The Value of Community

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Idea of community

Everyone’s support system looks different. Thus, what defines ‘community’ for me may not at all resemble your idea of community. We do, however,  share a common need for a community of some sort. We cannot survive without it. Sometimes our community can be as small as one other caring person who sees us through a particularly tough, but very private time. At other times, we need the support of a much broader group of people.

seeking support

Ironically, many of us believe that we should be able to cope with life’s challenges on our own. We hesitate to look for help or seek group support.

community of mothers

That was true for me through many of the earlier years of caring for my children with special needs. It wasn’t that I didn’t know the value of community. In fact, I totally immersed myself in the community of La Leche League, an international association of breastfeeding mothers.  We supported one another by gathering together and sharing information via phone calls, letters, books, and a formal newsletter.

Within that group my awareness of how important peer support could be grew and solidified. Many of the mothers I knew in LLL would never have been able to breastfeed without the help of the group. Others would have felt isolated by their choice to breastfeed at a time when most babies were bottle fed. Instead, they found comradery and a sense of purpose.

without community support

Yet, this dependence on community did not, for me, carry over into coping with the multiple challenges I encountered as I tried to provide the best life possible for my two children with increasingly serious intellectual disabilities. I never sought out a support group of other parents with the same challenges. In that endeavor, for reasons I cannot explain, I felt compelled to handle my struggles on my own. I did my best to present to the world a picture of a mother who had it “all together.” Yet, every day the weight of my responsibilities sunk my soul in a sea of overwhelming despair.

community finds me

I did not drown, however, because even though I didn’t seek community, it found me and saved me from isolation and alienation. At first, those who reached out did not have children with special needs but all the same, they empathized with me because every parent has struggles and times they cannot cope. Even when I didn’t ask for help, they offered it because in the real world people have no choice. We are compelled to build community because we are survivors.

two-mother community

So many people gifted me in this way along the way, it would be impossible to name them all, but some folks stand out because they threw a lifeline at a time I might have otherwise disappeared below the raging waters.

First in line are the many young women who took time out of their own life to join our family as second mothers to my children. They made it literally possible for me to get through the day without collapsing. Beyond that, as strong young women not afraid to take on the hard task of caring for children with intellectual disabilities and seizures while at the same time they pursued their own important goals, they provided a myriad of role models for my daughters as they grew up. My heart sings today because several of those women now mothers, even grandmothers, themselves remain in touch with me.

lessons in community

Although our middle daughters, Betsy and Carrie, did not have to cope with intellectual disabilities, they did have the challenge of growing up in a family with siblings with special needs.  My openness to the help of these young women showed them that asking for help is okay, a valuable lifelong lesson.  I have seen as they grew into capable women that they not only know how to ask for help when they need it but they are also very attuned to helping others when they see those people struggling.

neighborhood community

Neither my wonderful mother’s helpers nor I would have thrived as well as we did if we had not lived in the wonderfully tight-knit neighborhood, the Seminary Townhouse Association. Within the heart of Chicago, this enclave of fifty-two homes functioned like a small village. We knew all our neighbors and they knew us.

The neighborhood had long-standing traditions of group festivities that included a bike parade and a talent show. Neighbors welcomed our entire family at these gatherings. These gentle folks understood Kristin and Johnny’s special needs and accommodated them without a fuss. The alleys of the association were more like village streets and in the center of our enclave was a huge green.

Up and down the alleys and over the green, children of all ages played together every day at every hour.  Mothers gathered on porches with mugs of coffee to watch the youngest kids. Jay’s walk every evening from the “L” stop at Fullerton Avenue to our home at the opposite corner of the complex often took him a half-hour because he chatted with almost all the neighbors over their back fences. Only in retrospect, I am able to truly appreciate the emotional protection living in the “Seminary” cocoon afforded me.

supporting the community

Being a part of such a strong community not only created an ongoing sense of support for me, it also made it possible for me to provide support for others. I didn’t need to always be the needy one. I could care for a neighbor’s child after school. Providing meals for a sick neighbor was an ongoing mission for me.

Being a part of the committees that planned our group events let me use my creative and organizational skills. In La Leche League I helped to plan and direct their twenty-fifth-anniversary convention. Because I could see how important these contributions were, they enhanced my sense of my own value at a time when our struggles to find a remedy for Kristin and Johnny’s increasing medical needs had hit a brick wall.

most important community

As the years went by these opportunities built strengths and skills. For which we were grateful when we participated in our most important community, Kristin and Johnny’s adult home, Misericordia.

Exuberant play
Photo by Artem Kniaz

The Notion of “Fixes” and “Cures”

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What is normal?

In her intense, impassioned, compelling memoir, Sitting Pretty, Rebekah Taussig, who has used a wheelchair for mobility since early childhood, tackles among other hard issues concerning disability, the notion of “fixes” and “cures.” She asks why we are so obsessed with fixing ourselves. She suggests, we ought to let ourselves be, take pride in our identity, be the self who is rather than struggle always to be a “better” version of who we are.

We can discover, she notes, that when we accept and dive deep into the unique challenges that every one of us lives with, we will also find in that same place joy and abundance. The rich conversation and dialogue that can follow taking this approach can lead us to a whole new way of seeing and understanding not just ourselves but the world.

looking for a “fix”

Tausig’s questions bit sharply into my memories. Had I wanted to “fix” Kristy and Johnny? Those children, my oldest and my youngest had lived their whole lives with physical and developmental challenges that required consistent care and supervision. Neither developed past the toddler stage although they both lived into middle age. Both had had hundreds of epileptic seizures. Wouldn’t it be natural for me to have wanted a different life for them? Who, in their right mind, would wish to give birth to a child with so many “problems?”

Yet, in Hausig’s perspective, Kristy and Johnny do not have to be seen as problematic. Those of us, who “pathologize and fix some bodies and accommodate others,” (pp. 74-79) present the true problem.

a really brave new world

I find myself swept up by Hausig’s vision, a world that was not full of roadblocks and bends, a world so full of wells and shady places that all find a place there. In that world, no one would construct a building that could not be easily navigated in a wheelchair. All schools would tailor their programs to the learning styles of the students who filled their classrooms, not some idealized “average” student. What she demands that we understand is that “average” just does not exist in the real world. Average is a theoretical mathematical mean as ethereal as the shape of a cloud.

medical magic?

At the same time, I must be honest and admit that I did wish that I could wave a magic wand and make Kristy and Johnny’s seizures go away. Was not that what we were after with all the different changes of anticonvulsant medications that the doctors prescribed, and we tried over the years. And that does not even count the time we kept poor three-year-old Johnny on an impossible ketogenic diet. He could not understand its purpose. I found myself wavering from its strictures and then blaming myself for his seizures. If I had been able to keep to the letter of the diet, would he have become seizure-free? Was getting rid of epilepsy worth losing my sanity? No, I cannot deny that I fell in line with the search for “fixes” and “cures.”

people are not math problems

Not all of that was wrong-headed. Seizures can be dangerous. They come on so suddenly that injury often follows. Usually, cuts and bruises are the worse that can happen, but once Kristy broke her collar bone. But behind the struggle to conquer the seizures was the hope that if we could stop the seizures then their brains could function more “normally.” Maybe then they could lead “normal” lives. Once again, I applied mathematical notions because that is what a “norm” is, to a human child.

parents love to dream

Let us face it, as expectant parents await the arrival of their new child, they most often dream of the future they will provide for the beloved little one. Most parents when asked what they most want for their children will say they want them to be happy. We have, however, measures for happiness and they do not include disability. They do include intelligence, achievement, love, beauty, and goodness. Most of all, even though we do not want to rush it, we do want our children to “grow up.” When that does not happen, the world feels out of kilter.

who are the grown-ups?

Yet, people with developmental disabilities do “grow-up.” They just do it differently. As parents, we must shift our meanings not “fix” our children. As a society, we can note as well that some children who have no apparent “disability” don’t seem to “grow-up” in the common sense of the word. They do not become financially independent. They never find a life’s work. They never partner successfully. Do we stop loving them? No. But we do often try to “fix” them. It often means the very happiness we wished for them becomes that less possible.

rethinking our culture

This brings me back to Tausig and the importance of her book. She is calling on us to rethink “some of the most deeply ingrained beliefs we carry as a culture.”

Can we do it? It is asking a lot. I, for one, am going to try. In my memoir, I will not hide how hard it sometimes was to meet my children’s needs.  I will, however,  point out that many of the challenges came from the roadblocks our culture placed in my way. I had to push those aside to enjoy the privilege of living with the unique, wonderful people who were my children – all of them.

“Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.” -Francis of Assisi

Kristy dressed up with watering can
Kristy at her most beguiling

Little Boy Lost

Rapid transit Chicago
The same, yet different

“Your memoir stories all seem to focus on Kristy,” a reader commented recently.  She then asked, “Did Johnny have the same disorder as your daughter?”

There is no straightforward answer to that question.  It’s not like answering, “Did both children have the chickenpox?” There were many ways that assault on Kristy’s brain presented itself that resembled symptoms that Johnny had as well. Frequent grand mal seizures was one and developmental delay was another. Yet, there the similarities stop. They had such different personalities that at times it almost seemed like they had two completely different syndromes.

Recently, I shared a Johnny story with a group of fellow memoir writers. It will illustrate those differences. Maybe it will help other readers understand why I struggle so much to give an honest account of our life together.

***

no time between crises

Kristy and I had. just returned from an appointment with her physical therapist.  I pulled our minivan into the parking space behind our Chicago rowhouse and before I’d even turned off the engine, my thirteen-year-old daughter Betsy, her red braids flying behind her, came running down the back-porch steps, “We can’t find Johnny,” she shouted.

My heart sank into my gut.

Well, crisis or not, I couldn’t just let Kristy sit in the car. “Help me get your sister into the house.  Have you searched the whole house?”

“Yes. Twice.” She screeched. “We looked everywhere, even in the clothes chute.”

“What about the piano top?” It wouldn’t be unlike him. “Where’s Carrie?”

“She’s calling neighbors,” Betsy said as she helped me ease her older sister into her wheelchair. At the back door, I forced myself to focus on getting Kristy and her chair down the five steps to our basement rec room.

first things first

As I wheeled her up to the Formica table at a diner-style booth in the basement, Kristy, oblivious to the panic around her, pronounced, “I’m hungry.” I glanced at the TV. Its digital clock read 1:29. Kristy had to eat. I couldn’t risk her having a seizure right now. We had to find Johnny.

“When did you miss Johnny?”

“About twenty minutes ago.”

“He can’t have gotten far.  Go down the alley and check people’s yards? I’ll get Kristy something to eat.”

“Should we call the police?”

“Oh, my God, I hope not. Let’s wait a bit.”

I fixed Kristy a quick peanut butter sandwich and a glass of milk and made sure her chair was securely braked.

I found fifteen-year-old Carrie sitting on the rug in the living room, her long wavy hair draped over her knees. The telephone cord straggled from the far wall and into her lap.  “Thank you,” she muttered, “that’s so good of you.  Yes, please call right away if you see him.” She looked up eyes wide and chewing her lips. “That was Louisa McPharlin.”

I nodded. It made sense to check with Louisa. Hers was the last house before the “L” tracks.

a false sense of security

Our home was part of a community enclosed by wrought-iron fencing with several heavy iron gates at various entrances.  If Johnny’s wandering kept him within the borders of those fences, someone who knew him would spot him. The gates, however, were never locked or even closed.

Although ten years old, Johnny processed the world like a two-year-old. Outside the gates he would encounter busy city streets, dozens of strangers, coming and going from the elevated train station and from buys commercial Lincoln Avenue. Crowds of DePaul University students also hustled along those sidewalks on their way to class. In the midst of so many people, Johnny could disappear, or even more horrifying a predator might spot him.  Like every mom, I read the stories of children disappearing and then put them quickly out of my mind. Now they all came rushing back at me.

holding on to hope

Carrie didn’t find a single person who had seen him. Betsy hadn’t returned yet. I let myself hope that she’d found him. Johnny’s gait was at best a slow shamble. Bringing him home could take her a while. As frightened as I was, I knew that wherever Johnny was he wouldn’t be afraid. Nothing had ever scared him. He often laughed loudly and long while sleeping. I claimed that he was dreaming of monsters and found them hysterically funny. But laughter couldn’t protect him now.

Bringgg! The front doorbell!  Carrie and I tripped over each other as we ran for the front door. Quicker than me, she flung open the heavy wooden door. There stood a huge, uniformed policeman with a grin on his face and his hand on Johnny’s shoulder.  When I lurched forward, he held up a restraining brown hand. He looked down at Johnny and gestured toward me, “Who is this?”

“Mommy,” Johnny grinned. Then added, “Bathroom.”  That galvanized me into action when I might have otherwise been too stunned to even speak.

“Carrie, take your brother to the powder room,” I directed her and then stammered, “Where did you find him? How did you know where to bring him?”

saints and good samaritans

“A kind woman noticed him lingering outside the De Paul Bookstore. She signaled me in my car. Then she pointed him out and said, “He looks big enough to be on his own, but something’s not quite right.”

“But the bookstore is across Fullerton Boulevard,” I exclaimed. “How could he cross that busy street on his own?”

“Well, we don’t know, but he did. The lady spotted him trying to get into the bookstore, but he couldn’t figure out where the door was.”

I breathed a quick thank you prayer to St. George, the patron saint of books. Johnny, like the saint, was crazy for books. George, it seemed had spread his wings over my son. “Johnny can’t pass up a book.  Otherwise, he might have wandered on,” I told the officer.

His big head nodded. “So, my partner and me tried to talk to him. He just smiled a sloppy grin. Saw the lady was right. So, we were going to take him the station when he pops up, ‘832 Belden.’”

I says, “That where you live? He says ‘My house.’ So, here we are.”

“We worked hard to teach him that but weren’t sure he’d really understood.  He lives in his own world most of the time.”

“Yeah, I see that.  He’s been talking about Grover Monster most of the time.”

My fear had left me weak. Now relief drained what was left of my energy. “Thank you so much. I wish I could thank the woman who found him.”

“She didn’t want to give us her name, just seemed relieved to hand over the problem.”

and the day goes on

Made sense to me. Sometimes, I wished I could just “hand over the problem.”

“Sorry to say this, ma’m,” the officer said, “But you need to keep a closer eye on your son. Maybe you should think about installing alarms on the doors.”

He had a point, but I didn’t want to turn my home into a prison. I looked straight into his deep brown eyes, “I’ll talk that over with my husband.  Right now, I’d better get Johnny some lunch.”

He nodded and headed down the steps.

Saints
Photo by Fernando Santando