Wednesday, August 8, 2012


February 1986

“My back hurts.” Becky announced as she sat down next to me after we’d been tagged in a game of duck duck goose at the Saturday morning “rec” program.  She and I were in the mush pot.  I’ve never been a fast runner.

I’d never volunteered with the handicapped before either.  The Saturday before, I’d overheard the table next to me laughing so hard and so loud at lunch that I looked over.  They were all wearing nametags and doubled over in fits.  My first thought was “Drunk.” but they explained they were just a bit giddy from having spent the morning at Logan Center and seeing how excited the clients were when the entire Notre Dame Football team came for a visit.  One guy was even nicknamed “Mr. ND” because of his love for the Fighting Irish.  He’d needed twenty minutes to gain his composure when Coach Lou Holtz shook his hands.  Every weekend they went over to assist with the recreational program and occasionally had special guests, camping trips, dances and parties.  It sounded…fun.  Lent was coming up. I thought about volunteering. I knew I needed to do something more.  I dutifully wrote down the details of how to participate and filed it away as a possibility.

Seven o’clock next Saturday came much too early.  “Maybe I’ll just give up chocolate.” I groaned as the alarm blared mercilessly.  But I got up. My roommate snoozed on and I rummaged for jeans and a sweat shirt, envious as she snored away.  I’d have to hustle to catch the bus or it would be a 2 mile walk in Southbend, Indiana, in February, the very definition of unpleasant.  “I said I’d do this.” I growled aloud as if to will myself forward into the hard dull icy outside.  The air held a strong trace of ethanol from the plant nearby. 

Half asleep on the ride over, my mind ran over why I felt the need to go?  Why did I always pick the hardest book, assignment, job around? Why I felt compelled to add layers of complexity to my life?  Sophomore year was running pretty smoothly. I had a steady boyfriend.  I had a tight circle of girlfriends.  A double major in English Literature and Creative Writing, I had mostly A’s for the moment.   Why was I not back in my warm dorm room dozing away?  Why was I seeking more to do? “Because,” I answered myself firmly, “something was missing.”  “What?” I asked myself, “What is missing?”  “Something.” I decided I was a lousy Yoda, sipped my morning soda and hoped I hadn’t made a colossal mistake.

We arrived at the center and I was given a nametag and told to wait in the gym.  Within five minutes, I’d been given a briefing on the routine.  Songs.  Arts and Crafts.  Games.  Closing circle.  This recreation program serviced people ages 7 to 70, all having handicapping conditions that ranged from moderate to severe.  There were many that had Down Syndrome, some with cerebral palsy, and a few with multiple conditions that precluded specific classification but always included mental retardation.  After twenty minutes of screaming songs I hadn’t given voice to since Kindergarten, my voice was dying.  Doing arts and crafts was much more of my element, although I’d be scraping layers of glitter and glue from my fingers for a few days. Games included relay races, freeze tag, red rover and duck, duck, goose.  Becky had adopted me from the get go and good naturedly scooted right next to me, presenting her back. “My back hurts.” She repeated.  “Rub it please.”

As I put my hand on her back, I felt the unnatural “C” curve of her spine through the thick Notre Dame sweat shirt. She physically relaxed as I massaged her shoulders.  “That feels nice.” She mumbled.  “You’re nice.”  And she then sprang up and ran out of the circle because her “boyfriend,” a Notre Dame junior who volunteered, had just walked in the gym. 

I sat there holding my hand, thinking about how I hadn’t thought for a moment when she asked.  I’d just done it.  I could still feel the shape of her spine, my hands wanted to somehow smooth it out.  Looking around at the room, here was joy unbridled in awkward gates and full throated off tune voices.  Becky came back to me excited. There was a dance that evening.  Did I want to come?  Did I want to do decorations?  Could I make brownies and did I know how to dance?

The alternative was likely pizza, a movie, or nothing.  So I said yes, yes, Yes! and you better believe I know how to dance.   “Prove it tonight!” she challenged.

That evening came and I was again filled with the “Why are you doing this?” thought line.  “You could be going to a movie, making out with your boyfriend, or have a girl’s night out and go to the dorm where your friend’s boy friends live, they’re in the glee club and that would be cool.” “You could stay home and catch up on your homework or sleep –remember that? You could be sleeping.”  I’d opted for dance casual, black pants, black boots and a glittery top.  I’d made some instant brownies, the kind of slice and bake junk you get at the dorm mini-store that’s only open on weekends but figured chocolate was chocolate. 

The bus ride over, surrounded by people who were going to “real” dances thrown by dorms, by groups of girls planning a night at the dance club above the student center or headed off campus for pizza and a party, I sat with my tray of brownies wondering…”Why did being with these people compel?  Was I feeling sorry for them?  Was I just “trying to be a good person?”  Was I simply caught up in the enthusiasm? What was it they filled, what was it that had been empty?” “Was it the something?”

I walked into the dance hall and was handed streamers to hang up after I put down the plate of food on a table bursting with sweets.  The DJ had already set up and was cranking tunes before we were ready.  “You’re here!” Becky said as soon as she saw me.  “I brought the brownies.” I offered.  She waved her hands at me, “I don’t eat that stuff.  Too sweet.” “But you said…” I started but she was already kicking off her shoes. “Let’s Dance!” She cried and dragged me with her.  

“Footloose” kicked off the festivities and I don’t think Kevin Bacon could have competed with this crowd.  After an hour, I’d not left the floor.  Becky had brought me partners and we’d even broken out some older moves like the hustle, but the best moment came when we all acted like zombies from Thriller.  The differences between those of us pursuing degrees in English or Government or Engineering or Economics, and those who could not read, had fallen away in the moment of the dance.  It was a delicious communal moment of pure fun.  Everyone’s eyes shown with palpable joy as they applauded Vincent Price’s final cackle.  The crowd decided it was intermission time, cleared the floor and hit the snack table. 

Looking around at the smiling faces and hearing the near continuous sound of laughter from all this fun, I knew the absence of barriers was the “something.”  I wanted to do this again, to make sure it wasn’t a fluke. The something became necessary for me.  It was the beginning of a love that resulted in two more years of surrendered college Saturdays and eventually, a Master’s degree in Special Education.  Taking students out of their wheel chairs to stretch their long frozen limbs to Madonna reminded me of her.  Like Becky and her friends at the dance, they smile with a joy unstrapped.  The song Thriller every Halloween still invokes a sly knowing smile of that moment, and my hand can still draw the shape in the air of her back.  I still wish I could pat it smooth.

Becky and her friends prepared me for all that came, not only professionally but personally.   As my youngest son Paul begins pre-school, I look at the people who will work with him to see if their eyes reflect the same knowledge of that infectious joy that I experienced.   I look to see if the love that began me down this road has struck them too.  My little boy has Down Syndrome.  He will need the equivalent of a Logan Center recreation program one day.  Like Becky, Paul teaches hands on, how boundless love can be.  It reaches out beyond speech --he's non verbal.  It reaches out beyond age --he charms every one of his brothers and sisters, even the surly teen girl who pretends that she doesn't belong to this motley noisy messy lot. Like Becky, my son dances with pure abandon and his siblings join in, surprised by themselves, surprised to discover the absence of a difference that is the something that is love.  

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