Sunday, November 6, 2011

She was mentally handicapped, but I learned from her

Decades ago, my grandma published a book of poetry. I'll always remember it because she infamously referred to my 13-year-old self as "aloof" in one of the poems; it hurt my feelings at the time, but I'm sure she was right. I also remember it, though, because of the way she described Little Louise.

Little Louise was, as Grandma described in the book, "one of God's special children." When she was born in the 1920s, the term "special needs" didn't exist; doctors called her "retarded" and said she should be placed in a facility. Her parents kept her at home, but they both died when Little Louise was young, and she had an older sister who didn't want to be responsible for her.

So to keep her out of a "home," my grandma's parents, Nana and Papa -- probably the two best people I've ever known -- brought her to live with them. Little Louise was Nana's niece, and she became part of the family.

Little Louise had been deemed "unteachable," but she was indeed able to learn; she couldn't read, but she was good at the household tasks that became increasingly proud of completing every day. She worked outside the home from time to time -- in fact, she was a "lunch lady" at my preschool -- and she knew everything about everyone and considered all her co-workers her very best friends. And she was happier than any person I've ever seen. That was, as my Grandma said, because she had no worries.

Little Louise loved family gatherings; we kids were her very favorite people to be around, and she revered holidays with a childlike enthusiasm that she never outgrew. When it was her turn to open presents, she shook with excitement. I still remember the year my dad, whose name was Charlie, gave her a then-popular perfume called, of course, "Charlie."

"Whenever I wear this, Charlie, I'll think of you," Louise said solemnly, and dabbed the fragrance on her wrists. And every time she wore it, you can bet she reminded my embarrassed dad that she was wearing "his" special scent.

As the years passed, Louise remained much the same; we often talked about how little she tended to age over the years. Her face stayed unlined; her red hair stayed red. As the older members of the family passed away -- Papa, Grandpa, Nana and then Grandma -- Louise would express now and then that she missed them, but she lived largely in the moment.

Even when she was the last surviving one of her family members and lived alone in a seniors' apartment, she took great pride in making new friends, participating in every activity the facility had to offer, and showing off her collection of holiday decorations. Wherever Louise was, she was the life of the party; she had few, if any, inhibitions, and was always willing to be the first to try something new.

Things changed a few years ago, though, when Louise suffered a stroke. One side of her body was paralyzed, she became wheelchair-confined and couldn't speak. The last time the kids and Kevin and I saw her was, I'm ashamed to admit, two years ago.

I don't really know why we stopped visiting; I could use the excuse that my dad became ill about two years ago and I was busy helping to care for him, but that wouldn't be entirely true. Louise lived but a few minutes from my house; I could have easily been in and out in the span of an hour.

I didn't go because it was unpleasant to see her that way. I didn't know where to look; I didn't know what to say. I didn't know if she was hearing or understanding me. I didn't know if she knew me. I let others in the family do the heavy lifting, and that's not my nature. I guess I simply chose to drop the ball.

We buried Louise today. It was a small funeral; she had become an old lady, and not many people knew her anymore. My faith assures me that she's getting ready to spend the holidays with the people who took her in and loved her, and for that, I'm grateful. But as is so often the case, I'm looking back, now that it's too late, and wondering why I chose to be selfish.

One of my frequent soapbox topics is the way we in the United States tend to treat our elderly. How ironic that every time I've spouted off in recent years, I haven't stopped to realize that I was part of the problem. An hour a week of my time -- and hour I easily could have given -- would have meant something to her.

"We should go visit Lou," Kevin would say, and I'd ignore him. It would have been so easy to jump in the car and spend a little time simply holding her hand, but still, I resisted. And today, I'm left wondering why I screwed up, and feeling humbled about learning a pretty important lesson from someone who once was believed to be too mentally "feeble" to learn anything herself.


  1. sucks being reminded that we are human and make mistakes.

    Take the lesson and hold it in your hear for awhile, and then figure out what you can do to let go and do good.


  2. Thank you, Carol Ann! Peace to you, too. I gather from your Facebook that this fall has not been a good one for you, health-wise. Hope you're feeling stronger daily.

  3. You could always give back in honor of her. Go visit a complete stranger in a nursing home. A lot of people don't realize how many of those elderly folks don't have ANYBODY come visit them EVER! You can still make a difference, Lisa! :)