No, that’s not a challenge, go ahead call my kid retarded I DARE YOU. (And then WHAM! Off with your head!) It’s not a trick. It’s not. Really. It’s … an invitation.
We say that word while conjuring thoughts of kids who drool a little, their slack jaws a symbol of the blank minds we imagine inside. The short bus. Special ed. Less than. Not as good as. Not, um, normal.
But what is it really? Retarded.
My dictionary says that “retard” is a verb meaning to hold back or delay in terms of progress or accomplishment. (It also says it’s an noun, and says it’s an offensive one at that, but we’ll get to that.)
So now I look at my kid. My son, Eric. My retarded son. He’s five. Five-and-a-half. He wears a diaper except when he takes it off to poop on the floor. He drinks a teaspoon of water at a time from an open cup because if you put any more than that in the cup he’ll spill it all down his front and then laugh at the result. He can’t run. He can’t jump. 90% of the time he’s completely unintelligible and the other 10% we guess at the sounds. Is he like any other five-and-a-half year old I’ve known? No. He’s retarded.
Eric sure has a good time. I am convinced he could do more if he wanted to. But he doesn’t want to. He likes being, you know, the “R” word. He’s totally working it, using it to his advantage. That thought dawned on me once, about a year ago — I had the sense, suddenly, that he knew everything I was saying and he was choosing to look at me uncomprehendingly, blankly, unspeaking, unresponsive. As soon as I had that thought he ran off, shrieking with delight (well, grunting; he doesn’t shriek) and I chased him, finally wrestling him down to the floor.
He was smiling. A game.
“Eric!” I demanded. “Do you understand more than you let on? Could you talk more if you wanted to?”
He looked at me for a moment. Really saw me, saw into me, the way he did when he was an infant and I wore him next to my heart before he could walk, when he spoke to me without words and told me not to be frightened, that this Down syndrome thing was okay, and that he’d be okay. That I’d be okay. We were in a bubble, me kneeling over him lying on the floor, looking up at me, suspended together for a moment in space and time. I could see into his infinite wisdom and understanding, the all-knowingness we each have when we drop the illusions we carry about ourselves and one another. He smiled again, gently this time.
“Yes.” He said the word clearly, and nodded as well for good measure. I let him up and he got to his feet and walked back into his world.
It tore me up for the longest time, knowing he could do more. I had made it my job to help him get there, and he didn’t want it.
So what’s good about retarded?
People drop their expectations about you. (No one expects Eric to go to college.) He can do what he wants, and someone will always care for him. He’ll always have enough to eat, and beyond eating his needs are few. He can entertain himself with almost anything (the toilet, for instance). A pile of rocks would do.
It’s also about being present. Slow is beautiful. Slow invites us to be in the moment, to enjoy what we have right now. How many of us can say that? I know I’d like more slowness in my life.
Retarded. It’s not a bad gig.
Sure, other people see him differently. Not now, but they will. Classmates, maybe. People who don’t know him. Right now it’s cute when a five-and-a-half year old wants to hug you, but that’s because he’s not much more than three feet tall. Give him a couple more feet in height and the hormones that will inevitably come with age and he’ll be scaring people, or at least making them uncomfortable. People who’ll then use the word “retarded” as a shield instead of as an invitation.
Retarded. Right now it doesn’t hurt him but it might one day. I’ll worry about that then, though. For now I think Eric can take care of himself.