Country singer and songwriter Rory Feek knows what it is like to encounter the unexpected. In 2014, Rory and his wife, Joey — known more popularly by their musical pseudonym Joey + Rory — stepped away from the country music world to prepare for the birth of their daughter. By this time, they had been married about 12 years and had spent 8 years traveling the world and making music together.

He writes on his blog, “I was a songwriter taking a break from writing songs and Joey encouraged me to write about our lives instead. So at the beginning of 2014, I started filming the little and big moments in our life and blogging about them as they happened. I didn’t know why at the time. I do now.”

A few days after the birth of Indiana, they learned that their daughter had Down syndrome. And a few months after that, Joey was diagnosed with the cervical cancer that would eventually claim her life. Four years later, in the wake of tragedy, grace, growth, fame and farming, Rory shared with me what it was like to receive his daughter Indy’s diagnosis and the joys of parenting his “good and perfect gift from above.”

How did your medical professional first deliver the news about Indiana’s Down syndrome diagnosis?

Our daughter Indiana was born at home with a midwife and our older daughters by Joey’s side. It was a perfect, beautiful birth. Soon afterwards though, Joey had complications and ended up being rushed to our local hospital for surgery. As she was recovering from surgery outside the door of her room, the attending doctor told me that she was concerned that Indy had Down syndrome. A short time later, I told Joey.

What was going through your head and what was the first thing you said to Joey after receiving Indiana’s diagnosis?

My first reaction was complete bewilderment. It hadn’t even crossed my mind that Indy could have DS and when the doctor told me that, I felt a bit like I was in the Twilight Zone. 

It was as if in a moment, the present and the future, were completely different… and yet, very much the same. That our lives, and especially this little one’s life, was going to be completely different than we had expected, just a moment before. Not in a bad way… just in a very clear one. Joey’s reaction to me telling her was probably the same down deep inside, but if it was, I never knew it. All she said as she held and stroked Indy’s soft hair was, “Isn’t she perfect?”

All she said as she held and stroked Indy’s soft hair was, “Isn’t she perfect?”

How is parenting Indiana different than you expected when you first heard her diagnosis?

It is completely different than what I expected. The books and blogs I first read right after Indy was born and the advice I received all seemed to say ‘this child is going to be completely different’ and ‘set your expectations very, very low’ and things like that to prepare Joey and I for a child with a much lower IQ and abilities. That hasn’t been the case at all. She’s incredibly smart and thoughtful and normal. 

The truth is, raising Indiana so far has been almost exactly the same as raising my older daughters Heidi and Hopie twenty-five years ago. Other than the fact that her little almond eyes are different and she has small braces inside her shoes and is four and can’t walk up and down stairs yet, she’s very typical. Probably because we don’t see her as a child with Down syndrome, we just see her as a child.

The other thing is we set very normal boundaries for her. “No” means “no.” She gets no special treatment because she has special eyes. And I think that’s part of why she’s thriving so well and so high functioning. She lives a normal life, like a normal child. My wife Joey was much smarter than me and she’s the one who put these things in place early on. And I think it’s made all the difference in the world in Indiana’s life so far.

What do you wish more men knew about the experience of fathering a child with a disability?

I am not sure, because I don’t see myself as a father raising a child with a disability, only a father raising a child. I know that Indy has Down syndrome, but it’s not a thing that is part of our lives, and even more so, a part of hers so far. She has no idea that she has it. She’s just a little girl who loves Cinderella and books and playing ‘babies.’

 For me, getting to be a father — not just for one season, but for two — has been the greatest blessing of my life. Life doesn’t truly begin until we give our lives away to another. There is no greater joy than fatherhood for me.”

Despite the unexpected turns that life presented to him, Rory Feek’s story is one of profound beauty. He embraced fatherhood and the unknown in the midst of tragedy, and their future is bright. Author and Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl reminds us that “in some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.” The sacrifice of fatherhood. The sacrifice of self-giving love.

Once Upon a Farm, Rory’s second book after Joey’s passing, documenting his life on the farm with Indiana, is hitting stores on June 19th. He writes, “This isn’t a ‘how to’ book, it’s more of a ‘how we’ or more accurately ‘how [God]’ planted us on a few acres of land and grew something bigger than Joey or I could have ever imagined.” You can order the book here.

All photos used with permission from Rory Feek’s blog.

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