When he was a senior in high school, my eldest child, Claude, called me a bad-ass mother (which I mistakenly took as pejorative until he explained the parlance of his generation). It’s true, my parenting mantra is “push and support.” So why, in the two years since he graduated high school, have I cried like a melodramatic helicopter mom at every turn in Claude’s life? Fortunately, with each adult milestone Claude passes, the chest-wrenching feeling diminishes and I cry a little less. The day before this past Mother’s Day, I was dry-eyed as I snapped photos of my son, Hugo, who, dressed in a sports coat and white shirt, stood arm-in-arm with Claude, whose new REI outward-bound backpack was strapped on his back over a quick-dry travel shirt. Then Hugo and I watched Claude peel off his layers for airport security, walk through the TSA doorless doorway, reassemble himself and, turning towards us, wave before heading off to his gate. Ardently, Hugo and I waved in return. I sucked in my breath. “Oh, Mama,” said Hugo as he placed his arm around my shoulders and pulled me to his side, “don’t cry, Claude’s going to be fine.” Though his response was sweet, Hugo’s words were misplaced. My tears these past two years have not been out of concern for my eldest son—far from it. In fact, I never cry over Claude, not really. His beginnings are my endings and grief, mixed with no small amount of joy, is the source of these sudden showers.
The day after he graduated from high school in June of 2012, Claude boarded a Greyhound bus for his grandparents’ home and a fulltime job in northern Michigan. Each summer, my three oldest boys have stayed for weeks at a time with these same grandparents, my stepmother and her husband (who is not my father; yes, we are a very modern family), who live just a block from Lake Michigan. And yet the day after Claude left, I called my stepmother and cried so hard she could not understand my words, though she knew exactly what I was saying.
“I’ll…never have…the three of them…together…on a road trip…again…it’s over…how can it be that it’s already over? I never…took them…to Yellowstone or…or, or well…other places,” I said sounding like a five-speed transmission bucking a new driver, my diaphragm slam-dancing in my chest. My stepmom said she understood and let me reel on and on until there was nothing left to release and, as abruptly as it had started, the episode ended.
Look, it’s no secret that I love big kids, especially my own. And neither is it a secret that I’m not terribly crazy about small children, except my own. Small children are often noisy and irrational. I think perhaps that’s why I breast fed all my kids for so long—nursing consoles otherwise inconsolable children thereby quieting them, sigh of relief for that, which is to say nursing is selfish on my part. I love who these people I raised have turned out to be; still, gone are the warm days of feeling like a mother quail with my little chicks following behind me in a row as we explore the world both near and far. As it should be, the reward for good parenting is adult children who venture out into the world on the paths they choose. Be that as it may and even with a career and full life, I am not immune to a touch of melancholia at my nest emptying out.
Other Mothers, Other Children
When I was in high school a woman on my street often included me in activities with her own children—events at the local university, drive-in movies, Fourth of July fireworks. When I wanted to take piano lessons, she told me I could practice on her piano since my family didn’t have one. At the time, I wished this neighbor was my mother and her family my family. As an adult, she was one of several women after whom I fashioned my mothering. When my friend’s daughter was in her early twenties, the two of them traveled together to India, seeing large sections of that subcontinent country by train, their sparse belongings in backpacks.
And so, modeled after my friend’s adventures with her young adult daughter, for many years I told my boys I would take them each on a trip, just the two of us, the summer after they graduated from high school. But when Claude graduated, I was seven months pregnant with Lyra, my fifth child. And he took the only fulltime position he could find, with the streets department in Charlevoix, Michigan, because even using all of my savings, which we did, there was not enough money to pay for Claude’s expenses his freshman year at the University of Michigan. The fact is, even with him working that summer we still weren’t sure how we’d cover his expenses as Lyra was born just ten days before he moved into the dorms in Ann Arbor. The poor financial timing of Lyra’s birth was compounded by her unexpected diagnoses of Down syndrome and bilateral cataracts. I wasn’t able to resume working for many months.
The truth is having an older set and a younger set of children often means letting go of previous plans, which I am not always happy to do. Having raised three young boys largely on my own, it seems remarkable I signed up for a second tour of duty. But the trade-off is a no brainer because with Max I am not raising Leif and Lyra alone and neither am I raising my older three children alone. Two more children plus a father for them all.
Having It All
“Don’t come home when your term ends. Your scholarships are paying for this trip, stay a couple of weeks longer and travel,” I told Claude after he announced he had been accepted to study spring term in Granada, Spain. We did not immediately plan a mother-son adventure because a friend of Claude’s thought he might join him. But a few weeks after Claude flew to Spain that Mother’s Day weekend, the friend’s plans fell through. The timing was bad for me. I recently acquired a second investment property that needs work before I can lease it and I rent to graduate students who mostly arrive in July. Nor was a trip financially ideal because, again, I’d just acquired a second investment property that needs work before I can rent to graduate students who mostly arrive in July.
But this I know: Timing for important things never seems ideal and money always works out.
I went to my bank and they gave me a credit card with zero percent interest for twelve months. Claude, like me, prefers traveling on the cheap because if you stay in Hiltons, how is the experience any different than just staying in the States? Using Rick Steve’s Spain, we agreed to find affordable hostals (a step above a hostel, hostals are a step below a hotel and in France they are usually called “pensions”). Max told me not to worry about my properties; he’d take care of the incoming tenants, the workers. I worried about leaving Lyra, I worried it was too much to ask of Max who, you know, also has a fulltime job. “Don’t worry about us, we’ll be fine. Go, this is just what you need.” And so I did.
Spain with My Son
Instead of pre-marital counseling, couples preparing to make a lifelong commitment should leave the country together. The challenges of travel, especially in a country where the native tongue is not that of the traveler, often reveal the essence of a person’s character. How does someone respond to lost train tickets, missed trains, difficulties finding a room for the night, discovering that the locals substantially overcharged you, the tourist, and there’s nothing you can do but pay up? All these things happened to us. When the first of them was resolved by a taxi driver running up to us with Claude’s lost notebook, in which he had stored our 200€ ($260) train tickets to Valencia, we came upon the mantra for our trip: Everything always works out.
The last time I spent two weeks alone with Claude was before my second child, Hugo, was born nearly eighteen years ago. Claude is an interior guy, which I have long, if not always, known. But without the cacophony of siblings surrounding him, it became unmistakably clear that Claude, unlike all his brothers (and his mother) does not engage in unnecessary speech. He’s not inscrutable, in fact, his company is very pleasant but he does not chatter idly. However, two topics elict animated verbosity in Claude: art and politics. Trips can either be deep or broad; we chose broad and traveled to five cities in twelve days, giving our trip coherence by focusing on art (mostly in museums, but not always). Both of us have studied art history and to talk with Claude about the work we saw was to talk with an equal. Claude knows more about pop art and artists than I do and he remembers more about other periods and movements (in all fairness to the mother, the son has studied these subjects more recently than she).
But Claude is also an artist and much of what we saw inspired him. I learned he loves Goya, especially the less formalized works the artist painted for his own home rather than those for the Spanish Court. At the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Claude turned to me and said, “I wonder how much an air brush would cost?” Whoopsie Piggle’s logo on WordPress, in which rows of silhouetted faces look forward while one golden face turns upward, is a piece Claude did with an airbrush. Ironically, if not ridiculously, now that Claude has dropped out of Michigan’s art school to study English and political science, he can take the art courses he always wanted to take but couldn’t when he had to follow the school’s prescribed programming.
More surprising to me, I discovered Claude speaks Spanish quite well. Well, how is that a surprise? the reader might think, the fellow just spent two months living in Spain. Sure, except that when he was in the third grade, the psychologist who diagnosed his severe dyslexia told me not to ever expect Claude to do well in foreign language and suggested I seek an accommodation to exempt him from studying foreign language in high school. That psychologist made so many of Claude’s successes possible when she accurately diagnosed him and guided me to effective remediation options. But traveling Spain with him as my personal translator, again I was reminded that even the best experts can unnecessarily and unintentionally limit a child. “I know this probably sounds corny,” I said to Claude as we walked in the middle of a large boulevard park toward the Mediterranean Ocean in Valencia, where we were told we’d find the best paella restaurants, “but I remember when you were brand new and only had instincts for eating and voiding. You were a blank little slate and in no time here you are getting us around a foreign country speaking a second language.” Claude didn’t respond, my observation only remarkable perhaps to an adult who has watched the newborn become the child who became a man.
Síndrome de Down
“Do you speak English?” I asked the man working at a Starbucks in Barcelona across the street from architect Antoni Gaudí’s unfinished, yet spectacular church, La Sagrada Famíla. Generally, I always try to speak the language of the country I am visiting, but I did not know how to say what I wanted to say in Spanish. Probably in his late twenties, the man had short black hair and a well-trimmed, equally black beard on a face of fine bones—simply put: he was a handsome Spaniard. He told me he spoke a little English.
“Yo tengo una hija con Down syndrome,” I said and my disobedient eyes welled up. The young man reached across the counter and grabbed my hands with both of his. “I hope one day she can work somewhere like this, with such nice people.” Claude, who had gone to the bathroom, walked up and leaned in as he often did when translating for me, but he didn’t say anything. Instead, he quietly watched the barista and I exchanged sentiments in languages neither of us really knew. As we walked out the door, only then did Claude speak. He asked if I was okay. Whether my encounter with the people at Starbucks left Claude touched, embarrassed or indifferent, I cannot say.
We had stopped into the Starbucks before visiting La Sagrada Famíla so I could use their Internet to resolve a pressing matter involving the rental houses. The table where we sat with our cafés con leches was only a few feet away from the narrow end of the service counter. I could see the employees as they worked behind the counter but I did not pay attention until a young woman, who had come from a back room of the café, walked passed our table and behind the counter with the rest of the employees. I whispered to Claude that I thought the woman had Down syndrome but he was writing in his notebook and glanced up only briefly. I went back to my work too, only to snap my head up seconds later when I heard yelling and laughter. The handsome Spaniard, with the fingers of his right hand pulled together and pointed in his own direction as his hand waved like a nodding head, was laughing and yelling at the woman with Down syndrome. She, in turn, lifted her right arm and using her hand like a knife, sliced her points back at the man. I was only briefly concerned by the loud interaction in a language I did not understand (which may not have been Spanish, but Catalonian, the distinct language of that region), because the mirth between the two of them was evident as was the man’s frequent use of the word “guapa,” or beautiful, as he addressed the young woman. When she again walked passed our table, this time carrying a bus tub of dirty dishes to the back room, she was chuckling to herself.
(Note: I have never seen anyone with Down syndrome working in a Starbucks in the United States but a simple Google search found that the most identifiable coffee retailer in the world has long employed people with the most common genetic disorder.)
Not infrequently, I saw other adults with Down syndrome in Spain and consistently I observed something subtle yet, I believe, significant: They spoke for themselves. Yes, as simple as that. They spoke and others listened and responded. You see, routinely in the United States when I have spoken with adults with Down syndrome, their family members often repeat, with added details, what was just said as if the person with DS needs to be translated. Or more disheartening, which has me questioning how most Americans respond when approached by someone with DS, the family members redirect the person with DS under the mistaken assumption that listening to someone with DS bothers me. (It is important to note that neither scenario occurred in the many conversations I had with adults with DS at the National Down Syndrome Congress convention that we attended the weekend after I returned from Spain. I wonder if family members felt they could let their guard down at such an event or if in general the population who attends these annual conventions have adopted a different approach?)
“We don’t get upset about much,” Domingo explained when I asked him about what life was like for Spanish people with Down syndrome. Along with his wife, Marta, Domingo owns Quitapenas, the best tapas bar in Toledo, if not all of Spain. The first time Claude and I stopped in, for lunch, Domingo told us in a mix of Spanish and English, “This restaurant is like your home—have some drinks, eat here and you will feel at home.” Truer words were never spoken and we not only returned for dinner that night but we changed our train tickets, the ones that had toured Toledo in a taxi without us, to eat yet one more time at Quitapenas with our new friends. “People with síndrome de Down,” said Domingo, “they are just, you know, with us. It’s not, what you say, a big problem to us.” I have not done enough research to qualitatively understand how the Spanish treat their citizens who have Down syndrome, but from my two-week observation, Domingo’s assessment seems accurate.
After ten days and four cities, Claude and I returned to Madrid and, hands down, our favorite hostal, which is owned and run by Anuncia and Sabino, the Spanish grandparents anyone would want for their own. On the terrace of the fifth floor apartment, which has just five rooms for guests, Anuncia dries the bedding on laundry lines while just inside the family canary is brought in his cage for a few hours each day to sing for the passersby on the plaza below.
“I’ve had a great time, this has been such a good trip, Mama,” said Claude as we walked across the Plaza Mayor on our way back to Anuncia and Sabino’s after my last dinner in Spain.
“Me too. You know, Claude, when we get home and everyone is there and it’s crazy and I get overwhelmed, can you just remember that this is who I really am?”
I packed my stuff, and much of Claude’s, in both my backpack and an extra bag we had purchased for the purpose of making me a pack mule. Having purchased his ticket months before we knew I would be joining him, Claude’s flight home coincided with the first day the National Down Syndrome Congress convention. As a result, I left three days before Claude and, in case he did any more shopping, I took all his extra clothes and textbooks with me. Anuncia and Sabino came to the door to bide me farewell, even though “Claudio” was staying with them another night. Anuncia kissed me once on my left cheek and then many times on my right cheek and I began to cry. Life is a succession of farewells, or “passé bien” in Spanish, and our great trip was over. For two weeks, I felt like an old me I once knew, one who had time to dwell on the creativity found in museum after museum in city after city, a person who could have extended conversations with another adult, some of which lasted for days, a person who didn’t worry much. Yes, I missed my baby, Lyra, though truthfully, I did not think about my four children back in the States all that much, I knew they were fine without me. But return I must and return I did and not only did I leave behind, for a time, this man who is my son, I also left that old me, the carefree student who could wander Europe at will soaking in and sucking down to the marrow all that looks, feels and tastes good.
I was unnecessarily hesitant to ask Claude to go with me to the airport. Unbiden he announced that of course he was going to see me off. I was glad; the Metro ride required two transfers and a confusing 3€ charge just for entering the airport from the Metro station (and again when exiting). With Claude carrying the extra bag filled with his belongings, we walked from the Metro station to the airline’s counter to get my boarding pass, a distance longer than that between most Metro stops as was the walk from the counter to security. He walked through the security queue with me until he could go no further without a ticket and then he waited as I peeled off my layers of luggage, my jacket, my shoes. While doing so, I had a wonderful, if disjointed, conversation with a man and a woman who were behind me in the security line. Claude later told me he thought they were husband and wife, but they were father and daughter. Maria had on an elegant short-sleeved dress with a fitted, cream-colored bodice and a navy skirt. Her silky, dark hair, cut in a longish bob with bangs, moved like a curtain as she darted around like the rest of us to get her belongings into the security bins for the X-ray machine.
“My daughter has Down syndrome,” I said to the man in Spanish.
“Oh, wonderful! Hey, Maria, this woman has a daughter like you!” said the man, also in Spanish.
“My name is Maria,” said the beautiful young woman as she nodded at me and smiled. I learned that Maria, who lives in the Canary Islands with her family, is the second of four children, 27-years-old and, though he needn’t have told me, it was self-evident, the delight of her parents’ lives.
Claude, though a head taller than everyone else waving from behind the security line, could not seem to see me after I had reassembled my clothes and backpack onto my body. I walked back toward security, waving my arm widely, until I caught his attention. With the queue and the security operations between us, we looked at one another and smiled. I blew him a kiss and turned to walk to my gate. I looked back one more time and there he stood, my tall son, calmly waiting for me to disappear. I did not cry.