Sunday, December 14, 2008

City Life

With That Smile, How Could He Lose?
By Kasey Ryan

When asked if he thinks he’s different, his response says more about him than this article ever could. “Well, we are all different. God made us all different.”

Those words of wisdom come from Mike Clooney, age 43. Clooney was born with Down Syndrome, a genetic disorder in which the infant is born with one extra chromosome that causes developmental delays, mental retardation, and often other health problems or effects.

Back when Clooney was born, hospitals didn’t have the type of rigorous prenatal tests that could predetermine that Clooney would be born with this disorder. However, his sister Dotty Ryan says her siblings count Clooney as a “blessing,” and couldn’t picture him any differently than he is.

“When Mike was born, it definitely came as a surprise to my parents because there wasn’t as much research and awareness on Down Syndrome back then and my mother didn’t know how serious it was or how much it would affect Mike,” says Ryan.

“However, once my parents learned more about the disorder and that Mike would be able to lead a relatively normal life aside from the developmental delays, they breathed a sigh of relief that their baby boy was happy and for the most part, healthy. Mike having Down Syndrome didn’t change the fact that this was still my parents’ child, their baby boy, and she loved him just as much, if not more, than the rest of us,” Ryan added.

Mike Clooney says we're all different.

Clooney, the youngest of eight children, was immediately taken under their wing by his seven older siblings. Ryan, now a nurse and a mother of four girls, reminisces about Clooney as a young child.

“He was just the cutest thing you’ve ever seen. He had this amazing smile that literally transformed his face and reach all the way up to his blue eyes,” she says. “He could get away with murder, and not because of his disorder, but because one sad look from his small eyes that were so full of love and you were done for. He especially melted my mother’s heart and had a special bond with her as the baby of the family.”

Clooney grew up normally in pretty much every aspect aside from the developmental delays that made him have to work harder than the other children when learning to talk, read and write, but he managed to overcome each obstacle with a smile on his face.

When he was old enough to go to school, Clooney attended a special school for Down Syndrome children. He thrived in school and made friends easily, some with Down-Syndrome, and some without.

Ryan remembers how easily Clooney made friends, “People were drawn to Mike. He was just so sweet and genuine and naively funny. He loved to make knock-knock jokes. All our friends sort of followed suit and took him under their wing too. He was never teased or ridiculed, as far as I can remember. In fact, when our friends came over to call for us to come and play, they’d ask if Mike could come too!”

However, as Clooney grew into adolescence, things took a turn for the worst. “Dad and Ma got sick from cancer. Dad went to heaven, and ma got sicker,” Clooney recalls. His sister also recalls this tragic time in their lives.

“I just remember that all my mother was worried about was what would happen to Mike when she died. She was terrified he’d end up in an institution or a home, even though all my brothers and sisters and I assured her over and over again that would never happen.”

Her mother not only worried about where Clooney would live, but what would become of him. For the first time since he was born, she realized that she wouldn’t be around forever and began to worry how Clooney would get a degree, or if he would be able to get a job, or what would become of him. In the end, Clooney chose to live with Ryan, her husband and their four girls, which Clooney recalls as one of the greatest blessings of all.

Clooney says he has come a "long way."

“I love living with Dotty, Danny and the girls. I help around the house, go to a program for grown-ups like me, and still work really hard at Rite-Aide. I love my pool table and my bowling group,” Clooney says.

Today, the man his mother worried about so much is thriving. He can read and write at a fifth- or sixth-grade level, which is well beyond the third-grade level that doctors said he would reach. Not only that, but the man has more jokes than a comedian and is always ready to make people laugh at a moment’s notice. Clooney has held a steady part-time job for years and seems to have thankfully avoided the many health problems that plague others with the disorder, although he does suffer from seizures sometimes.

After talking about how much he has accomplished in his 43 years and how many lives he has touched, a hint of the infamous smile that his sister referred to earlier that lights up his face and reaches all the way up to his eyes. He throws his arms up triumphantly as he says with pride, “I came a long way!”

Yes, Mike, yes you have.

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