Just Like Other Daughters
Who were you going to marry in kindergarten? Or first grade? Do you remember your first crush? Or your second? It is easy to dismiss young emotions, puppy love as they call it, but these feelings can be immensely strong. They may not last but while they are with us they can consume us. This novel deals with what it’s like when a young woman with Down syndrome experiences her first feelings of love.
At the start of the novel Alicia Richards tells us, “I lost Chloe twice. The first time she was six. We were in Wal-Mart. I still, to this day, don’t know how it happened. My daughter was there one minute, hanging on to the cart, singing “Itsy-Bitsy Spider” in that husky little voice of hers. Then she was gone. I have never been so terrified in my life. Until today, maybe. Now. “ That sets the tone for the tale as we follow Alicia down the trail that leads to the inevitable “now”. The author does a terrific job of juxtaposing the pleasant past with the coming terror so that we are riveted from page one.
Alicia made Chloe her life from the moment the little girl first drew breath. It is not just that the author shows us how much time Chloe’s care takes and how much Alicia sacrifices to make that possible. It is not just that the author tells us. Alicia’s love for Chloe permeates almost every page of the book. She knew, before the doctors even told her, that Chloe had Down syndrome. That didn’t impact the joy Alicia took from parenting her one bit. It did impact many other factors. Alicia’s husband couldn’t deal with the situation and left. Her father has never been supportive. But it hasn’t really been a problem. At twenty-five, Chloe is sweet, funny and content. She’s a bit of a brat but then most special needs children have a maturity level that matches their functional level. Chloe functions at about five or six years of age and her maturity is on par with that of a young elementary school child.
That is why it takes Alicia by such surprise when a new boy arrives at Chloe’s adult day care and she becomes absolutely infatuated with him. Initially, Alicia is just happy Chloe has a friend. She lets the talk of Chloe’s love for Thomas slide by. But things become rapidly more complicated. Young Thomas also thinks of himself as “in love” and the two progress to calling each other boyfriend and girlfriend. They grow frustrated by only seeing each other at daycare and the parents agree to dinner and movie nights at each other’s houses. The two also join a local group called Lambs of God at a church, a club where volunteer supervisors take disabled adults on outings to bowling alleys, the zoo and other points of interest.
Alicia is a bit bemused throughout all this. She tries seeking advice from the family therapist she and Chloe visit but he encourages Alicia to give Chloe independence. Thomas’s mom Margaret seems oblivious to the fact that her son is severely disabled and encourages the relationship. But when things start to get physical between the young lovers and talk of marriage comes up Alicia finds herself grappling with a serious situation. She knows Chloe is entitled to the same right to love as anyone else. She sees that the two are genuinely fond of each other. But should she give the green light to a marriage which will always require a third party caregiver? What will happen to the two as their parents age and can no longer support the relationship?
In many ways I am uniquely qualified to review this novel. As the mother of a special needs child I felt I could judge the authenticity of the book in the way the parent of a typical child could not. And I have to tell you, the book is marvelously authentic. In Alicia the author has captured the heart and will and spirit of most special needs moms. There is the fierce protectiveness that comes from having the responsibility for such a fragile, precious person. There is the intense love felt for a child that others often don’t find lovable. You almost feel you have to love double to make up for the rejection they often face from society. There is the isolation and the thick veneer you have to develop to keep family members in your life who don’t treat your child like family but instead respond to them as an oddity. I loved how Alicia often felt judged for bringing an imperfect child into the world, as though she had let down her family and her husband by bringing someone imperfect to the genetic mix. I found the time and money depicted on caring for Chloe completely realistic and appreciated how through her heroine the author communicated to us the sacrifices involved without degenerating into whining.
Chloe is also expertly handled. She is both sweet and frustrating. Not only does Chloe have deficiencies in terms of caring for herself – she can’t handle cuts, small household fires, long days, changes in the schedule – she also has the emotional difficulties that come from having a childish understanding of life. She throws tantrums when she wants something very badly. She often doesn’t understand the line between appropriate and inappropriate behavior. She has a tendency to stubbornly, adamantly want something and then lose interest after raising a huge hullabaloo to get it. She doesn’t know her own strength and might push or shove someone when upset. She displays behaviors I have seen in dozens of special needs people and she is an amazingly accurate portrayal of what someone who is low functioning can be like.
Along with the fabulous characterization I loved the upbeat tone of the book. In spite of knowing we are on a train bound for trouble, Alicia’s positive personality makes it a pleasant ride. She makes a point of enjoying her friends, enjoying her daughter and just getting through each day, even if that day calls for a little extra help in the form of a bottle of pinot. Even if we can’t be happy for Chloe in her romance, her happiness in it jumps off the page and draws us in. Equally well handled is the pacing of the will they or won’t they romance between Alicia and her plumber turned good friend Mark. This friendship with flirting is very low key, perfect for keeping the focus on the situation between Thomas and Chloe.
I was also amazed that the book did such a good job of presenting Alicia’s parenting skills that I didn’t find myself second guessing her. I didn’t agree with her but she agonized so much over each choice that I completely understood where she was coming from and why she made the decision that she did. I think her agonizing also helps to explain the situation. Because of who they are and what they can and can’t do Chloe and Thomas are not a typical young couple falling in love. There are issues and ramifications involved which need to be thoroughly explored.
My quibbles with the book are minor but worth mentioning. I felt that the end of the novel was a bit too neat, everything seemed to be tidied up with the Thomas/Chloe situation. I also felt that the discussions surrounding abortion were a bit harsh. It was clear the issue was going to be pivotal to the plot and that we had to understand Alicia’s opinion on the matter. But I also felt a bit put off by how ardently opposed to it Alicia was. I know this is a hot button issue surrounding Down’s right now but I feel both sides in that debate have good reasons for their viewpoint and that the hard line Alicia took – and her reason for it – was presented a bit too vehemently. It was also a bit odd given that Alicia is an ardent liberal in every other respect.
But overall I found the book an interesting, emotional read which I thoroughly enjoyed. This story is all about love – the joy of finding it, the pain of losing it and the realization that it is all around us, sometimes in the most unexpected of places. I would recommend this novel to anyone who is prepared to laugh, cry and rejoice as they experience life through the eyes of some very special people.