My fourth and youngest child was born with Down syndrome. With number four, we had chosen to let gender be a surprise, since we already had two sons and one daughter. My work involves a significant amount of traveling and teaching to business audiences, so I was sure to block out three weeks of time around my wife's Aug. 26 due date to be there for the birth and recovery.
This baby gave us three surprises. Our first surprise came just as I touched down at New York's LaGuardia Airport on the night of Aug. 5, 2008. My wife's water had broken and she was headed to the hospital. "Doesn't this baby understand, I had planned a specific window of time for it to come?!" was my first thought. Ridiculous, I know, yet a typical occupational hazard of mine, since I regularly teach time management.
My two-day trip was soon modified into a one-day trip, and I made plans to return home the next afternoon and revisit the client a couple weeks later to finish day two of my program.
The second surprise came when my wife's call interrupted my morning session on Aug. 6 to announce our child's arrival. My entire class knew the situation and was just as excited as I was to learn the baby's sex. I held my cellphone up to the lavalier microphone I was wearing and let her announce to the entire audience. "It's a boy!" she exclaimed, as the room burst into spontaneous applause and congratulations.
The third surprise didn't come until early the next morning, several hours after I had come home and spent most of the evening with my wife and new son at the hospital. Before I could even get back to see them on the morning of the 7th, the doctor paid a visit to inform my wife that little Bridger has a genetic condition called Trisomy 21, more commonly known as Down syndrome. She called me in tears, not fully understanding what that meant — what that would mean. And the education process for both of us began in earnest.
I quickly informed the other kids that Bridger would have special needs and asked them to kneel and join me in a prayer for Mom and baby. The Spirit witnessed to us then — and has countless times since — that everything would be fine. After racing back to the hospital, we spent several minutes holding Bridger, inspecting his tiny body, looking for the tell-tale signs of Down syndrome. Admittedly, there was a period of shock and disbelief. Yet both of us were amazed at how quickly the uncertainty and dismay were replaced with eagerness to learn.
Putting this special event into context with our eternal purpose and the plan of salvation allowed the Spirit to distill upon our minds and hearts and reassure us that God had sent us a gift. It would be a privilege to raise one of his choicest spirits — one who would likely teach us much more than we him.
Not one day after I had broken the news of Bridger's birth and diagnosis on our family blog, my Aunt Gerlinde called me from St. George, Utah, to congratulate us and to tell me a story of her own. As a retired educator in the public school system for the past 30 plus years, she acknowledged that thousands of children have stepped into and out of her life. She was blessed to have taught a couple children over the years who have Down syndrome.
"These kids," she said, "stepped into my life, but never step out." This includes a boy named Jason whom Gerlinde taught in fifth grade during the early 1980s. One summer day, several years later, Jason and his father showed up at Gerlinde's front door unannounced. Jason had recently graduated from high school and had been working for his dad's yard care business.
With a great big smile and in his labored speech, Jason said something simple, yet intensely profound. (Even Gerlinde hadn't sensed the deeper meaning behind what she was about to tell me. As the father of a new baby with Down syndrome, I was deeply moved by the meaning of Jason's proposition.) Jason said, "Mrs. B, your lawn is the pits! Let me be your gardener. Let me be your gardener!"
It hit me. In a very real way, Bridger was sent to me to be my gardener. And during the next several decades, he will pluck from the recesses of my heart and mind the weeds of prejudice, misunderstanding, intolerance and selfishness. He will replace them with an abundance of patience, love, understanding and joy! This was our Heavenly Father's way of gently putting his hand on my shoulder and whispering into my ear, "Todd, my son, your lawn is the pits! Please, let me be your gardener!"
Bridger is 4 1/2 years old and doing extremely well in his development. He underwent open heart surgery at 5 months old to repair two holes in his internal heart walls and experienced a near-perfect recovery. We are so blessed to live in a time and place when modern medicine and technology are readily available to give kids like him increased chances at success in life. This "routine" heart repair, in fact, likely doubled his life expectancy.
More importantly, Bridger's sweet, innocent and joyous outlook will inspire all who know him to become better examples of Jesus Christ-like living. Perhaps that's a fourth surprise I hadn't surmised. Our lives will be transformed for the better by having been touched by his!
Todd Wangsgard holds a Ph.D. in leadership and organizational change and is a senior consultant for the FranklinCovey Co. Email: [email protected]