Human Dignity

Without a second thought

It had been a tough pregnancy for Mom. Her father was dying of cancer (he died a few months later), and she had already carried several weeks past the due date. The delivery was long and hard. When the time came for a Caesarian section, only a resident was available and complications began immediately. Before he could be delivered, David’s head repeatedly slammed against the uterine wall.  After he was born, his vital signs were so erratic and his little body so purple that Mom says she knew immediately something was wrong. After tests and observation doctors determined that David’s brain stem had been crushed during the long and arduous birth, leaving him in a vegetative state.

The birth of our newest sibling was an exciting time for us.  The new baby would be a “tiebreaker” for our family—we already had three boys and three girls. As we anxiously awaited news from the hospital, we blew up balloons to decorate our porch—blue if a boy, pink if a girl. It’s funny how trivial all of that seemed after Dad called home. He told us that there were complications, and that we needed to pray for our tiny baby brother.

David’s body hung limp as my mother held him for his feeding. The brain stem was so badly crushed that the doctors decided the best thing for my parents to do would be to immediately place David in an institution. That way, our family would not become too attached to him, and David would be given the best quality of life the doctors felt he was capable of experiencing. The doctors argued that David would be incapable of even the most basic movements and with six children already, there was absolutely no way Mom could provide him with the constant care he would need.

We all laugh when we think of those poor doctors trying to convince my mother to place one of her children in an institution. Even as young as I was at the time, I could have told them they were wasting their breath. Mom isn’t boasting when she says she never wavered; she’s simply stating a fact. And with my father’s pure love and sense of service to his family, there was never a moment of hesitation.

All of David’s therapy and progression rested solely on my parents. David’s feet hung at a 180-degree angle. His muscle tone was so poor he struggled to just eat. Mom set up a routine and none of us were left out. Each day, we would do something called “patterning,” where we worked with David’s legs, pushing them back and forth. Mom would place David on a little yellow “banana” skateboard, and we would lie on top of him, moving his legs and arms to mimic a crawl. Even when feeding him, Mom developed a method where we would repeatedly lead his hand with the Cheerio to his mouth, as he had a habit of feeding his ear.

By age four, David was finally crawling, and my mom knew she had to send him to school. My mom recalls the day she stood at the front yard and watched David being harnessed into the bus seat. A woman from our tightly knit parish came to be with her, because several years ago she had watched her own handicapped son leave for his first day of school, and she didn’t want Mom to be alone. It’s people like her who have always been such a support to our family.

When David was only a few years old, my parents found out they were expecting again. They didn’t tell us immediately, because this time my grandmother was suffering from cancer. Mom nursed her until her death.

By the time John was born, Mom was also raising her younger sister, who was then 12. Once again, we all waited anxiously for news from the hospital. Dad called home to tell us that we had a new brother (cheers from all my brothers—even David cheered with pride), but again we needed to pray. Due to complications, little John’s oxygen was cut off at birth. He suffered from cerebral palsy as well as autistic tendencies and an extensive list of life-long complications, including a developmental and growth lag.

When John was almost four months old, we found out Mom was expecting again, and the day came once again when we crowded around the large kitchen table waiting to hear word. As I think back upon it, I’m amazed at how we were never discouraged, and always full of absolute excitement. Again, blue balloons and again, more complications. As my parents held little Paul Gerard for the first time, they knew immediately that something was wrong. Doctors confirmed that he had Down Syndrome, and suffered a defective heart. Over the months, my parents learned to feed Paul by sticking a tube down his nose and into his stomach and pumping in formula through a syringe. We were allowed to help feed Paul, and this became a treasured time for each of us as we held our little brother and loved him. Paul eventually contracted pneumonia, and died in Mom’s arms as she sat and rocked him. I can remember people standing outside of our church, just wanting to be there for Mom on her birthday, the day we buried Paul.

David is now 25 years old. This young man—who doctors once wanted institutionalized, is the absolute light of our lives.  For some reason, in His divine sense of humor, God made David the most outspoken, determined and mischievous of us all. Mom and Dad only encouraged this, as David was raised with no idea that he was different in any way. He was just like all of us—weighing in on discussions at the dinner table and making us laugh with his wacky sense of humor.

After years of special school, David insisted that he should go to a regular high school. So, at age 18, he enrolled at a small Catholic school that was willing to allow him to fulfill his dream. And even though David could never fully grasp all of the lessons of high school, when he “graduated” a year later he held his diploma with pride.

Last year, David decided to walk with American Life League’s Crossroads.  Just as several of his older siblings had done, David walked for two months across the country, intently praying outside of abortion mills and proclaiming the pro-life message. Once, in an interview, David was asked why he decided to make the cross-country pilgrimage. David, who the doctors said would never walk or talk, answered that he wanted to help protect the babies that aren’t given a chance.  Through their confidence and unconditional love, John and David continue to inspire everyone they meet.

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About the author

Maria Byers

Maria Byers resides in Florissant, Mo., with her husband Matthew, and is a full-time home-schooling mother to her six children.