For me, learning the lessons more special than the needs began before…
Well, just, before. Here’s how it began:
The ladies lived in a house on a campus that sprawled between a few small Midwestern towns. It gave them a home that was less clinical than an institution and more encompassing than a single group home. Everyone who lived there required extensive and consistent attention.
Leigh screamed from her chair and pounded the air with her flailing wrists. No, screamed is not accurate, she yelled. A scream infers emotion and her voice boomed without emotion, just loud. Leigh lived on the other side of the house, the ladies on my side could all stand, walk and eat independently, but from there each needed varied levels of assistance with her daily routines.
I didn’t know how these women came to their disability or how long they lived separately from their families. Were there complications at birth? A terrible sickness or accident along the way? They varied in age from early twenties to old. Emily seemed the oldest, she mumbled, walked in small steps while carefully watching the floor, and cursed eloquently.
Twenty-three years ago this was my part-time job; it paid well. I did my best but it wore my spirit down. Questions about God, and life, and why, pulled at my consciousness.
What is the point of a life like Leigh’s? I confided in my boyfriend’s grandmother that I often felt frustrated and even angry as I worked among the ladies in the house. Her replies to my questions were easily summed up with the concept that all God’s creatures are precious. While her faith and actions impressed me, I still struggled. What about their minds? their souls? what is the point?
I wrote to a friend of mine (these were the days of letters, kids). I told her about the people and the work and my struggle. “Try not to focus on their limitations. What they can or cannot do.” she replied, “Instead, open yourself up to what they are teaching you.” I took a deep breath and went to work renewed.
“What are you teaching me?”
I silently asked in each situation. Leigh’s lessons were in patience. Sue taught me to be a better caregiver. (She really showed me when I wasn’t.) Emily taught me how to curse lyrically, “Godd$#@shitbitch,” (still used to this day).
Then there was the night I learned to sing about sheep. Three ladies and I strolled down the dirt road that ran behind their house, the late summer sun lingered over the horizon and the fields looked as vast as the ocean. Mary Anne pointed. “Sheep!” The declaration came from her as a loud, high pitched tone. I can’t remember if the ladies laughed when I jumped, literally jumped back upon seeing the beasts on other side of the fence.
“That’s no ‘sheep,’” I said, mimicking the high sing-song tone Mary Anne used, “That’s a SHEEP.” My last word sang low and long, like the baritone on Showboat. Because, seriously, this was my first view of sheep in a field and they were not at all what I expected to see based on the toy animals Fisher Price® teaches or the cute lamb photos splashed around at Easter. No, this was a beast to be reckoned with, and I was fine not getting any nearer to it than across the road and beyond the fence.
Thus inspired, Mary Anne now sang both a low and menacing “Sheep,” and added to it her high excited vibrato creating a range of notes as she sang, “Sheep…sheep…oh sheep….” From high to low the rest of our walk. To this day I cannot see sheep without singing her song and smiling.
It wasn’t long before I took another job in town and college classes resumed. And, of course, I was pregnant.
*This story of me was originally included in the startup blogs of our site. All names of the ladies are fictionalized. With a “publish” date of Feb 1, 2013. Thanks for stopping by, feel free to leave a note or for emailed updates, not too frequently, Join the Club Here*