Campus Life

Lucca Madonna by Jan Van Eyck - From the cover of the December 1946 Notre Dame Scholastic magazine.


A chapter from Peg Boland's Valiant Women.

The Hidden Gift (1956)

ANGELA TOBIA HAMILL was born in Jersey City, New Jersey, and brought up in Closter, where she graduated from high school in 1928. She married William H. Hamill, professor of Chemistry at Notre Dame in 1934. Mrs. Hamill obtained an A.B. degree from St. Mary's College, Notre Dame, in 1941.

There in that lonely hospital room I felt imprisoned with tragedy. The doctor had tried to break the news gently enough:

"I'd rather be a ditch digger than a doctor and have to tell you this. Your baby will be slow to develop, susceptible to infection. For the sake of your other normal child, find care for her outside your home if possible. But don't let this cloud your life."

Carol was a Mongoloid. My own flesh and blood, and I should give her up!
I was afraid to go to sleep, because waking might mean having to learn the fact all over again. In my dazed state I imagined myself running --running anywhere, just to get away from being mother to a child whose mind would never develop normally.

I pictured starting life all over again in some far off place where no one would know me, or need to know about Carol. Or perhaps I could leave her behind and go with Bill, my husband, and Angel, our pet name for little Angela.

I couldn't push out of my mind my baby's limp little body and her very pink cheeks. She looked strange from the first moment the nurse brought her to me. Why was her skin so dry? Her hands open? I had never seen a baby whose hands were not tight little fists. Bill thought she was just more placid than Angel, our vivacious sixteen-month-old. Something about her eyes was peculiar, too.

So this was it: Mongolism, a congenital form of idiocy. "Not another blow, God," I thought. (We had already lost two of our babies.)

Hadn't we been foolish, I thought, to suppose a living child was the answer to all our wants. Here was a living child.

What irony that she should have survived when the first two, who were perfect, had died because of their difficult births. And death for such a child as this would be merciful. There is no place in this world for the weak, especially the mentally weak. I thought of the doctor's words: ". . susceptible to infection; sick often." Maybe she'd die. I was still running.

But even in my confused state I could see there was no escape, Wherever I went, the fact of Carol's birth would go with me. Even if she died I'd always remember.

The only sane way to continue life now was to face this situation openly. We'd have to know something about it-Mongolism, congenital mental defectiveness, meant nothing to me. So I read everything I could get my hands on before I ever left the hospital.

Gradually a whole new world disclosed itself. We found that today in this country one of every hundred children born is defective, and three percent of that number are Mongoloids.

St. Augustine says Of the Holy innocents that they were found worthy of a life without end almost before they used their present life: that God chose them for Himself and so preserved them from sin. Little children like Carol are also preserved from sin, passing through this life unaware of temptation and evil.

Why did God want Carol to belong to Bill and me? Certainly neither of us knew anything about taking care of the mentally handicapped. There would be less pleasure in watching Carol's mind develop since her capacity was limited, but surely there need not be less satisfaction.

Were the intellects God had given us being asked to serve the little daughter whose intellect would always be lacking? Surely she could never offend with her mind as we ourselves so often offend.

I worried about Bill, who would be expected to pass out cigars to celebrate the arrival of a new daughter. If people knew they would respect his reserve. I expressed my concern for Bill to Father Finnegan: "What can Bill say when people congratulate him?"

"Let them!" Father said. "Won't she go to Heaven some day?" This was unanswerable, and while it comforted me somewhat then, it has been a deepening source of consolation ever since.
We'd have to tell our family and friends. Not after I felt better, not after I got home from the hospital, but now-at once. I felt driven in my desire to act.

I asked to see Carol's chosen godmother, who tried repeatedly to comfort me, saying the doctors could be wrong. But I knew better, and after the nightmare of trying to run away, I shrank from anything that would weaken my decision.

"Please call up our friends. Tell them all I've told you about Carol," I insisted. "It's got to be this way."
Actually, I didn't have to search for help; help sought us out, A school friend came to the hospital to tell me about the Mongoloid in their family. Kate Dooley brought in a neighbor, the cheerful mother of a Mongoloid boy.

Dorothy Holmes was my first ray of hope, since she had had a normal child following "Peachie's" birth, and was pregnant again. She chatted happily on about her "little Mongoloid"; how he could bounce his high chair; how loose jointed he was, like all Mongoloids. She didn't talk about the fact that at four years of age he still couldn't feed himself. She talked about his skin, like peaches, sensitive, dry, thin, and lovely, And she didn't overlook Peachie's soul. She reminded me repeatedly that, "At least one of your children will surely get to Heaven."

Another woman mentioned her suffering when the neighborhood children ridiculed her handicapped child, and how disturbed her normal children were when teased about their little brother. Only then did she realize he'd be better off with children like himself, she told us.

Already we knew five other families with similar children. Yet not one of them had succeeded in finding a place within their means. Of the three children who were in schools, two were in state institutions, and one at a Catholic school. All three had been taken out of their homes when it had become unendurable either for the family or the child.

The hospital dietician told me she had a little sister like Carol, at St. Coletta's,   a Franciscan school for "exceptional" children in Wisconsin. Always, our advice was, to try and find care for Carol away from home, while she was still tiny. Otherwise, it would be almost impossible to part with her.

"Mongoloids are affectionate and they depend on you so, you can never imagine them happy away from you," they warned.

Happy enough solution, I thought, for those who could afford it. Somehow it seemed that Carol's stigma would hurt less if she were in a Catholic school. How much easier to say, "We have a little girl away at a Catholic school," than, "One of our children is in a state institution." Since then we have learned it is still easier to say "Carol's glands do not function properly there is both thyroid and pituitary deficiency. That is why she is retarded." Not, "Carol is a Mongolian idiot."

It was comforting to think of Carol in the care of sisters who had dedicated their lives to mentally retarded children. But there was the problem of money. Yet I never gave up hope, and we are grateful to friends and relatives who kept us from despair.

One note to us said only, "We are praying." Someone else reminded us, "This baby will surely go to heaven; maybe she'll bring you there." Bill's mother wrote, "My one consolation is that in heaven she'll be perfect." God heard these prayers, I know; for once, after a session of despondency, Bill found it in himself to say, "We should stop feeling sorry for ourselves. God's given us a tough job. Let's see what we can do about it."

And I remembered thinking, "That's the very way we accepted a difficult assignment in school. We took pride in the challenge. Wasn't this our most significant assignment of all?"

The first few weeks at home with Carol taught me many things. I saw at first hand how hard it is for a defective organism to survive. Darwin was right: nature tends to kill off the unfit. Only the strong survive. Someone remarked to Bill, on hearing of Carol's condition: "Don't tell me that in this day and age they let babies like that leave the hospital alive!" Long before Darwin, the Spartans abandoned their frail babies to die.

When Carol needed forty-five minutes to drink a single ounce of formula and then lay exhausted on my lap I could see why a philosophy built only on natural values could take such a stand.

I recall that someone asked me at this time: "Why do you think this happened to you? What is it the Bible says about the parents of a child born blind?" I could detect a suggestion of God's retributive justice in their question. We have never forgotten the text which answers it: John 9:2 and 3: "Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents, but that the work of God should be made manifest in him."

God's work manifest in Carol! But we didn't want Carol! We wanted a normal child, one we could be proud to watch and encourage. Even her feeble crying irritated me at times. It seemed to demand things of me that I was unable to give.

With heavy resentment I took care of her physical needs while I struggled with my own emotions. I knew I had no reason to resent an innocent baby, yet something was blocking me. I felt more like somone hired to do a job than a mother caring for her own flesh.

I didn't realize, as I do now, that Carol was teaching me something about detachment: I was learning how to do a job just because it needed doing, not because it was fun. I have felt since it would be a help to transfer this detachment to the other children, so that my affection might not imprison them.

I confessed my bewilderment to an understanding friend. "I feel like an unnatural mother; I go about my duties for Carol impersonally. She doesn't belong to me like Angel does. If she is soiled I clean her; when she's hungry I feed her. If she is sick I tend her, but I don't worry about her nor enjoy her at all."
"Well, what do you expect?" was the sensible reply. "You've been disappointed, She's not the child you hoped to have. Everyone wants a perfect child."

That quieted me, and I began to realize how inconsistent I was. I had read that Mongoloids are happy and affectionate by nature. Yet I felt inclined to hold back from Carol only because her mind was not normal.

I thought of a mother who talked with me after Carol's birth. She had a child then in an institution, and wanted to help us. Yet she took pains to show us that hers was a very different sort of case: "Our child was not born that way," she said, over and over. "It happened after an illness." Then I realized it was a special stigma to have a child abnormal from birth. This stigmatized the entire family, because it implies inherited weakness. I am grateful that Bill never once even by implication suggested that Carol's condition came from my family. Fortunately, we discovered that only a very small per cent of mental illness is inherited.

Life gripped us that first year after Carol came, like the rapid current of a stream, and pulled us along with it from situation to situation.

Carol was just four weeks old when I heard my mother would die soon of cancer. This was a blow. I had always depended so much on her, and she had taken Carol to her heart from the first. Many families suffer rejection from their own relatives when a defective child is born, not wishing to be stigmatized themselves.

My mother loved Carol. "I can't help loving her," she said, "she is you and Bill just as much as Angel is."
And when I told her we'd been advised not to raise her with the other children, she had offered to take her herself. I realized my mother's death was imminent. While she was dying she prayed constantly that, "Some good would come to Carol." I am certain her prayers were answered, because good has come to Carol in abundance, and through Carol to us.

My mother's death eliminated that source of help for Carol. Then Bill's illness complicated everything. Alterations to the house were out of the question; a threat ened miscarriage indicated I was not strong enough to manage alone; the cost of private schools for infants would put us in debt.

Carol's future was still unsettled. To keep her with us or try to find special care outside our family? We considered every angle: adding on a room, hiring a nurse for her; but it might not work, and this after great expense. Then there was the dread of growing attachment which would make a later parting so hard for her, and us too.

We investigated private and state schools. Indiana state schools did not take children under six. Only rarely did private schools accept infants, and then at a cost impossible for us to meet. We applied at the Welfare for a foster home. In the long succession of interviews we learned the attitude of the public towards the mentally handicapped child. It is a struggle to keep a defective baby alive: this takes time, patience, and love-- rare commodities these days.

I'll never forget one woman who thought she wanted to take Carol into her home. We made sure the welfare worker had explained everything to her, and the woman was still was interested. I felt a secret respect for this unknown person, and was happy that she wanted Carol.

But when we arrived at the door, the woman asked, "What's wrong with the baby? I have a very small house, you know, and I heard about one baby that wasn't born right who grew up to be a monster."

Another reply came from a Catholic home for normal chrdren, saying "We do not take infants, but if God chose to send you such a one, we think you yourself should take care of such a one." This disturbed us, so we discussed it with Father Finnegan.

"They don't understand the problem," he said, "Besides, you are taking care of her if you find the right
place for her."

Finally we found just the proper person. Mrs. Craft, a young South Bend woman recently widowed, wanted a chance to give the sort of service we needed for Carol, and at a price we could afford.

Mrs. Craft knew everything about Carol's abnormality, and accepted her for just what she was, and enjoyed her, when we ourselves were still too hurt to find pleasure in her.

Carol blossomed with Mrs. Craft. She grew a freer, happier child than she could ever have done with us where heartbreak might so easily have changed later into overindulgence and spoiling. The very fact that Mrs. Craft herself needed Carol was a blessing, for the child was accepted lovingly from the beginning; and every child needs acceptance.

What Mrs. Craft was learning day by day in contact with Carol, we were trying to learn by reading, and through association wherever possible with families of retarded children.

Mrs. Craft realized that Carol must go to the right school when the time came, for she must have the opportunity to develop as far as she was able. We owe this to all our children, those with the high I.Q's and those with the low. God doesn't ask that we perform miracles, and there is no shame in having a child with an I.Q. of 45, like Carol; but there is error in trying to force her into the pattern of the child with the 75 I.Q.

When Carol was six we decided it would be better for her to leave Mrs. Craft and enter a school, although her care had been most satisfactory, and we had all become deeply attached to the entire Craft family.

Since money was an important item, we investigated the Indiana State school first, but when we saw how crowded it was and how impersonal, we knew we could not leave Carol there.

We had never forgotten St. Coletta's, and one statement in their catalogue made a deep impression on me: "For who is to say whether he be a sainted prince or a sainted Mongoloid?"

But waiting lists were long and the costs would be a strain. Yet we decided to visit there at least. I think what impressed me most at St. Coletta's was the joy everywhere.

There was no question in my mind that Carol would be happy here. At first the cost seemed impossible but yet we had managed to keep her with Mrs. Craft. Eight months after our application, Carol became a member of the St. Coletta family.

After Carol was born I thought I'd never get over dreading a recurrence of Mongolism in our family. Statistically this is a rare thing, but I knew there was no certainty in the matter, and since I'd been disappointed in three pregnancies out of four, I could not help being anxious about future ones.

But in the years that followed we have been given three more little girls, all normal. Less than a year after Carol, Irma was born. Her birth restored our hope and confidence as nothing else could possibly have done. My heart goes out to families with an only child who is defective. There are so many.

Though Carol has been away from us most of her life we have made special efforts to keep her in our family consciousness. In the beginning the children at home asked many questions about her absence.

We explained that St. Coletta's could do more for her than we could; that sometime when she had learned all she could there, perhaps she would come home; that living with children like herself she could do all the things they did, and never feel left out.

Carol's visits home are always exciting. For days before she arrives the others would tell all their friends and neighbors, "Our little sister is coming home." And as soon as she arrives they rush around the neighborhood saying, "This is Carol; see there are five of us, just like we said. There really are seven, only two are in Heaven."

Children have a delightful gift for including everyone. Ours have helped us immeasurably. When our last child was coming they knew I was concerned whether she'd be normal or not. "Were you sad when Carol came, Mother? Why?"

I explained that it was because I was disappointed; that I wanted her to be normal. "I miss her this way," I told them.

"Don't you miss the ones that died?" "Yes, but not as much." This is hard for them to understand.
"Will you be sad if the new baby can't think right?" "Yes." "But why?" they asked. "We can still love her and take care of her, can't we?"

Our children have associated with retarded children all their lives and they accept abnormalities quite naturally. Drooling mouths and halting steps don't disturb them.

While Carol needs St. Coletta's, there is no extra money in the family budget, but we can extend sympathy and understanding to others who suffer as we have. For years we made it a point to speak of Carol first in order to help another family speak more easily of their own retarded child.

Mongolism is only one of many varieties of mental retardation in children. Why did we so rarely see these defective children? When we had learned to recognize the handicapped at a glance we were more than ever certain something was amiss.

Where were all these children? The answer was clear: most of them were kept within the confines of their homes, living abnormal lives, which could only accentuate their abnormality. Hidden children. Hidden parents, Agonizing loneliness. And the memory of that night in the hospital long ago returned: my running, the wild running to hide from everyone. How could I help but understand?

The newest thought now is that retarded children should be reared in their homes and that effort should be made to educate neighborhoods and communities to accept them, and to create opportunities for their education and later development. Carol's sisters may have a more Christian world to share her with than existed at the time of her birth.

Carol has a little religion book of her own. In it are pictures of Jesus, Our Lady, and her guardian angel. She recognizes each of these and can turn to the proper pages to find each one, but the one that has the most attraction for her is her guardian angel.

I wonder if that is because he is always pictured as guiding the child or keeping her out of danger and Carol needs special care and protection-which will always be a problem for us. But God has helped us so far, the future is in His hands.

[Book Editor's note from the 1950 Edition of Valient Women:]
The Hamill's search for help led them to Father James Smyth, theologian and psychologist, at Notre Dame. Under his leadership, and sparked by the Christian Family Movement, they enlisted the help of other parents and organizations, to unprove the status of retarded children in South Bend. The culmination was the opening of the Logan School for Retarded Children in the fall of 1950, with a staff of four. At the present time about 100 children are in attendance, with a staff of twelve.

Irish Legends Editor's note: Much has changed at the Logan School over the last 50 years. The following is an excerpt from the Logan Center webpage. Learn more about this great school at their website: www.logancenter.org

LOGAN began as a dream...a dream of parents who wanted education for all of their children. Years ago, parents came together, joined by friends, to form the Council for the Retarded of St. Joseph County, Inc., the first organization of its kind which served as a model for others throughout the country. These parents did not want to wait any longer for services for their children with disabilities. They knew it was up to them to make something happen. In 1950, this group opened Logan School in an abandoned schoolhouse on Logan Street in Mishawaka, hiring 2 teachers for 22 students on a budget of $24.
                        
Since this humble yet passionate beginning, LOGAN has remained parent driven and committed to meeting the needs of individuals with disabilities in this community. LOGAN now serves 1,000 families annually with a variety of services and resources. Through the hard work of a dedicated staff, parents and many volunteers, LOGAN works to develop opportunities by partnering with the community so that all may discover their potential.

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