She shuffled in, not acknowledging the frozen night air behind her on this first below zero day of the season. Her words flick out at me like the beginning move of the game of 52 card pick-up. Her cheeks are rosy both from cold and from elation.
“Well, it was good. Mom, everyone was so thankful and I feel like I hardly did anything! I even cried a little. People who don’t have so much were so happy just for me to hand them desserts. One guy yelled to everyone ‘A cupcake from Cate, I feel so blessed!’ And I don’t know why it made him so happy, but then I got happy. I helped people carry their plates through the line and back to their tables. Did you know, mom, that when people don’t get enough food it makes them kinda shaky? So some of them needed a little help carrying so the food wouldn’t wobble off. And even then they thanked me so much like I just did the greatest thing. I didn’t, though. I just carried a plate….”
She went on to tell how grandma, who had taken her to serve a holiday dinner at St. Vincent de Paul where she’s a regular volunteer, showed her off everywhere. She said even people grandma didn’t introduce her to knew who she was. When there was time, they looked around at the center a bit and Cate heard about other services in addition to meals, that SVDP provides for those in need. A volunteer in another area asked Cate a few questions about why she was there and gave her a candy cane.
She brought cookies home for her sister which may have been the highlight if it weren’t for the rest of it. She seemed truly surprised by the feeling she got to take home with her and was clearly touched at how joyful an experience it was to give a little time, chat it up with others and lend a respectful hand. She’s volunteered before, at the library, at our inclusive summer camp, through girl scouts. But I think this hit her in a different place than all that. She gave, but clearly felt that she got more back in return. She asked grandma when she can go back again.
Cate's younger sister with cognitive and communicative differences must live a paradox daily – she’s both to receive incessantly, but also develop independence. She’s to accept all that others have to give her – teachers, therapists, adults, children, strangers. Addie is to serve as a receptacle for their gifts whether given professionally or personally, appropriately or not. And then on the other hand, the adults paid to be in her life set goals for her in the name of independence. “She must learn to do it herself, on her own.” We must make shoe tying and coat zipping a priority over literacy in the name of autonomy. Addie is to accept all other agendas and yet somehow develop her own, but only when it comes to physical, functional tasks.
She is groomed for future isolation.
But what about interdependence? What about a focus on helping her recognize opportunities to offer her own talents to other humans? She is a dimensional human with original thoughts, not just a smiling simpleton struggling to make her own toast. How about teaching Addie how to execute on her feelings of generosity and compassion, of interest beyond herself? What about the great feeling her sister gets to savor at only 11 years old when she gives of herself? Where are Addie’s receptacles for her gifts, for what she has to offer? It isn’t independence that makes the world go round – we’d all live our whole lives in tall, windowless grain silos instead of many and varied communities, if independence were the key. No, the world spins by virtue of people working with others in reciprocal relationships – filling a gap for someone when they need it, trusting they’ll reach out when you need it. Give and take. Not just give. Not just take.
Cate lent a hand. The hand was filled with dignity, respect and connection. She wanted to do right by these people because just because they were people. And they repaid her small gestures 10-fold with their happy thanks, their mutual respect and their confirmation of human connection. She recognized it, was moved by it and wants more of it.
That’s on Addie’s wishlist, too. ‘Santa’ has resolved to find ways to get that in both girls' stockings in 2011 and beyond.
Peace, hope and joyful noise to you this season and all that come after it.