When My 2-Year-Old With Down Syndrome Met a Grown Up Like Him at the Hair Salon
I walked into the hair salon with Bobby, my 2-year-old with Down syndrome, slung over my left hip. He was small for his age, but my back was starting to feel the toll of carrying him everywhere. My best guess was that he still had a year to go before he’d walk. Still, as much as my back ached, Bobby hated the stroller, and I hated him being unhappy, so over my hip he went.
“Be with you in a minute,” said the hairdresser closest to me. Both stylists were busy, but the customers were young men with already short hair. “Won’t take long,” I thought, estimating our wait.
Bobby squirmed in my arms, positioning himself so he faced me, where he could command my full attention. I made a silly face and blew gently on his bangs, making him giggle. My real attention was across the room, fixated on one of the customers. His reflection in the mirror revealed telltale almond-shaped eyes, a broad nose and a tongue that protruded slightly from the bottom lip. I guessed he was in his late teens. As I watched his reflection from across the room, he watched the reflection of the stylist cutting his hair. He was quiet, only occasionally filling his cheeks with air and then releasing them. “Wonder what that’s about,” I thought.
Finally, our name was taken, and we had an official place in line. Bobby was going to follow the man with Down syndrome. We sat down next to a woman, who I guessed was mother to this same young man. Her face was buried in a magazine, and she scarcely seemed conscious of our presence. Bobby shifted to my lap and immediately reached up to pull my hair. “Gentle,” I reminded, and he released, instead awkwardly and endearingly patting my nose and leaving tiny fingerprints across my glasses.
Soon bored with being gentle, he grabbed the collar of my shirt and, with a smile, jerked himself up and down for a few beats, in an invitation for me to play any number of games that involved him being bounced on my knee and ultimately thrown into the air. I acquiesced with a tame pony ride, still staring over Bobby’s head at the man with Down syndrome. Bobby didn’t care. He squealed in delight.
The squealing got the attention of the mother. From the corner of my eye I saw her glance up and smile. Pause. Then she glanced up again, this time with more purpose. And her gaze rested on my son just as mine had stopped with her boy. “How old is he?” she asked.
“Almost 2. Yours?”
“He’s 29,” then noting my look of surprise that such a young looking man was nearly 30, she nodded towards Bobby. “It’s one of the advantages.”
Bobby gave her his best smile, happy now that two people were giving him their full attention. “How’s he doing?” my new friend asked.
“Good now. He has a heart defect. And he’s on a feeding tube. But the last few months have been quiet.”
“That’s how it went for us. Is he in therapy?”
I rattled off the details, using the shorthand I knew she would understand. She didn’t cringe at the two heart surgeries, the multiple hospitalizations. She wasn’t being callous; she knew this hard route was taken by many children in the Down syndrome community. The important thing was that Bobby was doing fine now.
Besides, I didn’t want to talk about Bobby. I wanted to know about this woman’s son, wanted to learn from her experiences. Bobby’s hospitalizations had forced me to live life day-by-day, not planning for the future. The idea of Bobby as an adult felt like a leap off a cliff into a dark and dangerous unknown – Would I be taking care of him the rest of my life?
I faced Bobby outward and bounced him on my knee as I peppered the mother with questions. Her son worked in a bakery and at Loyola University setting up classrooms. He lived in a group home with five other men and spent his time following sports; he was a big fan of the Chicago Bulls and Cubs. He was an easy going sort who had caused her less trouble than her two typical sons, even though he was unreliable about calling home when his social calendar was full. I memorized every word. I didn’t need this mother’s empathy for what Bobby had already been through, but I needed her hope for his future. She knew, and she willingly obliged, painting me a picture of her son’s good life.
Our conversation ended as the woman’s son walked our way. He didn’t feel the need to watch Bobby’s reflection in a mirror or glance at him sideways to check for the signs of Down syndrome. He stared and smiled at him the entire way across the room. His face was youthful, but he carried himself like a man — chin up, shoulders back, confident strides. The mother’s words had shored my hope for Bobby’s future, but this walk was even more encouraging. So often I’d heard of adults with Down syndrome having the “mentality of a 6-year-old.” But the person walking towards me was not a 6-year-old in a grown up’s body – he was a 30-year-old man with a broad smile and a twinkle in his eye.
He stopped to shake Bobby’s hand and acknowledge their kinship. “I used to be him, a long time ago,” he said. Then, taking full advantage of my attention, paused slightly, “So, what do you think? Who’s more adorable, me or him?”
I was tongue-tied for a moment, and he smiled a mischievous smile. “Well,” I said, “let me just say that I hope he grows up to be as handsome as you.” We shared a laugh like old friends, and then Bobby and I went to take our turn in the stylist’s chair, he and I both happy to be following in the young man’s footsteps.
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