I hadn’t thought of Ryan in a long time and yet, out of the blue on a Monday morning, my thoughts turned to him. His memory greets me much the same way of our first encounter; initial apprehension that melts into golden sunlight.
Ryan entered our lives soon after his birth in the spring of 1985. He was adopted by my older sister, Martha-Jean and her husband, Robert while I was in my ninth month of pregnancy. They cheerfully brought him home from the hospital, a tiny bundle with creamy skin and curls the color of tarnished pennies. He was quite adorable, but his prognosis was abysmal. Born with only a brain stem and a few brain masses, he was expected to live only a few months and in a vegetative state.
My response was one of indifference. After suffering two miscarriages, I was determined to not experience infant death again, even at a distance. Although we shared a home, I regarded Ryan from afar, concentrating on my two year old Abby and within a couple of weeks, the birth of my own infant son, Gabriel.
One day, Martha-Jean came home from grocery shopping, a howling Ryan in her arms. He was beside himself with hunger. She had run out of formula that morning. Because we lived in the country and had a well, the water for Ryan’s bottle had to be boiled and then cooled before mixing with the dry formula. It would be another thirty minutes before his meal would be ready.
I looked at my own son, who had just finished nursing. Two weeks old, he was already double Ryan’s size. Laying him in his cradle, I sighed and took Ryan from Martha- Jean. He nursed hungrily, snuggling into the crook of my arm. I stroked his auburn curls and watched his sightless blue eyes wander back and forth. As he fed, the wall between us crumbled and fell. No longer was he a child adopted by my sister. He was my nephew- a part of me. He was sealed within the walls of my heart forever.
Although Ryan outlived the doctors’ predictions by months, he drifted away during the night shortly before his second birthday. Unable to look at the empty crib, Robert tearfully dismantled it and stowed it away. For weeks, Abby asked where Ryan was. For months, I startled, thinking I heard his cry and then was stung again, as I realized he was not there. In time, the sting turned into ache, and then slowly melted and eased.
Once in awhile, like today, memories of Ryan flood my mind. I still can close my eyes and see his milky skin, his azure eyes, his copper curls. I have often wondered what my life would have been without him. Would I have kept that tender part of my heart protected, in a hidden place that nobody could touch? If I had, who would I be now? And if I had allowed my soul to grow cold and hard, would my children have grown to be the adults they are? Would Abby still work long, tireless hours to bring refugees to a land of freedom and safety? Would Elizabeth have brought Tootsie Pops to work for a grumpy cancer patient’s birthday surprise? Would Gabe be kind and encouraging to the chubby, awkward little boy in his swim class?
How easy it is to dismiss the imperfect children of our race as being of less value, because they “contribute nothing to society.” How easy to forget that they are the sandpaper that smoothes our rough spots and softens the hardness of our hearts. Ryan never learned to talk, or walk. He never wrote a book or discovered a cure for Diabetes. But his legacy lives on in the people he touched, and the people they touch. Maybe it’s just the morning sun, but I feel him smiling.