Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Memory Keeper's Daughter

I just finished reading The Memory Keeper's Daughter. It is the story of two families. The first family is a doctor, his wife and their son. The doctor delivered his son in his office during a blizzard in 1964, with the assistance of his nurse, who is secretly in love with him. After the healthy boy is delivered, a twin girl with Down's Syndrome is delivered. Since gas to put the mother out was a normal anesthesia in those days, mom didn't know that the girl was alive. The doctor gave the girl to the nurse and told her to take the baby to a nearby institution for the feeble-minded. When his wife regained consciousness he told her she had a healthy son, but that a twin daughter had been born dead. The nurse takes the baby to the institution but can't bring herself to leave the baby in that place. She decides to leave town and take the baby with her. They are the other family in the story. This is not a fluffy feel-good read. However, it does have a reasonably happy ending.

I have heard and read that institutionalizing special needs kids as infants was common in those days and that doctors advised doing so "before you get attached to the baby". Even so, especially to the mom of a special needs son, the doctor's actions seemed shocking or cruel. I was an education major in college and one subject we studied was special education because PL94-142 guaranteeing a free and appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment had just been passed. We had to know about special education, even though we weren't going to be special ed teachers. Our class took a field trip to the North Mississippi Mental Retardation Center. This was a relatively new facility, clean and apparently well-kept. In other words, at least from outside appearances, as institutions go, it was a nice one. I have never wanted out of a place more in my life. I remember seeing a grown man wearing a diaper and not much more laying spastic in a crib. I remember seeing another sitting in a time-out booth, basically a rubber room, having a temper tantrum. I remember women sitting slack-jawed and drooling in wheelchairs. It wasn't a fun outing.

When I was pregnant with my youngest, someone asked me if I'd had a lot of pre-natal testing, given my age. I told her that I hadn't. Since I don't believe in abortion, and wasn't real thrilled to be pregnant anyway, I didn't think I needed anything else to make me unhappy, so I told the doctor that if he couldn't fix it, I didn't need to know about it. I also realized that I had left the hospital twelve years earlier with a perfectly healthy little boy who turned out not to be--and we survived. As I've noted here on other posts, sometimes he seems almost normal--and we are so used to him as he is that it is normal for him--and yet at other times his differences are brought forth front and center. I guess like most other things in life, his autism is both a blessing and a curse. He himself though is truly a blessing, and I can't imagine choosing to put him away because of who/how he is and I'm grateful that society and schools now suport keeping kids with their families rather than in institutions.

1 comment:

  1. Powerful post Ruth.
    I volunteered in a few places like the one you saw. It was TOUGH. So hard, I decided not to go into SPED.
    I look at my class now, and cannot imagine that most of them would/could have been be put away. 23 souls- offering art, music, a wicked sense of humor,some amazing academic feats, dramatics,and a sideways look at the world (which we all need).
    I actually think about you a great deal when I go into my classroom. Your shove five years ago got me out of the classroom. And here I sit - in a sped room that I never would have thought about five years ago.
    God had a plan. Funny that He used a variety of ways to get me to follow it:>)


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