I’ve edited and sent out my latest short story for Christmas to friends and family and wonder. The whole business of writing is a mystery. You send out hundreds of queries you post blogs and fb posts- you like multiple writers pages and hope one day to make a difference.
But to make a difference takes effort. Time must be put in to show dedication. Charity from home is the closest way I have ever felt that what I actually did made a difference.
The following short story is my Christmas story Enjoy, Diana
Sounds of Christmas
When I worked as a caregiver at Brookhaven Health Center the persons I cared for became my teachers. Down’s syndrome, cerebral palsy, spinal injuries, mentally challenged, and blindness were some of the struggles they faced. The lessons they taught far exceeded any education I could have received at the finest of universities. This Christmas day was no exception and I was presented with a special gift, a gift needing no garnishment of tinsel or fancy bows.
The band belted out the oldies. People of all ages crowded the dance floor, gyrating to the beat of pulsating drums and bass guitar. Having live entertainment was a bonus to the festivities at this annual Christmas party where no one took notice of boys dancing with boys or those who danced by themselves. The acts of celebration and movement overshadowed any set standards by those deemed normal.
That word, normal, always brought back memories of my orientation when I accepted my current job. The instructor was full of animation and emotion as he spoke.
“Normal? This is their normal!” Scott said. He pointed his finger at us like a scolding mother. “I never want to hear you say that word. Typical is what everyone else is. Normal is what you’re used to.”
His words melted into my heart. The people we helped perform daily functions knew only what they were born with. Anything else would be abnormal. One of my first lessons was, we who are without handicaps are blessed. I’d always taken the absence of handicaps for granted. Now I wondered, who was happier?
Scott chuckled before he asked, “Do you know what the disabled call you?”
All of us trainees shook our heads no.
“Walkers!” he said.
The room broke into laughter. He further instructed us to never call our people, “clients” or “patients” for they were, “Normal people who just need extra help. To show respect we refer to them as ‘consumers.’”
Orientation was a long time ago but those words always echoed back to me when I heard others describe this population with the ugly word of “retarded.” When people make jokes about the disabled, I think their normal is not so great.
I met the daughter of one of the Christmas band members in April and we quickly became friends. Watching Jen’s interactions with the mentally retarded developmentally disabled (MRDD), gave me great pride. The respect given and received was more satisfying than any upper crust society party could ever muster. The diversity of these people reminded me how each soul was a rough cut gem—precious but ignored.
The happy atmosphere of this unusual party with its quirky music brought me back to the present. As if they had been waiting all year for this day, those in the room of the outdated VFW hall were full of holiday cheer. The laughter gave me a headache; but it was the good kind, the kind you get when you can’t stop smiling. The food and the music never ceased. Among the cinnamon and pine scents, each employee and consumer wore happy faces with one exception.
A young man in his early twenties sat in a corner next to his mother. My happiness dipped as I studied them and wondered why they isolated themselves. After working with these people who aren’t always able to communicate in the usual way, I’ve learned to read body language. The non-verbal persons are actually very communicative. The mother sitting next to her son was reserved and tentative. She wore a bright red and green holiday skirt in an apparent effort to be festive. Jen had mentioned this was Johnny’s first visit to the Christmas party.
Reasons why people were afflicted were pointless. Those not familiar with the system felt blame must be assigned. Mary, Johnny’s mother, still kept her son at home. It was considered impolite to ask, but Mary made it her duty to explain her son’s condition.
“He was born with a severe case of Cerebal-palsey,” Mary said. With pride she added, “He wasn’t supposed to live beyond his sixteenth birthday.”
“I’m glad to have the chance to meet him, “I said. Then I touched his shoulder. “Merry Christmas, Johnny.”
Johnny wiggled his face in response. It reminded me of a rabbit twitching his nose at a carrot.
Mary was talking again. “We have help come in once a week so I can have a break. He’s not in a group house. Jen was so nice to invite us.”
Mary seemed uncomfortable in a social setting. As the other consumers came by and gave Johnny and his mother holiday greetings, I saw her begin to relax.
Johnny occasionally would grin or raise his eyebrows, but more often than not, he sat stationary like a human statue. His wheelchair differed from the others scattered across the room; it had special features. Johnny was a quadriplegic so an electric model was unnecessary. Each limb was braced to plates customize along the frame with Velcro straps to secure him to the chair. He was strapped to a headrest to keep his head from falling to his chest so he had no choice but to sit and watch as life passed him by.
Mary reached over and gently stroked his forearm. His eyes were glued to his mother as Jen and another volunteer approached, bent down, and whispered in her ear. She looked at her son and nodded. Then the volunteers carefully undid the straps. Two men lifted him in a human fireman’s chair hold and took him to the center of the dance floor. A third man joined them and supported his back.
As the musicians played Jingle Bells for the hundredth time, Johnny grinned and drooled. Soon he was emitting a most peculiar sound. The guttural moaning noises concerned me. He sounded as if he were gasping for air. As I moved toward him, the loud squealing and intake of air from Johnny grew in intensity. Before I reached him, they stopped raising him up and down. The strange noises stopped. His eyebrows lowered and his face contoured into a scowl. The moans had been sounds of enjoyment! He wanted more. When Jen and her helpers resumed the twirling and lifting movement, Johnny began to groan and heave again, the spittle dropping from his smiling face. As they twirled him round and round the sounds became contagious. Soon the other consumers began to form a circle around them, clapping and chanting.
“Go Johnny! Go Johnny!”
I looked over to his mother and saw she was crying. I watched as one of Johnny’s peers approached the woman.
“Don’t cry! It’s Christmas. We supposed to be happy today,” he said.
She strained to give him a smile. “Oh, I am very happy!”
He pointed to the throng. “You should laugh then, like Johnny!”
She hugged the boy and patted his back. This seemed to satisfy him. He returned to the dance floor.
When Johnny was carefully placed back into his chair, my friend Jen was concerned. She asked his mother, “What’s wrong? I don’t think we hurt him.”
“Nothing, honey. I’m sure you didn’t.” She wiped her eyes. “It’s just, that was the sweetest sound I’ve ever heard.”
“You mean when Johnny was dancing?”
“Yes. You see, I have never heard him laugh before!”
Energy of pure happiness filled the entire room. Like electricity, its power spread from person to person. I had goose bumps of joy. The gift of that feeling was something I’d never known before or since.
When I’m asked about my favorite parts of Christmas, I remember carolers and singing in the church choirs, my favorite songs, and musical cartoons. Yet the sweetest sound I have ever heard was the music of Johnny’s laughter. It was the most perfect and precious Christmas sound ever made!