Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Better Half

Written:  1/4/10

"Trent," my dad says once we are all seated at the table for dinner. "Run downstairs and bring up a couple loaves of bread."

"No fair," he objects, his brown eyes full of injustice. "Do I have to?" 

The last thing Trent wants to do is go down to our dark basement and open the heavy freezer just to carry up frozen loaves of bread. He is seven, after all, and there are more important things to be done. Like eating dinner. 

What Trent doesn't know is I would gladly have taken his place, but I have never been asked. Even though I am 12, and one of the oldest in my family. I know, realistically, that this is because I move more slowly than Tara, Tye and Trent. With my crutches, everything takes a little longer, even getting up from my chair at the table. It makes sense. But the truth is, it makes me feel like my dad views me as less capable, even though I know I can do it. 

Now that Trent, who is Dad's favorite, and the baby of the family, is old enough to help, I feel even more like the rest of my siblings get the better half of the deal. While they, undoubtedly, are jealous that I am never asked. 

The truth is, whenever we run out of bread, I hold my breath for a second, wishing that my dad would ask me to help out with the chore.

Asking one of them to run downstairs for bread means Dad trusts them to do a job. It makes them part of the family. 

I feel left out.


In school, as a seventh grader, the differences are even more pronounced. 

I am tiny. I weigh 74 pounds, and I'm so small that I literally get bruises like someone beat me just from carrying my backpack around, with several heavy textbooks. My science teacher asks me about the marks and I show him that the bruises are perfectly matched with where my backpack straps strain against my shoulders.

The other kids move faster than I do. I need extra time for almost everything. I spend a lot of time thinking about all the ways I am different.


That summer, five days after I turn 13, I get dropped off at summer camp. This is the first time I spend any length of time away from Tara, and I am nervous, but excited, too. Because this is a camp for kids with disabilities like I have. 

It isn't long after my family leaves that I meet a friend. My cabin is filled with college-age counselors, and Alanis Morisette on tape asking, "Isn't it ironic?" when I meet Amanda. 

She introduces herself to me, because I am too shy to say anything first. She has short, dark brown hair the same color as my dad's, and green eyes. She is pale and skinny, and awkwardly adolescent with teeth that are crooked. She has an electric wheelchair that is sea foam green. She, like me, has Cerebral Palsy.

But Amanda and I focus on the important things. Her birthday is at the end of August, so she is still 12. We find out quickly that we share a love of music. We become fast friends. She tells me about life on a farm, drinking water that tastes like minerals, and teaches me all the words to Garth Brooks's The River.

One rainy afternoon, Amanda and I are in one of the buildings and we discover the book Old Turtle. Amanda has the uncanny ability to smile just like Old Turtle, and it instantly becomes an inside joke. She also seems to have a photographic memory, and can quote entire letters I receive from various family members. It provides me with endless entertainment, especially when she includes the errors. My great-grandma, for example, sends a letter that reads, "Well, hell!" instead of, "Well, hello!" We die laughing.

We stay in Cabin 5, and all the cabins have a cheer. I learn belatedly that what my cabin comes up with is just ridiculous. The other cabins come up with something that actually resembles a cheerleading cheer, while ours somehow grew from everyone contributing random words, into some weird metaphor about a beehive. But we sing it every day at lunch just the same:

"Cabin 5 has got the beat! Cabin 5 is really neat! Cabin 5 is a beehive! And when you walk by, you'll hear the buzz! Buzz, buzz, buzz, buzz! Buzz, buzz, buzz, buzz! We like honey! It is sweet! We're so cool you can't compete!"

It's at lunch, at any meal, really, where I begin to see that I am lucky. There are kids here who are paralyzed, kids who have lost limbs, kids who can't speak or feed themselves. But that is the great thing about being here at camp. 

If a camper needs to be fed, a counselor will feed him, and it's totally normal. In the morning, if something happened during the night and a camper had an accident, the counselors just take care of it. They treat all the campers with care and respect. 

The counselors I get to know are young and middle aged women from all around the world. There is Luna, who is from the area, who writes things on our chart in the bathroom, like, "BOOM! Look who walked in the room!" to make us all laugh. Shelli, who is also a young local, who cheers when she "gets" to help with things like transfers and personal hygiene. 

There is Tirzah, from Holland, who is called the Horse Queen, because she loves them. She sings to the girls who are homesick and has a beautiful voice. There is Ky, from Australia, who tries someone's cheese-balls and proclaims them "foul-tasting" and who can do great dance moves like The Worm. There is Di, from New Zealand, who catches me crying one evening, promptly joins me on the bed, and muses in her great accent, "You're thinking...about a boy..." She isn't even close, but it makes me smile.

They seem to know what the rest of the world has forgotten. 

They seem to know what I have forgotten.

That we are normal. That we are just regular kids, who want to be treated like everyone else. And at camp, that's what happens. 

We have backward day, where we have barbecue sandwiches for breakfast. We tie-dye shirts, we horseback ride, we swim, we go to dances.

For the next two summers, I go back to camp. I meet Kate, Amanda's lifelong best friend, who is also in a wheelchair. Kate's hair is short, blondish brown and curly. She wears glasses sounds as if she's constantly got a cold. But she is hilarious, and Amanda calls her "the town crier" because Kate is constantly announcing the time. The three of us bond instantly. When Kate's wheelchair malfunctions, we beat the back of it with a hairbrush, trying to wake it up. 

I meet Tiffiny, who is 16 and was paralyzed in a diving accident three years earlier. I admire and envy her because she is older and pretty, with long blond hair and clear blue eyes. She is seriously looks so amazing she could be a model, and I make a pest of myself around her. 

Leah is also is gorgeous, with sandy blond hair with natural curl. She has gentle blue-gray eyes, subtle freckles that make her a country sort of beautiful. She is super sweet but has such a strong tremor in her voice it takes me days until I am able to understand her. We become instant friends anyway. When someone plays Simon & Garfunkel's Cecelia she sings along from her bed, even doing actions. At night, when she tries to call for a counselor, but can't project her voice enough to be heard, I get up to help. Somehow, her legs have shifted to where they are hanging stiffly over the side of the bed. I get her situated again and pull the covers around her. She thanks me and we both go back to sleep.

But out of everyone I meet, it is Jodi, I think, who changes me the most. I see her in the cabin I share with Amanda, and Kate and Leah. It's my third year, and I am used to seeing all kinds of people with all kinds of disabilities. By now I know that it is okay. 

The thing is, when I see her, I realize that I know Jodi. 

When Tara and I were ten years old, recovering from major surgery (Tara on one leg, and I on both) Jodi was our roommate, also recovering from some kind of operation. Jodi had been in some sort of accident and had a brain injury as a result. In the hospital, I rarely heard her, but always heard her family talking to her.

The last thing I expect is to be in her cabin, five years later, at summer camp. I see Jodi with medicine she has to take. It's a pill, and it looks like she has to convince herself to take it.

She looks at it. She looks around. She looks at it again.

"Oh, just take it," she tells herself, with a smile. And she does. 

Jodi has an instinctual good cheer. If she isn't listening to others talk, and instead has to remind herself, or others, to take their time or get things into perspective, she sings:

"Be patient. Be patient. Don't be in such a hurry. When you get impatient, then God will start to worry. Remember that God is patient." 

It is the sweetest thing I've heard in quite sometime, and it reminds me of the lesson I learned a couple years earlier, coming to camp for the first time, when I longed to have the better half of the deal - to be in the better half. To be able to keep up with my sister and brothers and people at school, and the counselors here:

And that lesson is, we are all in the better half. 

It's all in how we look at it.


Back at home, we run out of bread and I keep eating. My dad won't ask me to go down and get more. He never does.

"Hey, Ton'? You wanna go downstairs and grab another loaf of bread?"

My breath catches.

"Sure," I say, trying to stay casual.

It's just bread, I tell myself. Calm down

I try to go faster than usual, but not too fast, because I don't want to fall. I go downstairs. I open the freezer and take out the bread. Then I climb the stairs, and hand the bread off to my dad.

He says nothing, but I am ridiculously proud. 

I sit at the table and wonder, what made him ask me? Is it because I'm 15 and he thought it was about time? Is it because he finally realized he hadn't asked and thought to include me? Did he just ask me because it crossed his mind?

But I wonder today, if it wasn't something else. I wonder if my dad could see that I had changed? That, finally, I didn't view myself as inferior just because of what I couldn't do?

Maybe he was waiting for me to realize what he already knew.

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