At 3 a.m. in the morning on Halloween, I held my new son in my arms. He was plump and like a loaf of bread. “Baby has Down syndrome,” I whispered, and the nurses gave me disapproving glances. “This is my son,” I thought, “and I will do whatever he needs of me as long as I am around.”
When he was two or three a decision had to be made: would he learn sign language, a guaranteed but limiting way of communicating, or try for talking. The latter approach might not work as well, they said.
So an extra speech therapist came to our house twice a week for eight years, and a music therapist, as well. I had read somewhere that sentences are like music. If you can sing you can talk. When the speech therapist taught the “p” sound, the music therapist brought little horns to reinforce the breath of air needed to pronounce those “p’s” properly.
We lived in a wonderful school district where William had full inclusion until sixth grade. The other kids provided the direct kind of feedback teachers can no longer offer. “William, stop being annoying.” “William, we don’t like it when you are so stubborn.” “William, if you don’t share I don’t want to play with you anymore.”
Once William did something to his brother. “Dad, the reason I did that was that I have Down syndrome.” (The speech therapy worked.) “Down syndrome is not an excuse for anything and I never want to hear that again, I told him sternly. "You have just lost a privilege, young man.”
William has always understood God. Once, in a parish around Christmastime, a well-dressed lady of means walked up to him. “Oh, you are one of the special little angels. We have some extra presents for you.”
“Lady,” he said, “I’m not an angel and Christmas is about Jesus, not presents.” The lady walked away, having expected gratitude and receiving undesired prophecy.
Another time, during an election year, one of the ladies reported to me that William had gone against the party line in the parish. "He wants everyone to vote for Obama. He says Obama will help poor people.” Well, we all get our own vote in the United States, I said, and isn’t there something we just heard about being kind to widows, orphans, and aliens because you were once aliens in the land of Egypt? William is a good listener.
William successfully navigated middle school and high school. He has worked for nearly 10 years in a sheltered workshop. He always did his homework, keeps his room clean an organized, went to seven proms and can read really well—as in sitting for hours reading books like Harry Potter.
Recently William went to Lourdes as a guest, a “malade,” with the Knights of Malta on their annual pilgrimage to Lourdes, France. Here is what he wrote about the trip. —William Van Ornum
My name is William Eugene Van Ornum. I have Down syndrome and I am 30 years old. I was invited to go with the Knights of Malta to Lourdes. I went so I could help the handicapped people that were going on the trip. It is sad. Some of them were even in wheelchairs.
Before the trip they gave us some homework. I looked up a lot of the questions on Wikipedia and so I knew the answers when we were asked about it.
During my pilgrimage I wanted to learn and discover more about God.
We started out on a bus that was in Albany, N.Y. It picked up people and then went down to JFK airport. At the airport in JFK my mom took me to supper. I had a great time with my mom. I learned there would be 300,000 people there. Then we took a plane to France. When I got there I wanted to meet people and make friends, pray for them and help them. People need prayers and help and even miracles.
We arrived in Lourdes at 8 o’clock in the morning. I met this amazing woman named Megan. We both have something in common. We both love Harry Potter. Megan talked to me a lot. I prayed for her. She is my best friend. She loves fly-fishing and loves movies. We both are going to have fun. My feelings now are happy in super excitement. Megan gave me a lot of company and I enjoyed it all. I’m so glad I’m here with this beautiful woman in Lourdes, France.
I went to church and prayed. After church Patrick took me to the grotto of the Virgin Mary. My experience here is meeting new people. I traveled a lot in France today with lots of people. I prayed for all the people because people need miracles and extra help in their life.
There is holy water and a river in France. I did some sightseeing and meetings here. People need freedom and peace in this world.
In 1858, in Lourdes, Bernadette was 14 years old and had a vision of the Virgin Mary at the grotto. Mary told Bernadette to visit her for 14 days. I watched an animated movie on Bernadette and listen to it. The movie was so good I would give it 100 stars.
I am very truthful and honest to people. That is why people like me. Being true to people is important because they can trust you and can count on you as friends.
I’m having a fun time with my mom and friends. I have met new friends here and I’m glad to be here.
My experiences and thoughts in France is that it is a wonderful place. I can discover my journey here. I love my life and I learned that people make you happy. The people here are from different countries and they speak different languages.
I’m having a great time at the Lourdes hotel. There’s a lot of food that I enjoy. The food was so delicious. I love to watch movies and reading and hanging out with new people.
I pray a lot. I’m very religious. Praying calms me down. It relaxes me and I feel so good.
My moment today is to pray for others so they can have miracles and get better. I have met people today: Jack, Patrick, Sean, Megan and Sally. These people are in my heart.
With Jean all of us went and met Cardinal Dolan. We went to see him today. We had dinner with him.
At Lourdes I decided I want to be a great son to my parents. This journey is making me happy. It is a miracle I am here. I hope I can bring peace to this earth.
I went inside the grotto. I touched the box and saw the statue of the Virgin Mary. I saw people praying. I saw two crowns.
Today I went to St. Bernadette’s house to look inside. I’ve learned she ate in the living room and slept there. Six people lived in this very small room. I carried a candle with fire and I had a fun time at the site of the basilica. The basilica was very beautiful at night and it had lights.
Patrick pulled me on a chariot everywhere today. I have fun with him. He is a good friend of mine. He is good with me.
There was a Mass at the front of the grotto and then we had a photo shoot at the front of the basilica. I had a fun time.
I’ve been staying in a Mediterranean hotel in France with two beds. I had breakfast, lunch and supper. The hotel is fun to stay at. I’m happy here.
I went to church in underground church where there was a Mass and 25,000 people there. Patrick took me to a tour at an old castle. I had fun.
The Pyrenees mountain was very wonderful site and beautiful to look at. I even saw snow.
The basilica is a church in Lourdes. The basilica is huge. At the basilica people can pray. Even the foreign people here can speak French.
My friend Megan took me out for ice cream. She brought me some stuff for my mom and dad. She is so wonderful. She is generous and a nice friend.
I will have things to tell everybody when I go home about Lourdes. I am really grateful that this group the Knights of Malta has made it possible for me and my mom to come here. I hope that our prayers will help all the people who came here because they have been sick or have handicaps.