Last night, Sydney's choir practiced for the competition on Friday. It was a full dress rehearsal in their long black dresses and strings of "pearls" and fancy hair. Whenever I see the choir sing, I'm always drawn to one girl who is "differently"-abled.
She only stands out because of her inability to stand still. The expression on her face makes it look like it is painful to stand for as long as the other girls do and they put a chair off to the side for her to rest in if they have to stand too long.
Now, I describe her as differently-abled because she has the face of a cherub and long beautiful hair and excels in some of her classes. This morning, I asked Sydney about her. I was careful how I asked because I wanted to know what Sydney thought, not change her thinking...unless I needed to, based on what I heard. Sydney's description was that she has a beautiful voice, but does have trouble walking and also lapses into what sounded like a fugue state ("she goes into her own head and her face goes blank and she stops working") that the teachers recognize and only have to tap her on the shoulder to bring her attention back to the classroom. The girl lives with her Grandmother and I saw the Grandmother pick her up last night. We'd seen the Grandmother in the audience because she was sitting with a boy, about 8 years old, who also had developmental issues.
Okay, a Grandmother that will take in one child is a great thing, but a Grandmother that will take in two, doesn't need to perform a miracle to gain sainthood in my book.
All this took me back to my youth and a boy that I'll call "Wayne" because I can't remember his name (and I am ashamed that I can't remember, but the most recent part of this story is 30 years ago, so that explains why). Like so many other people in my life, "Wayne" was part of the passing parade of people that have had an effect on my life and is still part of my life and how I feel about those that are different.
I think that Wayne had Muscular Dystrophy. I seem to remember that he was in some of the local spots for the MDS telethon. From the waist up, Wayne was a regular guy, with an attactive face and very broad shoulders. From the waist down, he was a mass of steel braces, leather belts, and crutches. And, when he walked, there was a clickety-clack/slide, clickety-clack/slide, clickety-clack/slide in a regular rhythm as the crutches moved forward and then his feet caught up.
I remember Wayne from church. He lived with an Aunt. I never knew the circumstances of that, but seem to remember it being discussed, when I was much too young to understand what it meant, that his parents were not up to the challenge of raising him, but his Aunt was. She was one of those wonderful, quiet, southern women who never had a cross word to say, had joyful and frequent laughter, was devoted to God, lead my Mother's Sunday school class and was loved by all who knew her.
She brought Wayne to church and I remember him being there almost every Sunday, but although he was only a few years older than me, I don't remember him ever being involved in the church youth group, like so many of us were. If I had to guess why, I'd say that he only came when extended a special invitation and that those invitations were only extended to assuage someone's guilty conscience. I don't think I need to explain that guilty conscience. I suspect that every one of us has felt, at some point, guilty about the luck that made us "normal".
Anyway, he was a regular church goer and we could always tell when he'd arrived. Clickety-clack/slide, Clickety-clack/slide down the aisle to a pew near the front where his Aunt and her "older lady" peers sat. When he sat, there was a sharp snap as he released the locks on his steel braces so he could sit. After church, there would be the sharp snap as he locked the braces so that he could stand, followed by Clickety-clack/slide, clickety-clack/slide, clickety-clack/slide as he moved out of the church and to his car that had the "cool hand controls".
A few years later, I was living in my first apartment and had a great job as the supervisor of cashiers at a new grocery store. I remember showing up for my first day, long before the store opened, and behind me, I heard the Clickety-clack/slide, clickety-clack/slide and turned to find Wayne. He had been hired as the store's bookkeeper.
Every day, clickety-clack/slide, clickety-clack/slide as he made his way into the store. Then, he had to heave himself up the two steps into the store's office that looked out on the checkstands. This took varying amounts of time. Sometimes, he was spry and with very little effort, he would be in his rolling office chair and begin counting the cash and distributing it into tills for my cashiers to use. He had very muscular arms from those crutches and would sit in the chair and push himself from place to place, using the counter top and the big steel safe as handles to push and pull himself around. And, at the end of the day, there would be the snap as he locked the braces and then the much more difficult task of getting himself down those two steps and out the door; clickety-clack/slide, clickety-clack/slide, clickety-clack. That's the only time I ever remember him needing help and it seemed that one or the other of the store managers always managed to be there when it was time for Wayne to leave, just in case. And, I can remember a couple of times that he needed that help and I also remember that not one of us ever acted like it was help, anymore than we would have if anyone else had tripped or stumbled and needed an extra arm for balance.
Wayne and I got to know one another sort of well while we worked together. We had the issue of going to the same church that kept us from being really close at work...neither of us wanted to do or say anything in the workplace that might be frowned upon in the church. We didn't talk about girls or what we did after work. I was a closeted gay person and I doubt that Wayne had ever been able to go too many places other than home, church and the store...this was around the time that all the laws about equal access were starting to be enforced and his crutches would have made it hard to go to most of the places that I took for granted. But I did find out how those really cool hand controls in his car worked. We shared many laughs about the things we had in common and the funny things that happened in our workdays. He helped out the cashiers when I was out and I helped him count money when we'd had particularly busy days and there was more cash than could be counted by one person.
I remember once that I did a truly stupid thing. We were extremely busy and I had taken a till so I could open a register to help out. One of the cashiers needed help and I sat my till on the register and walked away from it for just a second. But, as so often happens when I'm distracted, I was away for longer than I planned to be and I remember that when I helped my first customer, it was strange that there were only a couple of $20 bills in my till. I didn't think any more of it until a couple of days later, when Wayne said that my till came up a few hundred dollars off the other day. It must have been his mistake in counting the till before I got it and he wanted me to know what he'd assumed to be the problem in case anyone ever asked me. But, I knew in the back of my head where those dollars had gone. I was so young and had been so sheltered and did not know what people were really like. And, yet, I was kept out of trouble by a friend that went clickety-clack/slide, clickety-clack/slide.
It wasn't too long after, that the store owners brought in a new manager and our little happy store full of happy employees making happy repeat customers came crashing down under the heavy foot of a small man that wanted to feel big. Over time, all the managers left the store and eventually, the small man put them out of business by making everyone unhappy, including the customers.
But, I'll never forget how close all of us were while it was open. And, I'll never forget the friendship that developed between Wayne and me. And, I can still hear the sound of his walk in my head. Clickety-clack/slide, clickety-clack/slide.
Working with Wayne helped prepare me to take a job with the Association for Retarded Citizens. I no longer felt guilty about being "normal". And I was able to look beyond the differences and see the people that I worked with there. And, I still am able to look those that are different in the eye. And I think that in large part, it's because of the man that walked clickety-clack/slide, clickety-clack/slide. I don't know where he is now, but I know that a part of him is now a part of me.
P.S. Got an email about this not being very politically correct. I don't want to offend anyone with what I remember as a wonderful story. Please remember that this was 30 years ago. The times were not very politically correct for people that were different and it's people like "Wayne" and their advocates that helped change that for people like the girl in Sydney's choir. I wish I had always been as open as I am now. Unfortunately, I was not. So, while I don't want to offend anyone, that lack of political correctness is part of the story I want to tell. Wayne had a hard row to hoe and for a time, I was a friend of his. Good or bad, tha's how it was. PPS. Got an email from a Mom that made me cry. The story of her daughter is as inspirational to me as the one I told. Imagine a daughter that wanted to be a cheerleader and didn't let her wheelchair get in the way. Can you imagine what it took her to win the School Spirit award at graduation? Now, that's inspiration and while the Mom didn't take credit, that's raising a child right. My Mom also wrote and she remembered that Wayne's name was really Dewayne, so I got really close. Guess I don't have to worry about where my keys are for a while longer.