“I got a gold medal,” Ben hollered across the dinner table.
“Oh really? For what?” I asked. All eyes were on Ben. A mischievous grin played across his face as he stared through his glasses at his attentive audience.
“For…um…a…DONKEY RACE!” he shouted. Our family dissolved into howls of merriment. We all knew, and so did Ben, that a donkey race is the kind where the last person wins.
“Yeah buddy, congratulations!” we high-fived Ben across the table.
Ben was born in 2002, my parents’ sixth and last child. At birth it was clear that he had Down Syndrome. His arrival into our family changed everything. For the good.
I love Ben. Every chance I get, I spend with him. He is my brother, friend, and teacher. He has taught me about some of the most important qualities of life. Here’s a small glimpse into a day with Ben.
“Keep on moving! If you can’t walk, crawl, but by…” Pulled from a dream by the booming voice, I toss back the covers and sit on the edge of my bed listening. I leap out of bed and run to the living room. Opening the door I see Ben, his back turned to me, standing in front of the CD player clutching an empty case, which reads: “The Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King.” There is never a dull moment for Ben, and although this means no rest for our family, life would be incredibly boring if he was not around.
After breakfast comes drama time. Ben dons Mom’s coat, becoming St. George. He grabs a wooden spoon and rushes to attack the dragon – my brother Mike, under his quilt. Mike roars deafeningly under the onslaught.
Our family decides to go on a stroll that Sunday morning. “Ben, get your shoes and jacket on,” I urge him. Three minutes later he is still sitting on the floor, without his shoes and jacket on. Impatiently, I tell him to hurry up. He just shouts back. Once again, I’m forced to realize that the harder you push him, the slower he will go. Patience solves the problem. What’s the rush?
Walking through the village with our family, Ben suddenly stops and stares at the approaching figure of a man on crutches. “Ben stop staring – it’s rude,” I whisper. Ben doesn’t take any notice. Watching the man pass, he turns to my mother. “Mom, we have to pray that God makes that man better.” Maybe if I’d travel in the slow lane I’d be more considerate.
Our walk ends up at the train station. Ben sits on the platform, eagerly waiting to see an approaching train. Just then a lady, rather tall and with an elegant hairdo, stops in front of him. “Fat stupid lady with hair on top!” Ben yells. I cringe in embarrassment. Thankfully, most people unacquainted with Ben can’t easily understand him – but this lady gets the general idea. In any case, Ben doesn’t lose by saying what he feels. In fact he only gains; the lady moves.
Back at home Ben returns to the CD player. “Go, Go, Thomas! Thomas Number One.” When it comes to Ben’s favorites, nothing beats Thomas the Tank Engine songs.
“Dance, Carmen!” Ben shouts to me as he wildly cavorts around the living room. Suddenly I am free. All the uncertainties and pressures in my life dissolve, and I charge into the dance with him full tilt.
This is what I love most about being with Ben; he lives in the moment, and doesn’t care how you look, act, talk, or behave. He accepts you unconditionally. He never puts on a false front.
Dinner that evening is a festive occasion with friends in the community dining hall. As our family enters, Mom exclaims, “Oh, that looks lovely,” but a heavy sigh interrupts her. Ben stands in utter despair. The tables have been rearranged and Ben has lost his routine. “Some people never learn,” he mutters.
Luckily, at the end of the banquet, Ben’s friend Lawrence, who is waiting tables, brings in a tub of raspberry sorbet. Ben’s whoops of delight break the well-mannered silence of the dining hall.
At the table in our living room that evening, I am desperately trying to understand my algebra homework. Dragging a chair over, Ben settles next to me and pulls out his math homework. Opening his book he points to a problem. “What’s bigger? 201 or 102?” I turn my full attention to Ben. What is it that so clearly makes him my highest priority of the moment?
Sometimes life seems like one big Olympic competition, with everyone trying to outshine the others to win gold, silver, or bronze. Which brings me back to the donkey race, where the last person wins. Society doesn’t generally accept this method of qualification, and children like Ben are normally shunned. So many of those with Down Syndrome don’t even get a chance to be born, if they are diagnosed before birth. But I know through my own experience how much richer life can be when I try to do things Ben’s way. Maybe we all need to run in a donkey race.