nancy, an unlikely shero

nancy.jpg

she’s 50+ in calendar years, yet she goes through life with the perennial wonder of a young child. she’s my sister-in-law, nancy, who is – what’s the label-du-jour – developmentally delayed? i don’t know the label currently in vogue. i simply see nancy as nancy, one who travels this life in her own unique way. she’s different. not lesser than, just different. she’ll never stand before a group of people and assume the role of teacher, and yet there is so much we can learn from her.

what she lacks in, say, self-care abilities (the only way to get her to shower is to shower yourself with her, for example, and to get her to brush her teeth requires repeatedly reminding her to go up and down with the brush instead of just chewing on it), she makes up for in so many other ways. she doesn’t miss a thing, this one, not a single thing. and she goes through the world with a level of attention and a groundedness in the present that others spend much time and money and struggle to achieve.

her highest compliment is to call someone a “good girl” or “good boy”, and if she feels that way about you, she’s not afraid to risk rejection by telling you to your face. if she tells you that something is “pretty good”, you can be sure that to nancy, it just doesn’t get any better because let’s face it: there’s always room for improvement.

immediately after saying something important, she looks you straight in the eye and commands you to “say it”, and if you don’t repeat it back promptly and correctly, she holds her ground and repeats her statement and her demand as many times as needed until she’s satisfied that she was heard.

not much of one for public displays of affection, she gives a hug by leaning the upper half of her body in your direction. want a 2-armed hug? you gotta’ ask for it.

or earn it.

her glasses are perpetually grimy, due in no small part to the fact that she pushes her glasses up on her nose by placing her fingers directly on both sides of the lens. and always right after you’ve cleaned them.

she’s had a crush on “mr. jim” for years now because he meets her criteria: he’s a good dancer and he “doesn’t bite or hit nobody”. she’s made her short list of important traits she’s looking for in a mate, and she stands by them without compromise.

she has an affinity for watches, and she lives by the credo that a girl simply cannot have too much jewelry. she takes care of a bed full of dolls, and she’s quite particular about who can lay a hand on them.

though she has no prestigious career or children as a reason to keep a journal, she nevertheless chronicles her days. once, when i was helping her straighten out the drawers in her nightstand and make room for new things, i flipped through her tablets to see which ones were used and could be tossed to make room for the new, blank tablets. she didn’t want me to get rid of any of the tablets she’d written in, so i paid closer attention as i flipped through them, and that’s when i noticed that she has her very own system for keeping a record of each day. she notes the day of the week, what she had for breakfast (that’s how she knows what day of the week it is). she logs in who’s having a birthday that day, the weather conditions, who she loves, and a few other things before signing out by signing her name.

nancysjournals.jpg

nancy’s a simple woman with simple needs, and she doesn’t waste time wanting something she doesn’t have. though she’s not without the occasional bad mood, on the whole nancy enjoys every day for what it is without bemoaning what it isn’t. wherever she is, whatever she has is enough.

when the two of us jaunt out into the world, i see the change she enkindles in others: they become more patient, more attentive. they smile more and aren’t afraid to make eye contact and attempt conversation with nancy. they seem to relax, and i harbor the notion that they will go away from the encounter being changed in some small way, changed for the better.

there are, of course, others who are obviously uncomfortable around nancy – perhaps because they don’t know how to relate to her or engage with her. i expect she touches something deep inside them – something they don’t even realize is there. my hope is that nancy holds a mirror for them, and that they amend what they see there until they can own it.

i think it’s obvious why i fell smackdab in love with this poem by Alden Nowlan when i first read it, and why i am sharing it with you now. before you start, though, a suggestion: read it through twice. first, read it just as it’s written – and read it aloud, if possible. then go back and reread it (aloud, again), and this time, every time you encounter the word “retarded”, change the “t” to a “g” . . .

HE SITS DOWN ON THE FLOOR OF A SCHOOL FOR THE RETARDED

I sit down on the floor of a school for the retarded,
a writer of magazine articles accompanying a band
that was met at the door by a child in a man’s body
who asked them, “Are you the surprise they promised us?”

It’s Ryan’s Fancy, Dermot on guitar,
Fergus on banjo, Denis on penny-whistle.
In the eyes of this audience, they’re everybody
who has ever appeared on TV. I’ve been telling lies
to a boy who cried because his favorite detective
hadn’t come with us; I said he had sent his love
and, no, I didn’t think he’d mind if I signed his name
to a scrap of paper: when the boy took it, he said,
“Nobody will ever get this away from me,”
in the voice, more hopeless than defiant,
of one accustomed to finding that his hiding places
have been discovered, used to having objects snatched
out of his hands. Weeks from now I’ll send him
another autograph, this one genuine
in the sense of having been signed by somebody
on the same payroll as the star.
Then I’ll feel less ashamed. Now everyone is singing,
“Old McDonald had a farm,” and I don’t know what to do
about the young woman (I call her a woman
because she’s twenty-five at least, but think of her
as a little girl, she plays that part so well,
having known no other), about the young woman who
sits down beside me and, as if it were the most natural
thing in the world, rests her head on my shoulder.

It’s nine o’clock in the morning, not an hour for music.
And, at the best of times, I’m uncomfortable
in situations where I’m ignorant
of the accepted etiquette: it’s one thing
to jump a fence, quite another thing to blunder
into one in the dark. I look around me
for a teacher to whom to smile out my distress.
They’re all busy elsewhere, “Hold me,” she whispers, “Hold me.”

I put my arm around her. “Hold me tighter.”
I do, and she snuggles closer. I half expect
someone in authority to grab her
or me; I can imagine this being remembered
forever as the time the sex-crazed writer
publicly fondled the poor retarded girl.
“Hold me,” she says again. What does it matter
what anybody thinks? I put my other arm around her and
rest my chin in her hair, thinking of children,
real children, and of how they say it, “Hold me”
and of a patient in a geriatric ward
I once heard crying out to his mother, dead
for half a century, “I’m frightened! Hold me!”
and of a boy-soldier screaming it on the beach
at Dieppe, of Nelson in Hardy’s arms,
of Frieda gripping Lawrence’s ankle
until he sailed off in his Ship of Death.

It’s what we all want, in the end,
to be held, merely to be held,
to be kissed (not necessarily with the lips
for every touching is a kind of kiss).

Yes, it’s what we all want, in the end,
not to be worshipped, not to be admired,
not to be famous, not to be feared,
not even to be loved, but simply to be held.

She hugs me now, this retarded woman, and I hug her.
We are brother and sister, father and daughter,
Mother and son, husband and wife.
We are lovers. We are two human beings
huddled together for a little while by the fire
in the Ice Age, two hundred thousand years ago.

67 Comments

  1. Julie

    Oh, Jeanne. How absolutely beautiful. So real. So raw. So human. Have I told you lately that I love you?
    .-= Julie´s last blog ..A Fruit is not Afraid =-.

  2. Julie

    Oh, Jeanne. How absolutely beautiful. So real. So raw. So human. Have I told you lately that I love you?
    .-= Julie´s last blog ..A Fruit is not Afraid =-.

  3. Anonymous

    Of course, I have read this with tears in my eyes and a huge lump in my throat. This is just gorgeous Jeanne.

    It doesn’t matter who we are or where we are or how old we are; we need to know that we are loved. It is the basic need of every life. What a world it would be if everyone just held someone each and every day.

    You are truly special!

    • whollyjeanne

      oh, shawna. just reading your sentence “what a world it would be if everyone just held someone eah and every day.” wow. chills. thank you.
      .-= whollyjeanne´s last blog ..nancy, an unlikely shero =-.

  4. Shawna Cevraini

    Of course, I have read this with tears in my eyes and a huge lump in my throat. This is just gorgeous Jeanne.

    It doesn’t matter who we are or where we are or how old we are; we need to know that we are loved. It is the basic need of every life. What a world it would be if everyone just held someone each and every day.

    You are truly special!

    • whollyjeanne

      oh, shawna. just reading your sentence “what a world it would be if everyone just held someone eah and every day.” wow. chills. thank you.
      .-= whollyjeanne´s last blog ..nancy, an unlikely shero =-.

  5. TheWordWire

    This is so beautiful — You’re right, we can all learn a lot from Nancy. Thank you for the poem, and most especially for the instruction — I’ll replace ts with gs from here after.
    .-= TheWordWire´s last blog ..Were You The One Who Saved A President’s Life? =-.

  6. Kristen @ Motherese

    What a gorgeous tribute. What a powerful reminder of the true measure of a woman. What a unique and lovely Valentine.

    • whollyjeanne

      lord, kristen, i do love the way you write: “the true measure of a woman”. yes. yes.
      .-= whollyjeanne´s last blog ..nancy, an unlikely shero =-.

  7. Kristen @ Motherese

    What a gorgeous tribute. What a powerful reminder of the true measure of a woman. What a unique and lovely Valentine.

    • whollyjeanne

      lord, kristen, i do love the way you write: “the true measure of a woman”. yes. yes.
      .-= whollyjeanne´s last blog ..nancy, an unlikely shero =-.

  8. TheWordWire

    This is so beautiful — You’re right, we can all learn a lot from Nancy. Thank you for the poem, and most especially for the instruction — I’ll replace ts with gs from here after.
    .-= TheWordWire´s last blog ..Were You The One Who Saved A President’s Life? =-.

  9. emma

    I look forward to meeting Nancy some day. She sounds awesome. And that poem took my breath away. I didn’t know it, and I’m so grateful to have discovered it through you. Thank you for being such a beacon of light and love. I truly ADORE you.
    .-= emma´s last blog ..Open Up =-.

    • whollyjeanne

      oh, emma. i look forward to you meeting nancy one day, too. long time ago, nancy came to visit and i took her over to a friend’s house. now i’d told the friend about nancy, of course, but i never scripted her in how to talk to nancy. just never got around to it. but we walked through laura’s door, and the first thing laura said was, “nancy, i love your red hair.” after that, i couldn’t separate those two. you’ll bond with her just like that, and quick as a snap, nancy will be loving you like i do.
      .-= whollyjeanne´s last blog ..nancy, an unlikely shero =-.

  10. emma

    I look forward to meeting Nancy some day. She sounds awesome. And that poem took my breath away. I didn’t know it, and I’m so grateful to have discovered it through you. Thank you for being such a beacon of light and love. I truly ADORE you.
    .-= emma´s last blog ..Open Up =-.

    • whollyjeanne

      oh, emma. i look forward to you meeting nancy one day, too. long time ago, nancy came to visit and i took her over to a friend’s house. now i’d told the friend about nancy, of course, but i never scripted her in how to talk to nancy. just never got around to it. but we walked through laura’s door, and the first thing laura said was, “nancy, i love your red hair.” after that, i couldn’t separate those two. you’ll bond with her just like that, and quick as a snap, nancy will be loving you like i do.
      .-= whollyjeanne´s last blog ..nancy, an unlikely shero =-.

  11. bwlight

    Nancy sounds like a wonderful soul ~ your tribute is such a precious reminder on how to embrace the days we are given ~ as well as to embrace each other.

    The poem tells it beautifully; your substitution is perfect.
    .-= bwlight´s last blog ..A “Shawshank” Valentine =-.

    • whollyjeanne

      embrace the day, embrace each other: yes. sounds so simple, doesn’t it? and it is. it really is. just takes a little practice, that’s all. xo
      .-= whollyjeanne´s last blog ..nancy, an unlikely shero =-.

  12. bwlight

    Nancy sounds like a wonderful soul ~ your tribute is such a precious reminder on how to embrace the days we are given ~ as well as to embrace each other.

    The poem tells it beautifully; your substitution is perfect.
    .-= bwlight´s last blog ..A “Shawshank” Valentine =-.

    • whollyjeanne

      embrace the day, embrace each other: yes. sounds so simple, doesn’t it? and it is. it really is. just takes a little practice, that’s all. xo
      .-= whollyjeanne´s last blog ..nancy, an unlikely shero =-.

  13. shoreacres

    Absolutely wonderful. And the suggestion for the two readings, with the substitution, is perfect.

    I’m sending this on to a woman here in Houston who’s the moving force behind Dionysus Theatre, a theater company for both disabled and able-bodied actors. If she doesn’t know the poem, she should. If she does, it never hurts to be reminded of something so wonderful.

    Here is the link to the theater itself: http://www.dionysustheatre.org/pages/home.asp

    Thank you for a wonderful posting.
    .-= shoreacres´s last blog ..The Poured-Out Heart =-.

    • whollyjeanne

      omg. we have so got to talk. did you know i’m and actor and the managing director of a theatre my daughter started back in the fall of 2005? my thesis advisor works with disabled folks in theatre, too, and after graduate school, we worked together with a coupla projects. she’s in japan now. yes, we should talk. i hope your friend likes the poem.
      .-= whollyjeanne´s last blog ..nancy, an unlikely shero =-.

  14. shoreacres

    Absolutely wonderful. And the suggestion for the two readings, with the substitution, is perfect.

    I’m sending this on to a woman here in Houston who’s the moving force behind Dionysus Theatre, a theater company for both disabled and able-bodied actors. If she doesn’t know the poem, she should. If she does, it never hurts to be reminded of something so wonderful.

    Here is the link to the theater itself: http://www.dionysustheatre.org/pages/home.asp

    Thank you for a wonderful posting.
    .-= shoreacres´s last blog ..The Poured-Out Heart =-.

    • whollyjeanne

      omg. we have so got to talk. did you know i’m and actor and the managing director of a theatre my daughter started back in the fall of 2005? my thesis advisor works with disabled folks in theatre, too, and after graduate school, we worked together with a coupla projects. she’s in japan now. yes, we should talk. i hope your friend likes the poem.
      .-= whollyjeanne´s last blog ..nancy, an unlikely shero =-.

  15. Amanda

    That was heart-warming. Beautiful. Tears, I have them. I am moved by you, by Nancy, and by the way you describe her. You are an exceptional woman. I am so glad to know you. <3
    .-= Amanda´s last blog ..Olympic Fevah. I’ve caught it. Achoo. =-.

    • whollyjeanne

      hi bright spot. that’s what i’m gonna start calling you cause you are just that: a bright spot in any day. xo
      .-= whollyjeanne´s last blog ..nancy, an unlikely shero =-.

  16. Amanda

    That was heart-warming. Beautiful. Tears, I have them. I am moved by you, by Nancy, and by the way you describe her. You are an exceptional woman. I am so glad to know you. <3
    .-= Amanda´s last blog ..Olympic Fevah. I’ve caught it. Achoo. =-.

    • whollyjeanne

      hi bright spot. that’s what i’m gonna start calling you cause you are just that: a bright spot in any day. xo
      .-= whollyjeanne´s last blog ..nancy, an unlikely shero =-.

  17. quiltdivajulie

    There, but for the grace of God, go I . . . having a ‘special’ son, I appreciate your writing here more than you may know.
    .-= quiltdivajulie´s last blog ..At Long Last ~ =-.

    • whollyjeanne

      well, hello julie. i’ve missed you – and it’s all my fault. i can’t seem to get my feet under me this year. hope you’re doing well. i actually thought about you as i typed that poem. think about you often. till soon . . .
      .-= whollyjeanne´s last blog ..nancy, an unlikely shero =-.

  18. quiltdivajulie

    There, but for the grace of God, go I . . . having a ‘special’ son, I appreciate your writing here more than you may know.
    .-= quiltdivajulie´s last blog ..At Long Last ~ =-.

    • whollyjeanne

      well, hello julie. i’ve missed you – and it’s all my fault. i can’t seem to get my feet under me this year. hope you’re doing well. i actually thought about you as i typed that poem. think about you often. till soon . . .
      .-= whollyjeanne´s last blog ..nancy, an unlikely shero =-.

  19. Kate T.W.

    This post has stuck with me. I’m grateful for you sharing this beautiful tribute. Thank you.
    .-= Kate T.W.´s last blog ..Sending Loving Kindness to Myself… Circa 1992 =-.

  20. Kate T.W.

    This post has stuck with me. I’m grateful for you sharing this beautiful tribute. Thank you.
    .-= Kate T.W.´s last blog ..Sending Loving Kindness to Myself… Circa 1992 =-.

  21. Jennifer Prentice

    I’m behind on my blog reading, but I’m so glad this post did not get lost in the shuffle of my week. I’m crying as I read this. It’s a beautiful post, Jeanne. Thank you. XOXO
    .-= Jennifer Prentice´s last blog ..What Is Love? (Part 1) =-.

  22. Jennifer Prentice

    I’m behind on my blog reading, but I’m so glad this post did not get lost in the shuffle of my week. I’m crying as I read this. It’s a beautiful post, Jeanne. Thank you. XOXO
    .-= Jennifer Prentice´s last blog ..What Is Love? (Part 1) =-.

  23. Square-Peg Karen

    Oh Jeanne, I have missed you! Love the places your heart goes! This is fantastic!!
    .-= Square-Peg Karen´s last blog ..Go Touch Hearts =-.

    • whollyjeanne

      sweetpea, you would so love nancy. and she you. i have missed you, too. just seeing your name is like putting the last puzzle piece back into my heart. (speaking of puzzles, nancy is a whizbang puzzler. you should see her put pieces in the puzzle. when one fits, she thumps it 3 times with great satisfaction. and if you’re tired of having 2 hands, just try to help her put the puzzle together. that’s the best way i know to lose a hand FAST.)
      .-= whollyjeanne´s last blog ..nancy, an unlikely shero =-.

  24. Square-Peg Karen

    Oh Jeanne, I have missed you! Love the places your heart goes! This is fantastic!!
    .-= Square-Peg Karen´s last blog ..Go Touch Hearts =-.

    • whollyjeanne

      sweetpea, you would so love nancy. and she you. i have missed you, too. just seeing your name is like putting the last puzzle piece back into my heart. (speaking of puzzles, nancy is a whizbang puzzler. you should see her put pieces in the puzzle. when one fits, she thumps it 3 times with great satisfaction. and if you’re tired of having 2 hands, just try to help her put the puzzle together. that’s the best way i know to lose a hand FAST.)
      .-= whollyjeanne´s last blog ..nancy, an unlikely shero =-.

  25. Alana

    Oh Jeanne – this is so typical of you. Lovely lovely lovely. I have to admit that by the time I met my husband, my list was basically the same as Nancy’s. I’m so glad I made my way here tonight – I’m so behind on everything this week! Now I can sleep with a smile.
    .-= Alana´s last blog ..Fish poop =-.

    • whollyjeanne

      i’m glad you made your way here tonight, too, you funny girl you. have been hugging you from afar.
      .-= whollyjeanne´s last blog ..nancy, an unlikely shero =-.

  26. Alana

    Oh Jeanne – this is so typical of you. Lovely lovely lovely. I have to admit that by the time I met my husband, my list was basically the same as Nancy’s. I’m so glad I made my way here tonight – I’m so behind on everything this week! Now I can sleep with a smile.
    .-= Alana´s last blog ..Fish poop =-.

    • whollyjeanne

      i’m glad you made your way here tonight, too, you funny girl you. have been hugging you from afar.
      .-= whollyjeanne´s last blog ..nancy, an unlikely shero =-.

  27. Josh Hanagarne

    Too awesome. I worked at a special needs school for about a year. It’s been four years and one of the little girls still calls me every Sunday evening because my wife said that she could tell people that I was her boyfriend. We’ve been having the same discussion for a long time, and I never get tired of it. This was the best thing I’ve read this week. I’ll be smiling for a year.
    .-= Josh Hanagarne´s last blog ..How To Be As Confident As This Pig =-.

    • whollyjeanne

      well, hello, josh. nice to meetcha. just went by to visit your outstanding blog, and shoot, i may be calling your wife to ask if i can call you my boyfriend, too. good stuff. hope our paths will cross often.
      .-= whollyjeanne´s last blog ..nancy, an unlikely shero =-.

  28. Josh Hanagarne

    Too awesome. I worked at a special needs school for about a year. It’s been four years and one of the little girls still calls me every Sunday evening because my wife said that she could tell people that I was her boyfriend. We’ve been having the same discussion for a long time, and I never get tired of it. This was the best thing I’ve read this week. I’ll be smiling for a year.
    .-= Josh Hanagarne´s last blog ..How To Be As Confident As This Pig =-.

    • whollyjeanne

      well, hello, josh. nice to meetcha. just went by to visit your outstanding blog, and shoot, i may be calling your wife to ask if i can call you my boyfriend, too. good stuff. hope our paths will cross often.
      .-= whollyjeanne´s last blog ..nancy, an unlikely shero =-.

  29. Glennisd

    Tell nancy I love her and that I learned something from her tonight…

    • whollyjeanne

      i’ll sure tell her, my friend. xo

  30. Kaeruwa [email protected]

    How truly Jeanne. And truly Nancy – lovely to hear about/from her again, and to see your fabulous style, too.

    Any ARC places near you? Ashville?

    • whollyjeanne

      arc – good idea. will look into that. thank you. love you.

  31. Sharon

    What a wonderful gift you have just shared.

    • whollyjeanne

      thank you, my friend. nancy IS a gift, a true gift.

  32. Mrsmediocrity

    oh my. I didn’t think it was possible to love you any more than I already did, but now I do. Thanks you for this.

  33. Paula Puffer

    Wow…. such an amazing post. Thank you for sharing Nancy with us.

    • whollyjeanne

      thank you for seeing nancy, for really seeing her.

  34. KjM

    A lovely/loving tribute to someone who, as my father – a poet – once wrote, half-turned back as they came to this world and so, sees things differently.

    You might like this, it’s a song “Scorn Not” sung by an Irish singer, now passed. ‘Twas written by another Irish singer, Phil Coulter, about his own child. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YTBC7ckTWpo

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