Sunday, February 28, 2016

Learning from the Little Ones


A few weeks before I arrived in Honduras, someone called me to tell me about the host family I would be staying with. They had three children, they told me, Paolo is 10, Hector is 7, and Allisson, who has Down’s syndrome, is 4.

That’s how they said it: “Allisson, she has Down’s syndrome, is 4.”

In-country, others told me about my family too, and the medical condition always hung there in a footnote: “and the little girl has Down’s syndrome.” I didn’t know much about the condition, and wondered what it would be like to live with her. I didn’t know what to expect.

What I found was that it didn’t take long to look past the footnote that always followed her name – to fall in love not with Allisson-who-has-Down’s-syndrome but with Allisson, who, when I come home, drops her toys and shouts my name, “Ka-TAH!” running towards me for a hug,

Allisson, the copy-cat, the queen of the house, who doesn’t say many words but understands almost everything, who struts and preens and throws tantrums, who cuddles and kisses and dances with her face lifted to the sky in pure joy,

Allisson, who walks through the living room with an empty pringles can on top of her head, like the ladies at the market who balance baskets full of vegetables, “Papa papa papa,” she babbles, “potatoes potatoes potatoes,” and we give her imaginary money and she puts it into her pockets,

Allisson, sassy and persistent, who digs her fingers in my purse when I leave it out, looking for the 2-lempira bills that are enough to buy a packet of her favorite chips, who will grab the bills and show them to me, then point to herself, cocking her head in a question – Can I have it?

Allisson, who can sometimes be maddening, who gets frustrated that we don’t understand her, or that we won’t let her do what her brothers do, who screams loud enough to shake the house and can’t be trusted with a crayon without eating it,

Allisson, whose tantrums fade away as quickly as they start, and who snuggles beside me to stroke my hair, trying her best to smooth it into a ponytail and humming the low, tuneless melody that means she’s completely satisfied.

Allisson the princess in pink plastic glasses, the glue of the family, who can read anger or sadness with remarkable astuteness and knows just what to do to fix it.

One day Hector was misbehaving and his grandmother reached for the ruler. She was shouting and he was crying and Allisson left her toys to squeeze herself between her brother and her grandmother. She held Hector’s face between her little hands. “Shh,” she told him, then looked back at her grandmother, “Da da da,” she said in a scolding tone, shaking her finger, and kept stroking her brother’s face as he quieted down. “No ‘buela,” she said, “No, grandma.” Her grandmother’s voice softened. She spoke sternly, but gently to Hector, and the ruler fell to the side of the couch, forgotten.

She keeps me company in my room sometimes, coloring with a pencil that won’t break if she bites it, and I talk to her. I think I need to sweep in here, I tell her, and she slides off the bed, goes downstairs, and comes back three minutes later dragging the broom and dustpan. She loves to help, and beams when you thank her. Sometimes she cries when I carry my own plate to the sink.

There are things that Allisson will never be able to do. Allisson-with-Down-Syndrome may never bring home the good grades that her brothers earn, learn English like her cousins, or run a business like her mother and father. But Allisson, just Allisson, can still do so much. She amazes me with her gentleness and her silliness and her sassiness and imagination. She makes us laugh and she keeps us from crying. She can already do more than some people said she’d ever do, and she’s learning more every day.

How much do we miss when we see people like Allisson for who they’re not and not for who they are? Does the world really need more brilliant minds, or does it need more kind ones? Does it need more expertise, or does it need more faithfulness? There’s a lot that I’m learning, for example, that only this four-year-old could teach me. 

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