This is Laurel. She is my oldest daughter, my “sweet girl.” She is my co-emcee of Special Olympics’ gatherings, my instructor in art appreciation. She is the reason I am married. And she turns 21 this week.
I had never been close to someone with Down Syndrome before I met Laurel. She taught me. She taught me how to wait, listen, and laugh. Remember the instructions we learned in grade school if you caught on fire? “Stop, drop and roll.” Laurel taught me, “Wait, listen and laugh.” She showed me what a life without manipulation looks like, a life without cruelty or guile. She showed me the divine step that comes after forgiveness, the one when you realize no forgiveness is necessary. She is my light.
She is also, to be quite accurate, my step-daughter, although I feel so proud when the barista at the Barnes and Noble cafe asks if my daughter and I would like our regulars. She gets chocolate cake and milk. I get a mocha latte, no whip cream. I say, “Yes. Thank you,” and he smiles. People respond with more kindness when Laurel is with me. She brings out the very best in people, maybe even in me.
When her father and I realized we were in love, the thought of being a step-mother to three children was terrifying. These kids were so confused, so filled with pain and blame, just as anyone would have been in their place. But not Laurel. From the minute she met me, she loved me. She would walk into my apartment, her sister and brother unable to speak, let alone smile, and she would throw her arms up in the air and exclaim with Disneyland enthusiasm, “There you are!”
There you are, my sweet girl. You’re all grown up now, but you still like Barney and coloring books and playing in the sand box. You are the eternal child, born with everything you ever needed, just as we all are. And I will learn at your feet for as long as you’ll let me.