Shadow Animals: If you know someone who has a child with Down syndrome, don’t tell them about the dark, show them the dancing shadow animals on the wall

Katherine’s taekwondo class was full yesterday. So full, in fact, that half of the class went outside (it was a beautiful day!) to work on their forms, while the other half stayed indoors.

Over the summer months, students breezed in and out of half-full classes, parents passing with a smile, seeing each other some weeks, and missing one another the next, our schedules dotted in trips up north, interspersed with summer camps and visits with extended family. We had our pick of the seats in the exercise room, with chairs to spare where we placed notepads, magazines and summer reads we had visions of catching up on here and there while we watched our kids practice.

When we arrived, yesterday, I could feel the change with schedules now reined in and the energy high with the new busyness. Parents continuously joked and chatted, catching up with one another. Every chair in the exercise room was filled, the magazines of summer left behind, except the hopeful few that came along, were now stashed under seats, remaining untouched. Those of us without seats overflowed into the waiting room, catching a glance at our child through the open doorway to the exercise room, or through the glass doors outside.

The students outside lined the sidewalk in front of the neighboring storefronts with bare feet firm on the ground, crisp white uniforms with dark belts knotted straight at their waists, arms moving with precision and fingers so aligned I feel them slicing the air. Though steady with focus, the joy of their practice was clear in brightness of their eyes.

Back in the waiting room, Elizabeth found an empty chair, cracked open her Warrior book, intent on finishing the last two chapters. Wil decided he was going to sit center stage on the floor, with his favorite flashlight. With no seats available and people milling around, I scooted him over towards me. He started pointing the little beam of his flashlight here and there, watching the small circle of light dance around. Soon, the light found its way to the feet of one of the moms standing across from us.

She noticed the spark of light, looked over at him and smiled. That must have been a cue to him, because he ran over to her, and gave her a big hug. She hugged him right back, asked him a few questions about school, as was the hot topic amongst all of us, then he aimed his flashlight toward the floor again, and zoomed it over to a dad standing across the room. Wil’s light inched its way up from the man’s ankles, onto his shirt, until it stopped on his chin. Wil ran over to give him a hug. Looking up at the man he said, “You are tall!”

“Yes,” the dad, Mike, said. “And my son will soon be taller than me! You have to convince him of that. He doesn’t believe me, yet.”

Wil laughed at this, then zoomed his light in another direction down the hall, and off he went. He played in the hall for a few moments, then he came back and grabbed the hand of the mom he had landed his light on earlier.

“Where are we going?” She asked.

“To play shadow animals!”

It was darker in the small hallway, and he flashed his light on the wall, and in front of it, he put one hand in a fist, extended two fingers, and bounced his hand up and down, its shadow following suit on the wall.

He started singing, “Little bunny foo foo hops through the forest.” We laughed, then he asked the mother to make a shadow animal. She joined her thumbs, splayed her hands, and fluttered them.
“A butterfly!” He said. He then showed her a cat, which she followed with a puppy. I joined in with an alligator, and when we exhausted all of the ones we knew, he asked us to make up some, like a turtle, which didn’t look like much more than a closed fist. We laughed at the awkward looking turtle, and then that morphed into a snake, full with sound effects.

The class in the exercise room soon broke up, and kids started to pour out, with their big sparring bags on their shoulders, their bulk filling the hallway as they made their way to the changing rooms. The little shadow party broke up, and we all went in our own directions. Kids filing in and out, parents leaving their seats while other parents replaced them, conversations halted until next time, and new ones just beginning. Busy-ness as usual.

I made my way into the exercise room, found one free seat, feeling light and playful from our little shadow party, and the man sitting next me, seeing my smile, turned toward me, put his hand out and said, “Hi, I’m Darrin. So, you are in with the black belt club and the later nights, now. Welcome! Which one is yours?” And, I pointed out Katherine, and the conversation easily flowed from there. He told me how his son, who is only in 5th grade but a skilled black belt, had only happened upon taekwondo. His family had been eating dinner next door to the taekwondo studio, and on their way out to the parking lot, had noticed all of the activity inside, so decided to take a moment to watch through the big, glass windows. His son spotted a friend inside from school, and said he wanted to try, too.

And, I thought, how exciting life is, when one small action in your day can lead to a new passion. In some ways, life is like that waiting room. All kinds of busyness and high energy some days, where everything clicked with precision, and other days that were slower and easier, while others felt scattered, and within all of those varying days lay tiny gifts, waiting to be uncovered like shadow animals on the wall.

When Wil was born, I was told, this will be hard. Not flat out, but in more subtle ways. Only hours after his birth, our room was quiet and full of tears. They said, I’m sorry for you. I’m sorry, because you have a hard road ahead of you. I received folders upon folders of information about geneticists, counselors, support groups, and other resources to handle all of the hard. I felt scattered, with the mix of high emotions of birthing a beautiful child, yet everyone and everything around me was somber and full of concern.

As I went on, and met these geneticists, joined the support groups, began Wil’s therapies, and went through all of the challenges first-hand that the folders described and tried to prepare me for, I started noticing little things that those typed words didn’t relay. They didn’t tell me, that because this is hard, you will find within it, all of these little gifts. But, they couldn’t tell me that, because I was the one who had to uncover the gifts. Their discovery is what holds their magic.

Those folders of information and sympathizing looks all mean well, so I won’t beat them up. But, what I do wish is someone would have hugged me and said, Congratulations! Such a beautiful boy!! Oh, your life is going to be so much grander now, so much more powerful! You are one lucky lady to be blessed with this boy. Don’t get me wrong, it’s going to be hard, and full of new challenges, and the learning curve you have ahead of you is high. Then, I would lean in close, put a hand on her shoulder, and look her gently in the eye and say, the hard is the best part about it, though it may not seem like it at first. When you are going through the hard, start looking. You will begin to find all of these little gifts. So little in fact, you will find they were there all along, you just didn’t see the value of them, so never uncovered them. Oh, but you will see them now, and once you do, you will uncover more and more. And, in that, in all of that hard, you will uncover so much joy and fulfillment. There will be critics and those who don’t understand, so make a point of finding those who do. Those who walk a similar walk to you. Who understand your day-to-day. Embrace them, cherish them, they are your tribe. They understand without having to explain. That alone is worth the gold that it is. Welcome, my friend, get ready for a bumpy but beautiful ride!

Though these gifts all look different for each of us, they are always there when we are looking. They are subtle as that little tiny light in a busy room, resting not full on in your eyes to grab your attention, but quietly at your chin. If you take note of the light, you will be taken gently by the hand, and led, just for a short time, to a magical place where there are no rules, and upon leaving, back to your busy life, though nothing has seemingly changed, you have, and that is the gift’s power.

Life is hard, but it’s also very giving. I am so very thankful, to have learned the value of uncovering it’s many secret gifts.

Wil 8th bday

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