Essay by Denise Chiappetta
We left the house after dinner in the cold sleety rain of early November in Chicago. The kids and I were wearing our spring coats. Oops. The kitchen was left untidied. Oh well. As I shivered in the passenger seat, listening to the rhythmical hum of the windshield wipers, I allowed myself the luxury of a few uninterrupted thoughts.
Approximately once a month, through an organization called MERCYWorldwide, my husband, two kids and I make a trek to visit a group home for people with disabilities. Of the six female residents, all have some form of mental or physical disability. At first, for someone like myself, with very little experience interacting with people with disabilities, I must admit to having been somewhat nervous and insecure on our first visit. “Can she comprehend what I am saying? Can she read my lips? She can’t see me, will she walk right into me? She’s rocking back and forth, does that mean she’s going to have some sort of outburst? Oh no, she’s mute. Do I keep on talking even though she can’t talk back? How do I engage her?” All are thoughts I’ve had. In daily life I try to be a friendly and outgoing person. The person who is first to introduce herself in a new group setting and always has a witty remark at hand. Heck, I’ve read books with titles like, “The Art of Mingling.” I’ll survive just fine at a cocktail party, thank you. But this? One person at the table can’t hear my “witty” remark, four others might not “get” the joke, another might start laughing uncontrollably, and one may just ignore me and continue staring at the wall. I’m out of my element.
Honestly, if it weren’t for my husband’s prodding and his stories about how good it is for group home residents to have visitors, I probably never would have ended up here. He educates me: “Denise, you gotta understand, some of these people don’t have family. Aside from the other group home residents, often the only other people who interact with them are people who are paid to do so. For many of the residents, when they get a birthday card in the mail, they tell everyone about it for days--that’s assuming they even get a card. These are the people society shuts away and forgets.” Okay. You got me.
So... I find myself riding in the car for the fourth time to the home of my “new friends.” Tonight will be “game night” and I’ve got a laundry basket full of farm animal memory, princess bingo, connect four, dominoes, and dinosaur jigsaw puzzles. With kids ages four and nine, I’m well equipped for tonight. At least in this aspect. Honestly, it always seems that the times we are scheduled for our visits are at the end of especially long or bad days. Today is no exception. I have PMS, the four-year-old is yawning because she did not nap when I suggested it, the nine- year-old is complaining about his after dinner chores, my husband’s work has been especially busy and we’ve barely had time to talk all week, there’s family drama over who will host Thanksgiving dinner this year, and dinner is reheated leftovers. I’m ready to call it a day, get on my cozy jammies and pop in a DVD. Meanwhile, the sound of the windshield wipers is rhythmical, pushing through the rain. I tell myself this is what I need to do now; push through... persevere despite the “bad weather.” Okay. I got this. It also helps that my husband, perhaps because he is super-spiritual or perhaps because he is aware of my own precarious emotional and mental state at the moment, suggests we say a prayer before entering the group home. So, our family huddles up in the car and prays to be of some service tonight and an encouragement to the residents. Amen.
And so, as we greet everyone upon entering, I’m reminded why we came. We came because Julie lights up and says “Hi!!!” about twenty times when we walk through the door. We came because Esperanza, who loves Disney princess movies, grins ear to ear and exaggeratedly nods her head “yes” when I hold up the box of “princess bingo” we purchased in the Super Target dollar section the day before. We came because Ruby spies the dominoes in the basket and puts in her request before anyone else can. We came because the women who are able to speak tell us about how they cried when Diana, who had lived in their home twenty years, passed away a few weeks ago. We came because Thelma and Eva, who don’t really speak much, give me a hug that lasts way “too long” according to books like “The Art of Mingling.” As I spread the games on the table, I wonder if I came more for them, or for me. The home is warm as we take off our coats, my kids are excited to play, my PMS is gone and Thanksgiving drama seems far away. Yeah, I got issues. Well, so do these women. But we can still play some “princess bingo” and enjoy ourselves.
So, for the next hour-and-a-half, I, the person who usually “hates board games,” find myself hunting for a lot of princesses, coaching on what makes a “match” in jigsaw puzzles and what doesn't...many times, and giving more “thumbs up” signs than The Fonz on an episode of “Happy Days.” I have to laugh when Esperanza is in a heated competition with my four-year-old daughter over who can find Princess Jasmine first. She informs her a little too enthusiastically, shaking her head, “No match. No match!” I find myself feeling vulnerable and convicted when I make a match in dominoes and Julie tells me, “good job! good job!” puts her hand on mine, leans in and lays her head on my shoulder and hugs me. The way my kids do. Even though we’ve only visited four times. I wonder about who really hugs her. I think of my own life, and all the affection I take for granted. A husband. Multiple children. I get lots of hugs. But if you don’t have any of that... who hugs you? What does it feel like to not be touched?
Before we leave, the two group home workers bring out a huge birthday cake, and all of us who are able sing “Happy Birthday” to Jackie, one of the employees who will be with these ladies through the night, until the day shift employees arrive. My kids are super excited to be eating cake at 7:30pm. So are the residents. Actually, so am I.
In the car on the way home, I keep picturing Esperanza shaking her head, staring at her game pieces through her inch-thick glasses, saying, “No match. No match.” I replay my own life from the past couple hours: driving through the rain, playing princess bingo, struggling to communicate with a deaf woman the exact same age as me who lifts weights and could easily “take me down” in a heartbeat, and scarfing down cake. I think, “No match. No match.”
Then I picture Julie with her head on my shoulder, smiling. I contemplate how much I admire her purity of heart and vulnerability, how much I wish to imitate those qualities and how encouraged I felt in her home. I think about how an hour-and-a-half on a Thursday night is so NOT a huge sacrifice of my time. I get a vision of myself pushing a shopping cart through the aisles of Hobby Lobby, happily stocking up for next month’s “Christmas arts and crafts” night. I clearly see myself, my husband and my kids surrounded by flurries of construction paper, lots of beads, so much glitter and glue and of course, people with disabilities. And I giggle. Maybe it’s a match after all.
Denise Chiappetta November 2010
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The above article, along with many other great works, will be part of the book Rescuing Supermom, a collection of essays and poetry to soothe a mother's soul, by Denise Chiappetta.
Ink pens and markers on 4.5" x 3.5" paper by Joe Chiappetta 2010
Is my wife not a super-gifted writer? As soon as I read her dramatic thoughts on serving the poor, I knew I had to highlight her work in some way. After Denise wrote this amazingly heartfelt essay at 4 o'clock in the morning, I was so moved that I was compelled to make a slightly related comic commemorating the event. It's a comment that my youngest daughter made while we were doing a service project for people with disabilities.
"You know," said a little girl to her new friend while trying to finish a jigsaw puzzle, "this puzzle would be a lot easier if it wasn't cut into all these pieces."