Thursday, November 8, 2012

Mentally disabled

When my family first moved to the college town on the the eastern edge of Washington state, we lived in a neighborhood next door to a house with lowered shades and dark, covered porch that, years later, reminded me where Boo Radley lived in To Kill A Mockingbird. Other children in the neighborhood told us that a 'retarded' girl lived there, whose name was Bobbi or Robbi (47 years dulls the memory a bit!). I apologize for using this politically incorrect and offensive word, only do so because it was first time I ever heard such a word, and didn't even understand the concept, only knew that, from the tone of their voices, it meant something awful. Something scary. Then, within the first few days we lived there--on a hot, late August afternoon, I saw this girl. She was sitting on a blanket in front of her house, surrounded by a large wooden fence, like a giant playpen. She wasn't a girl at all, but a very large, maybe even grown, woman, with short dark hair, wearing nothing but a shirt and a diaper. An enormous diaper. Gurgling as she played with baby toys. I was scared to death. Couldn't make sense of what she was.

That year I began third grade at a school where all the mentally disabled children from the whole area were bused and educated. Their classrooms were in my wing of the school; one was right next door. I began to know them as 'Whitmans' for having come from all over the county, and to this day, that word, sadly, has negative connotations to both Beve and me. And though I grew used to seeing kids in wheelchairs, walkers, with all kinds of disabilities, I was never really comfortable around them. It wasn't that I was mean to them, more like that first fear never really went away. I was a child, and thought like a child. It doesn't reflect well on me, I know but...there it is.

After college, however--because God is God, and is ALWAYS in the business of correcting our misconceptions and redeeming our fears (if we let Him)--as a VERY employable young woman with degrees in English and Biblical Studies (read the sarcasm here), I had trouble finding a job. Finally I took one working with Mentally Disabled Adults. Men and women approximately the age of Bobbi/Robbi who had first scared me.  It wasn't an easy job. I lived and worked 24 hours a day, 4 days a week with these people, cooked for them, cleaned their messes, washed their hair, did all kinds of things I never dreamed of doing. It was like taking care of children (something else I couldn't imagine doing at that age, though I was within 5 years of doing it full-time).  But taking care of children who had more physical problems, more communication problems, more everything problems.

And I learned from them. Was changed by them. It wasn't easy. It wasn't within my natural gift-set, but God used me. One evening a woman named Linda began freaking out. She freaked out monthly with the appearance of blood (if you know what I mean).  And this particular night while she was freaking, she sat down in someone else's place on the couch, causing that woman to immediately start a cacophony of her own. To calm the situation, I tried to talk Linda off the ledge the couch, then made the colossal (rookie!) mistake of thinking I could 'help' her move. I bent in front of her, grabbed one of her arms and pulled. And in her fit, she kicked me. Right on the left side of my ribs. By the next morning when I was free to see a doctor, I could hardly breathe and I was sporting quite the bruises. When he pressed on my ribs, I threw up on him. Fortunately, those three ribs were only cracked not broken all the way through, but I didn't know the difference. Learned another lesson there too. Reasoning skills are different with different kinds of people.

Now, over and over, we walk into the skilled nursing facility where Grampie lives. There's a closer resemblance to those children in the Whitman class and the mentally disabled adults I worked with in Eugene than to who these men and women were when they were working, raising families, going to school, dreaming of their futures. Every person with Alzheimer's or any kind of dementia has become a person with mental disability. A person who has a brain tumor, or with a catastrophic head injury does as well. There are many ways to join those sitting in their places on the couch, who need their hair washed. Grampie got himself outside the facility the other day, and if he'd had the strength to wheel himself away, there's no possible way he'd have been able to get back. The only way he could sit outside alone would be with a big wooden fence around him. Wearing--as always now--a diaper.

My point is, if we live long enough, we all get there. Thyrza turns 94 on Sunday and now there's a baby monitor by her bed so that her daughter can hear her if she gets up during the night.

I was afraid of what I didn't understand when I first saw it as a child. But now I am an adult. And I see it with adult eyes. In the born-that-way, and the it's-coming-down-the-road ones. God puts people in front of us to show us how to live. To teach us that being born in His image comes doesn't simply come with perfect bodies at the height of our powers or age. It means here and now, no matter how smart or able or healthy or anything else. What we look like, what we can do, how long we live. It's having been made in LOVE, and breathed into Life by Him. And loved today--and always--exactly as we are.

Update: This afternoon, SK commented that she isn't sure that what she sees when she looks into the mirror is really the truth. I suggested that for women it almost never is. However, that's probably true for all humans. We look at what's there. See the flaws of youth, the wrinkles and sags of age, what we aren't on...well, the face of our faces, if that makes sense. We look in the mirror and, no matter how able-bodied we might be, focus on what isn't.

God, however, without a such a mirror, gazes down at us, looks out from within us, bled from the cross at us, and sees who and what we really are. And calls us worthy. Worthy of birth and re-birth and indwelling and resurrection.


Elle said...

"Reasoning skills are different with different kinds of people."
Love it!

Pamela M. Steiner said...

This was powerful. Yes, in one way or another, we all end up in a similar state. The vanity and pride are stripped away when we become totally dependent on others to take care of our most private physical "events" of the day. As I helped to care for my mother and then later my father, I saw how quickly all that facade slips away and we become vulnerable and helpless, and that's where perfect trust has to come in. We should be practicing that perfect trust now, in our Holy God, upon Whom we are all most dependent, whether we know it or not. Thank you for this story today. I am touched by it in so many ways.

jeskmom said...

Elle, I'm the queen of redundancy at times, aren't I? Sigh.
Pamela, it's a powerful reminder to me as well. Like you, I lived these hard truths with my mother, and it was sometimes excruciating. Somehow with Grampie (Beve's dad), I find more grace in it. Praise Him.