January and February in Arkansas are hard on anyone who has to go outside. These months are especially hard when you have little kids who want to go outside.
The sky is gray. The river is gray. The cliffs, mountains, trees and buildings taller than three stories are all gray because of the fog that hangs over us all day. A haze of cold, tiny raindrops hangs in the air, and the streets stay soggy. Shoes are always wet and my usually board straight hair stays curled at the ends. The drizzle and freezing temperatures are heaven if you are a duck hunter, but are miserable for the rest of us.
There have been a couple of afternoons, though, that have been above 40 degrees when the clouds have cleared enough to dry the ground from runny slop to thick mud. On those afternoons, I can bet that my husband will call me on the phone from his office just before the boys and I walk out the door to go get Ellie from school.
“Hey, do you want to come by and pick me up on your way to get Ellie? I was thinking maybe we could swing by the park on the way home,” he says.
All of the kids are excited to be outside at the park and are ready to let loose on the playground, but I find myself hanging back. My kids run with their wide smiles, and all the while, I am scanning the faces of the others who are not in my family to see their reaction to the little girl with Down syndrome.
I saw something online recently about how to treat kids with special needs. I didn’t take the time to read the whole thing – I thought I would be able to go back to it and read it when I got the chance, but now I can’t find it – but the takeaway was to learn what to do from watching how they interact with their siblings.
My oldest, Jack, knows Ellie has Down syndrome. He doesn’t know what that means exactly, but he has a little bit of an idea that she is different from him – though he doesn’t see the difference as anything more significant than something like the difference between their ages or that she is a girl and he is a boy.
He treats her just as any big brother would treat his little sister. He gets annoyed with her because she takes his toys. He thinks it is gross when she chews on books or spits food out of her mouth. I hear “Come on, Ehwie” from him more than anything else.
He is always happy to see her and gives her a kiss on the cheek before bed every night. He even insisted that we move her bed into his room so that they could be roommates. He always wins when they race and there is an unspoken 2:1 ratio in his favor when it comes to sharing snacks.
The baby, Gus, and Ellie are like twins. They are 20ish months apart but are the same size and are into the same toys. They have their own language and want to be right next to each other at all times. They wrestle and fight but are quick to make up with a hug. They hold hands often and spend a lot of time laughing.
Ellie does have a habit of pushing Gus down from behind and making him cry so that she can come to his rescue by consoling him. Gus gets her back by taking hostage of her favorite toy – the portable karaoke machine – and playing his favorite songs on repeat.
None of the three of them know any different, so they don’t see Down syndrome as anything bad. Ellie just is who Ellie is. The boys don’t offer her any extra credit or more time to make a decision, and she keeps up because she wants to go along with them.
That filter through which they see her won’t change as they get older. They may get annoyed with her or maybe even embarrassed, but I doubt they will ever let her get away with being anything less than her best.
“Ellie acts so badly. I think we should find another place for her to live outside of our house,” Jack told me during one of Ellie’s busy, more challenging days.
While tucking them into bed later that night, he took it back and said, “Mommy, Ellie is fun to tickle and she does have the best laugh of anyone in our family. Gus likes her too. Maybe we should keep her. I can teach her to be good.”
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