I believe family love can ease the challenges of mental retardation. If someone would have told me 20 years ago that my sister Josette would be the main caregiver for my 83-year old father, I would not have believed them.
Josette was my mother’s second child, so my mom knew the milestones people tell young parents to look out for, everyone from Dr. Spock to unsolicited advise from our large Italian family.
When the doctors predicted that Josette would not walk — and institutionalizing her should be considered– my mom didn’t buy it. She worked with her two-year old, integrated her into her siblings’ playgroups, and got her into public schools before special ed was commonplace.
Josette was marinated in love. And what’s not to love? Her infectious laugh, great sense of humor, and ability to nurture are the best. She even married although it unraveled after 20 years, just when breast cancer overtook our mom.
Josette wound up back at home with my dad. Her years of being a wife and babysitting neighbors’ and cousins’ children had prepare her for this new role.
That was when my 74-year old dad (who we call J.L.) was healthy: he drove, read the newspaper regularly, and paid his bills. A series of small strokes took a toll on him, and we kids encouraged him not to drive.
Last Christmas morning, Josette found J.L. sprawled out on the bathroom floor after he had suffered a mild heart attack. She awoke family guests and got the medical care he needed.
She translates his staccato sentences for the doctors and our family.
She uses the free-ride van, now that J.L. can’t drive. She feels like a queen being chauffered. With only a third-grade reading level, she screens J.L.’s mail and deciphers what is a bill, when it is due, and which is junk mail.
At 54, Josette does the household chores, laundry, and keeps the social calendar. She stays fit by going to Curves and never misses her Friday-night league bowling. She won’t let J.L. forget the weekly Lawrence Welk Show on PBS. Like a married couple –no, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers—their week has a rhythm.
Josette greets my daily long-distance phone calls in a cheerful voice (she reads “Virginia” on the caller ID). Even though it is blustery in Pittsburgh, I hear “Good day brother Joe! And how are you on this wonderful day?”
I ask about their day: “J. L. walked, read the paper, and watched Law & Order reruns,” she reports. “What did you make for dinner?” I ask. “We had boiled fish and salad,” she replies. I know she meant broiled, and she assures me that J.L is fine.
I hang up and count our family’s blessings. I feel foolish for bemoaning my trivial problems. Then, a wave of joy surges through me because of the richness that Josette instills in J.L.’s life. They are two peas in a pod.
Josette has come full circle. Never having children, she is now the parent. She restores our faith in the power of family, but also in the miracle that let her manage her hardship. I believe in the ability of the emotionally challenged to improve the human condition.
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