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.