An Angel in Disguise

When my daughter Ashley was born in 1980, I was one proud father—for about an hour. That’s when the doctor who delivered her walked up to me as I was admiring Ashley. The doctor said “Al, I think we have a problem here; I’m quite sure that Ashley has Down syndrome.” In that moment, I went from the height of ecstasy to the depth of despair–the only time in my life I’ve experienced anything like that. I thought my life and my wife Barbara’s life had essentially been ruined. We were heartbroken.

Over the next few days, weeks and months, we received wise counsel from many nurses at Central DuPage Hospital in Winfield, Illinois and visits to our home by several parents of children with Down syndrome. They assured us that our despair, while understandable, was probably unwarranted. The encouraged us to shift our outlook from despair to hope. And, with the support of these wonderful people, that’s what we did, although quite slowly over the next several years. As Ashley grew older we noticed that, although learning was a challenge for her, she was an unlikely but surprisingly good teacher. We all know that we can learn a great deal from children, but the paradox here is the notion that even children with disabilities, like Ashley, can teach us a great deal too. For example, I’m naturally impatient. I like to move fast and get things done. Ashley, on the other hand, is all about being in the moment, enjoying herself and others–“smelling the roses” as it were. Observing Ashley makes me more conscious of my sometimes frenetic pace. She has taught me to monitor my behavior, exercise patience and exhibit greater tolerance.

Ashley is now a grown woman. In some ways our worst fears came true–she has an IQ of only 36, speaks very little and can’t perform even simple tasks without extensive prompting. But in other, more important ways, Ashley has been an angel in disguise. She is gentle, full of love and unconditionally accepting of others. Her spirit rubs off on others, including my wife Barbara and our other daughter Andrea, and me. In fact, we often say that Ashley teaches us a great deal more than we teach her.

In 2002, we placed Ashley in Mount St. Joseph, a residential facility for women with disabilities in Lake Zurich, Illinois. About a month later we were called to a parent-staff conference. As we walked into the room, one of the staff said, “You must be very proud of Ashley.” We assured her that we were, and asked what prompted that comment. “Oh, it’s a wonderful thing to see,” she replied. “Ashley has such a sweet and giving spirit, and she has already positively influenced many of the other residents. We are so glad she is here with us.” Is that music to a parents ears or what? What parent wouldn’t want to hear words like that  spoken about their child?

A friend of mine once noted that Ashley doesn’t let her head get in the way of her heart. Another friend, who happens to be a pastor, overheard that remark. About 6 months later, the pastor came up to me with a mile-wide grin and said “Ashley has changed my life”. I replied with surprise, “Pastor, you’ve never even met Ashley!” The Pastor reminded me that he had heard my friend’s comment about ‘Ashley never letting her head get in the way of her heart’ and based on that comment had transformed his relationship with other people, significantly enhancing and expanding his ability to effectively pastor to others by depending more on his heart. He then went on to say that for him Ashley was a “true angel in disguise”.

Ashley has been the prime catalyst in my life to help me achieve a healthier head/heart balance. She maintains calm in the face of adversity, is kind and gracious to those she meets, and remains content regardless of the circumstances. She is a trooper when the going gets tough and is completely non-judgmental in her assessment of others. She’s a good sport when things don’t go her way. Overall, she serves as a role model fo all of us.

Do I wish that Ashley had been born without Down syndrome? Of course. She can’ t do simple math. She can’ t talk very well. She can’t hold eye contact very well. She can’t do many of the routine tasks you and I take for granted. Yet, Ashley’s love is completely pure; it is unconditional and directly from her heart. She never seems to let life’s problems interfere with her love for anyone or anything. I have come to realize that maybe, just maybe, Ashley is the best thing that ever happened to me–a true angel in disguise.

Al Ritter

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