THE OLD MEN

I used to frequent a restaurant on Saturday mornings, and there was a group of old men who sat in the corner and drank coffee together. It was usually the same bunch of ten to twelve although occasionally someone new would join and a regular would drop out. The old men liked to sit and solve the world’s problems over steaming cups of black coffee. You wouldn’t find these guys drinking flavors like Irish Mocha or French Vanilla or adding whipped cream to their drinks. These were men with nicotine stained fingers that sometimes bothered to shave the overnight stubble but just as likely would not. Their faces were deeply lined and their skin was leathery from years of hard work in the sun. None of these men had ever paid for a tan. They would discuss politics, religion and every other topic that is forbidden and occasionally the political talk would become heated, but eventually cooler heads would prevail and the local sports teams would become the unifying subject they could all agree on. Some of these men were obviously farmers. They proudly wore caps with the logo of their favorite farm machinery on them, and a couple wore overalls every week. Others had probably been businessmen, factory workers – almost anything.

Over the months I couldn’t help but notice that one of the men was a little quieter than the others. He seemed to have full acceptance within the group, but he caught my attention because he wasn’t as loud and didn’t laugh quite as much as the rest. I eventually learned his name was Pete. One morning the guys got to talking about how annoying their wives were, and they began throwing around the usual stereotypes that crop up when a group of men, who have been married to the same long-suffering woman for decades, feel the need to express their marital frustrations. However, I noticed that Pete didn’t say a word. He just sat silently staring into his coffee cup. It was at that point I noticed he wasn’t wearing a wedding ring like the others. After the joking and complaining about the wives subsided one of the men turned to Pete and gently asked, “How long has Louise been gone now?” Pete looked up with an expression that conveyed both weariness and pain and softly answered, “Three years, last month.” The old men sat silently for a time each contemplating what their days would be like if the woman they had shared a lifetime with was no longer by their side.

As I eventually learned, Pete had been a medic in the Korean War, and the horror he witnessed during that conflict affected him for the rest of his life. He had come home in a different mental state, and his outlook on the world had completely changed. He often disagreed with the other old men who always seemed gung-ho to bomb someone somewhere back into the Stone Age, however, he had witnessed so much death that he could no longer stomach the thought of it. But it was the fact that Pete had lost a son in Vietnam that made the others respect his opinions about peace. His boy had been killed by small arms fire just 6 weeks before his tour of duty was over. Pete and Louise had gone to Washington DC one summer to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. Like so many others they had found their son’s name and made a tracing of it on a sheet of paper. Pete carried it in his wallet so that he was never without it…But there were also good things in his life. I found out Pete had two beautiful daughters who meant the world to him, and he loved to show off photos of his great-grandchildren. He didn’t travel to see them as much now that Louise was gone, but they still kept in touch and came to visit him whenever possible.

Over the next year or so I slowly learned that after returning home from the army Pete briefly considered using his medical training for some type of civilian work, but his nerves were frayed, and he knew he couldn’t handle anymore human suffering. Instead he took a job at a local manufacturing plant that produced tires for cars and trucks. He spent 46 years at the plant working his way up to management. When he retired, a small party was thrown for him and he was given a few simple gifts and a pat on the back for giving four decades of his life to the company. It was a few months after his retirement when Pete stumbled onto the group of men drinking coffee each morning at the restaurant near his home. Like him, many had been told their services were no longer needed, and they too had been cast aside after it was determined their ongoing usefulness to a particular organization was in doubt. Pete had felt lost without a job to go to each day, but now he discovered he wasn’t alone. It didn’t take long for Pete to become one of the regulars.

Over the next couple of years I had breakfast almost every Saturday morning at the restaurant while I listened to the old timers talk longingly about how things used to be. But my attention was always drawn to Pete. In the beginning I thought he was just another old man, the kind of person you see every day without giving a thought to, but the more I learned about him the more interesting he became. It was an odd thing because it seemed like I knew him fairly well and yet we never spoke. We had seen each other so often that each of us would nod when the other came into the building but that was it – just a quiet acknowledgement of the other’s existence – nothing more.

Finally one Saturday morning I came into the restaurant and noticed the old men sitting quietly. As I ate, I kept wondering when Pete would arrive but soon enough I understood that he was never again going to be part of the group. As I listened to the brief snatches of conversation the picture became clear. Pete had suffered a massive stroke earlier in the week. One of the men had spoken to Pete’s oldest daughter, and she had told him that the doctors said that her father would never recover. It was apparently now just a matter of time until he passed. Several of the men blustered about how they would never want to be kept alive in that condition, but it seemed that no one really had the heart to express their opinion on the pros and cons of extending life. The group soon fell silent as they sipped their coffee lost in their own thoughts.

It was a strange feeling that came over me when I realized I would never see Pete again. I wasn’t sure why I felt so sad. I didn’t even know his last name. But for some reason Pete remained in my thoughts over the next few months. I would think about him when I saw other elderly men. I would wonder if he was still alive, if he could recognize the face of a grandchild. About 6 months later the restaurant was closed and eventually it was torn down, but it had served its purpose. It had been a place of community for a group of men who had lived long hard lives, who had been patriotic with more than just words but also with deeds. These were men who had raised families and did their best to make the world a safe and prosperous place for their children. These were men who were now being passed by as younger generations ignored them and the sacrifices they had made.

I’m sure some of the old men scattered to new places to drink and solve the latest world crisis, while others just stayed home. But for a time they had shared their hopes, dreams and experiences. They had connected in a way that younger people do not. Their shared history of life created a bond that was difficult for someone of a different age to understand. Although their appreciation and sympathy for each other went unspoken, it was clearly understood. Each man valued the worth of the other because they were equals. They were survivors.

Pete had led an anonymous life. How many others were like me and had never bothered to learn his last name? But it would the worst kind of disrespect to say it was not a life of consequence. He had been married to someone he obviously loved deeply. He had brought three children into the world and he had been blessed with grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He had fought for the country he loved and he had saved many lives in the process. It appeared that he had been a man of character and convictions, and yet he had endured the worst that life has to offer. Pete was just an ordinary man who had done the best he could, in the circumstances he found himself in. What more can anyone do?

How often do we look at older men or women without really seeing them? Do we realize the history that is represented by each of these lives? Many of them made extraordinary sacrifices that I can’t even imagine. They lived through the Great Depression and World War II. They survived marriages, divorces, the birth and deaths of loved ones. They have had a jobs and careers through the years and possibly lost them both. As they aged they have battled their own health problems and they may be bravely living with a disease or condition right now that will eventually claim their life. Everyone that is my age and younger owes a debt to those who came before us that we will never be able to repay. When you see an older person it is easy to forget that they were once the exact same age as you. When you look at them you are seeing your future. We must treat them with the dignity and respect they deserve because one day we will be in their place.

Who knows, maybe someday I’ll sit in the corner of a restaurant and drink coffee with a group of my contemporaries. Perhaps we will also trade lies, exaggerated stories and mindless conversation to pass the time. And if I do, I’m sure I’ll remember Pete and his friends. I will be fortunate to have what they had.

 

 

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THE RESPONSIBILITY OF DEATH

DEATH DOESN’T JUST HAPPEN WITHOUT A REASON.

It is 11:45 on a Saturday night and you are sound asleep when the phone rings. You fumble around for the receiver, pick it up and mumble “hello”. The man’s voice on the line is very calm, but the words he says changes your life forever. A quick burst of adrenalin surges through your body as he states in an even voice that your 17-year-old daughter has been killed in a car accident. You are stunned and you feel like you can’t breath. You have gone from being groggy to more alert than you have ever been in your life. You begin to argue that it can’t be true, but he is certain. Her identification matches this address and phone number. The emotion of absolute heartbreak now comes flooding over you and you can barely speak. The state trooper is patient. He has, unfortunately, made this call many times. He explains that your daughter and her girlfriend were struck head on by a drunk driver. They were both dead before help could arrive. There is more explanation given and some phone numbers you are to call but it is just a blur. You can no longer focus on what is being said. Finally after expressing his deepest condolences the officer hangs up.   

As you begin to sob you simply cannot believe the horror is true. Only 4 or 5 hours ago you kissed her goodbye. You were going to spend the day together tomorrow. She was so beautiful and kind and intelligent. She had been making plans for her future and she wanted to be a force for change in the world. Everyone loved her and she had countless friends. She had her whole life ahead of her. For Christ’s sake she was only 17 years old. As the realization slowly sets in that this is not a nightmare but actual reality, you begin to give up. You collapse into absolutely paralyzing grief. A million questions fill your mind. How could this have happened? Who is responsible? Why did it have to be your daughter? What had your family done to deserve this?  

Months later, the days following the phone call will be difficult to remember. You know you managed to function somehow and to make the decisions that were necessary, but it is not clear how you were able to keep going through the overwhelming pain. You spent hours breaking the news to family members. You went to the mortuary and picked out her casket. You endured the funeral itself and then finally you said goodbye for the last time at the graveside. You can remember bending down and gently kissing her coffin and knowing with certainty that this was the end. She was gone forever and you would never see her again. From that moment on you were not the same person. No matter how long you live there will always be a part of you missing. You know that her birthday and holidays will bring fresh pain. You will watch her friends go on to college, get married and start families, and although happy for them, you will not be able to help feeling a certain amount of envy for all the things you and your daughter will miss. Until your final breath you will never understand why her life had to be taken.  

What must be realized is that with needless death there is responsibility. In this particular case there were many individuals who played a role in allowing this tragedy to occur. First and foremost was the person who tried to drive while under the influence of alcohol. That decision was not only stupid but also incredibly selfish because he not only put his life at risk but the lives of countless other innocent people. Also bearing responsibility are the friends he was with who did not prevent him from driving. They could have arranged for some other type of transportation, but they let him get behind the wheel knowing full well he was impaired. They did not want to offend him. Also at fault was the bartender that continued to serve him even after it was apparent he had consumed too many drinks. His desire for profit superseded any concern for the public’s safety. All of these individuals could have prevented needless death by taking action, but they refused. None of them had the courage or the conviction to step in and take responsibility for a situation that was out of control. Consequently two innocent young women were killed through no fault of their own. Their families were devastated and dozens of lives were adversely changed forever. 

This example demonstrates how needless death can occur in our lives. But for those in extreme poverty if happens in other ways. For instance, a child chronically suffers from malnutrition and eventually hunger overwhelms her immune system. She fights off illness after illness but each one leaves her weaker. Finally the hunger ravages her body to the point where she cannot recover and she dies…So, who or what is responsible for this little girl’s death? Is it drought? Is it famine? Is it spiraling food prices? Is it just an act of God – or is it you and I? You may wonder how you could possibly have anything to do with the death of a little girl from hunger when she is thousands of miles away. After all, you would never knowingly harm an innocent child. You love children. However, because those of us who live in comfort in the West have the ability to feed those who are hungry, we have a responsibility to take action…but we choose not to. Why?  

We are all part of the same human family. We are all responsible for each other. Every life is important and each life has equal value. When a needless death occurs anywhere in the world there is responsibility shared by those of us who could have prevented it. The fact that you don’t want that kind of responsibility on your shoulders doesn’t matter. You carry the burden whether you want it or not. Just like the individuals who had the knowledge that a man was going to drive under the influence you know that a child is going to die from hunger. Just as they had a responsibility to take his car keys to prevent a tragedy you are under the same obligation to feed a child. In both cases a death can be prevented by another person if they are only willing to get involved instead of just turning away. Each day you have multiple opportunities to save human life. It is your responsibility to do what you can to prevent death and suffering among those who are depending on you for help. To do otherwise makes each of us an accomplice to tragedy.  

ANYTIME AN INNOCENT PERSON DIES BECAUSE OF THE NEGLECT OF SOMEONE ELSE, IT IS MORALLY WRONG.

WE ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR OTHERS.

WHY DO WE KILL?

KILLING COMES VERY EASY TO THE HUMAN RACE.

In fact it comes too easy. It has become ingrained in our minds down through history that killing is not only acceptable but also necessary. Taking life is something we are willing to tolerate if we believe it is beneficial to our own lives. How did we get to this point? Why are we so blasé about ending life? Why are we numb to the news that someone with a gun has gone on a rampage and killed a dozen people? Why do we ignore the smuggled information that a country has executed hundreds of dissidents? Why do we passively accept the deaths of 30,000 human beings each day from extreme poverty?

Killing is an accepted part of our society. In fact, some people actually kill for a living. For example, we pay exterminators and veterinarians to end various forms of life. Whether it’s to eliminate unwanted rodents or to put your beloved cat out of its suffering we are more than willing to have someone else do our killing for us. People employed in the food chain have the grim job of taking life. They slaughter cattle, pigs, chickens and turkeys so that we can engage in the unhealthy habit of eating animal flesh. These animals don’t have to end up as our food. We can live a long healthy life with a vegetarian diet, but we decide to consume living creatures all the same because we enjoy the taste. They die so we can be momentarily happy.

Of course some of us enjoy killing animals ourselves. We go hunting and spend a significant amount of time and money in the effort to kill defenseless animals. Why do we do this?…It must be because we enjoy the thrill of killing. Yes, the animal can be consumed, but it’s not necessary to preserve our life that we take their life. It is a willing decision on our part to kill for our own selfish satisfaction. Obviously, there was a time when killing for food was an absolute necessity for the survival of the human race, but that is no longer the case. Now we kill for the pure joy and excitement of it.

It is quite remarkable how we determine exactly which creatures we should feel guilty about killing. The same person who goes out and shoots a deer without remorse will feel terrible if he hits a dog with his truck on the way home. What’s the difference? They were both living creatures. They both had an awareness of life. They could both create more life. Is it because we planned to kill one but the other was an accident? Should we only feel guilt when we kill something without planning its death ahead of time? Perhaps if we know we are going to kill in advance it make it easier to commit the act.

We know that one million human beings are going to die in the next 34 days from extreme poverty. That is an absolute fact. Does that make it easier for us to allow it to happen? Yes it does…because if one million people died in an earthquake in that same time span the entire world would be rushing to help. However, in the case of a million poverty deaths virtually nothing will be done, and those deaths will happen again in the next 34 days and again in the next.

How death occurs also seems to play an important role in how we react to it. Sudden violent death grabs our attention and provokes an immediate response out of our sorrow for those who have lost their lives – while slow relentless grinding death, even on a huge scale, doesn’t seem to bother us at all. We happily continue on with our lives without giving a thought to the tens of thousands who die each day from hunger, illness and disease. The irony is that we feel sincere remorse for the deaths of those who die in ways that cannot be prevented such as earthquakes, hurricanes and tsunamis. On the other hand, we feel nothing for the victims of extreme poverty, a killer that could be prevented – if we would only make the effort.

Killing has become an integral part of the human experience because of our propensity to kill those who disagree with us. We call it war. It is our absolute favorite way to solve almost any problem. Some one encroaches on our territory – kill them. Some one takes some of our resources – kill them. Some one does not believe the way we do – kill them. It is an automatic response. Individuals, groups and entire nations react this way. Countries and regions will go to war over almost anything. Thousands will die over who has the better God. Unimaginable suffering will occur when one race feels it is superior to another. Death and destruction will rain down on the innocent as various powers fight over stretches of barren wasteland.

Nations take their finest young people and train them in the most effective ways to kill. Countries spend themselves into financial ruin trying to produce the largest military possible. Of course when war breaks out it is almost always the innocent who are slaughtered. Defenseless civilians bear the brunt of the killing. They are left dead, wounded and homeless, and if they are fortunate enough to survive our lust for killing they quickly plunge into poverty.

As a society we willingly condone killing. If someone takes the life of another person we put them in prison for years until we get around to killing them. One death ultimately leads to two deaths. We have decided this is fair and just. We have decided it is the world we want our children to grow up in. We want our kids to know that it is alright to take the life of another human being.

But what about issues that are far less clear in our society regarding our desire to end life? When someone is terminally ill we debate whether or not we should end their suffering. If a person has been medically declared as brain dead we struggle with the idea of stopping life support. When a woman is pregnant and does not want to have the baby our society is torn apart about whether she has the right to an abortion. These kinds of deaths we agonize over. These kinds of deaths seem to involve innocent victims. These kinds of deaths make us stop and search for the true meaning of allowing another human being to die.

So why do we not demonstrate the same level of compassion or concern for the millions who die each year from extreme poverty? They are innocent victims too. They have not done anything wrong. They have not harmed anyone. They are not at war with anyone. They are not a threat to anyone. They just want their children to be safe. They want the opportunity to live in good health with dignity. They want to have enough food and clean water to survive on. Are these unreasonable desires?

Unfortunately, killing becomes easier the more we do it, and by far the easiest way of all to kill is through neglect. You don’t have to pull a trigger or drop a bomb. You don’t have to face your victim or see their suffering. You can simply turn away and kill them with your indifference and selfishness. Neglect kills just as effectively as any man-made weapon, and its efficiency is increased by our refusal to acknowledge our part in its use. Most of us believe that we could never take an innocent person’s life. We just don’t think we are capable of such a thing. But we kill everyday. We kill through our lack of compassion, our unwillingness to share our good fortune and through our preoccupation with our own lives. Neglect, apathy and self centeredness are our weapons of choice. Our victims are mostly children, many under the age of five. We allow them to die because we don’t want to make the effort to help them survive.

Each day we have a choice to make. Do we try to save the lives of the 30,000 who will die or do we once again turn our backs and look the other way? Although we do not want to admit it, we are more than willing to let people die so that we are not inconvenienced. We don’t want to make sacrifices no matter how small they may be. We don’t want to accept any responsibility. We don’t want to feel guilt, and we don’t want to admit to ourselves that, as a species, we are quite comfortable with letting other human beings die. Killing is what we do.

THE PEOPLE OF EXTREME POVERTY JUST WANT TO LIVE. ARE THEY ASKING FOR TOO MUCH?

 

 

 

WESTERN CONSUMERISM

NOTHING IN THE WEST SYMBOLIZES GREED, CONSUMPTION AND MATERIALISM MORE THAN A SHOPPING MALL.

From the moment you step into the perfect climate controlled environment and come face to face with an elaborate fountain, wasting thousands of gallons of water, you are struck by everything that is wrong with our society. The artificial nature of this manmade world is designed around the need to induce average people to part with their money as quickly and as efficiently as possible. And, of course, we line up like mindless drones for the opportunity to do just that. Our entire form of capitalism is based on the fact that we spend before we think. Purchasing on impulse, whether we can afford it or not, helps drive our economy, providing jobs for more people who can then spend money they don’t actually have shopping for things they don’t really need. It is an endless cycle that props up the financial structure of the Western world.  

So …… you and your friend step into the mall and you are greeted by the sights, sounds and smells of temptation. You have told yourself you are going to make this a quick trip, you only need to get a couple of things, but before long other stores catch your eye and you find yourself going into all types of shops. Before you know it you’ve bought a handbag here and another pair of shoes there and some jewelry which you first thought you would give away as a gift, but now you might just keep for yourself. What was to be a 30 minute trip has now turned into 2 hours and you’ve gotten hungry. You and your friend debate whether to have a full meal at one of the nice restaurants or just grab something quick at the food court. It is a big decision that must be considered carefully since you are both on another of an endless series of diets, but you finally agree to just get some Chinese and Mexican at the court and share. You assure each other that your respective diets will resume tomorrow.  

3 short hours later the two of you can barely carry all the bags you have accumulated. What was to be a quick in and out for a few things has now turned into a full-scale shopping spree. You’ve each spent hundreds of dollars, consumed thousands of calories and your feet hurt. You dread walking out into the summer heat to try and find your car among the hundreds of other gas guzzling SUVs but it is the price you must pay for the pure enjoyment of going farther in debt, purchasing things that you’ll never use but that you are sure will add untold happiness to your life. Suddenly you and your friend can’t remember where you came in at. Was it by the high end clothing store or the gourmet ice cream shop? You decide it was the ice cream shop because you remember resisting the temptation to get a couple of scoops when you came in, but now your resolve has weakened, so although you are full, you both decide to stop in and have some dessert and rest your feet before you lug your packages all over the parking lot looking for your vehicle which you only owe 55 more payments on ……  

The mall is a wondrous place filled with overweight people waddling along burdened down by packages filled with virtually worthless items. Teenagers and young adults covered in tattoos and piercings hang out trying desperately to look cool and be noticed. Old men sit in chairs waiting for their wives to exhaust their energy and their checking accounts as they fume about the ball game they are missing on TV. Small children run wild screaming with excitement at all the possibilities that their parents are going to say “NO!” to. The employees of the expensive shops treat their customers with total disdain while minimum wage kids work the fast food counters with all the enthusiasm of someone facing a lumbar puncture. Mall cops try to look intimidating but thankfully do not carry lethal weapons. There are couples who are only there to catch an over priced movie that cost tens of millions of dollars to make, created by a series of corporate decisions that have stripped the film of any artistic value. And finally you have the poor who are simply looking for a place to escape the heat but who have no opportunity to join in on this spectacle of capitalism at its zenith.   

As we shop, spend and consume in the perfect setting of the mall, on the other side of the world it is a different story. One billion human beings struggle to stay alive on a dollar a day. Each year 10,950,000 of them lose that battle. More than 9,000,000 of those deaths are children, many under the age of five. They die from hunger and related causes, treatable illnesses and preventable diseases…but in actuality they die from the neglect of the other five billion people on earth. We have made the collective decision that we would rather eat expensive food at the mall than to save a child from hunger. We prefer to buy more shoes instead of paying for vaccines that could save countless lives. We feel the need to purchase the latest phones and computers even though that money could dig wells and provide safe water for families. We do our hair, our nails and get tans because it is more important that we look good than for a mother to have medical care so that she can survive the delivery of her baby.   

There is a certain sadness that hangs over the mall. People come filled with excitement and anticipation but leave with a feeling of remorse over their complete lack of self-control. Every visit is the same. They come searching for something meaningful but they leave disappointed. Why is this? Perhaps it is because each one of us knows that happiness can’t be found with the swipe of a piece of plastic. We know that there is more to life than piling up as many possessions as we possibly can. We realize that we are chasing a dream that can’t be fulfilled. No matter how much we spend, it cannot replace the need to connect with other people. We are each aware of the terrible poverty that afflicts humanity but too many of us deal with this unpleasant truth by turning away and ignoring it. None of us wants innocent children to have to live and die in squalor and filth. That is why we go to a place like the mall in order to escape from the reality of life, if only for a short time. For a few hours we see the world the way we wish it was, but we know it is only an illusion, and the sadness that descends upon us as we leave and go back to our real lives leaves us feeling empty and disheartened.  

WE CANNOT SPEND OURSELVES INTO PERMANENT HAPPINESS WHEN WE KNOW HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS OF HUMAN BEINGS HAVE NOTHING.

THE DECISION

Emma was born with Down syndrome – but in the eyes of the Robertson family she was perfect. When the diagnosis was made during the pregnancy there was an intense period of fear, misunderstanding and denial that occurred between her mother and father. They had no experience with disabled children. They did not personally know a single family that had a child with a developmental disability. They were afraid they wouldn’t be able to handle the additional responsibility and risks that are inherent in raising a special needs child. But after quickly gathering information and learning everything they could about Down syndrome – and after much soul searching and many heartfelt discussions – they decided it was a lifetime commitment they were willing to make. They decided to continue the pregnancy. They were nervous, but they were also courageous. 

They had no way of realizing that from that moment on, everything would change. For the rest of their lives they would be viewed as the couple with the “disabled child”. This limiting point of view would, unfortunately, define them as human beings. Their beautiful daughter would at various times be referred to as “not normal” – “low functioning” and “retarded”. Even those with good intentions, those who were entrusted with helping her achieve her potential, would insist on classifying Emma with a litany of academic and medical terms. John and Sara Robertson were about to enter a world of labels that too often looked past the humanity of their little girl. 

The day Emma was born, all of the fear and trepidation about their decision faded away. As they picked up their tiny daughter for the first time they knew they had made the right decision. They counted her fingers and toes, they tickled her, they made funny faces at her, they softly said her name over and over again – and they held her as tightly as they dared. She was their beautiful child and no one would ever be able to take that away from them. No matter what the future held they would face it knowing that they had given life to a precious little girl who they would love forever. They had made a life changing decision that they would never regret. 

The challenges they faced as a family were formidable. They already had a daughter, Isabella, who was two years older than Emma. They did everything they could to assure her that they loved her completely and that she was not forgotten as they devoted most of their time, out of necessity, to their newborn. From the beginning it seemed like everything was significantly more difficult for Emma than it had been for her sister. Virtually every milestone was delayed, but with patience and determination they slowly conquered each obstacle. Although each step forward was a struggle, it only made the hard won victories seem even more satisfying. Slowly they began to realize that Emma was going to be able to have a full, enriching life – no matter what others thought or said. 

Eighteen months after the birth of their second daughter, the Robertson’s added one final addition to their family. Sara delivered a healthy baby boy named Dylan. At this point the Robertsons knew their family was complete – they also knew they had their hands full! Their home often seemed to border on chaos but every necessary thing was accomplished in the nick of time. Laundry was done and meals were prepared. Baths were taken and appointments kept. The entire household operated on a comical mixture of panic and profound love. Of course there were times when the vacuum didn’t get run or someone forgot to walk the dog, but overall the five members of the Robertson family enjoyed the life they were sharing. They loved and appreciated each other, so the fact that one of their children had an extra chromosome was not something they focused on under their roof. She was just Emma – a little girl who loved the family cat and enjoyed playing dress-up. Each sunrise brought another day filled with exhausting adventure, but they couldn’t imagine their lives in any other way. 

John and Sara now understood that when they were told that their baby could have Down syndrome they had focused almost entirely on all the possible problems and the negative stereotypes that even the medical community still embraced. At the time they had not been able to look beyond the diagnoses and see the tiny person they would grow to love more than they believed was possible. They had no way of knowing how their child, in her innocence, would change them into caring, compassionate people who now saw life completely differently. The things they had once believed were so important had become meaningless. They were no longer preoccupied with status or material things. They didn’t care if others refused to understand and accept all of their children equally. They had learned not to automatically accept the opinions of “experts” regarding what their middle child could or could not accomplish. Instead they were focused on raising their family and fighting for Emma’s right to have the same opportunities in life as the brother and sister who adored her.     

Isabella and Dylan loved Emma unconditionally. As they grew older they both felt protective of her, and they faced down anyone who dared to tease her or make a cruel remark. They were proud of her, and they refused to let anyone hurt her. They doted on her and they shared the joy of her accomplishments because they knew how much effort they required. She was not only a sister they loved, she was also someone they came to admire because she was bravely facing obstacles that they did not had to endure. They were spared the physical therapy, speech therapy and seemingly endless medical procedures that were so much a part of Emma’s life. At times they felt guilty because their lives seemed so much easier than hers.  

Sarah had been nervous when Emma started her education. It was a huge step and she did not want her daughter to feel inferior or to become frustrated if she struggled. At first Emma was shy and felt out of place in the class room but before too long her true personality came out, and she gained acceptance and made friends. For Sarah it was surprising how quiet the house was with both of her daughters in school. She had extra hours in her day for the first time in years. It slowly dawned on her just how tiring it had been with three little ones underfoot, but she didn’t regret a single minute of the time she had spent with her children. They were the most important thing in her life, and she had done everything in her power to see that they were happy and healthy. 

Emma was petite, which made her appear younger than she really was, but as she grew older she became a person who, in her own way, quietly changed the world around her. She had a positive affect on people’s attitudes and their preconceived notions of what individuals with disabilities were like – and she reduced their tendency to think of those with intellectual challenges as less than equal human beings. Despite her small size, when people got to know her they fell in love with a girl whose smile and laughter was infectious. Without trying at all, Emma seemed to have a life affirming effect on everyone she met. 

During her teenage years she attempted many things – some of them she did well, others she struggled with – but she kept trying. Each endeavor she undertook gave her more confidence and new skills. One activity she particularly enjoyed was her participation in Special Olympics. She had always excelled at swimming, and over the years she had won a large number of medals, so her Dad built a beautiful display case to show them off. Emma made sure that every visitor to the Robertson’s home did not leave without being given the opportunity to admire her medals…She also loved to sing. She had grown up singing anywhere and all the time, despite the pleadings of her siblings. It seemed completely natural when she was invited to join a choir made up specifically of individuals with special needs who never performed without touching the hearts of everyone that heard them.

By the time she turned 21 Emma had accomplished far more than anyone ever expected. She had finished her education, she had a job at a local retailer and she was preparing to move into her own apartment so she could live independently. But as proud as she was of those achievements there was soon to be a day of importance that stood out above all the rest. Throughout her life she had emulated Isabella. She copied everything she did. She dressed like her sister. She fixed her hair like her sister’s. She liked the same music and TV shows as her sister and she even tried to like the same foods as her sister, although she finally drew the line at sweet potatoes. She idolized everything about her big sister – so when Isabella came home one evening with her longtime boyfriend, Brandon and surprised everyone with an engagement ring Emma could not contain her joy. It was the happiest she had ever felt in her life. She was crying for joy and she couldn’t help it. The two sisters hugged each other and danced around the room. Emma did not think she could possibly be any happier than she was at that moment – and then Isabella whispered in her ear that she wanted her to be her maid of honor. 

Emma’s feet didn’t touch the ground for a week. Her absolute joy spread to everyone she came in contact with. Her friends, her co-workers and even the customers she helped, all joined in her absolute delight to get to play such an important role in her sister’s wedding. The sight of her happiness made everyone else happy. It was impossible not to get caught up in her jubilation. As the day for the wedding grew near, the anticipation made Emma nervous, but Isabella reassured her that everything would be fine. They had had picked out their dresses, and everyone was stunned by how beautiful Emma looked in hers. The first time her parents saw her wearing it her father tried to fight back the tears but he could not. John and Sara could hardly believe that the beautiful person they saw before them was the same fragile infant they had held in their arms all those years ago when they were both so scared and unsure about what the future held for her……  

……But it must be remembered that the story you’ve just read about Emma’s life was only one of TWO possible futures – and tragically it was NOT the future that was chosen 22 years before

The day of Isabella’s wedding finally arrived, but Emma was not a part of it. She could not be the maid of honor because in 1990 – confused and distraught by the unexpected news that their baby would be born with a disability – a young couple named John and Sara Robertson actually made the decision to terminate the pregnancy. Emma was never born. She was not to be a part of their lives. They never saw her face, or held her in their arms. They never saw her smile and they never heard her laughter. None of the beautiful moments that would have resulted from Emma’s kindness and gentleness ever occurred. None of the joy she could have brought to so many was allowed to happen. Her love was lost to the world. The hundreds of lives she would have touched were left unaffected. Isabella and Dylan never knew their beautiful sister.

The decision to end a human life does not affect just one, two or three people. It changes the entire course of “what might have been” and therefore has a lasting effect on countless individuals. How many babies like Emma are never given a chance to be born simply because of a diagnoses? How can we play God by picking and choosing who lives and dies? The decision to terminate a pregnancy because of Down syndrome does not mean that you are disposing of something that has no value or doesn’t matter. It means that you are taking away the life of a human being – a person who has so much to offer and who, in their own way, can have a profound influence on the world. 

When a baby like Emma is not allowed to be born it is humanity’s loss. 

 

WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN

 

 

WHEN A HUMAN LIFE IS LOST, SO IS ALL THE POTENTIAL GOOD THAT PERSON MIGHT HAVE PRODUCED.

10,950,000 people die each year from extreme poverty. It is such a large number that we have difficulty comprehending it. However, when you are talking about almost eleven million deaths it is critically important to remember that each one of these individuals was a human being just like you and me. The number needs to be personalized for the true loss of humanity to sink in. The people who die each year from extreme poverty are not nameless, faceless statistics. They are flesh and blood. Each man, woman or child who dies from needless starvation, or a preventable illness or a curable disease is an equal member of the human family. All of these individuals could have had a positive affect on countless others, but they were denied the opportunity to make their contributions, and the world is a lesser place because of it.

What if you had died before the age of five from a totally preventable cause? How would the world be different without you? Your children would not exist nor would their accomplishments. Any good thing you might have done would not have happened. All the people’s lives you could have touched would be unaffected. When an individual dies from extreme poverty it is, of course, impossible to know what they might have done with their life, what they could have contributed or what their children could have grown up to be. How do we know that the child who starved to death last night wasn’t destined to become a great world leader like Gandhi or Nelson Mandela. Perhaps yesterday morning malaria claimed the life of a future Nobel Laureate. Maybe tomorrow the person will die from unsafe drinking water who would have become a research scientist, instrumental in finding a cure for one the world’s fatal diseases.

Any of these people might have contributed in some great way to humanity, but they will never have the chance. The overall good that this many people could have produced in the world is incalculable. That is why the horror of an extreme poverty death is three fold. It is not just the obvious immediate loss for those who loved the deceased, it is also the world’s loss because we are denied the opportunity to benefit from the victim’s abilities, personality and love. And each death diminishes those of us who could have helped save that life and didn’t. Whether through ignorance, apathy or selfishness we each contributed to the 10,950,000 deaths last year.

It is indefensible that we choose not to take action and try to prevent the deaths of innocent people. In the West, a violent criminal is given food, clothing and shelter while 25,000 children, on the other side of the world, are allowed to die needlessly each day. These children have hurt no one. They are not a threat to anyone. They are totally without blame, but we choose to feed, clothe and house the criminal and allow the children to die. How can this be justified? Where is the logic in protecting someone who rapes and kills while at the same time being perfectly willing to let a five year old child starve to death?

Because there are one billion people struggling in extreme poverty, individuals sometimes feel overwhelmed by the size of the problem. They wonder if the small amount of help they can give can really make any difference. But what if your financial contributions helped to save just one life, how important is it? Perhaps the one child you save will eventually grow up to be a doctor, who spends her life saving even more people. Your effort is then multiplied many times over. On the other hand, what if you lived in poverty and the one life that was saved was yours? It would be the most important thing in the world. The people who are dying in extreme poverty feel the same way. They believe that their life matters, and that they deserve the chance to live. EVERY LIFE THAT IS SAVED IS IMPORTANT.

There may well come a day when you will need someone to save your life. Perhaps a paramedic or an emergency room doctor or just a person who happens to know CPR will help you at a critical moment. As you are staring death in the face you will believe, with all your being, that your life is worth saving. Or you may have a son or daughter who is severely injured or becomes gravely ill, you will certainly demand that everything possible be done to save your child’s life. We all believe that we and our loved ones deserve to live. Is this not true for the people trapped in extreme poverty as well? They are just like us. They are equal human beings whose lives are worth saving, just as much as yours or mine.

Please consider the 25,000 children that will needlessly die TODAY without our help. What is more important for us to spend our time, money and resources on than saving these innocent victims? The children that die today will leave this world without having the chance to make a difference. With each death there is a life that was not lived, dreams that were never realized and hopes that were crushed before they could be fulfilled. We will never know the peace, courage, love and joy these small victims could have given to the world over their lifetimes. When we do not make the effort to save the lives of those in extreme poverty we are depriving the world of the talents and abilities of millions of human beings.

WHEN WE LET CHILDREN DIE WE ARE KILLING THE FUTURE.

 

 

THE PERSON INSIDE

You are an important person – the result of a complex mixture of characteristics that combine to form your personality. You have both positive and negative qualities – strengths and weaknesses – as well as personal likes and dislikes. Most significantly, you are totally unique and different from everyone else. You belong to the human family and yet you are an individual. You defy simple descriptions and labels because you are more than just a “type of person”.  Each of us is convinced of our own worth. We each believe that the world would be changed forever if we were not present, and, to a degree, that is certainly true. We all play our respective parts in life and without us things could not possibly be the same.

An individual with a developmental disability is a person too.

They also have a role to play in life. They laugh and they cry, they feel joy and pain, and they have hopes and dreams. They are optimistic and confident as they make plans and achieve goals. They rise up to face challenges, and they are rightfully proud of their accomplishments. They long to be as independent as possible, and they want to be accepted for who they are. They want to be considered as equal human beings who deserve the same respect and dignity as anyone else – which means they want the opportunity to just be themselves. They want the chance to participate in society. They want to love and be loved. They do not want to be unfairly defined by a single label. 

When you find out that someone is intellectually challenged how does it change your perception of that person?

Do you treat them differently?

Do you feel uneasy around them?

Do you feel sympathy for them?

Do you avoid them? 

Do you feel superior to them?

Do you want to help them?

If you focus entirely on this single aspect of their humanity you are missing the complete person who has so much to offer the world. We must open our hearts and our minds to the reality of what makes us human. An IQ score is not the determining factor in our value to society. We must look past the labels that are used to unfairly limit the potential of a person. There are now 7 billion human beings on earth, and 3% are “defined” as intellectually challenged. That means that millions of people all over the world carry a descriptive stigma that haunts them for all of their lives. No one should have to carry a burden that is forced on them by others.

Just because an individual may be non-verbal doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a lot to say – we just have to find new ways of communicating. When an individual cannot count to ten, it doesn’t mean she can’t hold a job – we just need to make the necessary adjustments that allow her to work without the pressures of math. If an individual has difficulty understanding proper hygiene it is not a reason for him to be ridiculed – instead we need to work with him to improve his living skills so he can avoid unnecessary illness. Whatever particular challenge a person faces we can find workable solutions that will help them to thrive and be a part of the community. Every person deserves our best effort to include them in all areas of society.

For the world to ever be a fair and just place, all life must be equally valued. There can be no exceptions to this truth. Every human being, no matter what their physical or mental capacity may be, has the right to pursue happiness, good health and purposeful meaning in their lives. In order for this to occur we must become better people ourselves. We must grow in our acceptance of those who may, on the surface, seem different. We must learn to overcome our preconceived notions about how much a disability should be allowed to define a person, and ultimately we must have compassion for all human beings.

It is true for all of us that life can be difficult under the best of circumstances. It should not be made more demanding because of the narrow minded opinions of others. Individuals who happen to be intellectually challenged are more than just a diagnosis. They are real people living real lives. It is up to each one of us to look past the disability and accept the person inside. If we will do this, the entire world will change. Certainly those that have suffered so long from neglect, abuse and intolerance will enjoy a dramatic improvement in their lives, but it will also have a positive affect on the rest of us. Nothing but good can come from treating everyone with consideration and appreciation. All of humanity will benefit if we learn to accept every individual as the completely unique and special person they are.