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We Committed Our Child
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OUR DREAMS came true when Mary Lou arrived. The story had followed the familiar pattern -- the long months of eager waiting, the many discussions of a name, then the anxious ride to the hospital, and at last her birth -- a baby girl equipped with the usual complement of legs, arms, ears, and eyes.
Here was what the doctors called a 100 percent baby. Our little worries -- and what parents-to-be do not have them? -- had been for nothing. Our child was perfect.
Soon we brought Mary Lou home, and then began those tiring but happy days and nights of feeding, floor walking, and diaper washing. Together my wife and I shared the weariness as well as the joy. At more or less the prescribed times, our little girl began smiling, grasping things, and sitting up, but we, of course, regarded her as something out of the ordinary. Her sparkling blue eyes, blonde curls, and solid chubbiness completely bewitched us.
My wife, formerly a social worker, kept a "case history." Into the record went the dates of the first "roll-over," the first tooth, and countless other important events. The most startling development was Mary Lou's first word, "rabbit," spoken the day she was seven months old, as she squeezed her rubber toy.
She spent hours each day looking at a set of children's books, and by the time she was a year old she had learned several dozen nursery rhymes. At 15 months she could rattle off 99 of these ditties. Beauty plus brains!
By that time another baby was on the way, for we believed that she should have a companion. Those were happy months as we planned for the second child and tried to prepare Mary Lou for the newcomer, but then came a cloud. One evening when Mary Lou was 20 months old, she became violently ill, having shown signs of only a slight cold. Developing a high fever, she was lethargic and "loppy" for three days. We were frantic. The doctor prescribed rest, and Mary Lou, who loved her bed, cooperated nicely. Within a few days she was trotting about again.
It wasn't like old times, however, for she tired quickly and was nervous and touchy. She seemed on occasion to be "out of this world" and was upset more and more often by the books that previously had brought hours of delight.
By the time our boy was born, three months later, we were deeply worried. Mary Lou's nervousness increased; she went into screaming spells with no apparent cause, cast aside her books and toys, gradually stopped talking, became choosy about her foods, and refused to feed herself.
Meanwhile, the doctor told us that there was nothing basically wrong with Mary Lou, that she was a healthy child, and that we -- "nervous parents" -- were to blame for her condition. We studied ourselves. Could her condition stem from resentment over the attention necessarily given to the second baby? How we had striven to avoid that! Eventually we consulted a neurologist, who suggested that we place Mary Lou in a children's clinic. We did so. After two weeks of observation and a brain X ray, the doctors decided that Mary Lou had a hopeless brain condition and recommended that for our own good and the welfare of the two children we place her in an institution.
There was and still is disagreement as to whether a congenital brain defect or sleeping-sickness, encephalitis, was the cause. We leaned to the latter theory, because we couldn't conceive of a child with a malformed brain being so bright as she had been. But no matter now; in either case her chances for recovery were negligible, only one chance in a million, the doctors said.
What to do? After days and nights of discussion we concluded there were four possible steps:
1. Keep Mary Lou at home.
In theory there is a fifth way of handling such a problem -- euthanasia, putting the unfortunate person out of his or her misery. At times we, too, felt that death for Mary Lou would be better than life with such a handicap, but we knew also that deficiency is a matter of degree, that many of those mentally deficient can live useful lives within their limitations and within an environment adapted to those limitations. No, euthanasia was no answer, even in theory. The very idea of a "death sentence" now seemed senseless and abominable, not to say illegal.
"Shall we try to keep Mary Lou at home?" we asked ourselves. If we did, we should have to curtail normal family activities, to make the environment as simple as possible, for, as is typical in such cases, Mary Lou became frantic over the bustle of the simplest household tasks. We knew, too, that we would have to devote the major part of our time to her, leaving her little brother to develop as best he could. We felt that he already had been neglected.
Also, having witnessed the ridicule and ill treatment which residents of our home town turned on the "village half-wit" and his family, we understood what keeping her with us would mean to our family.
We decided we must look further, in justice to Mary Lou, her brother, ourselves, and the community.
The second possible step -- placing Mary Lou in the home of a friend or relative -- we ruled out immediately. How could we subject the life of another family to a distortion we wanted to avoid in our own?
And thus we came to the doctors' conclusion -- commitment to an institution. The word was abhorrent to us at first, for it denoted a sort of prison in which unfortunates are placed out of society's sight. But as we inquired into the nature of institutions in our State, we found them offering a quality of care average parents would be hard put to provide. They have nursery schools for children capable of profiting by them and elementary schools for those able to go further. Handicraft projects, print shops, repair shops, gardens, and farm work give older patients an opportunity to be useful and happy.
Putting Mary Lou in the care of a private hospital appealed to us more than sending her to one operated by the State, but investigation revealed that the cost would be high, not completely beyond reach, but certainly high enough so that we would be unable to finance the kind of education we would like to give our boy. He, after all, was the child who had the potentialities.
So it was that we decided in favor of a State hospital. Taking Mary Lou to it was a heartbreaking experience, but we were fortified with the conviction that in this move lay the sole hope for happiness for all four of us. And we were greatly heartened by the appearance of the place. It resembled a college campus, with pretty brick buildings set amid sweeping grounds. There were no walls, no guards. Patients strolled, played, or rested outside their homelike cottages. In this community, we saw also, there were no thoughtless neighbors gossiping about the unfortunates and jeering at them and their families.
The reception was kind, almost completely devoid of red tape. The newcomer was regarded as a patient rather than a prisoner, -- and the doctors, nurses -- in fact, the entire personnel -- proved specially trained to bring out whatever abilities he or she might have. The parents were treated as persons who would continue to be interested, who would contribute toward clothing and medical costs, and who would be informed regularly on the condition and progress of the patient.
More than a year has passed since that day. We have kept in close touch with the hospital by mail and telephone and have made the 100-mile trip to visit our daughter at least once a month. The simple routine of good food, sunshine, and fresh air have done wonders for Mary Lou's physical health. She is calmer and again is feeding herself. We still do not know what potentialities Mary Lou possesses, but we feel confident that whatever they are, the skilled, hard-working staff will labor earnestly to develop them.
And so tragedy came into a family that barely knew the word. We think, we pray, we have faced it wisely.