In an instant life can change. A single event can change all that happens downstream from that moment. This not a new insight and there are few who could not point to an occasion where a tiny blip in time caused entirely new trajectories to bubble up and change everything about their life. Perhaps a wrong turn at the library led to finding a spouse. Maybe a decision to not to stop for a burger led to a major accident, or a job was found through a chance encounter a shopping market. These kinds of events are the hallmark of what are known as chaotic systems. Chaos, unlike what we commonly mean when use this to describe the confusion of the uncontrollable, is defined formally in complexity theory as sensitivity to initial conditions. A small effect upfront has enormous downstream effects. Look at your children and you will see an example of this. Which particular sperm and an egg met, is an occurrence conditioned on zillions of possibilities and bifurcation points. Recombination in DNA ensures that our children are built half from the male genetic code and half the female, but it is a random draw as to which half gets taken from each. Also, chemical reactions at this level vary and many divergent pathways are possible. Tiny changes. Huge downstream effects. Chaos.
Kathryn Lynard Soper’s new book, The Year my Son and I were Born, explores the downstream effects of a nondisjunction event in chromosomal separation causing her child to be born with extra-genetic material in chromosome 21. Down Syndrome. That’s the techno-jargon for the very real human story that is the subject of this book—a book about chaos in all the meanings of the word we ascribe to it.
Soper describes challenges that made my head spin. She does this with gorgeous, graceful writing (and if you’ve read her blog posts you know what I mean), shining wit, playfulness and with breathtaking honesty. It’s the honesty that struck me most. She is devastated to find out her son Thomas has Down Syndrome. She does not pull any punches in describing the nuances of what she goes through and the upheaval she experiences in facing a lifetime of changed expectations and hopes. Kathryn has to rewrite much of the script she had penned for her life. This readjustment is hard work and she faces it with confusion, dismay and depression. That’s why this book is so important. She (according to our expectations set by Ensignesque stories) should be facing it with courage, determination, and faith that all is according to God’s plan. But that is not how it plays out in the book. And that is why this book is so important. She takes us to the trenches of how it feels to face this sort of life’s rewriting without suggesting that it all turns out OK in the end or that she has figured it all out.
The insights gained from my reading have real heft. I was going to hold up some of the gems of wisdom I took from the book—about everything from motherhood to Down Syndrome. But I’ve decided that reading the book itself, rather than filtering her insights through my own lens is the best way to experience these. She is a stunningly refreshing realist. And as such she torpedoed several stereotypes I had about Downs—and in doing so, does not sentimentalize their place in the world.
I also learned lessons about motherhood, so a shout out to men (and as far as I can tell this is the first review by a male). I’ve never read a book like this that took me into the mind of a woman expressing herself so honestly and completely. It made me rethink some of the expectations men and woman have of each other (And by expectation I don’t mean how much men help, Kathryn’s husband seems to be almost saintly in his efforts compared to how I think I would run in circles of cluelessness and inaction). So I’m not talking about the division of labor in a husband and wife’s responsibility. I suppose I did not see before the emotional depth of what it means to be a mother. The self-doubt. The confusion of multiple expectations. The constant demands. And demands. And demands. I learned things I never quite got. So this is not just a woman’s book (as I expect the target audience will be), for me it was a window into the female side of things. Deep and wise existential stuff here. Of course ‘Let’s give men some insights’ is not why Kathryn was writing, but it was a side benefit I lapped up.
In short, this is an important book for several reasons. Read it. Give it as gifts. Ladies give it as gifts to your husbands.
And um don’t read it in public. Here is the scene. I’m laying on the hammock stretched between our apple trees in my backyard reading. My wife comes up and I don’t notice she is standing there.
She accuses me, “Are you crying?”
I answer, “NO.”
“Yes you are, what are you reading?”
I, embarrassed at being caught, hold up Kathryn’s book.