That Went Well: Adventures in Caring for My Sister (18 page)

BOOK: That Went Well: Adventures in Caring for My Sister

Appealing to a higher power really helps. I do ask for help, and I give thanks for all the answers that show up when I need
them. Irene threw a phone across the room this morning, and my helpers and I know it’s just part of her disability and will never completely go away. When it gets really bad for Irene, or for me, I simply tell my higher power, “I’m going to turn this over to you,” and then see what happens.

The problem somehow gets solved or goes away.

And then it all goes to hell again.

Letter to Irene

Dear Irene,


On the days I want to flee the scene, when you’re throwing something at the wall or screaming at me or others, I say to myself that I wish I had a different sister. I’m not often that sainted boy in the Father Flanagan Boys Town ads, carrying his little brother on his back and saying, “He ain’t heavy: he’s my brother.” Believe me, you are heavy, you are my sister, and if provoked, you could put me on your back and throw me across a room. You haven’t, but you could.

But on the days when we’re driving together and you point out a snowman in a front yard or a bunch of preschoolers marching along the street, you remind me of how much I don’t notice when I’m not with you, and I’m glad I’m your sister.

I’m also honored to be around you when you look at people in your friendly way and make a connection with them that I would never make myself, because it would seem too forward or just plain inappropriate. When you look at the cashier in the checkout line and ask, “How’s
your day?” she glances up gratefully, smiles, looks into your eyes and tells you. Bus drivers love you. Bank tellers love you. People you know at the downtown bus stops all love you. Homeless people rush to help you. You take a waitress’s hand and introduce yourself. I keep trying to make you be more appropriate, but it turns out that they see who you are, way down deep, and they love it. You, in your own way, make bridges to almost everyone, just by looking at them or holding their hand. You have no boundaries, and it works for you. I try daily to establish boundaries so that I can be more “normal”! How come your world is so full of love? How can you just twinkle at people and share each moment as it comes? When I grow up, maybe I can be more like you.

In all our years together, as I tried to find a good day placement for you, I have painful memories of leaving you in rooms crowded with people with disabilities. Over their yelling and croaking and snorting and drooling, I’d look back at you, standing there, watching me leave, and you would say, “I’ll be all right. I can manage,” and my heart would break. The courage it has taken for you to lead your life leaves me breathless. I cannot even imagine how it feels to be you, though I’ve tried. (A friend once said that should be on my gravestone: “Lord Knows She Tried.”)

But Lord knows you’ve tried too, Irene. You are trying with all the tools you have, and sometimes your toolbox is just plain out of tools, as is mine. The thing we have to remember is that we’re doing the best we can each day, with the tools we have on that day. People look at me with pity when they see there’s just the two of us, and it’s my job to make sure you’re safe and cared for. What I want them to know is—despite the hardship now and then—it is an honor being your sister. You are, in many ways, my hero. Thank you for making my life so much richer in so many ways.

However, as my dear friend says of her mentally disabled son, “Yeah, yeah, I know. But I still wish it had happened to the neighbors.”

I’ll read this to you, so you’ll know how I love and admire you, but you will interrupt me and tell me we should just go get a Diet Coke and change your quarters into dollar bills.

With a Big Surprise Ending

ore than a decade has gone by since Irene threw the chicken at me, although I have ducked a cell phone and a cheese ball or two. She just had her Christmas open house, attended by many friends and neighbors. My two gorgeous daughters and their husbands live within five minutes of Paul and me. They have given us two granddaughters each, and I have spent a good deal of these recent years playing with them. They are now text-messaging adolescents, but they still take time to hug and chat with their great-aunt Irene. These past fourteen years have been the best years of our lives.

Uncle Bob died suddenly last spring in his ninety-third year, and I know he was relieved to get out of here quickly and with little pain. He always described himself as a ne’er-do-well and an old reprobate. He contributed more to us all than he ever knew. When I told Irene about his death, she held me and cried, and then stood back and looked at me and said, “Can I have his wallet?”

So life goes on for Irene and me, much the same as it always has, with happy days and then horrible face-plants in the snow and crises of so many kinds.

I like happy endings, so I want to give you one. It is all true, just like the rest of my story.

Just stay with me now, and travel back in time to that evening in the supermarket when she threw the chicken, okay?

Thanks for standing here in the meat department and listening to me. If you understand now why Irene threw that chicken at me, thanks for that, too. I probably deserved it on so many levels. How will I ever know if I did right by her?

After I pick up the chicken and leave the meat department, and get through the checkout line with Ted the checker high-fiving her, we give her groceries to her companion, who unloads them, and then they say good-bye to me. Irene must get ready for her big night out at the church Christmas dance. She is very excited about it.

I am going to my daughter Kate’s house to meet Paul, see their Christmas tree, and have dinner. To get there, I drive three blocks along Eleventh Avenue and turn down J Street, and park in front of 518. On the radio, Jerry and the MoTabs (that’s the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to us natives) are singing “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” That song, this moment, reduce me to tears, complete tears of joy. Kate and John have bought my old home and moved in three months ago. Kate says that when they moved in, she could hear my mom telling her where to put the furniture, because some of the pieces are indeed Mom’s and are just where she had them.

Through the falling snow, the Christmas tree gleams in the bay window, and a toddler, Emily Terrell Andrews, stands in her
diaper, watching me turn into the driveway. Bammy’s salt shaker sits in the kitchen window again. A pair of brown shoelaces sits on a branch of the Christmas tree.

I didn’t suspect it, but God really might be Santa Claus. All that time ago, when I was twelve and we drove away, I had prayed to God to let me come home again. They—whoever God really is—did indeed bring me back to my old home.

And get this: they threw in a horse. I mean a real horse. Paul’s uncle Paul, at age ninety, had said, “I have nine horses. Why don’t you take one of them?” Harry, my Missouri fox-trotter, complete with new saddle and bridle, lives at this time in my cousin’s pasture and barn in Park City.

On this night I will help my granddaughter into her dress in my own former bedroom where Bammy sang “Red River Valley” to me. I remember all the words to that song, even though I have not heard them in half a century. And I will cuddle Emily Terrell in my arms and sing this to her, standing right where Bammy cuddled Irene and me.

My horse fence is gone now. So is the wounded willow, which has been replaced by a locust tree, tall and strong and whole.

It’s not half as interesting as the wounded willow, but I’m not quibbling.

So Merry Christmas, okay? And in the long run, just know everything will be all right, Albert.

would never have thought of writing all the Irene stories down if it hadn’t been for my mermaids. The ladies of my water exercise class have been with me twenty years, and they always ask for the latest Irene story. Thanks especially to Karen Clemons, Allene Pyke, and Anne Spikes for all their loving interest in Irene.

I want to thank my first writers’ group, the Wish We Were Dead Poets Society. There were only three of us in the group. Kim Madsen said, “If you don’t put these stories about Irene down on paper, I will.” The other member, humor columnist Robert Kirby of the
Salt Lake Tribune,
was completely useless to me, as always, but I promised to try to get his name in print in a national publication. We have given up meeting to try to improve our writing. We now meet to find Utah’s best rice pudding. It’s an arduous task, but we do it quarterly.

The real work began when I attended Utah’s fine [email protected], a yearly conference for serious writers. My essay on
Irene, “Flying Chickens and Full Circles,” received an honorable mention in their contest, and through their guest editors I got very good advice. It was there, too, in the workshop led by Susan Vreeland (an author who knows how to teach) that four of us, complete strangers at the time, formed a writers’ group, which we have named The Writing Goddesses. We have met for four years now, and without them, this book would never have been finished, for I had to show up with new work every month. They are Kate Lahey, Annette Haws, and Sallee Robinson. I can never thank them enough for their encouragement, wise advice, and marvelous friendship, to say nothing of great breakfasts.

Betsy Burton, bookstore owner and author of
The King’s English,
advised me on rewrite number twelve and gave me extra confidence. Others who read my work and made valuable suggestions were Muffy Mead Ferro and Margot Kadesch. My daughters, Katy Andrews and Marriott Bartholomew, helped me remember Irene stories as well as improve the manuscript.

I also had the expert opinions of two of my granddaughters, Emily Andrews and Isabel Bartholomew, both of whom are already published authors. It is quite a blow to have your thirteen-year-old, more recently published than you are, write in the margin of your manuscript, “Watch your transitions.”

I first met my agent, Laura Yorke of the Carol Mann Agency, at the American Society of Journalists and Authors. She scared me silly when she held up my proposal in front of a group and said, “This is a proposal I would never take.” My heart sank. And then she said the one word that changed my life: “However…”

She went on to say that the flying chicken and other scenes showed her that I was just what she was looking for, and it has
been magic ever since. And my editor at Hyperion, Leslie Wells, has, I sincerely hope, kept me from making a complete fool of myself in print. She knows how to separate the wheat from the chaff, and also how to pull out of an author more than the author ever thought she had. Kevin MacDonald at Hyperion knows how to polish a manuscript and I thank him for catching so many little things.

The biggest bouquet of all goes to my husband Paul, who helped me in so many ways, especially when it came to formatting my manuscript. He restrained me on several occasions when I wanted to throw my laptop into the canyon below us. He is, as always, the loving and steadying force in my life.

And how could I leave out the person who has contributed to this book more than anyone by simply being her unique and amazing self? Thank you, Irene Harris. I owe you, big time.

About the Author

Terrell Harris Dougan
's weekly humor column ran in the
Deseret News
for thirteen years, and won an award from the National Federation of Press Women for best humor column. As an actress and model, Dougan has been in hundreds of TV commercials and voiceovers. She also served on the founding Board of the Sundance Film Festival. She served as President of the Utah Association for Retarded Citizens for eight years, and on the Board of National Association for Retarded Citizens for two terms. She lives with her husband in Salt Lake City, Utah.

. Copyright © 2009 by Terrell Dougan. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the non-exclusive, non-transferable right to access and read the text of this e-book on-screen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, down-loaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of Hyperion e-books.

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