The nurse answered the phone after several rings and said, “May I help you?”
I took a deep breath.
“Yes, I’m calling with a question about my son Thomas. He’s 3 1/2 and will only drink out of a bottle, and I’m not sure what to do.”
She started the inquiry. Had I tried offering a sippy cup at mealtimes? Had I tried putting his favorite drink in the cup? Had I tried brightly colored cups, cups with straws, cups with sport-bottle tops?
I told her we’d tried everything, more than once. “There’s only one solution,” she said. “Take the bottle away. When he gets thirsty enough, he’ll drink out of anything you offer him.”
I hesitated, remembering Thomas’s tonsillectomy the previous year. He refused liquids for days due to the pain of swallowing, and finally ended up back in the hospital for a week with pronounced dehydration. Even when suffering, he was not easy to entreat.
But he’s 3 1/2, I argued with myself. Of course he’s capable of using a cup. He just doesn’t want to, and if I didn’t grab the reins, who knew when he’d give up the bottle?
I called the state health department for children with special needs to get a second opinion. Then I called Thomas’s pediatrician for a third. They all said the same thing: It’s time to lose the bottle. He’s perfectly capable of using a cup. He’ll drink when he’s thirsty enough.
I emailed my husband, Reed, to report my findings as well as my determination to get Thomas drinking from a cup as soon as possible. “I’m OK with giving this a try,” Reed said, “as long as we both realize there’s a chance Thomas just isn’t ready to give up the bottle.”
I blanched. “He’s got to be ready,” I told Reed. “He’s got to.”
I couldn’t find words for my growing desperation. Thomas didn’t use or (as far as we could tell) understand even one spoken word. He still stumbled when he walked. He would not chew or swallow most foods, and he would not even attempt to feed himself applesauce with a spoon. Of course it wasn’t fair to compare him to his siblings, but even in relation to his peers with Down syndrome, he was far behind.
I gathered all the bottles from the kitchen in a plastic grocery bag and stuck the bag on top of the deep freezer in our garage. Back in the kitchen, I lined up the assortment of cups we’d accumulated over the past few months and poured a few ounces of milk into the most promising candidate. Then I waited.
Incensed at being offered a cup instead of a bottle at bedtime, Thomas yelled himself to sleep and awoke miserable. I put him in his high chair for breakfast. When I opened the refrigerator door he grinned and chuckled in his good-natured way. But when he spotted the cup in my hand and the steel in my jaw, his face twisted in anger, and breakfast was over.
That evening, after a long and fretful day with no fluids, Thomas grabbed my hand and led me to the refrigerator. When I opened it, he guided my hand to the gallon jug of milk. As I carried it to the counter he chuckled again. As I poured some milk into one of the cups, he fell silent. And as I offered him the cup with firm resolve, he held up his hand in protest and began to weep with utter abandon.
At dawn I removed Thomas’s pajamas and changed his barely wet diaper, bracing myself for another intensely frustrating day of fruitlessly offering him the cup and keeping him entertained between attempts. But that’s not what I got. No crankiness this time. No outbursts of anger or dismay or despair. Just a weak arm lifted again and again to push the cup away.
Depleted, Thomas was ready for bed early that night. Tomorrow, I thought. Tomorrow he’ll finally break down and accept the cup. He must give up the bottle. He must.
But as I lifted his limp body to carry him to the bedroom, something broke within me. Tears came fast, and a feeling pressed hard into my chest, a feeling only partially captured by words: my son, my son.
Forcing another to do the right thing can never be right. Blinded by stubborn determination to help my child, I'd hurt him instead.
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I laid Thomas on my bed, then walked straight to the garage for the sack of bottles. As I filled one to the top with milk, Reed looked at me in question. “This was crazy,” I said, crying hard. “Crazy.”
Reed nodded, and smiled, and followed me to the bedroom. When we entered, Thomas slowly lifted his head. With glazed eyes, he looked at the bottle in my hand, then looked at our faces, and all three of us laughed.
Kathryn Lynard Soper is the author of the memoir "The Year My Son and I Were Born" and the editor-in-chief of "Segullah," a journal of literary and visual art by and for Mormon women.