He is a good old boy.
What might once have been called a gentleman farmer. Ruddy cheeked, brusque and jolly in tweed and a flat cap. Part of the hunting set.
He has had a good day. The weather’s been fine. The guns have shot well. There’s a nip of whiskey on his breath as he leans to my ear in a kitchen packed full of men and dogs and the smell of the outdoors.
“I told her to leave her at the hospital and forget about her.” He says. He looks me in the eye. “I’m ashamed I said that.”
Although I don’t know him very well, he doesn’t look like the sort of man to which shame comes often. He has an air of thrusting confidence.
But I believe him. The way he fixes my eye makes this moment intense and the deliberate way he says ‘ashamed’ makes me sure he is telling the truth.
“I told her to leave her. To have another one and forget about her. It’s what everyone said then. It’s what you were supposed to do. She didn’t listen and now..” He breaks off and for a heartbeat I think he will cry. He does not and carries on. “I’m glad she didn’t listen. She’s a wonderful girl. Like other little girls. My granddaughter. She lives in Canada now but we visit all the time.” He pulls a phone from his pocket and shows me photos of a beautiful four-year-old on a beach, in a park, with her family.
A beautiful four-year-old with Downs Syndrome.
I don’t think this man knew he was making a confession or that he was in small way trying to atone. But I think it was what he was doing. He was also – of course – offering me kindness in the early months after our own daughter was diagnosed with Williams Syndrome. Trying to comfort me. Telling me things would be OK.
This sort of thing happens to me quite a lot.
More now as the curriculum I’ve written and the website I’ve created goes out into the wild and begin to connect with people. What was once a trickle is becoming something of a flood. People stop me on corridors and send me emails. I get messages from the website and Twitter DMs.
As hard as they are to hear receiving these stories is an honour.
Whispers that rhyme with whispers I’ve heard before.
“They made us send him away.”
“Nobody wanted to talk to us about it.”
“He’s embarrassed to tell anyone.”
“We couldn’t visit her.”
“They just carried on around him like he wasn’t there.”
“They made us do it.”
“I feel ashamed, angry, bitter.”
Tales of love and loss. Of people who have loved and still love people with learning disabilities fooled into acting against their human instincts by tricksy words and sighs and meaningless platitudes like “it’s the best thing, it’s all for the best, move on, have another.” People who did what they were told was right but knew was wrong. People who hurt themselves by doing what everyone said they should do. People who were told not to love their own children.
The people who confess to me are confessing sins that are not theirs but have scarred deeply nonetheless.
There is something in our own humanity which knows all of us are sacred but we often struggle to find words to explain the reasons. Because we lack the words to defend people with learning disabilities awful things happen and it is because we know how wrong these things are that the horrors – whether this is T4 in Germany or the death rate from Covid-19 – disgust and appal us.
Our passions will not bend to our reasons.
We may think we have succeeded for a while with our clever thoughts and words but the illusion can’t hold for long. Soon the smoke evaporates and the mirrors crack, and when the damage is revealed it is too late to do anything but live with a pain that drips down through generations.