This Thanksgiving, I am thankful for many things, including a man named Robert Polk.
I didn’t know what to expect, when I decided to start this blog on Sophie’s fifth birthday. Ray (who rarely, if ever, reads the blog — who can blame him, he lives it) announced immediately that it would go viral. I knew it wouldn’t. Really, it’s more of an exercise. Not completely in futility, I hope.
I’m a person who makes a living as a writer, and yet I’ve never been able to journal. This is the closest I’ve come, and if anything, I’m putting down the bones, as Natalie Goldberg would say. (Corny but true.) On May 21, 2009, I’ll have a pretty good record (minus some stuff I can’t say publicly in real time) of Sophie’s sixth year on earth.
And I’ll have something else, too. I didn’t realize, when I started GIAPH, that this would be the perfect way for me to learn about older people with Down syndrome. At arm’s length. Or farther. I’m not proud of that, but increasingly, I hear it echoed from other parents of young kids with DS.
Last night, a very dear person — a mom at Sophie and Annabelle’s school, part of the Momfia (in a good way!) — gently took me along to the Thanksgiving dinner at our neighborhood ARC center. I’ve driven by the sweet little house dozens of time, but never stopped. The closest I’ve come is Poco, who works at our Safeway, and one time I was in Walgreen’s when a large group emerged from an ARC van, ready to shop.
I fled. My daughter’s 5, I should be well-adjusted by now, but I still can’t look a group of people with Sophie’s features in the collective eye.
When I wrote recently that I haven’t kept my promise to myself to sign up to volunteer at ARC, this friend offered to go over with me. It would better than her first experience, she promised, which involved a craft project and scissors and no small amount of fear on her part. (She wound up working there as an accountant; she doesn’t have special needs kids, she’s just a special person.)
I knew what she meant as we wandered through last night’s pot luck party, offered our baked goods to the organizers and mingled with the guests. I spent part of the short time watching my friend’s boys play near an irrigation ditch, and had to remark to myself that actually, young boys are more foreign to me than a group of developmentally disabled adults, as I cringed and shouted warnings, worried this woman’s sons would break their necks on my watch.
But I had some fear of the ARC folks, I admit, particularly after one of them (he didn’t have DS, but clearly something else) came up behind me twice and screamed a short, impossibly high-pitched scream that told me he could sense my unease. My game face isn’t working, I thought.
About half the ARC participants had Down syndrome. From across the yard, I spotted a woman — an adult, maybe my age, maybe younger, I couldn’t tell — who looked a lot like Sophie. She had blonde hair in a feathery page boy and glasses, and she was sitting quietly at a table, coloring the word “cornucopia” in as carefully as could be, with different colors for each letter. I sat down next to her. She didn’t acknowledge me, just kept coloring.
I watched, feeling ridiculous.
Finally, she spoke, still looking at her paper. “Can you get me a roll?” she asked.
“Of course!” I announced. I jumped up, returning with a roll and some crackers on a plate. I put them next to her.
“Thank you,” she said, and began to color the fruit on her drawing. I watched.
Nearby, some volunteers arrived, and one woman hugged another, welcoming her back.
“See?” she said. “This place is addictive!” Everyone laughed and nodded.
The Sophie look-a-like kept coloring. I kept watching. My friend approached; it was time to leave.
“Bye,” I said. “Bye,” she said.
I might go back to ARC, on a day when it’s not so popular to visit, and try to get to know some of the people. Or I might not. Not for a while, anyway.
For right now, I have my friend Robert Polk, and his son Ryan, who live in Texas. Robert and I “met” in June, after I did a radio piece about Sophie. He heard it, and emailed me, and he’s become one of my favorite GIAPH commenters (I have several!) even though he does not care for my pink oilcloth tablecloth. I think he just needs to see it in context, but then again, I’m not sure what Robert would think of my carnival chalk collection.
I digress. I love Robert’s comments and you might have read them already, but here is a recent one I love that explains how I’m getting to know adults with Down syndrome in the way I think is best for me, for right now, chickenshit that I am:
Ryan has all the necessary savvy to call me on his cell phone, invite himself to supper, supposedly, but really to rip additional CDs to his iPod. He logs on to his own computer account, rips the CDs, asking for help only to scan arcane album covers not listed on the ‘net.
Maybe someday I can send you a copy of his writing. Horrible handwriting (hey, what’s wrong with THAT) but generally impeccable grammar and spelling.
I don’t think he reads much. He CAN read music. All my sons took piano lessons, later to be in secondary school band. Even Ryan marched in the band.
Ryan is a savant about NFL quarterbacks. He used to carry a huge three-ring binder with their cards, memorizing and sorting them in a Rain Man kind of manner. He can tell you everything about any NFL quarterback, even last string players.
He used to work on all those fancy skateboard maneuvers that all the boys would work on, even one of those spin-twist moves.
Sophie will do all these kinds of thing and more!
Now, this sounds like something you with which you ended your This American Life article: Alas, one of Ryan’s more recent writings, at age 32, was an email to Santa. Sigh.
Happy Thanksgiving, Robert Polk. And Ryan. And to all the folks at ARC, including the guy who screamed at me twice, and to my dear friend and her beautiful family.
And to Sophie.