I was a twenty-five-year-old doctoral candidate at Harvard when my second child, whom I had already named Adam, was prenatally diagnosed with Down’s syndrome. My doctors and advisors strongly urged a very late-term therapeutic abortion. I had a few hours to make a decision that shook me to my bones: Would I bear and raise a mentally retarded child, or abort the baby I’d already come to love?
As I considered my options, something curious happened to my view of life itself. Adam was considered better off unborn because he would lack characteristics that society values: good looks, high earning potential, savoir faire, and so on. But come to think of it, I knew plenty of “normal” people who also lacked these things—like, for example, me. Furthermore, even the most gifted individuals might lose their advantage through accident, illness, or age. The lucky few who avoided all catastrophe would still find death waving coyly from the finish line of their enchanted lives.
In the intensity of a life-or-death decision, all the “real world” values I cherished seemed to dissolve, like sugar in water. What I lost that day was not just the hope of having a perfect child. It was the illusion that anybody ever “has” anyone or anything. I’d been shoved face to face with the naked realization that there is nothing anyone can hang on to forever, nothing we can be, do, or possess that we will not lose.
I decided against the abortion, not out of moral judgment but because of my emotional connection to Adam—and my newfound willingness to accept the fact that the course of any life, not just the life of a handicapped person, is utterly unpredictable. This triggered a period of intense mourning. For months, my inner narrative consisted entirely of a rambling, anguished Elegy for Everything, for the transience and impermanence of all I had once depended on. But then something unexpected began to emerge from the rubble of my preconceptions: a strange, new kind of peace. I felt as though I’d jumped off a cliff, and found that though the fall was frightening, the landing never came. I had nowhere to stand, but the sensation I would later come to call “groundlessness” was not as bad as I had expected. Loosening my grip on achievement, prestige, power, money, or whatever, I found that letting go had a healing resonance I’d never felt while holding on.
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