Hence, the So. A signal to stop talking. Pause, think and button your lip. As my mother always reminded me, if I had nothing nice to say then say nothing at all. I have taken this admonition one step further as my children are wiley and take pleasure in annoying and even hurting one another. Therefore, our household rule is even more specific: If what you say doesn't make someone feel good, then do not say it. Roughly three-fourths of my household can repeat this family motto verbatim.
As someone quick to fight back, argue, stand firm in my beliefs, I greatly disappointed myself. I could not be trusted to protect my son when it came down to the wire. All the haggling with insurance companies, persuading speech therapists, insisting on tests and therapies and yet my labor had not produced enough fruit to throw at the doctor that asked me this question.
I was so caught off guard by the casual arrogance of the anesthesiologist who had come by prior to surgery to go over details of the procedure and what his role would be in the surgery. Easy enough and my sweet Amos, in an ankle length hospital gown, had captured the heart of nearly every person in the unit, both medical persons and other patients. Rather than constrain him in the small room where we were to wait patiently, we traversed the three or four halls of the surgical center. I had decided the effort involved to strong arm him, as well as the wailing that would surely follow were adequate reasons to let him loose and follow him patiently as he padded around the halls his nearly edible bare feet. His smile and unsteady gate willed any person he encountered to dare not smile back. It was a good morning for a mother and her son, up very early, neither who had been allowed a bite to eat or sip to drink. No coffee for me in the name of solidarity. Always the good mother.
"Soooo, is he retarded?", I could not have heard him right. It was offered as such a normal observance and part question that I felt surely I must have imagined it. But no, his next statement even more frightening, disarmed me to the point of total silence and breath intake. "I have a Down's kid" he went on to say casually. I could not think clearly enough to comprehend what I had just heard, not only at 6 in the morning, not only from a Duke physician, well trained as an anesthesiologist, but worst of all, a fellow parent of a child with extra special needs. A son, just like mine. Not the chromosome linkage but a child like mine, who had certainly followed the slow curve of development. Joyful yes, but slow to smile, sit up, crawl, walk, follow simple directions and talk. Yes, we are still waiting on that milestone, unsure that it will ever occur.
The word retarded is only acceptable to use on the very rare occasion as part of a carefully constructed imperative education. The goal of bringing that language to the surface of conversation could only be so that we can ensure the next generation will never embrace this type of vocabulary. Even then, I err on the side of caution and choose to use an abbreviated term, the "R" word. Never ever ever say these hateful things, we diligently tell our children. Did I say children? This was not Doogie Howser, M.D., prodigy child turned doctor. No, this doctor was in his mid forties and had just used the R word as you may expect one to converse about soccer.
I was not prepared for this assault. I say that as a mother whose job is to teach her children to be considerate of others and the dangerous way that words really can hurt, despite childhood rhymes. My other job is to protect my children, particularly my tow headed bespectacled fourth child, my last baby. That morning I failed miserably at that important role. Although Amos was oblivious to the mis-directed insult, I did hear and I did nothing. I have thought about that moment a hundred times since then and each and every time it triggers the welling of tears and an innocuous throat lump.
Why did I do nothing? What could I have done differently? What do I wish I would have done? I don't know, I really don't. It is the closest I have ever felt to feeling like a victim, powerless and helpless to guard myself or my precious son. I wish that I had screamed bloody murder, asked for a different anesthesiologist, tattled to my kind ENT or maybe taken the blasphemer himself aside for a scalding lecture on the harmful power of words. As I heal, I ponder what measures I can take to ensure that a physician and father of a child with special needs realizes the depth of hurt from his tossed out, ever so casual comment. An insult tattooed on my heart, a battle scar that will hopefully bring light from the darkness of hurtful words.
In honor of National End the Word to Stop the Word Day and a special thanks to Susan Birckhead for planting the seed in my precious sons.