The frail elderly woman sat in her favorite chair next to the window. Shafts of sunlight streamed in as her eighty-three-year-old hands lovingly sewed her latest baby quilt. Joan had been making them for almost sixty years now, and as long as she was physically able to keep putting together the beautiful colors and patterns she did not intend to stop.
Each quilt brought her such a sense of satisfaction that it compelled her to keep going even though arthritis in her aching fingers made each stitch painful and the continual struggles with her fading eyesight made it difficult to do the intricate work that she prided herself on. For Joan, this activity was the most important thing in her life because every baby quilt she completed was an act of love.
She was usually able to finish a couple of them each week, so over the decades, by her reckoning, she had quilted several thousand, and she took great pride in the fact that each one was different and unique.
Through the years her quilts had become extremely popular, and she made many by request, but mostly they were given out to new mothers at local hospitals. However, she had never accepted any kind of payment for her effort. Countless times people had attempted to give her money, but she steadfastly refused to accept it.
Joan had an intensely personal reason for making the quilts that she only revealed to those she felt would benefit from hearing it. Having the opportunity to share her story was the only reward she needed.
Quilting filled her time with meaning. Edward, the love of her life, had been gone for three long years. They had just recently celebrated their fifty-sixth wedding anniversary when he suffered a massive heart attack, leaving Joan consumed by grief. Without any children to look after her, she was left to face life alone. Her husband had always been her best friend, and just eighteen months into their marriage he had proven to be a pillar of strength when an event occurred that was so devastating, Joan had decided she no longer wanted to live.
Without his love and support, she would not have escaped the depression that enveloped her during their first few years together. Edward’s patience and commitment had played a large role in helping Joan recover to the point where she felt like participating in life again. She was sitting here today, quietly creating the gifts that meant so much to those who received them, because of the deep love she and Edward had shared.
It was when she was struggling through that desolate period that Joan had taken up quilting as a form of therapy. The fact that she chose to give them away as gifts gave her a purpose in life and a reason to keep going. To her surprise, it wasn’t long before the beauty of her craft took on a life of its own and a steady demand for her quilts kept her constantly busy. Although anyone was welcome to one of her creations, it was young mothers that she especially enjoyed giving them to.
And among those women, a certain few received a personal letter with their gift explaining why Joan had made the quilt. Although she was never present when they were given out, many different nurses had told her just how much the gift and especially the letter had meant to each woman. The fact that she was able to touch their hearts made all the hard work worthwhile.
As Joan worked contentedly on her latest baby quilt, she had no way of knowing that in the next forty-eight hours one of her gifts, and the emotionally powerful letter that came with it, would change another person’s life. An event from almost six decades in the past was about to have a profound impact on the present because of Joan’s compassion for women just like her.
Karla Johnson was in a state of shock. As the young mother laid in her hospital bed, her mind was reeling with thoughts and images that didn’t seem real. Only minutes before she had been told that her newborn daughter had Down syndrome. Although she only had a superficial understanding of the cause for this particular genetic disorder, she was well aware of the intellectual challenges that accompanied the diagnosis. Her breathing was rapid and shallow as the realization that her daughter was not the person she thought she would be started to sink in.
Months earlier, Karla, after much soul-searching, had declined to have the prenatal testing that could have possibly shown whether or not her baby had an extra chromosome. She believed she was prepared for anything, but now she realized that was not true. The apprehension and disappointment she was now experiencing were overwhelming.
Since she would be raising her child alone, she faced an uncertain future that made her tremble with fear. All of these feelings filled her with a tremendous sense of guilt. What kind of mother would she be if she regretted having a child with a disability? Karla’s emotions clouded her thinking as she closed her eyes and tried to shut out the world.
Later that evening and throughout the next day, many of Karla’s family and friends visited her, but they did not know how to react. Certainly, they were thrilled that she and her daughter were safe, but they were unsure about what to say concerning the baby’s disability.
Although they meant well, their awkwardness only added to the stress that Karla was already feeling. She was relieved when everyone was finally gone so she could try and get some sleep. But every time she tried to relax, the memory of the doctor telling her that her child had Down syndrome played out over and over again in her mind.
Twenty-four hours later, Karla was spending her final day in the hospital. Her delivery had been complicated, but she was assured that she’d be going home the next morning. However, she was still struggling to come to terms with the reality that her daughter had an intellectual challenge. There was a sadness that hung over her that she could not shake off. No matter how hard she tried, she could not get past the fact that her baby was going to have a different life than the one Karla had envisioned for her. She desperately wished she could somehow find a person who understood how she felt.
Less than thirty minutes later that wish came true.
Karla had just woken up from a short nap when a hospital volunteer stepped into her room carrying a beautifully wrapped package with a decorative envelope attached.
The woman’s expression conveyed the fact that she knew what the present was and that it would have great meaning for Karla. “I hope I’m not disturbing you, but I have a gift. It is handmade with love from an anonymous person who felt that you deserved it. She only asked that you open the gift first before you read the letter.”
Karla was still struggling to sort out all of the different emotions she was experiencing so she wasn’t in the mood for gifts, but she was surprised. She wondered why a person she did not know would be giving her something. The volunteer gently laid the package on the bed and started to leave the room.
Karla quickly asked, “Do you know what this is or who it’s from?”
The volunteer stopped and smiled. “Just open the package and then read the letter. I promise you will understand.”
After she left, Karla sat for a few moments and stared at the package. She couldn’t get over how unusual this was. Her first inclination was to set it aside and open it later when she was in a better mood, but her curiosity finally overcame her despondency. She began to carefully remove the wrapping paper and immediately saw that it was a breathtakingly beautiful quilt. As she spread it out, she realized the quilt was for a baby. It was for her baby.
As she studied the intricate patterns and the collection of colors that complimented each other in an understated way, she was amazed that someone would be willing to put in hours and hours of labor to create such an exquisite work of art and then just give it away to someone they did not know. Now she felt even more confused. Who was this person and why had they done this?
For several minutes Karla admired the quilt. The top was made up of 16 blocks. Each one was a different pattern filled with warm colors which created an overall effect that was comforting. While the quilt was visually stunning, it also felt luxurious. The softness was perfect for caressing a delicate infant. The longer she looked at it the more she appreciated the amount of effort that went into creating such a lovely piece.
But she still did not understand why a complete stranger had been so thoughtful. Finally, she decided to fold it up to protect it. When she lifted it off the bed she saw the brightly colored envelope. She had momentarily forgotten about it, but now she was eager to see if it truly explained the gift. Carefully she tore it open, pulled the letter out and began to read the words that would change her life.
Please accept my warmest congratulations on the birth of your beautiful child. You are about to discover that the wonder of motherhood surpasses all other experiences. It is the most important role you will ever have, and it is by far the most rewarding. But you have an even greater privilege because you have joined an amazing group of women who have children with Down syndrome.
You are now starting a journey that will be more fulfilling than you can possibly imagine. It will shape the rest of your life because it carries tremendous responsibility and never-ending challenges – but, more importantly, you are going to give and receive the most beautiful form of unconditional love there is.
I know that at this moment you are feeling many different emotions. I was once in your place. In 1960 our daughter Anna Marie was born. She was also diagnosed with Down syndrome, but tragically she had an additional health issue that could not be treated at that time. We were only blessed to have her with us for twenty-seven days and then our hearts were broken.
After I buried my daughter, I decided I no longer wanted to live. For months I couldn’t function, but then one day I heard about another woman who gave birth to a child just like my Anna, but she immediately put him up for adoption because she did not want to try and raise a son with a disability. While I do not believe I have the right to judge another person, I missed my daughter so desperately that it was difficult for me to understand her decision. That was when I realized that I wanted to do something specifically for mothers who gave birth to children with an extra chromosome to reassure them that their lives would be filled with happiness and joy. So I started making baby quilts like yours, and the fact that I was able to stay busy and be creative saved my life.
Although my husband and I kept trying to conceive again, nature decided that Anna would be my only pregnancy. We were forced to live with only the memory of the child we had brought into the world. The agony of losing my daughter was almost unbearable, but over time the pain was eased by making gifts for others. Each quilt is a reminder that I was once a mother who was allowed to hold her baby in her arms, and no one can take that away.
It is hard to believe that our Anna would be fifty-nine years old. Even after all this time, I still can’t help thinking about how complete our lives would have been if we’d been allowed to have her with us. Hopefully, many decades from now, you will be able to look back at a lifetime filled with beautiful memories you created with your son or daughter.
It is my wish for you as a mother that you will always remember to appreciate the miracle of life that your child represents. Cherish every moment you share with them, and never take the time you spend with them for granted. Most of all love your child with all your heart because that’s how much your child will love you.
Please accept this gift as a way of welcoming you into the world of those who learn to see life differently and who understand the beauty that is present in every human being.
Karla sat quietly for a few moments feeling overwhelmed by what she had just read. Because the message was truly heartfelt, it made it incredibly powerful. Tears began to streak her face. What she had been through in the last forty-eight hours was nothing compared to what this person had endured, and yet even though she was devastated, she had found a way to reach out to others with her compassion.
Karla put the letter down and picked up the quilt again. The realization that the woman who’d made this gift was also the mother of a child with Down syndrome made her treasure it even more. As she held the beautiful fabric, her eyes burned with tears, but she still managed to notice some tiny stitching in the corner. She held it closer and saw that it delicately spelled out, “In loving memory of Anna Marie”. She began to cry softly as she tightly clutched the quilt. At that moment she knew she would never again regret having a child with a disability.
All of the emotion from the last two days suddenly flooded to the surface. She slowly began to sob as she realized how lucky she was that her baby was healthy, while at the same time she tried to imagine the pain and horror this sweet, kind woman must have endured when she lost her child. She now understood that a diagnosis changed nothing. She had given birth to an adorable daughter, and they would love each other all of their lives. That was all that really mattered.
As she thought about the brave woman and her heartbreaking loss, she began to understand that the future was nothing to fear. No matter what happened in the lives of her and her baby, they would have each other. They would face every challenge together.
Karla knew that this woman would have given anything to have the opportunity that she now had, and she realized that instead of focusing on what could have been, she should be grateful for what was going to be. She wished there was some way she could repay the person’s kindness because she had given Karla much more than a handmade gift. She had given her hope.
A few moments later there was a knock on the door, and a nurse walked in carrying Karla’s daughter, snugly wrapped in a pink blanket. The nurse stood by the bed for a moment studying the delicate features of the yawning infant. As Karla gazed at the little bundle, a deep surge of maternal love swept over her because she now realized that, in all the ways that mattered, her child was perfect.
The nurse carefully handed over the newborn and whispered, “She is precious.”
For the first time since learning that her daughter had Down syndrome, Karla experienced both a profound sense of joy and a serene feeling of contentment.
She smiled through her tears and answered, “Thank you.”
As she began to gently rock the tiny life in her arms, she knew without a doubt that she loved her daughter with all her heart. After a few moments, Karla looked up at the nurse and softly said, “She is so beautiful. I wish every mother could feel this blessed.”