Joshua’s Gift

Joshua is my twenty-two year old nephew.  When he joined our family, he was only a few days old- a chubby little bundle with brown wavy hair and eyes like deep pools of melted chocolate.  When his birth parents discovered that Joshua had Down syndrome, they decided that they were unable to take care of him, and gave him up for adoption.   My sister Martha-Jean and her husband Robert eagerly grafted him into our family, where he took his place as their youngest son.

Joshua is closest in age to my daughter Elizabeth, and during their growing years, they spent hours and hours together.   They made up synchronized swimming routines in the pool.  They caught grasshoppers in the field.  They played games of hide and seek in my sister’s old farm-house, scrambling behind doors or inside closets so they wouldn’t be found.  If Elizabeth suggested a game, Joshua would respond with undying enthusiasm, and if Joshua suggested and adventure, Elizabeth rarely refused.

They are grown now, and if you stole a casual glance at them, you would think they are polar opposites.  Elizabeth is tall and willowy, with huge eyes fringed by dark full lashes.  Joshua is short and stout, his hair clipped short and his eyes hidden behind thick glasses.  Elizabeth studied at Oxford.  Joshua reads at an elementary school level.  Elizabeth likes to be in motion- running, boarding, swimming.  Joshua likes to listen to music, watch television, and play video games.

Last November, our families got together at Thanksgiving, and Elizabeth was home for the first time in several years.  She wanted to go for a walk in the snow, to visit her grandparents’ graves that sit in a small family plot on my sister’s property.  To everyone’s surprise, Elizabeth cajoled Joshua into going with her.  He doesn’t usually like to go out in the cold,  but he pulled on a pair of boots and a hat, and together they walked across the field.  They took snap shots of each other, played on the rope swing and returned to the house.  While walking through the field, Joshua made Elizabeth promise that she would visit again on Christmas.

A couple of weeks later, Joshua became ill with a cough, and within a few days developed pneumonia.  His condition worsened, and he was moved into ICU at the hospital.  I went to visit him, and sat by his side, watching him struggle to breathe through the oxygen mask.  He took my hand in his stubby fingers, and eyes wide, gasped, “Am I going to die like Gramma?”

“No, Josh, not now.  You’re not going to die.  You just rest and you’ll get better.”  I fought back tears and smiled, hoping that I could convince him…and myself…that this was true.

A few hours later, Joshua went into respiratory arrest, and was intubated.  For more than two weeks a ventilator breathed for him as he hovered between life and death.  Our family huddled together in prayer until a few days after Christmas, Joshua began to get well.

Elizabeth and I visited him several days after he returned home from the hospital.  His voice was hoarse and gravely from the ventilator, and he shook as he leaned on a walker to travel from his bed to a nearby chair.  He weakly smiled when Elizabeth playfully teased him, and she promised that as soon as he was stronger, she’d visit again. A few weeks later, she gleefully accepted a temporary assignment to work as Joshua’s aid. Four days a week, she and Joshua spend the day together.  They walk on a treadmill and lift weights. They go bowling. They swim.  And each day, Joshua gets a little stronger.

You might think that the person who benefits most from this relationship is Joshua, but that is not necessarily the case.  For as much as Joshua has a loving companion who encourages him to move and strengthen his body, Elizabeth has a companion who unconditionally accepts and loves her.  She comes home at the end of the day and flops down on the couch beside me.  She looks happier than I’ve seen her in months.  Her muscles ache from working out, but her eyes shine as she tells me about her day.

“Josh swims to me from the opposite side of the pool and then climbs on my back.  I drag him back to the other side and then we do it over and over again.  It’s exhausting, but I love it,” she grins.  “You know, Joshua doesn’t have a mean bone in his body,” she muses.  “He talks to everyone we encounter.  And he loves to get silly, just like any of my other friends.”

I picture Josh’s smiling eyes squinting behind his glasses.

“And,” she continues, “he’s very perceptive.  He listens and remembers. And when we’re out, he tells everyone who I am, like he’s proud of me.”

“Of course,” she giggles, “If I get too bossy, he reminds me that I’m his cousin, not his mother.”

I look at my daughter and imagine her in the pool with Joshua.  I’m reminded of the water ballets they used to perform- his short round body swimming in sync with her long lean one.  It makes me smile. They make me smile.

And I realize something.  When Joshua and Elizabeth are together, it is not about their strengths, or weaknesses, or abilities, or disabilities.  It is about two cousins who love each other.

Joshua’s birth parents had no idea who they were giving up for adoption.  I don’t know who they are, or where they live.  I don’t know if they tearfully tucked him into a soft flannel blanket and kissed him goodbye, or if they even held him after he was born. I don’t know if they were young and poor or old and wealthy or why they didn’t  feel that they could keep their newborn.  But I do know If I could speak to them I would say thank you.  Thank you for giving us your gift.  Thank you for Joshua.


By now, most of the world has heard of Susan Boyle.  She is the forty-seven year old singer from the UK who leapt from obscurity to global notoriety singing “I Dreamed a Dream” From “Les Miserables.”   Her clear golden tones bring shivers to the spine and tears to the eyes.  But most of the world’s obsession with Susan Boyle is her quirky behavior and frumpy appearance.  We have such a difficult time believing that something so beautiful can emerge from someone so ordinary. 


This reminds me of my nephew Noah.  Noah entered our lives as a toddler.  He was small and thin, with an elfin face and braces on both legs.  The day I met Noah, I wrapped my arms around his little body and drew him onto my lap.   He snuggled close and promptly bit me on the shoulder.  I jumped. He cried.  It was love at the first sight.


Noah bears the scars of fetal alcohol syndrome.   He doesn’t talk, except for a few poorly pronounced one-syllable words.  At twenty-seven, he is the size of a skinny eleven year old.  He is unable to read, or write.  He is unsteady on his feet, and falls easily.  His muscles are hard and tight, like bands that contort his arms and legs into stiff sticks. 


Here’s the funny part, though.  Noah knows things.  He knows that his cousins are younger than he.  Although they are grown, capable and educated, he refuses to allow them to usurp his family position and balks if they give him orders.  He knows if his younger siblings are doing something they should not.  He knows if he is being left out because of his disabilities.


Noah has he heart of a servant.  He motions for me to sit in a chair.  He brings me food, or drink that he has painstakingly prepared.  He has a quick grin that lights the room.  He snickers and giggles at conversations shared only between himself and his favorite stuffed animal, but erupts with huge belly laughs when someone in the room cracks a joke or exhibits some form of slapstick.  He wears his heart on his sleeve.  When he is happy, or excited, he screams with joy.  When he gets angry, his face darkens like an August thunderstorm and he becomes immovable and tearful.  


Noah can’t sing like Susan Boyle, but like her, he has taught us many things.  He has taught us patience.  He has taught us kindness and sensitivity to those who may not look or act the way we are used to seeing people.  He has taught us to recognize people for the things they can do rather than the things they can’t.  He has taught us to love people for who they are, and not for what they can give us.


Susan Boyle’s fame will fade in time.  But hopefully, she and Noah have reminded us to take a moment and look deep inside someone’s eyes, rather than rolling ours.  Thank you, Susan.  And thank you, Noah.


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