On Learning to Clap

When I was born, I was an only child for a long time. Ten years. That's pretty formative. I got a lot of the only child habits and attitudes. Then, after my cousin was born, I told my parents that I wanted a baby brother. Being very good parents, they complied with my request and my baby brother was born about a year afterwards. I even suggested his name. After he was two weeks old I desperately wanted to change his name to Dennis, but apparently my parents wouldn't give on that.

When Jerry was born, no one knew that he had Down Syndrome. Because we are half Asian, it seemed to be OK that he had slanted eyes. But he did have a terrible sucking reflex, and some floppiness etc., things that caused concern. At some point, months after he was born, he had a chromosonal analysis that uncovered that he had trisomy 21 version of down syndrome.

My mom told me about Jerry's condition after the results came back. I'm sure they must have been worrying about him, but never let me in on it. I didn't really fathom what his diagnosis meant at the time. Truth be told, I had gotten to be a rather bratty, spoiled only child. I valued intellect (since I was in the gifted program) and was getting rather snooty about people who didn't fit into my IQ range. That was odd in itself, given the fact that neither of my parents had graduated from college. I guess it was the extended family and school influence.

Anyway, plop comes a brother into my life who will never even have an IQ of 100, much less more. My mom, who had been thrown into a terrible postpartum depression after I was born, got even deeper into a spiral of hopelessness. She was a paranoid schizophrenic, but I believe at this point it was just a real depression that she fell into. Mom was Japanese, and Japanese people didn't have retarded kids. There was a distant relative on my Dad's Caucasian side of the family, related by marriage, who had Down's Syndrome and I'm sure Mom felt it was Dad's fault that Jerry came out with Downs.

I found out later that Dad didn't really know what to do. Mom wouldn't pick him up, or change his diapers, or tend to him. Since he worked as a mechanic for a major airline, he had flying privileges and got my aunt to take care of Jerry for the weekend so we could go to Hawaii. My one and only time in Hawaii - I was in the fifth grade, having a great time, oblivious of the fact that my mom was desperately, suicidally miserable and my dad was hopelessly grabbing at straws trying to make her happy.

Anyway, we spent the weekend in Hawaii. Mom slept a lot, but she did at least come alive to some degree. We came home, and found out that while we were away, Jerry had learned to clap. My aunt had worked with him, and he was clapping on command when we got home.

Somehow, the clapping was a sign that he was not an animal. He would learn. He could interact. It was hope, and it gave mom hope. From there on, we got him into infant stimulation classes, made friends with other parents of Down Syndrome kids, and Jerry learned to walk, and talk, and read, and do math, scheme and dream and eventually work in a store.

I later found out how much it had shocked my parents that Jerry clapped. They were told by the first doctor they met with to give him up into an institution (this was in the mid 1970s) and that he would never speak. Our own pediatrician had told them to raise him as a regular child in our home, and just love him. My aunt's teaching him to clap gave them an incredible hope, and lit the fire to raise him and teach him. I used to work with him for hours on various things and rejoice in the accomplishments. Every milestone: a hop, a thrown ball, a recognized letter, was a victory and a celebration.

With lots and lots of clapping.

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