I am surrounded by death.
Far less dramatic than it sounds, for the last few years I have worked as an administrative assistant in a funeral home. I’ve been entrusted with seeing people through the very worst days of their lives. Albeit, in the background. I’ve been a silent witness to others’ pain, fear, and sadness. I’ve watched heart wrenching goodbyes; moments when I wished I could melt into the background to allow the privacy that unfettered grief requires.
I’ve never been particularly frightened at the prospect of dying. As a Christian, I pray that I am welcomed into heaven when God calls me home. As a selfish human, I’d like that moment to come in about 60 years. Only one thing worries me. When she was eight, my daughter Abby asked the thing I feared the most. “Mom,’ she asked, “who will take care of Brianna when you die?”
In the second it took for that question to register, a cold fear gripped me. She was right, of course. Wise beyond her years. It’s something most parents don’t think about. But I’m not most parents. And Brianna isn’t most kids.
I was young girl when I became pregnant with the first of my three children. Four months into a new relationship, I came down with what I thought was the flu. Nothing seemed to cure the nausea I was experiencing. It went on for several days before it struck me. I called my boyfriend over to my apartment. We watched together as one then two blue lines appeared on the little white stick.
It was positive. I was twenty years old, unmarried, and nearly three months along before I’d even realized it. I had never felt so alone in my entire life. I called my mom and she urged me to drive the 150 miles home to Indiana. My Mom, a doctor, took me to her office for an official pregnancy test. They confirmed what I already knew.
We made an appointment for the next day. I went to the guest room and did my best to avoid everyone. I had let so many people down. I was the cheerleader, the editor of the school paper, the writer. I dreamed of living in Chicago and writing for one of the dailies. I longed for a degree in journalism and for a life in the big city, far from the small town I grew up in.
It was late in the evening when my father called. He’d heard the news. He didn’t yell or cry or show any emotion, really. But he did offer to take me in for an abortion. In the hours since I’d found out I was pregnant, that hadn’t even been a consideration.
The night wore on as I played out the different options in my head. I could keep the baby and get married or raise it on my own. I could give the baby up for adoption. Or, I could get an abortion. This is what it meant to be “pro-choice,” something I truly supported at the time. I’d had that attitude, even as a Catholic. It just didn’t seem fair to tell a woman what to do with her own body. In theory, anyway. As I laid in bed that night, hand on my still flat belly, I started to wonder.
Morning didn’t make things any clearer. It was midday when I found myself sitting on an exam table, eyes red with tears, terrified of the future. The doctor asked me to lie down as he checked me. I gazed at the ceiling. Gazing back were dozens of babies, all delivered by the good doctor. With the pregnancy again confirmed, I broke down. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. I wasn’t supposed to be pregnant. “What am I going to do,” I wondered aloud? “Are you keeping this baby,” he asked? “Yes,” was my only reply. “Then you are a mother. Start acting like it. You are a mother. Today.”
It was in that moment that I realized how foolish I’d been. This isn’t my body. I was merely a vessel for the precious miracle inside me. I was a mother.
The months went by quickly. By the time I went into labor, I was 21, married, and living in a small town in mid-Michigan. In a few short hours I’d heard the words I’d been waiting to hear. “It’s a girl!” We named her Brianna Francis and she was beautiful. Dark hair, chubby cheeks, and the most amazing disposition. It was on her first day of life that the pediatrician visited her in the nursery. She came into the hospital room after. There was no hello or good afternoon. She simply said, “We think your daughter has Down syndrome.” And just like that, everything changed.
Despite what you’ve heard, most children with Down syndrome are born to women under 35. In 1998, we weren’t the exception but the norm. In those first days, weeks, and months I concentrated on educating myself, understanding the medical implications. But it wasn’t all medical jargon and worry. Brianna was my baby. And, like any new mom, I marveled at her growth and development. She smiled and rolled over and sat up and laughed and played. I had no idea what the future might bring, but I was excited for it. Brianna made it impossible to mourn or feel sad. It was the happiest time of my life.
As it always happens, though, the future becomes now. Milestones that once seemed a long way off are long past us. Brianna has been in school for years. She learned to swim. She had her first sleepover. She started to notice boys. She holes up in her room for hours, stereo blasting music that makes me cringe. She is extraordinarily typical. She hates to get up in the morning. She loves pizza. A couple of months ago, Brianna turned seventeen.
Seventeen years old.
I can’t say it without a lump forming in my throat. The thing is, I don’t just have a seventeen year old daughter. I have a seventeen year old daughter with Down syndrome. In my head I rattle off the long-memorized stats. The incidence of early-onset dementia. Average life expectancy. Likely health issues. What will happen to her if I die first?
Worse, what if I don’t?
I cannot imagine a world where Brianna doesn’t exist. I cannot imagine a day I don’t get to see her smile or listen to her sing Taylor Swift at the top of her lungs.
Pope Francis said, “All life has inestimable value even the weakest and most vulnerable, the sick, the old, the unborn and the poor, are masterpieces of God’s creation, made in his own image, destined to live forever, and deserving of the utmost reverence and respect.”
It seems the world doesn’t give much thought to respecting life lately. From abortion to assisted suicide; we’ve placed labels on these acts. Labels like brave or courageous. We’ve allowed pregnancy to become a business; babies to become a commodity. We’ve advanced science just enough to play God. Organizations like Planned Parenthood continue to turn a profit in the most horrendous of ways. We’ve grown accustomed to, not just disrespecting life, but denying its existence.
Just this week, dozens of Senators from across the country voted to block the passage of the Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act. It would have banned abortions after 20 weeks. The act recognized that babies in the womb do, indeed, feel pain. It’s important to note that testing for Down syndrome, among other things, is done between 18 and 20 weeks. When detected in the womb, babies with Down syndrome are more often aborted than being carried to full term. Some studies suggest as much as 90% of the time. It makes me wonder, when did we stop valuing the life that God granted us? I suppose when we stopped valuing Him.
We, as members of the pro-life community have an obligation to remind people that all life has value, regardless of its present location; be it in the womb, living in a cardboard box or high up in a penthouse suite. And regardless of physical or mental ability. We are all worthy of life.
Brianna is, quite simply, my masterpiece. I can think of no better way to respect life than by being a mother, her mother. Not just because I was there when she took her first breath. And not because I may have to be there when she takes her last. But because I was there for all the rest.
Before I could answer Abby’s question, she answered it herself. “Don’t worry Mom. I’ll take care of her.”