The last amen clung to the treetops, and the still night air held its breath for just a moment before a murmur of voices swelled to fill the commons. I exhaled with the night sky. This was the antithesis of my college career. On the one hand, soul-stirring, praise-inspiring devotion; on the other, Post-Devotional Fellowship. Navigating that sea of small talk was enough to bring even the most content and independent introvert to her knees. As I hesitated, neat rows of students coalesced into clusters. Mine was a lone figure among the circles, assaulted on every side by happy chatter. Everywhere I looked, I saw friends and acquaintances from my time at Freed-Hardeman. My rational self knew that I could walk right up to any number of groups, but my gut screamed to stay put. To insert myself would be presumptuous, assuming, unwelcome. Just as I had determined that I had been awkward enough for one evening and turned to head back to the dorm, I heard it. “Hey, Mandy! Come over here.” An invitation. Belonging. Instant relief. Uncertainty melted away, and I joined the cheerful huddle.
It has been twenty years since those college days, and I have spent almost all of them married to an amazing man whom my independent spirit had no intention of finding. Thankfully, God can bless us in spite of ourselves. John taught me about love starting on the campus of Freed-Hardeman and has never stopped. We have grown together through schooling, moving, starting a business, and starting a family. This past March, we celebrated the birth of our seventh child, Lydia. While there is a certain familiarity to this process by now, there is nothing mundane about it. Getting to know each brand new soul that has been entrusted to our care is simultaneously exhilarating and humbling. However, Lydia’s birth created a new facet in our parenting journey. When I was 30 weeks pregnant, we were told there was a 95% chance that Lydia would be born with Down Syndrome. As soon as she was laid on my chest seven weeks later, we knew the presumptive diagnosis was accurate. A karyotype confirmed it when she was two days old. Our sweet baby girl had three copies of chromosome 21 in every cell of her body. There was not a second from perinatology’s first suspicions to the confirmatory diagnosis that we doubted our seventh child would be a blessing to our family. We rested firmly and gratefully in our God who is good, and we snuggled His tiny, perfect creation. But trusting in God’s goodness and provision didn’t mean that our hearts didn’t grieve. We feared the unknown. We doubted our ability to navigate this new world of special needs parenting. We dreaded the struggles that lay before her and our family, even though we knew the struggles would only refine and strengthen us. The uncertainty that we fell into simply reminded us that we were not in control. We were learning to let go. We were learning to be still.
After we were released from the hospital, home soon settled into the rhythms of life with a newborn. Lydia fell right into the chaos of her six siblings, and they doted on her. Our days were a combination of familiar paths (diapers and feeding and rocking) and uncharted territories (echocardiograms and CT scans and therapies). While the difficulties created by an extra chromosome impacted many areas of her life, she was so much more than a diagnosis. We didn’t have a “Down Syndrome baby.” We had an amazing, beautiful, resilient, sweet new daughter, who also happened to have Down Syndrome.
This new phase of life brought with it a new awareness. Comments, moments, and experiences struck in unexpected ways — sometimes beautiful, sometimes painful. I cried as I worked on an Algebra lesson for my son’s homeschool group, wondering if she would be able to understand advanced mathematical concepts. While watching a video on cellular mitosis, my kids noticed that it stated human cells had 46 chromosomes but that Lydia had 47. Her first smile almost broke me with pure joy and gratitude. Innocuous comments from other moms about “not going to kindergarten in diapers” or “not living at home when they’re 30” cut me to the quick. But I was blindsided by a sweet Facebook post by a fellow FHU alumna. She was alerting us moms to The Lion Cub program — a fantastic service recently started by First Lady Tracie Shannon and the Office of Alumni Engagement. Any Freed-Hardeman graduate could celebrate the arrival of a child through birth or adoption by applying to the program. These children would receive a welcome package, including a onesie and a $500 scholarship to Freed-Hardeman. My stomach turned. I was confronted with all the uncertainties of my sweet baby’s future. Would she graduate from high school? Would she go to college? Suddenly, I was 20 years old again, standing outside after devo and unable to join the group. And just like when I was twenty, my rational self knew that I could walk right up and send my daughter’s information, but my heart wouldn’t let me. It would be presumptuous. It would be assuming. And I didn’t click on the application link.
A few weeks later, I received a text from Chris Ramey, Freed-Hardeman’s Director of Alumni Engagement. “Congratulations on your sweet Lydia. I want to send you one of our new FHU Lion Cub onesies and birth scholarships. However, I want to send scholarships to all your children. When you have a moment, which I know is rare, email me all of your children’s full names and birthdates. Give John my best.”
I cried alone in my room. I hadn’t spoken about my reluctance to register Lydia for the Lion Cub program to anyone, not even John, and here it was. An invitation. Not only an invitation for Lydia, but for each of her siblings — my six beautiful children who opened their lives and their hearts without hesitation or question. My heart burst with gratitude.
I don’t know what Lydia’s future will hold. I don’t know if she or any of my children will ever be students at Freed-Hardeman University. But I do know that they will all be welcomed and celebrated when they step on campus — regardless of their roles. The college family that embraced this awkward, shy teenager in the 1990s is still ready to receive new generations of students today. If you ever find yourself on the outside looking in, wondering if your children have a place in this family of alumni, let me assure you they do. Please consider this your invitation.
Mandy Garrett Bates is a 2001 alumna of FHU and holds degrees in Biology (BS) and English (BA). She is married to Dr. John Bates, a 2000 graduate of the school. Mandy is mom to Nolan, 15, Jude, 11, Eve, 8, Emmett, 5, Anne and Jane, 3, and Lydia 8 months. The Bates family currently live in Union City, Tennessee, and they own and operate Pediatric Place of Union City, LLC. The Bates family are also members of the Bishop Street church of Christ.
By Mandy Garrett Bates ('01)