As Marshall stood in front of the closet, the sense of loss still filled him with a sadness that seemed overwhelming. He slowly looked down the clothing rack. Hanging at the end, wrapped in clear protective plastic, was the wedding dress that Claire had worn in 1980. She had never looked more beautiful than on that day. It was hard to believe how fast the thirty-nine years had gone by.
Marshall looked up at the top shelf and saw the cardboard box marked “photos”. His daughter, Angela, had phoned earlier and told him she had some photos she wanted to add to it. He hesitated for a moment but then decided to look through it. He sat down on the bed and glanced at his watch. He had about half an hour until his daughter and son-in-law would be there. Steeling himself against a lifetime of memories, he carefully opened the box.
The photos were in no particular order, and right on top of the pile was a snapshot that took his breath away. For several seconds he stared, heartbroken, at a photo of Claire holding their daughter just after her birth. The irony that this happiest of moments was about to become the most horrific time in his life was staggering. Less than twenty-four hours later their world changed forever as a stroke devastated his wife’s mind and body. She was thirty-two years old. The photo in his hands was the last picture taken of her before it happened.
Marshall was instantly transported back in time to when his wife was stricken. He had kept a constant vigil by her bedside, hoping against hope that she would somehow come back to him, but the doctors made it clear that any kind of recovery was unlikely. He wanted desperately to believe she could hear his voice as he told her over and over how beautiful their daughter was and how much he loved her. Claire fought for nineteen days, and then in the middle of the night, her life ebbed away. Marshall had tragically learned that in this life our worst nightmares sometimes come true.
As he slowly made his way through the photos, he came across the pictures he had taken during Claire’s pregnancy. It had been difficult, but no one foresaw the likelihood of a stroke. The photos showed a radiant woman filled with love for her unborn child and hope for the family they would share. While she was carrying Angela, she had been reluctant to pick out a name until her baby was safely born. Naming the child she was expecting would have made a miscarriage that much more personal.
But despite a few brief scares, the pregnancy continued. During the last trimester, Claire endured an unnerving mixture of fear and excitement, however, her optimistic nature allowed her dreams of a perfect child to crowd out the knowledge of what could go wrong. Finally, in the early morning of October 9, 1990, their beautiful daughter was born.
It was the happiest day of Claire’s life. She had desperately wanted to have a baby, and Marshall was convinced that she was put on this earth to be a mother. Her temperament, her patience and her love of children made her perfect for the most important role in life. The joy that she and Marshall shared those first twenty-four hours was indescribable. But suddenly, without warning, their dreams of being a family were shattered by the intracerebral hemorrhage.
Despite the memories they brought back, Marshall continued to work his way through the photos. There were pictures of Angela as she was learning to walk. He chuckled at a photo of his daughter with her face covered in icing from her first birthday cake, and he smiled when he saw a snapshot he took of her on her first day of school.
He came across a collection of family photos taken at Christmas over the years. After Claire’s death, he had maintained a warm relationship with her mom and dad. They had been wonderful grandparents to Angela, and they had been always been there for him as he struggled to be a single parent. They were both gone now, and he missed them.
However, Claire’s sister, Sylvia was another matter. They were so different that it was hard to believe the two women were even related. Claire was always happy, full of life and had a positive attitude that drew people to her. Sylvia, on the other hand, saw the dark side of every situation. For her, the proverbial half-filled glass of water was not only half empty, but it was also leaking.
Her life had been marred by unhappiness. She was now on her third marriage, and Marshall had never met her latest husband. She had chosen not to have children, preferring to focus exclusively on her career. She measured success strictly by how much money she accumulated, and consequently, she had little interest in anything else. Sylvia had been cold and distant as Angela was growing up. Marshall saw her infrequently, and it was always strained when they were together.
Marshall quickly forced her out of his mind and focused his attention back on the box. He found photos from Angela’s first piano and dance recitals. Eventually, he uncovered a picture of her standing next to her first car, and then he saw her in her gown ready for the prom. But it was when he came across a photo of him walking Angela down the aisle at her wedding to Mark that a sudden wave of emotion swept over him, causing him to pause for a moment. He closed his eyes and thought about how much he still missed Claire. He would give anything if she was sitting next to him right now sharing these memories. For Marshall, one of the saddest things about his wife’s death was that she had missed so much.
Seeing Mark and Angela on their wedding day reminded him of the disappointment to come. Angela had unfortunately inherited the risk for stroke from Claire. Her doctors strongly warned her against getting pregnant. It was too great of a chance to take. After agonizing over the decision, she and Mark eventually chose to follow the medical advice, leaving them heartbroken to know that they could never have children.
Over the next few minutes, Marshall continued to be absorbed by his daughter’s march to adulthood captured through photos that marked both the special and the everyday events that make up a life. Suddenly his concentration was broken by the sound of the doorbell. He looked at his watch and realized he had lost all track of the time. He sat the box down and rushed to the front door.
It had been almost two months since he last saw his daughter. Normally they got together every couple of weeks. But Angela had been busy lately and couldn’t tear herself away. He had missed their visits, but he knew she had her own life to live, and he tried to be understanding.
However, when Marshall opened the door, he was crushed with disappointment to see Sylvia standing there.
Apparently, his expression gave him away because she said tersely, “You look as happy about this as I am.”
Marshall tried to recover. “Well, it is a surprise. I haven’t seen you for quite a while.”
“Yeah, it has been nice” It was the same old Sylvia, just like always.
“I suppose all good things have to come to an end.” Marshall was not in the mood for Sylvia’s perpetually bad attitude.
Sylvia said, “This is not a place I get invited to very often.”
“I didn’t invite you this time.”
“Well, for some reason Angela wanted me to be here.”
After thinking for a moment Marshall asked, “Would you come by if I did invite you?”
“I think we both know the answer to that.” She said sarcastically.
Marshall shook his head in agreement. There was no sense in pretending that they cared for each other.
Sylvia was obviously annoyed. “What is this about anyway?”
“I really have no idea.” And then reluctantly he said, “Come on in. I’m expecting Mark and Angela at any moment.”
They went into the living room and sat in uncomfortable silence. Marshall thought that she had aged considerably since the last time he’d seen her. Of course, it didn’t help her appearance that she continued to have the same permanent scowl etched on her face. Finally, Marshall asked, “Would you like something to drink? Maybe some tea or coffee?”
“No thank you.”
There was more silence.
Marshall struggled to think of something to say. “How long has it been since you last saw Angela.”
“We had lunch together about six months ago, but we talk every once in a while on the phone.” Sylvia shrugged. “This whole thing is a mystery to me.”
They fell silent for quite a while and Marshall wished to himself that Angela would hurry up. Finally, after a few more awkward minutes of feeble attempts at conversation, the doorbell rang.
With the tension broken, Marshall hurried to the door. When he opened it, he was absolutely stunned by what he saw. There stood Angela, and in her arms she held an infant wrapped tightly in a baby blanket. Angela beamed at her father and said, “Dad, I want you to meet your granddaughter. This is Iris.”
For a moment, Marshall was speechless, but then he exclaimed, “Oh my God! Is this for real? Is this really happening?”
Angela laughed, “If you will invite us in, I will be happy to explain.”
“Oh! Of course, of course.” Marshall could not believe it.
They went inside, and Angela sat down on the couch. “Here, sit beside me so you can see her.” Sylvia sat in the corner eyeing the scene with a stern look of disapproval.
“I’m sorry but Mark couldn’t make it. He really wanted to be here when you met our baby, but they had an emergency at the office, and he was forced to go in. He was so disappointed.”
Angela looked over at her aunt. “Come here. You will fall in love with her!” Slowly Sylvia stood up and walked over to them.
Marshall was bursting with questions as he stared wide-eyed at the little bundle. “When did you decide to do this? How did it happen? When did you get her? How old is she?”
“Okay, okay.” Angela smiled. She didn’t think she had ever seen her father so happy and excited. “Mark and I have talked and talked about this, and we decided the time was right to adopt and start a family. About a year ago we began to investigate the options that were available. Iris was born three months ago, and we brought her home yesterday.” Angela watched as her father studied Iris’ sleeping face. The joy he felt was indescribable.
Sylvia leaned down closer to the baby, and her troubled look turned suspicious. “Wait a minute!” She carefully studied Iris’s delicate facial features. “There is something wrong with this child. What have you done?”
Marshall could feel the anger instantly rising inside of him.
Angela remained calm. “There is nothing wrong with her. She was just born with Down syndrome. It means she has an extra chromosome.”
Sylvia asked, “No, no. It’s more than that. Don’t they have a lot of health problems? Aren’t you just asking for trouble?”
“Yes, it is true that some children with Down syndrome have serious medical issues,” Angela said evenly. “But in Iris’ case, she is, thankfully, in good health.”
Sylvia said, “You’re sugar coating this. You know that this child is more likely to have a wide variety of physical problems as she grows up. But beyond that, what are the expectations for her? What will she even be able to do?”
Angela said, “What does it matter? She will be able to love us, and that is what is important.”
Marshall had forgotten just how infuriating his former sister-in-law could be, but her behavior right now was inexcusable.
Sylvia pressed on. “But will she be able to go to school? Will she be able to live on her own? Will she ever get a job?”
Angela replied honestly. “I don’t know those answers, but I do know that I want to give her those opportunities.”
Sylvia was not convinced. “Adoption is hard under the best of circumstances. Why would you make it more difficult by choosing a baby with a disability?”
Angela’s voice was firm. “The world can be a lonely, ugly and hateful place. I just want this one person to experience unconditional love…I can’t make the whole world better – but I can make her world better – and she will certainly do the same for me and Mark.”
Sylvia shook her head in disagreement. “Look, I know you two meant well, but you did not think this through. This child is going to require extra time and attention. She is going to be a responsibility that you will never get out from under. Even when she is an adult she is going to require all kinds of additional help. There is no telling what the future will be like for the three of you.”
Marshall had heard enough. Just as he was about to lash out at Sylvia, Angela touched him on the hand and replied in a measured tone of voice, “We are well aware of what our lives are going to be like. But you are only focusing on the negative. Iris is going to be our daughter. We are going to love her and care for her. We will provide whatever she needs to live the most rewarding life possible. At this time we do not know what that will be – but however it works out, we will be there for her.”
Sylvia tried a different line of attack. “What about the birth mother? What if she suddenly wants to come back into the child’s life? How will you deal with that?”
Angela felt a surge of emotion. “That won’t happen. Iris lost her mother – just like me. And her father chose not to be involved with the pregnancy.”
Sylvia was unmoved. “You’ve let your heart guide your thinking. You have to be realistic.”
Angela tried to explain again. “Every child deserves to have a family. Whether or not they have a disability makes no difference in their right to be loved.”
Sylvia was undeterred. “But why would you want to make your life so complicated? Don’t you want a daughter that can be a valedictorian, head cheerleader or queen of the prom? Don’t you realize what you’ll be missing?”
Angela answered, “This is not all about me – it’s about Iris. I want her to accomplish everything she can, but I’m not going to focus on just the things she can’t do. I’m going to concentrate on the strengths and abilities she does have.”
Sylvia said, “That’s all well and good, but I bet that one day you’ll regret the daughter you could’ve had.”
Marshall could no longer control his anger. “Sylvia, you are the only person I know who could take such a beautiful occasion and turn it into something unpleasant. Just because you are incapable of being happy doesn’t mean that the rest of the world has to be miserable.”
Sylvia shot back. “Insulting me does not justify a poor decision on your daughter’s part.”
Before Marshall could respond, Angela made one final attempt to persuade her. “Aunt Sylvia, please try to understand. No matter what reservations you might have about our decision, the fact is that Iris is going to be a part of our family from now on. I hope you can find it in your heart to accept her. If you can’t do that, it will be your loss. I think that all of our lives are going to be changed in wonderful ways by my daughter. As we watch her grow up, we will be blessed by who she is, no matter what she does or does not accomplish.”
Sylvia scoffed, “You are living in a dream world, and dreams don’t come true. I’m sorry, but I can’t help believing that you’ve made a terrible mistake – one that you’ll regret for the rest of your life.”
Angela sighed in resignation. “That is your opinion. But you are Iris’ aunt. You are a direct connection to my mom. I want you to be a part of her life – but it is your choice. All I’m asking is that you give her a chance before you rush to judgment.”
Sylvia was unconvinced. “Playing on my emotions is not going to work. This entire situation makes me extremely uncomfortable.”
Marshall glared at her and said, “Well, if you feel that uncomfortable why don’t you just go?”
“Fine! That makes more sense than anything that’s been said here today.” Sylvia turned and headed for the door.
Angela said, “Aunt Sylvia, just remember. Iris is going to love you. I hope you will be able to return that love.”
Sylvia shook her head in disgust and opened the door.
Marshall stood up and angrily said, “Sylvia, until you can change your attitude and open up your heart, you are not welcome in this house.”
Sylvia glared at him as she stepped out and closed the door.
Marshall turned to his daughter and put his hand on her shoulder. “I am so sorry she reacted like that.”
Angela shrugged. “It’s okay. I mean it’s disappointing, but I think she just needs some time. I still have hope that she will eventually understand that we are a family just like any other.” She looked down at her daughter and said, “After all, how could anyone resist this little girl.”
Marshall was overwhelmed by the sense of pride he felt in Angela. He knew without a doubt she was going to be an incredible mother. Marshall looked at his daughter and thought about the person she had become. Claire would be so proud of her.
Angela said, “We know there are always going to be people like Aunt Sylvia who think we’ve made a mistake. But we’re not going to let them drag us down. We believe we’ve made a beautiful decision.”
“So do I…Iris is incredibly fortunate to have you and Mark as parents.” Marshall thought the world of his son-in-law, and he knew he would be an amazing father.
As she gently rocked her baby she said, “Dad, I know what a surprise all of this is. First that we decided to adopt and then the fact that we chose a child with a disability must be shocking to you. I want to assure you that Iris is physically healthy, but –” Marshall looked up, and his eyes met his daughter’s. “She is going to have an intellectual challenge, and until she is older it will be impossible to know just how significant it will be.” Angela hesitated and then asked, “How do you feel about that?”
“Well, I admit this is a tremendous surprise – but it is the most wonderful surprise I’ve ever had. No matter what issues Iris has to face, she’ll have your support – and that will make all the difference. In the end, she will be whoever she is. And we will love her.”
“I am so thankful you feel that way.” She took her father’s hand in hers. “It means everything to me that you are willing to accept her.”
Marshall tried to control the emotion in his voice. “I never thought I would be blessed to be a grandfather. I should be thanking you.”
Angela continued. “Dad, it’s important that I explain our decision to adopt. You were the most amazing father I could have ever asked for, but – I hope you can understand this – I missed not having a mother.”
He knew instinctively what Angela meant. There is nothing that can replace the mother-daughter relationship.
Angela said, “Iris lost her mom just like me, and she was alone in the world. She needed a mother, and I needed to be a mother.”
“I understand, sweetheart. I really do.” As he looked at Angela holding his granddaughter, Marshall was reassured that through their beautiful daughter, Claire lived on. Angela had her mother’s kindness, gentleness, and concern for others. He knew she had made the right decision and that she and Iris would share an unconditional love that would last all of their lives.
Angela said, “I want her to have those mother-daughter moments that I didn’t get to have.” She looked down at her sleeping baby and smiled, “So what do you think of her, Grandpa?”
In barely more than a whisper, Marshall said, “She’s perfect.”
Angela said, “Why don’t you hold her.”
He hesitated for just a moment. “Okay, but it’s been a long time.”
“Don’t worry.” She carefully handed Iris to him. “You’ll be just as terrific a grandfather as you were a dad.”
As Marshall carefully held the tiny bundle, he could not help but feel amazed at how much the world had changed in the last hour. It was difficult to believe it was real – and somewhere in his mind he worried that it was too good to be true – but it was real. He was holding his sleeping granddaughter, and he was filled with love for a tiny person he did not yet know.
Angela smiled as she watched her dad with Iris. She thought about what they had been through together over the years. It was only as an adult that she truly realized how difficult it must have been for him to have been a single parent under the worst possible circumstances. In one moment he had not only lost the love of his life and his best friend, but he had also been forced to carry on through his grief to make sure that his baby girl started life with the hope she deserved. Angela knew that if she could only be as a good a parent as her father had been, then Iris would have a full rich life filled with love.
Marshall looked up at her, and she saw that he had tears in his eyes.
“I love you, Dad.”
“I love you too, Sweetheart.”
Suddenly Iris jerked in his arms. Slowly she yawned and then she opened her eyes and saw her grandfather for the very first time.
He smiled at her as he gently rocked back and forth, however, the joy he felt was tempered by regret that he could not take a photo of a beaming grandmother with her daughter and beautiful granddaughter.
Angela gently touched her baby’s chin and softly said, “Aunt Sylvia is wrong. Not every dream comes true – but this one did.”