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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.

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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.