Claire was born at the end of a beautiful day in the early summer of 1981. It was the Year of the Disabled, but we did not have an inkling of what that year would bring.
We already had a delightful son, so were thrilled to have a daughter, a surprise until her birth, as was the flash of a Down’s face when she was first handed to me. I was too overwhelmed to say anything at that point. I just cuddled her. It was very late, I had been in labour all afternoon, with opiates and gas as pain relief. It was a breech delivery, so maybe that had affected her face. Yet, I was an experienced nurse and practising midwife, so I recognised the look immediately.
Two kindly midwives, both colleagues, cared for us until Claire was taken to the nursery, as was the practise, and my husband went home. I was left in the dark of a single room to reflect. I prayed that, if my child did indeed have Down’s Syndrome, that she would be spared the heart and other major defects that often accompany it.
Some years before, I had worked at the Brompton Hospital in London. I was a sister in a ward for children undergoing heart surgery. Some of these children had Down’s syndrome, often still called Mongolism at the time. They were accompanied by their parents and entertained by the play leader. One such little boy was James. He was about two years old and lived in a residential home so there were no parents present and the nursery nurses looked after him. He was allowed home after some investigations and two young women came to collect him. ‘Jamie!’ they shrieked, as soon they saw him, and ran to hug him.’We have missed you!’ James jumped up and down in his cot with excitement. At that moment I could see the love that they had for him. That night, I remembered James, and how much he was loved.
The morning brought my husband, who had looked up Down’s Syndrome in my textbooks, so was prepared for the diagnosis, followed by the medical consultants. I wanted to speak to a parent, and when a pretty mother in jeans and a pink blouse came in to tell me about her 4-year-old son, one of three, describing him as ‘a lovely little boy’, I was very reassured. We took our baby home, where she ‘grew and waxed strong in spirit.’ Our son was her lively companion and has grown into a fine brother. Likewise, a devoted sister followed.
Roll on nine years, and I discovered that Minster Abbey ran a weekend retreat for ‘parents of a mentally handicapped child’. Two sisters, some parents and a priest had started the retreats in the Year of the Disabled in 1981, the year of Claire’s birth. We lived in Kent anyway, so I booked to attend, while my kind husband cared for the children.
Thus I made the first journey to Minster late one afternoon in May 1990. I did not know what to expect, but arrived off the train just as a file of people were going into Vespers. After supper we assembled for the Welcome. There was a table of candles ready and each parent lit a candle for their child. The most moving part was when a mother, also an oblate, whose two daughters both had severe special needs, lit the candle for her ‘Claire, and Julie’ and lit a second candle. Everyone related some details about life in the past year. It was an insight, hearing what everyone had to say about their lives and children, and life in the monastery.
The theme of the weekend was Eastertide and was ‘full of gift’ and all too soon we were sent away with a candle each, and the words ‘ Receive and believe in the light of Christ. May this light shine in your heart and in your home’. We were having tea with the Community when my husband walked in with my three children, all beautifully dressed. A young goat was brought from the enclosure to surprise them.
The years went by, with me weaving in posts in midwifery with a very busy family life. I did so enjoy the annual retreat, meeting the parents and sisters, who had become friends. Gradually I visited more often, especially once Claire was at residential college. I began to encounter the oblates more and more, wondering if I could ever become one of them, enriched by following the Rule. About ten years ago I was accepted as a novice oblate and a year later made my Benedictine commitment with other candidates. It felt truly overwhelming as I reflected on the path travelled since that first May evening, to which my very special child had led me.
Frances Bailess Minster Abbey oblate