I have been a long time making up my mind to write this story. It is a true one, and that makes it hard to tell. Several reasons have helped me to reach the point this morning, after an hour or so of walking through the winter woods, when I have finally resolved that the time has come for the story to be told. Some of the reasons are in the many letters which I have received over the years from parents with a child like mine. They write to ask me what to do. When I answer I can only tell them what I have done. They ask two things of me: first, what they shall do for their children; and, second, how shall they bear the sorrow of having such a child?
The first question I can answer, but the second is difficult indeed, for endurance of inescapable sorrow is something which has to be learned alone. And only to endure is not enough. Endurance can be a harsh and bitter root in one’s life, bearing poisonous and gloomy fruit, destroying other lives. Endurance is only the beginning. There must be acceptance and the knowledge that sorrow fully accepted brings its own gifts. For there is an alchemy in sorrow. It can be transmuted into wisdom, which, if it does not bring joy, can yet bring happiness.
The final reason for setting down this story is that I want my child’s life to be of use in her generation. She is one who has never grown mentally beyond her early childhood, therefore she is forever a child, although in years she is old enough now to have been married and to have children of her own—my grandchildren who will never be.
The first cry from my heart, when I knew that she would never be anything but a child, was the age-old cry that we all make before inevitable sorrow: “Why must this happen to me?” To this there could be no answer and there was none. When I knew at last that there could never be an answer, my own resolve shaped into the determination to make meaning out of the meaningless, and so provide the answer, though it was of my own making. I resolved that my child, whose natural gifts were obviously unusual, even though they were never to find expression, was not to be wasted. If she could not make the contribution she should have made to her generation through her genius for music, if her healthy body was never to bear fruit, if her strong energies were not to be creatively used, then the very facts of her condition, her existence as it was and is today, must be of use to human beings. In one way, if not the other, her life must count. To know that it was not wasted might assuage what could not be prevented or cured.
This resolve did not come to me immediately. I grew toward it, but once I had reached it I have held to it through all the years of her life. I have let it work in quiet ways, dreading the cold eyes of the curious. Now, today, I will forget those whom I dread, who, after all, are very few. I will remember the many who are kind, who will understand my purpose in telling this story, who will want to help to fulfill this purpose because it is their purpose too.
I am always moved, with grateful wonder, by the goodness of people. For the few who are prying or meanly critical, for the very few who rejoice in the grief of others, there are the thousands who are kind. I have come to believe that the natural human heart is good, and I have observed that this goodness is found in all varieties of people, and that it can and does prevail in spite of other corruptions. This human goodness alone provides hope enough for the world.
I have sometimes wondered, as the years passed, whether the moment would come when I might feel that my purpose for my child must include the telling of her story. I dreaded this, and do dread it. Nevertheless, the time has come. For there is afoot in our country a great new movement to help all children like her. It is too late, of course, for her to be helped, but it is not too late for many little ones, and surely for others yet to be born. For we are beginning to understand the importance and the significance of the mentally retarded person in our human society. Almost one person in every hundred is or will be mentally retarded, and of these the majority are retarded from non-inherited causes. The old stigma of “something in the family” is all too often unjust.
The total number of retarded children is not large in proportion to the whole population, and yet it is enough to cause trouble everywhere. Homes are unhappy, parents distraught, schoolrooms confused by the presence of these who for no fault of their own are as they are. As parents die or cannot care for them, as teachers give them up, these children drift helplessly into the world, creating havoc wherever they go. They become the tools of those more clever; they are the hopeless juvenile delinquents; they fall into criminal ways because they know not what they do. And all they do is done in innocence, for of God’s many children these are the most innocent.
I rejoice in the dawn of a better understanding of such children, for the public attitude until now has been a sorely mistaken one. Parents have been bewildered and ashamed when their child is backward, when he cannot learn in school, when perhaps he cannot even learn to talk. It has been a misfortune to be hidden. Neighbors whisper that So-and-so’s child is “not right.” The family is taught to try to pretend that poor Harry or Susie is only slow. The shame of the parents infects all the children and sorrow spreads its blight. The child himself, poor little one, feels, though he cannot comprehend, his own inferiority. He lives in surrounding gloom. His mother cannot smile when she looks at him, and his father looks away at the sight of him. In spite of their tender love for him—for the honor of the human heart, it can passionately protect the helpless creature who is its cross—the child understands enough to know that there is something unfortunate about him. His shadow falls before him, wherever he goes.
Now, thank God, the shadow lifts. Wise men and women are beginning to reason that it is only common sense to accept the mentally retarded person as part of the human family, and to educate him in the things he can do, so that he may be happy in himself and useful to society. That this may be done, the primary work of research must progress as it never has. We must somehow discover why it is that so many people do not develop mentally to their full capacity. There must be remediable causes and certainly there are preventable causes. We know, for example, that if a woman has German measles in the first three months of pregnancy, her child may be born mentally defective, but we do not know why. We must know why. The Mongoloid child can appear in any family. He is really an unfinished child and is usually a first or last child. We must find out what conditions in the mother cause this child. It is not necessary that children be born never to grow to their fullest selves. The windows are opened, at last, upon this dark corner of human life and the light shines upon the children’s faces and into the hearts of their parents.
That my child, therefore, may have some small share in creating this new light, I tell her story. She cannot know what she does, but I who am her mother will do it for her and in her name, that others like her may have the benefits of a fuller knowledge, a better understanding. It will not be easy to tell it all truthfully, but it is of no use to tell it otherwise. Perhaps when it is finished there will be comfort because it is told for a high purpose.
I must go back into the early years of my young womanhood—no, even before that. When I was a little girl myself, not more than seven years old, living in China, I had an awakening of the spirit. Until then I suppose I was the usual selfish childish creature, thinking of play and of nothing else except having my own way. I had few children to play with and one of my dear friends was a gay young American woman, who lived for a very short time next door to us. She was married, and during the few months she was our neighbor she had a baby girl born to her. It was my first experience of an American baby and of all the tender care that the average American baby gets.
Every morning I was the attendant at the bath. I poured the water and warmed the towel and handed the mother the little garments, one by one. I was allowed a moment of my own, when the fair-haired blue-eyed little baby, smelling sweetly of soap and freshness, was put into my arms. That was the height of the day for me. I can remember even now, even after I have held so many babies in my arms, babies of many colors and races, the joy of that first little one. I might have grieved very much when the transient neighbors went their way, had not my own little sister been born, fortunately, that same spring in the heart of the vast old city on the Yangtze River which was then my home. I busied myself mightily about our own baby. My mother was desperately ill after the birth, and the chief care of the baby fell upon our old Chinese amah and me. I was so happy I did not know how near my mother was to death.
I have begun this story so long ago because I can see now that I loved my child long before she was born. I wanted children of my own, as most women do, but I think my intense love of life added depth to natural longing. Something certainly I learned from the Chinese, who value children above all else in life. The Chinese love children for their own sakes and beyond. Children mean the continuity of human life, and human life is wonderful and precious. I absorbed the atmosphere in which I was reared.
My child was born in the height of my young womanhood. I was full of strength and vigor and the enjoyment of life. My life lay in places which might seem strange to my fellow Americans but which were not strange to me. My home then was outside a small mud-walled town in North China. From my windows I looked over miles of flat farm land, green with wheat and sorghum in the summer, and in the winter the color of dust. Springtimes were loveliest, for above the young green wheat mirages shimmered. We had neither lakes nor mountains near, but the mirages brought them to us. They hung like fantastic dreams above the horizon. It was difficult to believe that they were not real.
Like every young woman, I had many dreams. There were books that I wanted to write when I had lived enough to know life. Life I had always wanted in plenty and overflowing, and I think, looking back, that I always ran to meet it. Certainly I always wanted children. So when I knew my first child was to be born, one year in the spring, my joy rose to the height of my dreams. I did not know then that there was to be only one. I did not think of such a possibility. Everything had always gone well with me, all my life. I was one of the fortunately born. I took good fortune for granted. I saw my house full of children.
I remember so well the first time my little girl and I saw each other. It was a warm mild morning in March. A Chinese friend had brought me a pot of budding plum blossoms the day before, and a spray of them had opened. That was the first thing I saw when I came out of the ether. The next thing was my baby’s face. The young Chinese nurse had wrapped her in a pink blanket and she held her up for me to see. Mine was a pretty baby, unusually so. Her features were clear, her eyes even then, it seemed to me, wise and calm. She looked at me and I at her with mutual comprehension and I laughed.
I remember I said to the nurse, “Doesn’t she look very wise for her age?” She was then less than an hour old.
“She does, indeed,” the nurse declared. “And she is beautiful too. There is a special purpose for this child.”
How often have I thought of those words! I thought of them proudly at first, as the child grew, always healthy, always good. I remember when she was two months old that an old friend saw her for the first time. The child had never seen a man with a black mustache before and she stared for a moment and then drew down her little mouth to weep, though some pride kept her from actual tears.
“Extraordinary,” my friend said. “She knows already what is strange to her.”
I remember when she was only a month older that she lay in her little basket upon the sun deck of a ship. I had taken her there for the morning air as we traveled. The people who promenaded upon the deck stopped often to look at her, and my pride grew as they spoke of her unusual beauty and of the intelligence of her deep blue eyes.
I do not know where or at what moment the growth of her intelligence stopped, nor to this day do we know why it did. There was nothing in my family to make me fear that my child might be one of those who do not grow. Indeed, I was fortunate in my own ancestry on both sides. My father’s family was distinguished for achievement in languages and letters, and my mother’s family was a cultivated one. On her father’s side my child had a sturdy ancestry, which had occasionally produced persons of distinction. I had no fears of any sort—indeed, I was almost too innocent of fear. I had seen in my youth only one defective child, the little son of a missionary, and he had made no impression on me beyond one of love and pity. Of Chinese children of the sort I had seen none. There seem to be very few, and such as there are remain at home, carefully tended. Perhaps, too, they die young. At any rate, no young mother could have been less prepared than I for what was to come.
My little daughter’s body continued its healthy progress. We had left North China by then, and were living in Nanking, which, next to Peking, perhaps, is China’s richest city in history and humanity. Though my home was inside the city walls, it was still country living. Our house was surrounded by lawn and gardens, a bamboo grove and great trees. When the city walls were built, centuries ago, enough land was enclosed so that if the city were besieged, the people would not starve. Our compound was surrounded by farms and fish ponds.
It was a pleasant and healthy home for a child. She was still beautiful, as she would be to this day were the light of the mind behind her features. I think I was the last to perceive that something was wrong. She was my first child, and I had no close comparison to make with others. She was three years old when I first began to wonder.
For at three she did not yet talk. Now that my adopted babies have taught me so much, I realize that speech comes as naturally to the normal child as breathing. He does not need to be taught to talk—he talks as he grows. He hears words without knowing it and day by day increases the means of conveying his widening thoughts. Still, I became uneasy. In the midst of my pleasant surroundings, in all the fresh interest of a new period in Chinese history when the Nationalist government was setting itself up with such promise, I found life exciting and good. Yet I can remember my growing uneasiness about my child. She looked so well, her cheeks pink, her hair straight and blond, her eyes the clear blue of health. Why then did speech delay!
I remember asking friends about their children, and voicing my new anxiety about my child. Their replies were comforting, too comforting. They told me that children talked at different ages, that a child growing up in the house with other children learned more quickly than an only child. They spoke all the empty words of assurance that friends, meaning well, will use, and I believed them. Afterward, when I knew the whole tragic truth, I asked them if they had no knowledge then of what had befallen my child. I found that they did have, that they had guessed and surmised and that the older ones even knew, but that they shrank from telling me.
To this day I cannot understand their shrinking. For to me truth is so much dearer than any comforting falsehood, so much kinder in its clean-cutting edge than fencing and evasion, that the better a friend is the more he must use truth. There is value in the quick and necessary wound. Thus my child was nearly four years old before I discovered for myself that her mind had stopped growing. To all of us there comes the hour of awakening to sad truth. Sometimes the whole awakening comes at once and in a moment. To others, like myself, it came in parts slowly. I was reluctant and unbelieving until the last.
It began one summer at a seashore in China, where the waves come in gently even in time of storm. It had been a mild and pleasant summer, shore set against mountains. I spent the mornings with my child on the beach and in the afternoons sometimes we went riding along the valleys on the small gray donkeys which stood for hire at the edge of the beach.
Excerpted from The Child Who Never Grew by Pearl S. Buck. Copyright © 1950 Training School at Vineland, N.J.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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