But words are cheap. What cost me dearly was watching the other newborns in the nursery and comparing Christina’s weakness to their vitality. I resented the happy chatter of the other Moms in the ward. I was haunted by dark thoughts, and self-pity took hold of me.
Just then, the phone calls began. My mother and homeschooling friends had summoned support from around the country, and I was encircled in love. I spoke with a mother from my parish who answered many of my anxious questions and told me what it was like to raise her youngest daughter with Down syndrome. Another friend, the mother of 11, sent an Elizabeth Ministry package for special babies, with a CD and book set titled, Sometimes Miracles Hide, Stirring Letters from Those Who Discovered God’s Blessings in a Special Child, by Bruce Carroll. That package was a constant companion, reminding me that regardless of how inadequate I felt, God had, indeed, chosen me to mother Christina, and that she would be my means of attaining holiness down the road. God’s favorite road, the Via Dolorosa.
On Mother’s Day, the day of Christina’s Baptism, we shared that song with the over 100 guests who crowded the church. My heart swelled with gratitude to God for choosing my family to raise Christina. And when her godmother asked what she should pray for, I didn’t ask for a cure from Down syndrome. I was beginning to understand that her “condition” was a blessing, not a curse. Perhaps, as Fr. McCartney had said, Christina
pities us for not having the purity of heart to see what she sees.
Francisco still had to journey towards accepting Christina’s diagnosis. When she was first born, he had difficulty holding her and said she looked like “an alien.” He even considered leaving our family over the shame he felt at having a handicapped daughter. He asked if we could avoid having mail with the words “Down syndrome” arrive at the house. I was devastated. Thankfully, two men—my father and a friend from a prayer group—took it upon themselves to approach Francisco quietly and remind him that he, too, had been chosen by Our Lord to raise Christina. He began to hold her, and little by little, she wound her way into his heart. The next step involved taking Christina out in public. I worked on Saturdays, leaving him home with three girls, and soon, he began to take them on walks and bike rides to the beach. We attended a Spanish language parent support group at a local church, and the example of macho Latino dads publicly sporting their children with Down syndrome on their shoulders, worked to overcome the sense of shame and hopelessness he learned as a child in
Now, Christina is the apple of his eye, and they are inseparable. I watch and
smile as, hand in hand, they pick corn in the garden, or examine a dragonfly in
the river, then practice skipping stones. God brought my husband around with a
great deal of prayer on the part of his family, and the offering of many
After six years of specialists, therapists and conferences, our family has grown in
acceptance of her halting development, yet often, we are awed by Christina’s perception
of that which escapes us. One day, I brought her with me to Eucharistic Adoration.
Entering the chapel, she waved enthusiastically to the Monstrance and called, “Hi,
Jesus!” I was congratulating myself for having communicated that Jesus was present,
though unseen. She promptly put me in my place, for, as we were leaving, she waved
again, saying, “Bye Jesus!” as if He was as visible as Grandpa standing in front of her!
You know, I believe she did see Jesus. And, what’s more, they already had a friendship.
The next stage of growth in special motherhood was to learn to trust Jesus to care for Christina when she was out of my sight. When Christina entered Kindergarten, I was full of anxiety. I wondered how she would fare in a full-day Kindergarten class. Would she make friends? Would she bother the other children, pushing them, stealing their snacks, or knocking down their block towers when they failed to understand her limited
language? Would she be left behind the fast-moving curriculum? Would she be
frightened and overwhelmed? Christina already knew her numbers and letters, but had
difficulty drawing circles and cutting with scissors. She had been trying to master these
pre-writing skills for three years with little success. I was secretly afraid that she had hit
a plateau with her communication skills.
September and October passed, and we noticed new phrases entering her
vocabulary. In November, her teachers requested a conference before Thanksgiving. It
seemed that Christina had exceeded everyone's expectations, and we had to set higher
goals for her. She had many friends in school who included her in their daily game of
obstacle course on the playground. She was also learning to respect her new friends’
block tower creations, to draw circles and to use scissors. I was thrilled. Christina had also given something to Mrs. Brown, her aide at school. In her Christmas note, Mrs. Brown wrote, "Christina has truly brought new meaning to my life. I have learned so
much knowing her.” This was proof that Jesus was at her side, protecting her so she
could flourish, while allowing others to see His presence in her.
I was realizing how much Christina was a gift from the Hand of God to her family, and her community, and that she is a gift we are called to share. In the past four years, we have reached out to families who are expecting children with Down syndrome through my writing and speaking. We have been the subject of articles, and been interviewed on radio and TV, while sharing the joy that people with Down syndrome bring to a family. I have begun my long delayed writing career, motivated by the fact that 90 percent of babies like Christina are aborted. We feel strongly that if expectant families could meet Christina, that their hearts would find the courage to welcome their babies into their families as we did.
When she was 12, her sister Gabriela wrote this story about life with her sister with Down syndrome for the diocesan Respect Life essay contest. It won first prize, and has been reprinted countless times in various papers and websites. It’s called,
“My Sister is Special”
“I have a three year old sister named Christina with Down syndrome. It can be a challenge having a sister with a disability. When she was born, I cried because I knew people would make fun of the way she looked and spoke .Sometimes people give her weird looks as they pass by, but it does not bother me anymore. Those people don't know her like I do. Christina is slow at learning to speak, and I don't always understand her, but that does not stop her from communicating. She says ''let's go'' and takes me by the hand to show me what she wants like something to eat or her favorite Elmo DVD, and she always says," thank you'' after you give it to her. Christina didn't learn to walk until she was two and a half, but now you can't stop her! Sometimes, he climbs up on the kitchen island, knocks everything down, and yells for me to come and see her standing up there, with a big smile on her face. She loves running away from me when she is in trouble, giggling.
People with Down syndrome really love, and once in a while, they teach us how to live our faith better. Christina always seems to have a smile on her face, and really cares for others. One time my Mom took Christina to Eucharistic Adoration. As they went into the chapel, she enthusiastically waved and said, ''Hi Jesus!'' as if He were standing right in front of her. Everyone in the chapel turned and smiled at her saying, "she knows He is here.’’
Christina is like any other kid, just slower at learning things and she should not be treated differently. Most people don't know that 90% of Down syndrome babies are aborted. The people who do this don't know what they are missing! Every year, my family and I go to
for the March for Life and try to stop this discrimination against unborn
babies. Just because they don't have a voice, does not mean their lives
should be ended. We have to be their voice. I think nobody should
be rejected because of the way they look or speak. We are all God's
children and he loves all of us.” Washington D.C.
When Gabbi read her essay to a crowd of 800 and received a standing ovation, I began to see how my vocation to special motherhood involved our entire family, bringing out the best qualities in each member. This challenge was accepted at first reluctantly, then as we each grew to embrace the challenge we grew more patient, more tolerant of
the faults of others, and our spiritual life deepened as our priorities were reordered.
We have learned to take time to listen and help Christina learn, despite her stubborn streak. My husband Francisco has patiently taught Christina her letters, using the computer. His father Antonio, took her by the hands and taught her to walk, and built countless Lego block towers with her. My parents babysat for her with extraordinary patience and cheered on her accomplishments at school and home. My older daughters regularly help Christina dress for school, do her homework, brush her teeth, and get ready for bed. We are all slower to judge others by others’ appearance or abilities, and more
likely to look at the soul of those we meet. We have been realizing that the goal of our life as a family is to get each other to heaven, and that we just may have an advantage because God has given us Christina.
I continue to share the story of our life with Christina through my blog Cause of
Our Joy and it has introduced me to various contributors to this book. In the fall of 2008, with my friend Eileen Haupt, I started Keep Infants with Down Syndrome. KIDS has as its goal the education of society about the abilities of children with Down syndrome and the joy they bring their families and friends, in order to overcome the tragic 90 percent abortion rate of babies with Down syndrome.
Eileen and I met each other and our KIDS members on the morning of January 22, 2009, and again this year on Jan 22, 2010, at the National Right to Life Headquarters in
. We proudly marched in the March for Life
alongside our children to the cheers of pro-life onlookers. We gave awards to
Congressmen who have sponsored legislation to help protect the right to life of
children with prenatally diagnosed conditions. We have a special relationship
with Rep. Cathy McMorris Rogers whose two year old son Cole met with us at the
2010 March for Life. Cole has Down syndrome, and inspired his mother to
co-found the Congressional Down Syndrome Caucus. KIDS has a blog and a Facebook group, and is
growing every day, as those who love someone with Down syndrome are leaning
that their numbers are dwindling thanks to the pressure women are under to
abort their child once Trisomy 21, is diagnosed. Washington
Christina by just being her loving, challenging, fascinating self has helped me mature spiritually. The virtues of patience, tolerance, and humility are increasing as I learn from the example of child who communicates with God in ways I will only
understand in heaven. My pastor, says, “suffering, united with humility is the most powerful force on earth”. Before I gave birth to Christina, such wisdom would have eluded me, but the humility gained by having to learn such lessons as toilet training over a period of five years instead of one, and having a daughter who does not always fit into society’s expectations have taught me the value of patience in the smallest details, and total surrender of my life to our loving God.
I have been fortunate to know holy priests and to spend my adult life the guidance of Pope John Paul II. I had the honor of attending two events in
New York City
with him; as a youth in 1979 and as a new mother in 1995. His teaching shaped
my vocation as a mother. Here is a meditation of his which has helped me
understand my vocation as a special mother.
“The sick, the elderly, the handicapped, and the dying, teach us that our weakness is a creative part of human living, and that suffering can be embraced with no loss of dignity. Without the presence of those people, in our midst, we might be tempted to think of health, strength, and power as the only important values to be pursued in life But the wisdom of Christ and the power of Christ are to be seen in the weakness of those who share his sufferings.”
When I was covering the Papal Youth Rally with Pope Benedict XVI for the National Catholic Register in April 2008, I was witness to a special moment of grace. Before meeting the 20,000 youth who awaited him outdoors, Pope Benedict conducted a prayer service in the Seminary Chapel, with children with special needs and their families, while we watched on the television screens outdoors. A lovely young lady of 10 who had Down syndrome walked up to the Holy Father to present him with a book. With an outpouring of love so typical to people with Down syndrome, she reached up and hugged him tightly. Not content with their embrace, she turned to the young lady who was at her side, and included her in a three way bear hug.
Tears rolled down my cheeks when I saw the love in his eyes, and wondered if he was thinking about his own cousin with Down syndrome. In 1941, this young man of 14, was just a few months younger than Josef Ratzinger when he was forcibly taken from his home by the Nazis. German parents at first voluntarily surrendered disabled children for the ‘good of the state’. Soon the children were taken against their parent’s will. It was the disabled and mentally ill who were the first to experience the horrors of the gas chambers. The boys’ family received word a few months later that their son had died. This must have left an indelible impression on the young Josef Ratzinger.
In the past year, I was to learn the power of embracing suffering. And Christina a was the one who taught me. My mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer, shortly after Mother’s Day of 2009. I wrote “The Prayers of a Little Saint” for Catholic Mom.com.
We have been dealing with the news that my mother has an inoperable tumor which is most likely malignant. It has been terrifying, yet moments of grace have kept us going. Like when I hear from friends and strangers who are praying for Mom, or the look of compassion on my pastor’s face when I told him. He lost his mother a few months earlier.
Yesterday God gave us another moment of grace.
I was outdoors with Christina, trying to absorb the gravity of the bad news I had just received by phone: the surgeon said that Mom’s cancer was stage four and inoperable. I was trying to move beyond the paralysis of fear and find the words to pray about it. I was trying to pray silently as I walked around the yard, finally sitting down on the stoop in the exhaustion of grief.
Christina got up, saying “Church”, and walked over to the statue of Our Lady of Grace in front of the house. She patted the statue on the shoulder, then stepped back, crouched down and made the Sign of the Cross alone for the first time. Her little hands clasped tightly, she began to pray. For five minutes, Christina mentioned all of our family members, including my mother as we do in our nighttime prayers. Her little face was a model of concentration and at one point she closed her eyes. It was obvious that she was praying, not imitating our actions, since we pray indoors and typically at her bedside. She has never seen us pray in front of this particular statue of Our Lady.
When Christina finished her prayers, she made the Sign of the Cross, and again reached out to touch the shoulder of the statue of Our Lady, and when she turned to leave, patted her head affectionately.
I immediately called Mom and Dad to tell them about the prayers of our little saint. They were moved and uplifted by this gesture of love and faith that was so unexpected. Since then, this story has been circulated around my entire family, giving us strength when the darkness threatened to envelop us.
On Mother’s Day 2002, when Christina was baptized, Fr McCartney said, “sometimes I think that people with Down syndrome feel sorry for us, because we can’t see what they see”. Yesterday, Christina proved that she could pray with words when her mother couldn’t. I know God heard us both, but I can’t help feeling that the prayers of such innocent children carry a special weight with Jesus who asked the little children to come to Him. Mom was indeed called home last fall, and thanks to the prayers of my little saint, our family realized that as painful as losing her was, she was going home.”
As Christina grows in her abilities to read and take care of herself in everyday life, her mother grows in her ability to see with God’s eyes, thanks to their making me a special mother, but it doesn’t end there. I shared this story in my column on Catholic Mom.com, and I have read it on the Catholic Radio International Program, “Mary’s Touch”. From there, the story was included in a Marian Retreat on the Drew Mariani Show on Relevant Radio. The simple faith of a child whom the world rejects has served as inspiration for thousands, who, like her family, are enjoying the gift of Christina. Truly she is a gift from God’s Hand.
1. John Allen, Ratzinger's biographer, reports a revelation made by Cardinal Ratzinger at a conference in the
Vatican on November 28 1996: "Ratzinger
had a cousin with Down's Syndrome who in 1941 was 14 years old. This cousin was
just a few months younger than Ratzinger and was taken away by the Nazi
authorities for "therapy" Not long afterwards, the family received
word that he was dead, presumably one of the 'undesirables'
eliminated during that time."