For those of you that have followed along with our journey you know that it has been nothing but an unconventional path to parenthood. What you might not know is that prior to Brance and I getting married we prayed that the Lord would use us; that we wouldn’t be content living in a life of comfort. I imagined us living a life of adventure somewhere in a jungle, Tarzan and Jane style. Or perhaps, we’d start a sports ministry on the dirt roads in Ethiopia. We knew that we were both hardwired and created to strive for more. The lifelong competitive athletes in us begged for bigger challenges; underdog stories that ended in triumph. Together we were a force to be reckoned with. Together, we had more strength than either of us realized; we just didn’t know that every ounce of that strength would be tested and drained to exhaustion…only to be refilled with a more refined and resilient strength. And in a much more humbling way than we had dreamt.
A short six months into our marriage, after attempting to find a path that would lead us overseas, we found ourselves signed up for foster care classes. Half way into this journey of classes and home studies we learned that we were pregnant with our first baby. We pressed on, confident in our choice to pursue foster care. Two months later, the life that was growing inside of me had come and gone. I was devastated. The weeks to come were filled with tears, anger and darkness. Weeks turned to months and though the pain of our miscarriage still lingered our home officially opening for foster care placements kept my mind distracted. We learned that in a season of loss and grief Jesus was still making things new; He was still finishing a work in us.
Months passed as we waited for calls to accept a foster care placement. In the waiting months life again began to grow inside of my womb. At 26 weeks pregnant we joyously celebrated that we would be welcoming a baby girl that Spring. Simultaneously we ushered in our 12 month old foster son. Before we knew it Spring rolled around and we found ourselves first time parents with two babies under two. It was a season of survival and a particularly dark season of life for me. I struggled with postpartum depression. I struggled to learn how to care for a newborn while chasing around a toddler. We bounced from court dates to newborn appointments; the number of diapers and goldfish we went through was astounding. We held on for dear life wondering if we would make it out alive. After 1,104 days we found light at the end of our tunnel. Our son’s foster care journey came to an end and we joyfully celebrated the adoption of his life forever intertwined with ours. All of the unknowns were finally at rest and the permanency our family had long hoped for was finally established. For the first time in just over three years we rested in “normalcy”.
Six months later I found myself crumpled on our bathroom floor in tears as two lines showed up on a pregnancy test. We had recently accepted a new foster care placement and unbeknownst to us…I was again expecting. I struggled with guilt, fear, anger and anxiety. As I watched our short season of “normalcy” fade once again in the rearview mirror.
Months later we returned to a pattern of “normalcy”. We soaked in living life as a family of four as my ever growing belly became more prominent. The pregnancy with Cal flew by; I was determined to have everything perfect this go around. I was determined to have a pinterest worthy nursery. I sought out the best bedside bassinets and splurged on organic diapers, glass baby bottles and muslin swaddles. I basked in enjoying collecting all of the baby things; striving for perfection in each item I chose to adorn Cal’s nursery with. Every piece of my heart, longed to bring home our newborn without all of the added chaos this time around. I pictured our family now being complete. The last hoorah…so I was going to make it perfect.
The holiday season rolled around. I remember trying to wrap gifts as I leaned over my basketball of a belly. Taking breaks after each gift so I could breath. I remember thinking how special the advent season really was that Christmas. The anticipation and waiting in great hope and joy felt so palpable. After the last gift was opened and we had feasted on Christmas dinner I knew labor was coming. At 10:30pm, Christmas night my water broke at just 36 weeks. I tossed the last few things into my already prepared hospital bag. I had a personalized onesie for our new bundle of joy, my own blush pink hospital gown, our camera…even a sweet little hand-calligraphed name tag to announce Cal’s arrival. As we drove to the hospital I felt more joy and excitement than I did pain. Our son was coming! The bookend to finishing up our “perfect” little family.
I had a beautiful labor; and in just four hours I was complete. The OB nurse in me tried to remain calm. Would he be big enough at just 36 weeks? Would his lungs be strong enough to keep us out of the newborn nursery? I inhaled one last big breath and effortlessly Cal was earthside. I cried tears of joy and excitement as I pulled him onto my chest. My mind racing with all of the things I dreamt our son would be. My tear filled eyes glanced down at Cal and I noticed his cute button nose, chubby cheeks…and almond shaped eyes. I thought perhaps through my tired and blurred vision I was imagining things. I thought perhaps he was just a bit swollen from the quick labor. After Cal’s body was no longer attached to mine they placed him in the warmer bed. I remember calling over to the warmer bed, “Is he big enough? Is he strong and healthy?” No one really answered me. The pediatrician began examining Cal and I saw the whispers of concern being exchanged over his small body. He was crying and the nurse in me had assigned him an apgar score of 8 and 9 so I wasn’t overly concerned. My OB went over to greet Cal at the warmer and I again noticed a whispered conversation between the pediatrician and OB being exchanged. My heart began to grow anxious. Why were they whispering? Why did the room feel so different than I had imagined? As the nurse swaddled Cal both our OB and the on-call pediatrician approached my bedside. My OB looked at me and said, “Katie, we have reason to believe that Cal has Down Syndrome.” I immediately began to sob. In that moment my world fell apart; it was like a bad dream I couldn’t escape. I buried my face into my hands and crumbled. My soul felt dark and dim; as if the very breath of life had left my body. Never before had I felt such turmoil. As the nurse brought that 7lb 2oz baby over to me I couldn’t even extend my arms to hold him. I was afraid to look at him; terrified to see what was instead of what I had planned.
My husband held him; I watched as my husband’s eyes gently looked at Cal’s round and full cheeks. My husband could tell I was in a state of denial. I continued to say, “I don’t understand. They’re wrong. There has to be a mistake.” I couldn’t even mutter the words down syndrome. With grace and fearlessness my husband smiled at Cal and looked me in my swollen, tear filled eyes. I’ll never forget his words. He said, “He does have Down Syndrome Katie. And he’s perfect. He’s just what we needed.” The tears continued to stream down my face. My eyes swollen with anger, despair and fear. I forced myself to extend my arms to cradle my son. I was guilt ridden; what kind of mother is afraid to look at her own child? I wiped the tears from my eyes in hopes that some vision would return. I glanced down at that chubby cheeked, baby boy. My eyes traced his lips- they were perfect like his daddy’s. My eyes traced his button nose-nearly identical to our daughters. And the moment my eyes met his perfectly almond shaped eyes I cried harder than I had ever cried before. In that moment I knew that our son had Down Syndrome…but I also knew that he was meant to be mine. A day later we transfered to the University NICU where Cal aced every test thrown at him. We spent a mere 13 hours in the NICU but it was the most exhausting 13 hours of my life. As Cal laid in his NICU bed I caught myself studying his features; still unable to digest the reality that our son did indeed have down syndrome. Specialist after specialist came to see Cal; I held my breath with each specialist hoping someone would tell me there had been a mistake. No one did. Instead, each one of them smiled when they saw Cal. He had some kind of palpable joy that at the time I hadn’t figured out yet.
I’d like to tell you I handled the next few days and weeks with grace. In reality, my face was puffy from all of the crying and I had phoned in to OB for a fat dose of Zoloft. I was disoriented from the sleep exhaustion and drunk on fear. This was something that happened to other people; not to someone like myself. Those weeks after Cal was born were some of the darkest. I’d wake up each morning wondering when the joy would return. Why did every parent of a child with down syndrome tell us we just hit the jackpot? Why did they tell us our family had struck gold and that there really was nothing down about down syndrome? The days crept by. I struggled with depression and incredible amounts of anxiety. I buried myself deep in facebook groups, medical journals and research to learn more about trisomy 21. I still remember one of my dear friends looking at me and saying, “Katie I keep praying that one morning you’ll wake up and you’ll have joy again. That everything else will fade and you’ll see Cal for Cal. You’ll find joy in the gift you’ve been given and you won’t see down syndrome…you’ll see Cal.”
And you know what? One morning that’s exactly what happened. I woke up early to change Cal’s diaper and he flashed me a smile. It wasn’t a gassy newborn smile. It was a touch-your-soul, change your life kind of smile. It was in that moment that the diagnosis of down syndrome faded and I saw Cal. I saw who Jesus had created him to be. I knew that he was a gift. A gift that would change our lives for the better. A gift that would wake me up and beckon me to choose joy. And when I saw Cal for Cal I latched on and I haven’t let go. He’s truly something magical ya’ll and there really should be more Cal’s in the world.
Nothing about life has “panned out” like I thought it would. I didn’t grow up dreaming about adoption. I didn’t think I would be a foster mom in the midst of welcoming our first biological child. And I surely didn’t think I would be the momma to a little with special needs. But you know what? As I slowly loosen my grip on life; as I begin to let my clenched fists rest, it gives way to something more beautiful and wild than I could have imagined. We aren’t comfortable…we’re daily stretched and challenged; striving to be more. We aren’t living in that Tarzan and Jane tree jungle…but it is a jungle around here, let me tell ya. You see, our Kingdom work didn’t take us to those dirt roads in Ethiopia like I had imagined. Instead, it’s been an adventurous journey full of surprise and refining right in my own backyard. And for that, I think we really are the lucky ones.
P.C. Hunter Berry