Take a good look at Jacob Barker Hall. Whether in person or by photo it's hard not to see his bright eyes and engaging smile and not know the joy and the zest that define this nine-year-old's life. His speech and his physical awkwardness give glimpses of his Down Syndrome, but any signs of motor or mental difficulty are overshadowed by the special person he is as a child of God.
Jacob is a great name for my youngest son. Roughly translated into "supplanter," a more practical definition for his personality would be "steals the show," but not in a bad way. He showers others with love and encouragement, likely to say "good job" loudly to the choir or the pastor (along with a visible "thumbs up") — without concern for when he says it during the service (I finally figured out it's his way of saying "amen").
He runs to give hugs to old and young alike, but he especially delights in carefully approaching a baby, gently cupping his hands along the child's jawline and slowly, tenderly stroking forward until the heels of his palms meet at the baby's chin.
His affection is authentic and so are his prayers, and he's likely to pray anytime, anywhere.
One of the most memorable times was during his first trip to see someone at a hospital, an older lady from church. He was six and not sure about where he was or what "ministry" meant or "hospital visitation." But as soon as he saw his "friend" lying in bed, he grabbed her hand and everyone else joined the circle. Jacob has delayed speech, and no one could discern the jumbled words he was trying to say … yet everyone understood his prayer.
Jacob is not just a spiritual warrior, he's also a hero.
I don't know if he'll ever be able to understand, but I hope one day to tell him how he saved two lives.
Twice while we lived in Annapolis, Maryland, a Christian nurse referred a mother expecting a Down Syndrome baby to visit with my wife and me. One mother, along with her husband, had decided to have an abortion. The other mother said she and her husband were undecided but considering it.
Both mothers' visits were remarkably similar, initially with the awkwardness of a cold-call sales visit. The conversation was open but perfunctory … until … the moment each held Jacob in their arms. He was just out of the neonatal intensive care unit (a miracle I'll save to write about in another column). Both just held him … then they cuddled him … and they sobbed.
Though both visited on separate occasions, their words were the same.
"I was expecting a monster."
"They told me about … physical disabilities … financial burdens … unfair to my other children … strain on my marriage …."
Their respective medical teams made it seem that they were telling them these things for the mothers' "best interests."
These health care professionals even seemed to express concern for the babies. After all, they reasoned, what quality of life could such a child expect?
What logic: "No life" is better than a (dire prediction of) "less than perfect quality of life."
That logic is what contributed to an extraordinary death rate the year Jacob was born. In 1997, between 91 and 93 percent of mothers of unborn children diagnosed with Down Syndrome chose abortion; there were about 3,500 live births of Down Syndrome children, so between 39,000 and 50,000 were killed.
The pressure tactics these mothers had experienced were all too familiar for my wife, Catherine, and me, as we had been advised about the same negative quality of life factors as well.
The height of insult for us came during an appointment with her military doctor. I was a naval aviator and junior in rank to him.
Well into the pregnancy, he advised "us" to have an amniocentesis. We knew there was a risk to the baby and asked if the procedure would help him know how to treat the baby. When he said no, and added that he just wanted to make sure we had all the information we needed to make "an informed choice."
For context, it's important to know we had not asked about abortion or even considered it.
Catherine was thirty-eight years old and the AFP test and sonograms had indicated a high probability that Jacob had Down Syndrome. And we were clear that we were making every preparation to welcome this baby into our lives.
I'm analytical, but Catherine is an information-gathering machine. She filled journals with answers to the many questions she asked at every appointment, always trying to be better informed on how to take care of a special-needs child.
Moreover, our faith in God was a known quantity.
The moments that followed the doctor's statement seem surreal now. I reddened as my neck muscles tensed and my forearms tightened. Catherine was on my arm and must have sensed my anger building. She tenderly but firmly squeezed my elbow and with calm strength said, "That choice has already been made."
What a great wife and woman of God!
When over nine out of ten women, Christian and not, were doing otherwise, my wife chose life.
Of course, I knew that was her choice from the beginning. I was amazed as I watched her commit herself to preparing to be the best mom she could be for a baby with the odds stacked against him.
But what a confirmation her statement was to me.
And what a difference that choice has made in our lives. It also made a difference in the lives of the two mothers.
After hugging Jacob, both mothers looked like the weight of the world had been lifted. They laughed and jostled him … and both cried with relief as he loved on them. And each woman, during their respective visits, chose life for their unborn.
Don't get me wrong, it has not been a bed of roses. And we didn't sugar-coat what we knew then.
You can Google "Down Syndrome" and get an idea of the medical issues, learning challenges, physical concerns, added training and therapies, extra time, energy, and expenses.
But I don't want to belabor these points, especially in view of how God has so generously supplied every need.
However, I do need to mention that Catherine picks up the biggest portion of the extra workload for Jacob. I don't tell her enough what a hero she was and is — she is an incredible mom and wife and servant of God — but I'm trying to improve.
I also need to share one more anecdote about Jacob. I'm sure it will bless someone, because it reveals so much about who he is.
Jacob had heart surgery three years ago.
We were with him in the prep area, just loving on him, with friends who were cycling in from the waiting room, when the nurses came to wheel him away. He was already medicated to ease him into sleep. Slurring his words, which were not very clear to start with, he began singing a song his next older brother, Nathan, had taught him.
Lord you are more precious than silver.
Lord you are more costly than gold.
Lord you are more beautiful than diamonds.
And nothing I desire compares with you.
He didn't understand everything that was going on, but he knew something, from the surroundings and the large number of folks who were there to be with him, about the seriousness of what was happening.
He was drifting fast into slumber, going into a situation that he didn't understand, except he knew our concern; and singing praise to God was what was on his heart.
I really hope one day he is able to understand, so I can tell him the hero he is.
I've thought it through a couple of times. Each instance I've imagined the serious look he'll give as I share the details of how the love he showed to two mothers saved the lives of their babies. Then I see a broad smile stretching from cheek to cheek when I give him two thumbs in the air and say "good job."
Choosing life was the right choice.
More importantly, choosing life is the right choice.