Yo - Yos
By Sydney Gay
A true story: Arlene is thirty seven years old, mentally retarded, she lives in a special home with twenty six equally challenged adults, she has a limited vocabulary, about 14 words. Arlene is my spirit teacher, perhaps you never heard of such a thing, let me explain. When I volunteered to help Arlene, I was a Hoffman Institute graduate with a professional license in electrolysis with an office in the Medical Arts Center of Manhattan.
My patients were mostly women traumatized by abuse of one kind or another, usually they had been to several doctors before meeting me, when all else failed my office was the last hurrah so to speak. However, I never met anyone like Arlene, a tall woman who taught me intelligence of the mind is one skill, but intelligence of the heart is bigger. Arlene and I read one another’s thoughts, on most issues we did not need words to understand one another, she was very easy to be with, but she was not a saint.
I found Arlene quite capable of deliberately annoying the house manager, a mature Irishman named Michael. She preyed on Mike’s attention by following him room to room continuously repeating two word phrases like “toilet paper, toilet paper, toilet paper, toilet paper” and this could go on for several minutes. I figured such a habit was due to boredom, the environment of a government supported handicapped facility is often dull, for a good part of each day the residents sit on hard chairs, aside from bland meals, there are few diversions.
One day I got the idea yo-yos might create laughter and a fun bit of challenge. Simply re-winding the string would be entertaining, truly I didn’t expect more than that, I chose yo-yos in lovely bright colors and this is what happened.
Nancy, age twenty seven, who normally greets people by biting their arms, grabbed her yoyo the way a hungry pet reacts to food, the minute it was in her hand she shrieked, ran to the other side of the room and banged her head on the wall. George, whose head never grew larger than a six month-old baby, snorted at his yoyo. Peter looked at his yoyo and flung himself to the floor, then George with the small head began to scream, all the others backed away with fists knotted, totally refusing to touch them.
Disappointed that my gift was good for nothing, I went to the kitchen to regroup my thoughts and there was Michael so intensely arguing with Arlene over toilet paper, he did not see me come into the room, he yelled with full force, “You want toilet paper!” Bam! He punched Arlene in the face and she fell to the floor. At this point he saw me, his face became fiery red and he flew out of the house slamming the door. Immediately I dropped to my knees, “You okay, Arlene?” Tears rolled from her eyes, her cheek was turning purple, but she was smiling. She loved Michael O’Malley, I could see that. I pulled her to her feet and life went back to normal.
On the way home I had knots in my stomach. Early the next day I returned to the home and with trembling fingers knocked on the door. Michael was not there, a different attendant said he took a day off. “Forgive me.” I replied, “this is not my scheduled volunteer time, but something happened here yesterday, the owner of this home needs to know.”
Did it feel good to defend Arlene? Nothing about this felt good, the memory of that moment lingers and still makes me choke. I’m older now, Arlene passed away some time ago, even so her spirit remains alive in my spirit. We experienced real love together. Twelve years ago I left America and moved to Ajijic, a mountain village in Mexico, the happiness of the people here offers me a new perspective on the care of handicapped. There is no government supported home for mentally retarded in this village, handicapped are rarely sent away, the family honors them as special gifts from God, as angels sent to earth for a purpose.
Some time ago, CBN Television sent documentary photographers to my work site, we wanted viewers to see the difference between happy homes of mentally retarded and severely handicapped whose families maintain deep faith that a loving God is guiding them to rise above every problem. We compared this state of mind to the opposite experience of parents who are fearful, resentful, deeply disappointed that they gave birth to a person with problems.