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We Committed Our Child

Creator:  A Father (author)
Date: August 1945
Publication: The Rotarian
Source: Available at selected libraries
Figures From This Artifact: Figure 1  Figure 2

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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.
2. Place her with some relative or friend willing to assume the burden of her care.
3. Place her in a private institution.
4. Place her in a State institution.


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.

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