This I Believe

David - Nerstrand, Minnesota
Entered on July 26, 2007

Retard. Retarded.

It’s a warm summer evening, just having finished a lively, satisfying summer meal in the company of friends. Yet the words sting me like a chilling north wind in the dead of winter.

Retard. Retarded.

One might think that growing up with two developmentally disabled siblings should insulate me…immunize me against the sting of these words. I should be used to this after all.

But it doesn’t, and I’m not. As I grow older and seemingly wiser, it just hurts all the more.

Retard. Retarded.

When the words are spoken after dinner by some of my best friends, I wonder if they know how much it hurts. I know these people…good people…and I’m sure that if they knew my feelings, apologies would be offered immediately. They know my situation….or at least I think they do. Even if they don’t, they should know better.

And I see others at the table looking at me, knowingly, as they uncomfortably smile at the “joke”. His wife tries to correct him. Yet no one speaks up. I don’t speak up. I feel the comforting hand of a friend on my back and hear a faintly whispered apology from her as I leave for the evening. The understanding helps.

And I can’t help but thinking that if the words “nigger” or “negro” were used at the table (though they probably wouldn’t be because somehow these words are more offensive than “retard” or “retarded”), there would have been an immediate gasp…a quick reaction and a backlash of criticism for the inappropriateness of those words. But with “my” words, there is no such reaction. No criticism, no outrage. Just an “oh, honey, we don’t use those words” and silence or a few uncomfortable looks from others. Wouldn’t want to cause a scene…especially for words that aren’t quite as outrageous as “nigger”.

Yet “my words” are just as offensive…but very few speak for “my” silent minority. If a public figure…a Don Imus…uses “my words”, there is no public outcry, no loss of livelihood. Perhaps a mild scolding, but little else. Parents immediately scold children when the word “nigger” is used, but kids throw around the word “retard” without thinking, without consequence. It’s still used often.

I hear them.

Retard. Retarded.

As I drive home in silence…melancholy, moody, morose…I am still amazed at the depth of my feelings about “my words. Why does it still bother me so much? I thought I had made my peace with this. I thought I was over this. Yet I feel it so strongly…and it comes at me in waves of sadness…for my brother and sister….for the developmentally disabled…for the lack of respect and the lack of dignity that using “my words” shows.

Yet there’s another feeling here. It’s immense disappointment in me. I hear the words…I heard them tonight…and I said—NOTHING. Why? Maybe too much “Minnesota Nice”. Or, I didn’t want to cause a scene. Didn’t want to make others uncomfortable at someone else’s party—I don’t have the right to make it about me and my feelings. Or, it’s the simple fact that I despise conflict. Or, maybe…just maybe…it’s the years carrying around a family ideology of acceptance of my siblings openly, without qualms or qualifications…a silent comfort with our circumstances without drawing attention to them…that makes me reluctant say anything.

None of those reasons hold water. I said nothing.

And there are bigger issues here…ones that the use of “my words” bring back to the forefront. With my reluctance to speak up about “my words”…if I can’t do it at a dinner party among friends for Christ’s sakes…how am I going to speak up for my siblings when my parents aren’t able to anymore? My mother spends much of her life advocating for them, and will I be able to fill her shoes? If I don’t speak up at a dinner party, how will I speak for them in the future? Will I be able to? I think so….but really, will I?

Retard. Retarded.

I realize, now, that the learning to live with Mark and Mary’s disabilities is an ongoing process. Once I think I have it down pat, it only takes comment at a dinner party to make me realize—once again—that there’s still so much more for me to learn. I’m a lifelong learner.

My siblings—my circumstances—have taught me so much…a heightened sensitivity to the plight of others, a respect for the dignity in every person, and an incredible level of tolerance and patience. I wouldn’t trade any of my experiences or what they have taught me. But sometimes, I need to learn to have less patience…I need to break that lifelong silence, and speak up. I expect that of myself.

Maybe this is my first step.