Sunday, July 31, 2011

The adult wing knocked the wind out of me.

A post about how I learned more about what I didn't know that I didn't know.
The Frazer Center has a wing that helps adults with a varying range of mental disabilities receive job training and, hopefully, find purpose in life. The clients range from ages 22-72, most funded by Medicaid, all in some form of assisted living. All told, there are about 90 of them. Some are working off-site in grocery stores, factories, etc. Those on the more severe side of the spectrum remain at the center and do tasks around the facilities (sanitation engineering, gardening, cooking, waste management, and the like) to improve their self-sufficiency.
I look back on the week preceding my time with the adult clients with no small amount of shame. I was dreading this part of the rotation. My supervisor told me before I began that if it was too much for me, I didn't have to finish out the week. And before I even began, I had disgracefully prepared myself to take him up on that offer. By the time I entered the building for the first time, I had already built up walls to "protect myself" from the smells, the saliva, the general fear hinging on a stigma I had allowed to intensify over time.

I was wrong. Allow me to say again, I was wrong, and I apologize.

I had not known imagination until I met Micah, late 50's, mentally delayed, who is "studying to be a doctor." Every day, I would pretend to have a different ailment, and he would make up a cure for me. I even taught him how to "stitch me up" after I "got a gunshot wound in my shoulder." He would hum the Sesame Street theme song as he "cut the thread."
I had not known suave until I met Maurice, early 20's, Down Syndrome, who would bust a move with all the grace and agility of Michael Jackson, complete with sound effects.
I had not known true love until I met Charlene, early 50's, mentally delayed, and Martin, same age I assume, largely nonverbal cerebral palsy? who are "getting married next July." Charlene's face lit up every day when she heard Martin crashing down the hallway, using his entire body weight to thrust his walker forward and then collapsing onto it for every step. He would burst into the room and beam at Charlene as she danced around his walker and dodged his strands of saliva.
I had not known heartache until I met Vanna, a beautiful 40-year-old victim of surgery malpractice who has retained her mental capacity but cannot speak, swallow, walk, or use her hands as anything more than hooks. And Miguel, 35, who had just graduated from high school and was helping a stranger change a flat tire when an oncoming car crashed into him, impairing his walking, cognitive function, and speech. And Lauren, 32, cerebral palsy, who drove her power chair over to me clutching a 1980's genetics textbook on my last day. "Will you help me study this?" she asked. "I want to go to a college where I can study this so I can live in a dorm and do homework." I found a test in the back of the first chapter and started reading a sentence aloud, but I trailed off somewhere between the words "eukaryotic" and "diploidy." What do you do? What can you say? We spent a painstaking hour and a half copying definitions from the back of the book together, 15 minutes per sentence. I left that day swearing up and down that I would never take school or learning for granted again. But I know that in less than a month, I will start classes, and reminiscent of Peter, I will probably have complained three times before the first week is up.
Watching the clients crave attention, latch onto any morsel of conversation they can get (and wouldn't you, too, if every person you encountered avoided even your gaze, much less tangible interaction with you?) is like a mirror in which I see myself along with the rest of typically developing humanity. We are more sneaky about our need for validation than they are, of course, but we're all seeking the same end.
Being with the adults helped/helps me keep myself in check. I am humbled by their gratitude. I am honored by their trust. I am challenged by their boldness. I am uplifted by their joy.
I am going back on September 29th for Charlene's birthday. A promise is a promise.

My friend still walks.

He is probably 6' 4'', late 50's, gray hair, stocky. My headlights found him pacing the streets of my neighborhood nearly every morning since the first day I drove myself to high school. Some days it was just the two of us inching up the hill: me shifting gears in my plaid skirt, him shuffling determinedly in his sweat-drenched track suit. Every morning, like clockwork, a smile and a wave to start the day off right. I once considered writing him a Christmas card to thank him.

On a visit home from college this summer, I awake in a cold sweat, teeth loose and aching from clenching for hours as I labored through a bad dream. My dad strokes my hair. My dog licks my face. "It was only a dream," they reassure me. "Sometimes," I tell them, "it's not about the dream." The dream is just a reminder of uncertainty, of a lack of control over my own subconscious. Like a wolf nipping at my heels, it seems to slowly gnaw away my base, my security.
It exhausts and derails me, but it is a work day, and I have a long drive to campus ahead of me. So I get in my car, and I set out. I am almost to the exit of my neighborhood when I see the tracksuit, my friend, panting, still ready with a smile and a wave. A reminder that some things in life do remain constant.
My friend still walks, and I still stand.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

When working with babies, leave your shoes and your assumptions at the door.

They say there is a first time for everything.
I guess you could say it was my first time really working with babies, but I would also add that this was my first time understanding the worth in working with babies. This may come as a surprise to anyone who has seen me stop traffic to watch a baby toddle along the sidewalk, but as much as I admire small children, they have always seemed frighteningly enigmatic to me- miniature people who don't know or understand societal conventions, and who are still unable to fully explain the logic behind their fear, joy, sadness and annoyance.
My first day working in the Rainbow room with the one-year-olds, Travis got scared that he was going to be left in the stroller in the hallway. The minute he reached up for me with that fear in his eyes, my biases all went out the window. I realized:
Sometimes, especially with children, you just don't get a rational explanation of fear; there may not even be a logical explanation behind it to get at. But does it matter? Fear is still fear. Joy is joy, sadness is sadness, and annoyances are annoyances- many times, you just have to deal with things at face value.
I have learned to find the joy in a baby's smile and extended eye contact, to allow a single successful teaching moment to sustain me over the day, to envelop myself in the warmth of a sleeping baby who has ceased its anxious squirming to find solace in my embrace.
I have sacrificed, at this point, probably every limb and appendage of my own to keep harm from coming to these children who walk in front of moving swings, crawl in the path of tricycles, tip out of cribs, and relentlessly attempt to eat the inedible.
I have overcome my anxiety caused by multi-tasking and noise clutter. I have overridden my gag reflex, which is no longer triggered by the various noxious odors that plague a nursery. I have calloused my sensitivities- to saliva, to abrasive noises, to congealed food. I have averted my propensity for napping (when you already spend 1/6 of your waking hours in a napping environment, you feel like a loser allotting any more of your time to sleep than you have to) by pursuing life-giving activities instead. I have broken down my fear of mess. I have built up my immune system.
But every minute is worth it. These kids really are just miniature people, with personalities and feelings, and they understand much more than we give them credit for. The children I work with have already picked up on social cues about propriety, relationships, you name it. The things they are learning now will shape them into the people they are going to be. Trust me, I've seen it- I started with the older kids, as you might recall. So this work, then, is the foundation for helping form a contributing member of society.
That being said, these children are not my own and will not, in all likelihood, remember my name in a week. Much like childhood fear, I cannot explain the force or logic that gives me pleasure in this seemingly thankless work. The day to day rejuvenation comes through small victories- a smile, a breakthrough concept, a rare hour where everyone is napping at the same time. But why do those things matter?
After spending so much time in a nursery, I cannot help but believe in altruism.

Monday, July 4, 2011

My Grandfather's Hands

They are spotted with sun and age, calloused by time. They sometimes seek a stronghold in a passing chair or countertop. After 85 years, the fingerprints are nearly worn off and the nails are beginning to buckle at the tips.
But they make a masterful tool of a dull knife as he nimbly peels every scrap of skin off the potatoes we are preparing for dinner. As we work, he tells the stories.
Those same hands stayed steady and true in the face of a world war battle.
They still, without fail, grasp the tools of the task at hand, be it hedge clippers for pruning a tree or a wrench for fixing the plumbing or a grease rag for tuning up the car.
And they have managed to hold on to the Bible and the same beautiful woman for 60 years.

By the time we are finished, his pile holds five times again as many potatoes as mine does.
I glance down at my own hands, youthful and smooth. On any give day, they quickly type out college papers. They carefully turn pages in books. They glide over piano keys.
But for now they are spent- trembling, nicked and nearly bloodied from my blundering scrapes at relentless potato peel.
I decide I still have a lot to learn from my grandpa's hands.