All a mother wants, above and beyond anything else in life, is for her child to be happy. It’s a subliminal inclination fueled by emotion, like the echo of a throb…a primal instinct driven by that first, curious flutter in the womb.
And it never goes away.
My grandmother is no different from any other mother in this respect, even though her youngest was born with an umbilical cord wrapped around her neck. Unable to breathe, my Aunt Micki was rushed to a nurse instead of Grandmother’s open arms while doctors worked to change Micki’s color from a pallid shade of blue to something that looked a little more like life.
Micki survived only to suffer her first seizure when she was nine months old. It was the earliest of many signs that something about her seemed different. Abnormal. Uncommon. Not right.
As months turned into years, “different” transitioned to “retarded,” a term loaded with so much meaning that it overflowed, creating a non-navigable chasm between Micki and other kids her age. Words can be transformative in both good ways and bad, and “retarded” became a life-size label that would shade just about everything she did, starting with the length of the bus she boarded for school.
Both Grandmother and Micki learned to move under a cloak of filtered light that could only throw shadows on the stolen glances and downcast eyes of the world at large. Yet in those everyday moments where growth can’t really be measured, the bond between mother and daughter grew.
Given enough time, life will teach you that the only thing you can count on is change. Yet Micki’s role never has. She is and always will be my grandmother’s constant companion. Not her retarded companion, just a loving daughter and friend.
When my mom left home for college, Micki stayed. When my uncle took the same path seven years later, Micki stayed. When my grandfather died of a heart attack at the age of fifty-one, Micki stayed.
We don’t use the word “retarded” anymore, or at least, we don’t admit it when we do. From my grandmother’s perspective, that word has always misrepresented her youngest child. If you ask, she’ll say Micki came into the world just the way she was supposed to be.
Today, at almost ninety-three, the time-honored light in Grandmother’s eyes is fading. She’s more feeble now than even a few years ago, and bones that used to bend under the weight of life now break. Yet she pauses and lingers longer than most because her remaining purpose sits beside her, quietly holding her hand. Theirs is silent proof that under the right conditions, the narrative of a love story can last forever.
My grandmother will tell you that she’s here today because of youngest child. Not her abnormal, uncommon, retarded child, but her sweet, loving, beautiful daughter.
She’s not a surgeon, or a star, or even that girl from high school you wish you still knew. Yet if you ask Micki if she’s happy, she’ll nod her head and reply, “Yes. Yes I am.”
You don’t have to ask Grandmother the same question. The answer is obvious in the way she looks at her daughter, without bias or pity or doubt. To a mother, a child is simply a child and love is just love. Micki is her life’s greatest gift. We should all be so lucky.
On October 5, 2010, President Obama signed legislation requiring the federal government to replace the term “mental retardation” with “intellectual disability” in many areas of government. This measure, known as Rosa’s Law, strips the terms “mental retardation” and “mentally retarded” from federal health, education, and labor policy. According to the World Health Organization, about 15 percent of the world’s population — or 785 million people — has a significant physical or mental disability.
For anyone accustomed to my attempts at more humorous, light-hearted posts, I’ll be back next week to talk about either what I found in my neighbor’s trash, or the time I spent in my version of prison, or both. These topics aren’t remotely related, but probably should be.