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The Gift of Angelo: A Conversation with the Single Mother of a Boy with Down Syndrome


Sisters of Life

Sisters of Life - published on 10/27/14

Pressured to have an abortion, one mother gives birth and finds profound joy.

Can you tell us a bit about life before Angelo Pio?

Gina: In my former life, I was a journalist. I started at CBS News, worked for the newsmagazine 48 Hours, was a TV reporter for a local news station in West Virginia, a traffic reporter in New York City and in early 2001, I started working for ABC News: World News Tonight as a Desk Assistant. The real starting point, in many ways, was 9/11, because I was sent as part of a large team of people to Ground Zero that day. I was there until early the next morning and really had a sense of "You don’t know what’s going to happen when you wake up the next day." I had always been very driven, but after 9/11, I suddenly felt this urgency that I needed more balance in my life.

What did you do to try to find that balance?

Gina: I decided to take a vacation by myself to Italy. I had always wanted to go to the Vatican and was very drawn to Pope John Paul II. On this trip, I met someone whom I instantly fell for. Although there were a lot of problems in this relationship, it continued on and off for years. When it seemed that things were starting to come together, and we were talking marriage, I became pregnant, and at the time we both were really happy.

What happened during your pregnancy?

Gina: When I was about three months pregnant, I received a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome. It was shocking and heartbreaking. I remember not sleeping during those days and when I would sleep, I would wake up to this tidal wave of despair and sadness and fear. It just strangles you. I was getting pressure to end the pregnancy from a number of people —my doctor being one, but my child’s father being the most painful. It is heartbreaking when they are telling you that your baby should not be born especially when you are so vulnerable.

So, you were being pressured to have an abortion. What did you do?

Gina: In the midst of it, with all the pressure, I made an appointment to have an abortion. After I hung up the phone I remember having this intense heaviness inside—almost suffocating; it was just this absolute despair and brokenness. I don’t have the words to describe it any better than that.

What changed your mind?

Gina: The other people in my life definitely stepped it up a notch. One in particular was a wonderful priest, who would not leave me alone. Now I know that there were a lot of people storming heaven for me and my baby. The power of prayer should never ever be underestimated, because in my heart, fear was winning. I was completely broken down. You know those little cartoons with the angel and the devil on someone’s shoulder? It’s really like that. The evil one was whispering in my ear, saying things like: “This can all be over. Once you have the abortion, life can go on. Things will be normal again. You don’t have to deal with this. You can have another baby.” It went over and over like a broken record. A priest suggested that I call the Sisters of Life. I did and talked to a Sister. There was a lot of back and forth for a few weeks—a battle. But then, finally, I finally received a huge grace. I left my boyfriend, and I moved into Sacred Heart of Jesus Convent.

What made you move into Sacred Heart of Jesus Convent?  

Gina: I needed to be able to hear God speaking to me… I needed to know: “God, are you really asking me to be a single mom of a child with Down syndrome?” You know, when you live at Sacred Heart, your prayer life does ramp up, whether you want it to or not. And I was wanting that. I distinctly remember when I did make the decision to move into Sacred Heart, I got that feeling you get when you just say “yes” – this lightness and peace… I guess that’s the reward for surrendering, right?

How were you able to accept being a single mom of a child with Down syndrome?

Gina: The Sisters suggested I go on a silent retreat. My first morning there I went to the cafeteria and the staff was cleaning up. At the time, I was still really sensitive about anything related to Down syndrome. I was still coming to terms with it all. So there I was in the cafeteria figuring out what to eat, and I looked up, and who did I see behind the kitchen window? A guy with Down syndrome, mopping the floor! I was like, “Are you kidding me?”

I don’t remember exactly, but I was a little awkward because I was very pregnant, and I dropped my tray… as I leaned down to pick everything up, the young man with Down Syndrome came over to me and put his arm around my shoulders, and just hugged me.

He didn’t say anything?

Gina: Not a word. I remember freezing for a moment. He was just a regular, tall, strong kind of guy. I don’t know how long we stood there. Not more than a couple of seconds because then his boss spotted us and quickly came around and said to him, “You don’t know her. You’re not supposed to do that. What are you doing?” She turned to me and said, “I’m so sorry. He’s never done anything like that before.” I left the cafeteria needing to be alone. I sat down and immediately knew, “That was Jesus. Jesus just hugged me!” I was startled, because I was absolutely sure that that was Jesus; I was certain. And the question about parenting my child – I already kind of knew before the retreat, but it was definitive at the end. I had that same lightness, you know.

Would you be a different person today if it wasn’t for Angelo?

Gina: Honestly, I thank God everyday because Angelo has saved me, he really has. It is so important to talk about how a child with a disability does not weaken us—it strengthens us—the individual and the community! I can’t imagine how I would be the person that I am today, as strong as I am and knowing God the way that I do, if it wasn’t for Angelo.

Do you feel like you’re seeing life from a different perspective?

Gina: Definitely. He’s made me more compassionate, sensitive, patient, and obedient. I never saw myself as motherly, although I always wanted to be a mom. It’s almost like there was a part of me that was dormant, and that has just lit up in my caring for him. I’ve discovered things in myself that I didn’t know… a silliness, a quirkiness. And he’s got that, too, and we go back and forth. It’s almost like something has come alive, we just fit. With him there is always a bit of joyfulness just below the surface.

How do you think Angelo has changed the way you approach the world?

Gina: With Angelo in my life, many things are so much clearer and simpler. Almost on a daily basis, I am stopped on the street with somebody saying how cute he is or “I like those glasses,” or he says “hello,” or something. The day-in and day-out struggles I have are interspersed by these moments that I have with him. For example, we now know all of the local doormen by first name because of Angelo. He calls out: “Hi Steve!” “Morning, Carlos!” If it weren’t for Angelo, I wouldn’t have known Steve and Carlos and their stories. I mean, Carlos, in particular, can be on the phone with someone in his building and he’ll see Angelo waiting to say “hi” and be like “Oh! Gotta go! Gotta go say hi to my friend!” It’s like Angelo is helping to create the kind of world that should be, if there wasn’t all the brokenness, problems, competition, ugliness and everybody racing around.

Do you feel like you see beauty?

I do…and I also really do see the benefits that come from suffering. Angelo has an eye for the most downtrodden person that we see. On our way home there is a group of poor people in wheelchairs that gather frequently on one corner. We always stop and say “hello.” You know, I never would have stopped for a moment before. I wasn’t comfortable with disability in my other life. That was another thing I was fighting with God about: “Of all things, you’re going to give me a child with a dis- ability? You know I don’t like disability! I’m not comfort- able with that – give me something else!”

How has your perspective on suffering changed?

Gina: Now, when I see somebody suffering, I recognize something there. I think people who are suffering must know God pretty well. You know, I now question if “the easy life” is such a gift. Angelo’s been through a lot of pain because he was recently diagnosed with arthritis. Because of the Down syndrome, he’s spent hours and hours of physical therapy, speech therapy, and occupational therapy. For kids that have these challenges – and they have them from Day 1 – they have a very different childhood. I am thankful for all the therapies, because you want that, but at the same time, although he doesn’t have the easy life in many ways, he’s often the most joyful kid in the room. He’s really strong. Angelo enjoys life.

How do you think Angelo sees the world?

Gina: The world is a delightful place for him! You know, daily life for Angelo is pretty good! He’s really confident. His teachers and therapists have commented on this over the years – how comfort- able he is in his “Angelo skin.” He’s got more self-confidence than I ever had. He’s really secure, and that makes me happy. It’s just uncomplicated, the way he is, what he embodies. It’s simple, you know: “I like you. You like me."

When people meet Angelo, I wonder if they think, “He has something I want.” He’s not worried about rejection. Do you think people are drawn to that?

Gina: Yes, even for me, there’s a freedom that has made me more authentic. There have been times on the train where he and I are just being playful and goofy, and I’ll stop and look, and people are staring. They’re looking at me like: “Is she really that happy? Or is she crazy? Because how can you be that joyful and free? Look at her kid. Those things don’t go together.” In today’s culture, having a child with Down syndrome does not equal happiness. But my son, without question, is the joy of my life. Today I have a strength, an understanding, and a meekness that I can’t imagine I would have had on my own. By meekness, I mean a teachability, an obedience that did not exist before. Now I know the profound joy that comes when you do God’s will.

What do you feel the Lord is calling you to in all of this?

Gina: In my relationship with Jesus, I feel like He is asking me to continually surrender. I now recognize God’s handiwork in my life. Our Lord will never interfere with our free will to choose the path that we want to choose, but I do believe He will do anything and everything He can to try to save one of his precious children, which we all are. I am continually amazed at how much God loves me and the tangible ways He is working in my life since I began this path of abandonment to His will. The Lord had a different plan for me than I ever had for myself, and, without question, what He delivers is higher and better than anything I could have come up with. In my "other life," I never imagined being the mother of a child with Down syndrome, but today I see how perfect God’s plan is. Honestly, I can’t believe that God gave Angelo to me to be his Mommy… I’m not sure how I could have been so lucky.

This interview was reprinted courtesy of IMPRINT, a publication of Sisters of Life, a contemplative/active religious community of women founded in 1991 by John Cardinal O’Connor for the protection and enhancement of the sacredness of every human life. The Sacred Heart of Jesus Convent is their Respite located in the heart of Manhattan. The Sisters at the Holy Respite seek to serve those women most vulnerable to the pressure of abortion.

AbortionDown Syndrome
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