If you knew someone who's made you a better human being, would you relish that connection? Someone who offered daily lessons in empathy and kindness, delivered without guile or judgment?
For me, this someone is my daughter, Jillian, who was born with Down syndrome. Jillian, now 25, has a saying for the most basic of human transactions: "If you love someone, they'll love you back.''
She has opened my eyes to the essential goodness of people. She has showed, over and over, that our better natures are alive and well. And I'm deeply in her debt.
The public knows Jillian through my work as a sports columnist at the Cincinnati Enquirer. A chance encounter with Jillian on the metro bus she takes to work prompted this e-mail to me, from one of her fellow riders:
I was in a sour mood this morning when my bus didn't show up, so I had to wait an extra 40 minutes in the cold for the next bus to arrive. This bus was standing-room only, but a young woman in an NKU sweatshirt gave up her seat to a passenger who just got on the bus. Then, this same young woman offered her coat to someone on the bus who said she was cold. I overheard someone else talking to her and called her 'Jillian.' I struck up a conversation with her about school and the NKU basketball team (of which she told me she was a manager). I concluded that I'd just met your daughter. What a terrific person she is. She brightened the day for me, and a few others packed into the bus because of her kind actions.
Ordinary people doing extraordinary things is easy to notice, but only if you take the time to look. We also spend so much time pursuing life, we sometimes forget to live it. My wife, Kerry, and I learned to slow down when raising Jillian because we had no choice. I learned to take life slowly and luxuriate in the everyday.
When raising Jillian, we also had to keep things in perspective. And the village that helped raise our daughter would fill a map of the world. They include Dave Bezold, the basketball coach at Northern Kentucky University, who had never met Jillian when he offered her a job as a team manager. Nancy Croskey, Jillian's fourth-grade teacher, who took an active interest in her that continues to this day and who considers Jillian to be a close friend.
Most importantly, Kerry and I leaned on a few mantras to help us through our years of parenting:
Expect, don't accept. From the day Jillian was born, all we wanted was for Jillian to have the opportunity to define herself. Same as any other child. We expected that from everyone who interacted with her, from teachers to employers. We accepted nothing less. Kerry and I spent several years working with (and occasionally doing battle with) our school district, to get Jillian the education to which she was legally entitled.
Don't look at Jillian. See her. Looking is passive, but seeing is active. Seeing requires empathy and participation, and it implies a basic civil right: Do not look at me, and judge. See me for who I am. Jillian is a high school graduate and participated in a ground-breaking college program for students with disabilities. Her first job was as a teacher's aide at a local preschool, and she worked 9 am to 12 pm for three summers, reading to and playing with the little ones. Jillian was the first person with a developmental disabilty to work at the school, partly because she was good at it and the children liked her, but partly because the school's director, Bethinee Porter, gave her a chance.
All you can do is all you can do. Take time to relish in a specific moment. Live in it, with all you've got. Firsts never happen again. Watch your kids master the two-wheeler (I still remember vividly the day Jillian mastered her two-wheeler, after two months of trying. What a day.). Tie their shoes for the first time. Ace their first spelling test.
In June, Jillian will be married to her boyfriend of 10 years. And Nancy's husband, Bill, will even be the wedding officiant. Our daughter is living her dreams. And we're so proud of her.
Paul Daugherty has been a sports writer for more than 30 years, and he's witnessed first-hand a number of personal triumphs over long odds. But none were as compellling as watching his daughter grow up. His first book, An Uncomplicated Life, about parenting Jillian, will out on March 17 from be published by Harper Collins. Follow him on Twitter @EnquirerDoc.
Life With Down Syndrome
Photo of Jillian courtesy of Paul Daugherty