My daughter has Down syndrome. She is only four years old, but we have dreams for her future. Some of those dreams look like possibilities, like a chance to go to college, a chance to get married, or a chance to have a job. She is a smart little girl, with lots of spunk and personality. At times, I can even imagine her walking to receive her college diploma. However, we are aware of the areas of her development where she is behind her peers, we cannot ignore that she has delays.
What if Nichole is not able to go to college? What if realistically her intellectual capabilities are not found in a classroom of higher education, even in programs targeted for others with intellectual disabilities? Will we have failed? Will she have failed? Will there be less value to her life?
She will never be a doctor, a lawyer, or a scientist. She will not be the greatest athlete or performer. She will not find the cure for cancer and she will certainly not be the next president. But then I look at Nichole and I am trapped in her eyes, unable to look away, unable to question anymore. The little girl that looks back at me is not broken, and she is not less than perfect. The value of her life is not found in all the things that she will never be, but in the things that she is. And at only four years old, her accomplishments are those that many of us seek to achieve someday.
Nichole might not get to be a college graduate, but she is my teacher, my teacher of life. She has taught me what celebration looks and feels like. The power of cheering for others and the freedom of dance. She has taught me that a worthy performance is not found in a basketball court or a stage, but on a living room floor matching words and letters, and in saying simple broken sentences, “Come back sit mom.” I see it as she embraces hurting people and her love brings them to tears, “She makes me feel loved like I never have been before,” they say. I have seen worship to God that is so honest and seems so pleasing, that it moves me. I see it as Nichole tries to sing along at church, raising her arms to the God that gave her life, or singing along and dancing to a video while she tries to sing along, “Let everything that breaths sings praises to the Lord, praise the Lord!”
She has partnered with God to work in my selfish heart. A heart that many times is so lost in this world that it forgets that the standards I live for are not the ones set by people, but those set by God. She lives them, she teaches them to me.
I have seen joy in her, and wished that I could feel what she feels. It is so pure.
I have felt peace and love through her. At times when I am down, she instinctively knows it and comes to pat my back, and then she pulls me tight into a hug and offers a smile, maybe even asks if I need some crackers or chips too.
And every day she works harder than I do to master and accomplish new skills.
No diploma will ever be able to credit the value of Nichole’s life or the meaning of her accomplishments. She is already ahead of me in the things that really matter in life, and therefore she is my teacher and I her student.
And someday, maybe I will get to “graduate” and she will be the one cheering for me saying, “You did it mom! You did it!” And I hope that she is as proud of me as I am proud of her now.