Beyond FANTASTIC: ROAD MAP TO HOLLAND by Jennifer Graf Groneberg
“Leaving without the babies feels like a failure.” This line socked me in the stomach; it captures bluntly what many women feel at different stages of their lives, whether or not they’re moms. Jennifer and her husband had a little boy at home when they discovered they were going to have twin baby boys. When the babies arrive early and have to stay in intensive care, Jennifer reveals this utter sense of failure when she realizes she’ll have to commute a long way every day to see her newborn sons after her own hospital stay has ended. To top it all off, she’s just been told one of the babies shows possible signs of Down syndrome and is going to be tested for the chromosomal anomaly.
The first few chapters reveal how raw and vulnerable Jennifer not only felt but knew herself to be immediately following Avery’s diagnosis of Down syndrome. “We have a little house on a hilltop near a pretty lake,” Jennifer repeats at times, as though reciting a mantra. Indeed this little house represents much more than a home for her and her growing family throughout her story of finally bringing her babies home and of teaching her older boy, Carter, how to best help...especially how to help Avery. Her references to beloved books I shared with my son so many years ago (Carter calls their closest town “Busy Town” and compares Avery to Clifford the Big Red Dog when Clifford was a baby and grew and grew because he was so loved; Jennifer also refers to Margaret Wise Brown’s The Big Red Barn, which I can still recite from memory, and probably always will) contributed to the impression that I was listening to a really good friend talk about struggling through a series of events that not only altered her life but dismantled it, leaving her to pick up the pieces and figure out how best to rearrange them.
The repetitions of those first few chapters provide layers of meaning and impact I’ve rarely noted in a work of nonfiction. I can only imagine Jennifer wrote to herself in her darkest days in such a way to remind herself of what really mattered; to keep herself on track through a series of reminders that wrapped around her like an overlapping shawl, the same way she swaddled her babies in so many layers of love despite the weight of her fears and doubts, her concerns, her guilt.
Regret, too, plays a role here, but I did not find this book depressing. Instead, the demands of caring for three young children and the steps Jennifer took to help herself and her family infuse every section of this story with inspiration and hope. Frank hang-ups about asking for assistance are overcome, acceptance coupled with wonder are celebrated. All while tough lessons are learned as a new parent of a child with special needs.
“I missed so much,” Jennifer confesses, “irreplaceable moments lost to sadness and worry. It didn’t have to be this way. I wish I had known better. I wish I had known that all I had to do was love him.” What a relief for a new parent of a child with Down syndrome to hear that, or to read: “He asks so little of me, really—all the rest of it I put upon myself.” Or: “I’m struck by the moment. That life goes on.” The overall message I took from Jennifer’s writing is an immense sense of wonder and acceptance. This is a story of a woman who discovers her greatest joy is not to improve or push her loved ones to excel, but to realize she’s giving the greatest gift simply by teaching those she loves how to love. Sometimes we all need a friendly reminder—or a dramatic one if we’re really hard-headed—that THIS is what really matters. Or at least what ought to matter. Thanks, Jennifer, for the wake-up call.