Col. Don Rettberg, Jo, and Don, Jr.

Last night we attended the Northwest Kiwanis' farewell dinner to a family that made a huge difference in the lives of so many families, including ours, in the days and years following the birth of their son or daughter with Down syndrome.

Jo and Don Rettberg, with their son Don, Jr., are moving to Ohio to be close to their daughter Sandy and other family.  They have been a fixture in our lives for 30 years now, ever since Jo visited Jerry and me at St. David's hospital the day after Kelly was born.

Jerry and I had entered some form of suspended animation following the diagnosis the night before.  We hadn't had the horrible experience from our doctors (you know, the “she'll probably never walk or talk or…” bit).  In fact our pediatrician was upbeat and helpful, assuring us that much could be done and that she knew we were “going to have a great time with this kid.”

Still, I'd spent the drizzly night staring out the window into the courtyard and sleeping very little.  If I did doze off a nurse would be sure to pop in with Kelly, trying to get her to nurse.  However, Kelly refused to wake up for that or any other reason, and wouldn't open her eyes or cry for another two weeks.

Jerry?  He'd gone home and gotten very drunk.  The next morning, before the sun came up, he stood in front of the ARC of Austin, pouncing on the first employee to show up to ask, “What can I do to help my daughter?”

This day we were huddled in my hospital room with Kelly, trying to figure out what on earth the future held. 

There we'd been, perched on the edge of the almost-empty nest, ready to fly off to new adventures after an entire marriage built around the raising of my three daughters from my first marriage.  Then I discovered that I was pregnant at 42.  We cheerfully revised the family plan. 

Now we were hit with this.  New adventures, indeed!

A knock, a peek around the door, and into my room came an elegant, lovely woman with a stack of photo albums, saying she was from a parent-to-parent program called Pilot Parents.  Would we like to talk?

Oh, yes.  We definitely would like to talk.

And in that moment began a 30 year friendship that will end only when we're all dead and gone.  Jo Rettberg, and later her husband Don and son Donnie (at that time; he now firmly eschews the diminutive) had blazed a trail through the myths and realities of Down syndrome.

Her approach was simple.  She showed us Donnie's photo albums, beginning with his baby years and over all his eight years on earth.  What we saw was not the drooling dolt of mongoloid stereotype, the vision of our deepest nightmares.

We saw a bright, beautiful, happy boy, the apple of his family's eye.  We saw a family content with their lives.  In that one short visit we became aware of possibilities far beyond the realm of anything we'd imagined. 

Later Don would enlist Jerry's help to build a home for the Infant Parent Training Program.  Jerry would enlist Don's help in reaching out to others in support of building Down Home Ranch.

What the Rettbergs mostly helped us do was to see undreamed-of possibilities that took the place of the dreams that faded after our babies were born with an extra chromosome. 

And in no small ways, their faith helped us find ours.  When we were re-married in the Catholic church years later, the Rettbergs were there as witnesses.

Jo and Don took quite a bit of ribbing last night about their relocation to an area that has been blanketed under snow for the past several months.  Who retires to Ohio, after all?  But there were a lot of tears shed by tall, strong men (many of them retired military) as they choked out their funny stories and presented their farewell cards and gifts.

Because this is one family whose absence will be hugely felt.  Their lives have touched literally thousands in the Austin area, as they showed so many of us how to live with Down syndrome, and we have shown so many others through the years.

We will be ever grateful for their friendship. 

Bon voyage, dear friends.