“Those who are to be his friends he knows instantly, and further acquaintance adds little to the intimacy and warm friendship that he at once feels for them. On the other hand, those who do not respond to him immediately cannot by any effort either on his part or theirs overcome that first alienation.”
-Randolph Bourne, The Handicapped
“You need to calm down and wax,” says one of my closest friends, Elizabeth. “Wax” is the way her mouth pronounces the word “relax.” She’s right.
Elizabeth is eighteen years old. She was born with cerebral palsy and is in a wheelchair. She has a history of seizures, only one fully operational arm and a smile that could drive a suicide bomber to strip down and start painting unicorns.
I am so lucky to spend every other Wednesday afternoon with her.
Among her favorite activities is watching PBS Kids shows. And since she finds security and order through repetition, we not only frequently watch these programs, but we watch the same episodes with a regularity that can feel like doing time in the day room of a mental ward. Yet Elizabeth’s sheer delight in it all points to exactly how my hang ups are mine and mine alone. I created them.
I came into Elizabeth’s life initially to work as her caregiver when she was just 12. Within a few weeks, I recognized I was receiving just as much care from her. And this is one of the greatest benefits of working with special needs people – their uncanny ability to shift perspective.
Six years later, I’ve come to see her as a profound teacher and healer.
It isn’t always sunshine and rainbows though. What is, really? There are many challenges inherent in working with and caring for the special needs community, not the least of which is the overwhelming exposure to bodily fluids. In moments of exasperation, particularly those that involve some aspect of the toilet, I could easily allow my teacher/healer to transform into a burden.
Old patterns of behavior shift me into the victim; the “poor me that I have to endure this” debutante. It’s ridiculous, on my part. And Elizabeth is immune to it all. Even on the occasions where the laws of physics, my achy back and a miscalculation of her weight have slowly brought her slumped onto the bathroom floor, she just laughs. It’s not long before I’m literally brought right back down to earth with her, both of us laughing on the bathroom floor. Another lesson learned.
I no longer “work” with Elizabeth, in that I am no longer paid to be with her. I now choose to spend time with her as I would any other friend, even if she requires a little more care than some of my other friends (and frankly, that’s debatable). She’s more than reciprocated that care with her smile, her boundless love and the laughter she brings into my life. Furthermore, she’s taught me a valuable lesson that no one else has managed to quite so effectively drill into my worry addled head.
She’s taught me to calm down and “wax.”
Stephanie Ruopp is a writer, yoga instructor, educator and caregiver. She and Elizabeth like to black out their teeth with chocolate and take funny pictures.