Yesterday my girl and I went to a Birthday party for several members of her new community. BARC Housing hosts these parties once a month—gathering all the residents for Birthday cake, ice cream, dancing and to celebrate the folks whose birthdays have fallen on that particular month. There had been much anticipation in our household about this party and I find myself needing to be very careful to manage myself and all the paradoxical responses and feelings that ebb and flow in me, unpredictable and shocking.
I continue to work on my health and that includes more actively planning to ensure I get enough exercise daily. All those things they tell you, about how exercise can help manage stress? They are true. So I had made plans to walk before taking LM to the party both to make sure I got that exercise in, but also because I have a hard time figuring out how each of those visits will affect me and I am determined to be a source of calm strength to my daughter. Unfortunately, my well-laid plans did not work and there wasn’t a whole lot of time to do anything but go, steeling myself and breathing.
I am not sure I have ever gotten sweeter and sloppier kisses than I got when we arrived. The same was true for my girl. Other residents are coming to know us and several of them are exuberant and unrestrained in their welcome. Although I’ve been asked to be present at these visits, I try to leave plenty of space so LM can make her way without me hovering like a helicopter mom. Instead, each time I go, I try to talk to other folks and stay out of her way. There’s a young man who obviously has difficulties walking, whose eyes go in every direction but straight, who is just barely verbal, though incredibly expressive. He was curious about me so we stood and visited waiting for the party to begin. I gently teased him about whether or not he was going to dance and his face lit up like a Christmas tree, he looked sort of abashed and then gestured for me to follow him.
A woman in her late thirties was sitting with her legs up on a divan and he introduced her to me in a way that made me think she was special to him so I asked, “Is this your girl friend?” Again, that light and life that animate his face and make him so piercingly beautiful. She is, but when I asked if they were going to dance together, he made falling-down gestures, making me understand that they can’t because she might fall and hurt herself.
Then there is T, who has no front teeth, is bent over, has a mop of bright red hair, and laughs with the most delightful joy imaginable. There’s M who had on her sparkly green Christmas sweater and wanted to visit lots and lots and the other M who gave me one of those delicious kisses on the cheek. I don’t want to romanticize and idealize a group of people who are just as much ordinary, broken and holy folks as you and I. But my daily living has not included much space for them and now that we are thrown together like this, I find myself broken wide open. There is such beauty, such a different version of our humanity, such confrontation of much that I take for granted in my life.
Last night, I felt tenderness and gratitude and I also felt enormous pain. I came home understanding for the first time why folks cut themselves compulsively. I found myself wanting to do that to myself. The sting of a cut would be more bearable, a welcome distraction from the real thing. Of course I didn’t and instead, went on one of my walks even though it was already late in the evening. The pain began to untie itself from around my heart, I felt the heat and humidity of summer quickly approaching, stars were out and a couple of planets shone brightly. This is life—neither more nor less. Just life.
I write about these things perhaps because I am presumptuous enough to think that I can open a few small windows into a world that is so easy to ignore. The persistent, insistent question that keeps forming itself in my mind these days is this: “So what does it mean, really, to be a human being? What defines our humanity?” We need to be careful and suspicious of easy answers and half-truths shaped in the comfort of our first-world lives. But when I look for answers beyond that, they have the ability to shake me to my core.