Our story: defying expectations to make a difference

Juliet at the Indiana Lincoln Bicentennial Memorial

Juliet at the Indiana Lincoln Bicentennial Memorial

Over the Labor Day Weekend, my kids and I went camping at Lincoln State Park in Southern Indiana. As my daughter walked where Lincoln did, I thought of defying expectations to make a difference. 

When I was a boy, my father took our family to Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial. It was on the way to my parent’s hometown of Owensboro, Kentucky, and swimming in Lake Lincoln provided an opportunity to wear out my two brothers and me for the remainder of the drive. Having a long-weekend with no commitments, I decided to re-visit the memorial now that my kids are the age when I visited it for the first time.

Lincoln Boyhood Memorial

James & Juliet at the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial

Lincoln was born in Kentucky, but at age 7, his father moved the family north to Indiana, near the Little Pigeon Creek. Lincoln lived there until he was 21, when the family then moved to Illinois, the state now referred to as “The Land of Lincoln.” But, as Lincoln said of Indiana, “There I grew up.”

It is nearly impossible to think of Lincoln just as he was when he moved to Indiana, since he is so memorialized for being the 16th President, leading the nation through the Civil War, issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, and being considered the second father of America, after George Washington. But, the Boyhood Memorial impresses upon the visitor all that Lincoln overcame to rise to the highest elected office in his country.

Lincoln said of his father that he was “uneducated.” His mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln, impressed upon Lincoln the value of education. On the frontier, though, education was largely self-taught, as Lincoln scarcely attended a full year’s worth of schooling over the entirety of his childhood. Instead, his time was spent felling logs, taking corn to a mill almost two miles from the family cabin, and working other farms to make some money for his family. And, that’s nothing to say of all that he endured from living in what was then the wilderness of the frontier.

Lincoln wrote of his Indiana home being in a land filled with bears, panthers, and wolves. The family only lived on what the they planted, harvested, and killed. With death always near, sadly, it visited the Lincoln family often during Lincoln’s formative years.

Just two years after moving to Indiana, Nancy Hanks Lincoln died from milk poisoning. Free range cattle ate the wild growing white snakeroot plant, which produced a toxin in the cow’s milk. With his mother gone, Lincoln’s older sister, Sarah, took over much of the responsibilities of caring for her younger brothers. Then, just a decade after losing his mother, Sarah would die during the birth of her own child, who was stillborn.

I can’t imagine anyone would look upon this childhood and believe here were the makings of the President who ushered America through its second revolution: illiterate parents, no formal schooling, a childhood of toil on a subsistence farm, motherless at age 9, and, yet, this boy became the President who we now know and revere.

As Lincoln defied expectations to make a difference, so too did Juliet on our trip.

Upon arriving at the Memorial, there was a sign-in registry. After he signed his own name, James showed Juliet where to sign hers.


After watching an informative video (where I learned Lincoln’s first court case was where he had been sued by a competing ferry service on the Ohio River; Lincoln won), we then set out to visit Nancy Hanks Lincoln’s commemorative headstone and the bronze casting of the foundation and hearth of Lincoln’s cabin.

We returned from the nearly two mile hike with the temperature starting to rise. Ultimately, it would reach 99-degrees–one of the hottest days of the year so far. After lunch, we sought refuge from the heat in the air-conditioned Lincoln Memorial Hall. While James shopped for souvenirs and I looked at the historical displays, I enjoyed hearing Juliet’s voice echoing down the hallway as she read a pamphlet on the Memorial.

lincoln memorial hall

James & Juliet in Lincoln Memorial Hall

With evening approaching, we headed out on our last hike of the day (our third), visiting where Lincoln milled the corn from his family’s farm. At this point, the kids had hiked at least four miles. Juliet did ask to be picked up a couple of times during the hotter points of the day, but on this early evening hike, with the temperature cooling, and the forest canopy providing shade, she stepped out a brisk pace.


At the end of the night, as we made ready for bed, Juliet looked up at the night sky. Unimpeded by the light pollution that surrounds Louisville, where we live, she gasped:

Daddy … look: the stars!

She then asked, “How many?” I answered, “I don’t know, Juliet. Millions.” She corrected me, definitively stating, “Nope. One hundred and eighteen.”

Now, all of this would otherwise be unremarkable. It’s just an eleven-year old girl and how she experienced what some would think a boring visit with her history-geek of a father. But, in doing these simple things: hiking miles in the heat; reading aloud from a pamphlet; writing her name in a registry; and gazing upon the stars and giving a precise estimate of their number, Juliet defied so many expectations of those with Down syndrome.

Expectant and new parents are still told that their child with Down syndrome may not walk, talk, read, or write. But, there was Juliet, doing all of that.

To be fair, there are children and adults with Down syndrome who will be non-verbal in their communication and who will struggle to read and write. But the same could be said for Lincoln’s parents with their illiteracy, and yet their son grew up to write a speech, the Gettysburg Address, memorized by school children to this day.

The point of all this is the humility impressed upon me by the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial. Our greatest president rose from the most humblest of circumstances. He was roundly ridiculed as he campaigned and governed, being called a gorilla whose intellect many doubted would be sufficient for the job of president. But Lincoln defied these expectations and made an incredible difference in our nation’s historical arc.

Similarly, the hubris with which we all can succumb that causes us to predict what a life can amount to should be tempered by this same humility. Parents should not be told by anyone–not an obstetrician, medical geneticist, bioethicist, school administrator, or possible employer–what their child may amount to, unless and until, those wishing to do that judging take the time to see what their child may be capable of.

I have no doubt those who saw Juliet’s signature, or heard her voice as she read from that pamphlet, or saw her on the hike had second thoughts on what a child like her may be capable of.

May we all be this humble when tempted to predict what others may be able to do. In doing so, we may give others the chance to defy expectations, to make a difference, and to make this world a better place.

Lincoln Bicentennial Memorial

James & Juliet at the Lincoln Bicentennial Memorial


  1. Marsha Michie says:

    What I love most about this: Juliet never has to fight low expectations from her parents, because you are open to anything she may ever accomplish and are always ready to support and encourage her. Any kid is lucky to have parents like that.

  2. Jim Gaffney says:

    Your children are beautiful, Mark. Keep up the great work with them. jim


  1. […] who have read previous posts know that my son, James, received a National Park Service Passport last Fall. He now wants to […]

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: