I was on the bus coming home, the 14 as crowded as ever. Crammed between a clique of teenage girls, I couldn't help but overhear their conversation. “How do you not know how to post a photo on facebook?” one of them was saying. “Seriously, you’re fucking retarded.”
The rest of the girls laughed, even the “retarded” one. I hear people throw that word around a lot, and it always burns me inside. What are people trying to say when they call someone or something retarded? That it is stupid? dumb? incompetent?
As the bus lagged along, I thought about my younger sister. Growing up, I always knew she was “different” somehow. Her almond slanted eyes didn’t quite match mine and my older sister’s rotund peeps. And my parents doted over her with a unique type of fuss, rarely punishing her for doing something wrong. (When she was six, she went through a phase of waking up every morning and dumping boxes of cereal onto the kitchen floor—and not once did she get put in a time-out.) There was other stuff that set her apart from us too: her words didn’t have the same lucidity as mine did, and that smaller yellow bus took her to a different school every morning.
I overheard conversations my parents had with other adults. Words like ‘Down Syndrome’ and ‘Junior Arthritis’ didn’t make much sense to me then. What did an “extra chromosome” have to do with the fact that she was always at the doctor’s, or in and out of hospitals for numerous operations? “She has special needs, her body works differently than yours,” my mother explained. I took it for what it was and all throughout my childhood we were inseparable, always playing together; sometimes school, where I’d teach her colors, or restaurant with PB&J sandwiches, or nursery with our Cabbage Patch Kids. We played like sisters, tattled and fought, loved like sisters, and stuck our tongue out at the other when our mom hugged one of us—the way squabbling sisters do.
Now that I’m older and have moved away, she plays the harmonica on my visits home, as soon as I walk through the door. And when we watch movies cuddled on the couch, she looks adoringly up at me and coos, “I love you, sis.” As I listened to the girls on the bus, I wondered if they would still call each other “retarded” if they would’ve seen the blurry look in my sister’s eyes when my date picked me up on prom night; or if they would’ve been there to sing happy birthday to my sister while she lie bed-rest in ICU, a 50/50 chance of surviving the pneumonia her tiny lungs were fighting…
The bus slammed on its brakes, finally at my stop. I freed myself from the pockets of people and bid the girls a silent adios. They were still laughing, passing around pictures on one of the girls’ phones. I could tell by their innocent happiness that they were not evil or mean-spirited girls in the least. They were just young and maybe not mature enough to realize how painfully ignorant their language was. They were girls who were special though, and loved by someone; they were someone’s daughter and they were someone’s friend. And maybe—and very likely—they were even someone’s sister.
|At a cousin's wedding, 2011|
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