When I was little, I had one adult relative that always had time to talk to me. She laughed at my jokes and made silly ones herself. If you asked her to pass the jam – she’d say “Jam it in your mouth.” Not only was she a comic genius, but whenever I went to visit my grandparents she would walk with me (just me) down the block to Kenny’s. Everyone knew her at the diner and she would order me any drink I wanted, while she drank her coffee.
I never wondered why she was so cool – she just was. It wasn’t until my adult years that it occurred to me to ask about her diagnosis. I grew up around the disabled, so it has always been a familiar world. Our family did respite for the Association for the Mentally Handicapped, though the name changed many times: to Mentally Challenged, to Developmentally Delayed and finally Community Living. Whatever the name, we had kids of all sorts in our house. Autism, hydrocephalus, and Down Syndrome, I know them well. But it never occurred to me to put a label on my aunt.
Occasionally, I teach a workshop for young people in our church. They help with a number of special needs kids throughout the year and are incredibly dedicated. One of the first activities we do is to have each one think of something they struggle with – whether a bad habit or fear – something they just can’t seem to defeat. I have them write it down and stick it to their chest, on top of their name tag.
“Nail-Biter, please hand me that binder.”
“Can Procrastinator and Messy pass these handouts around.”
“Keep your hands to yourself Nose-Picker.”
Okay, so that last one isn’t real, at least not that anyone has admitted to so far.
Frankly, I can’t stick with it very long. Not only does it feel silly, but demeaning and impersonal. Which is exactly the point.
We are not defined by our struggles and problems. No matter how real or powerful they may be – that is not WHO WE ARE. My Auntie Jan is not cerebral palsy or epilepsy or any of her medical problems.
She likes country music and classic books like Anne of Green Gables and Little House. It’s amazing what she can accomplish with only one hand. She loves to bowl and has her very own lime green ball. She still laughs at my jokes and she takes the time to get to know my kids.
Everyone should have an Auntie Jan.
So here’s me, and my Aunt – bowling.