Catholic Medical Quarterly Volume 72 (3) August 2022

The gifts of Down’s syndrome:
John was my brother

Dr Adrian Treloar

JohnWe were always a happy family. Mum and Dad had four children. I was the youngest and eight years old. We all kept pestering them for another baby. I can remember standing in the front garden explaining to Mum how much I would love a little brother or sister.

In the end we got our way. We were delighted and I sorted out stories I could read to the baby when he was born. One Sunday morning Mum went into labour. It took all day and we had a huge argument about whether or not the baby would have red hair. The two red-headed children in the family won this particular argument, for a baby with red hair was born. It was two weeks before John came out of hospital; poor Mum wasn't allowed to see him for three days. The first I knew that he was handicapped was when she came home and sat down to talk to us all. It was odd. She didn't cry but I knew she was about to. I was only nine but it really moved me. Mums don’t cry. To me, it didn’t matter: John was my brother, I was his brother and so it would all be all right.

Constant love

John was really lovely; smiling, happy and mischievous. He was also very handicapped. The full extent of this took years to unfold. We didn't know that he would never learn to talk; that it would take 16 years to toilet train him. We didn't know about the deafness, the headaches, the kidney infections. What was clear was that he was very hard work for Mum and Dad, that they would be tired and shattered for years to come and perhaps even donate their own health to his care. What was also clear was that they were both prepared to make this sacrifice. John received constant love and concern from them throughout his life and the many people who saw this were encouraged and inspired. At times it was hard for my parents to see the good they were doing. Regular sleepless rights rather obscured all this.

As a brother it was wonderful. I grew through adolescence with a gentle, cheeky brother. I learned to change nappies and to spoon-feed. I always had someone at home whom I could do something for. In many ways John shielded me from adolescent problems of identity. We ensured that he went out with us and had as normal a life as possible. But as he grew older he became less well. In addition to Down's syndrome he also had (I believe) some cerebral palsy. He suffered greatly from constant earache. He would bang his head and even put it through the window a couple of times. Towards the end he was going blind. He was still cherished, and loved to sit in his armchair with his family and friends around him.

To all who really knew him the disabilities were just a covering. Underneath he was less handi-capped than most other people. He was kinder, more loving and had a better sense of fun than most people I have met. He was more than nomal. He was special.

Love beats logic

One day he went to bed and fell asleep. He was found dead on the floor at almost midnight. He had had a sudden, unexpected heart attack at the age of twenty. We all cried. We all knew that logically he was unwell, increasingly handicapped and that he would soon be blind. We knew that logic said `a happy release'. But love said `We want him back'. Love beats logic any day. John's local parishioners were heartbroken. Over two hundred people came to his funeral. All this for a man who never learned to speak. Without words John gave hugely to many people. He changed my life and I know he changed many others. He gave all of us the opportunity to love, to give, to succeed, to fail and to try again. His gentleness only served to encourage us more. You might ask if all that suffering was a bit unfair of God on John. Well, John is now in heaven. He never had the wit to sin. He was baptised and confirmed and he was a powerful channel of the Holy Spirit. If I use my intelligence to sin grievously and risk hell, then John’s life will have been infinitely more pleasing to God than mine.

Finally, I should add that I couldn't get away from John that easily. I became a doctor and chose to work with people with dementia, and the mental illnesses of old age.

This article was written and first published 27 years ago in the Catholic Family newspaper in 1995. It is reproduced unchanged here with permission.