Sunday, February 23, 2014

Belonging...and Not

I thought I should explain that I'm filling in at the start of each week for a couple of months for my boss, Dwayne Milley, who writes Monday Morning emails to our work team; usually on the themes of leadership or belonging. 

So my first post of each week lately has centred on these themes. Meanwhile, Dwayne is doing something much more exciting than work. You can read about his journey in parenthood and adoption on his blog: Everyone Plays.

Last week I mentioned our agency's vision statement that has to do with belonging.

I was thinking about "belonging" as Paul and I chatted over breakfast on Saturday. We spoke about a friend who lived in an institution--a place he felt he didn't belong--for 25 years. 

I've known this friend since 1974, when Paul and I moved in with our two pre-school children to be house parents at the home in the community that this man had moved to one year earlier. 

He was just 41 when I first met him. With a feisty nature to match his Brylcreamed red hair, his communication was hard to understand at first, but with patience, his stammered and deliberate words made sense. He would come back from shopping, and slowly and patiently count every penny; receipts laid out on the oilcloth covered kitchen table; to make sure that he had been given exactly the right change; cigarette stained fingers, slightly clumsily counting out each cent. Frugality was one of his traits, and he painstakingly rolled his own cigarettes until one day the price of tobacco went up beyond what he was willing to pay. He stopped smoking "cold turkey," and never started again.

After a few years he moved into an apartment in Toronto, and finally lived free of all unwanted constraints. In the 40 years since we first met, our lives diverged, but remained linked by friendship. 

But for him, 81 years old now, 40 years of freedom has not erased the pain of 25 years of captivity. Whenever we spend time together he talks about the circumstances that unfolded into the nightmare that he found himself living. There were things he felt should never have happened, and sadly, the first thing he always talks about is his birth.

"She should never have had me," he will say of his mother, "She waited too long."

Although his mother was only 38 when she gave birth, to him that seems old in comparison to when she had his siblings. "The youngest was 18 when I popped out," he says.

He had some difficulties in learning. He could grasp basic math, but never learned to read and write, and he had epilepsy--grand-mal seizures. 

When his mother was 53, she died of cancer. He was 15 by then, and his next youngest sibling, the one who was 18 when he was born, would have been 33. His father couldn't look after him, so he was placed in the care of an institution; a euphemism for the reality.

On his first day there, a vulnerable 15 year old; still grieving the loss of his mother; a staff sucker punched him in the stomach. He clearly remembers why..."to show him who was boss."

"I should never have been there," he says over and over. But he was there--because there was nowhere else he belonged.

That day was the first of a "life sentence" of 25 years, served for no other crime but difference and vulnerability.

Also living in the home where I met him, was Sam, a man whose life connected with his for a while. Sam had also lived in an institution for many years. His speech was almost unintelligible due to cerebral palsy, and his efforts to communicate were emphasized by increased volume and the gestures of desperately flailing arms and legs--angry, agitated movements. When he calmed down enough to talk as slowly as he could, he said, "I...don't ...belong...here."

Paul made a deal with him. He said, "If you go for several weeks without having an angry explosion, I will work on getting you an assessment." 

Both of them kept their part of the deal, and this man, who had taught himself to read, and who couldn't write by hand, but could use a typewriter, was found to have above average intelligence. 

It wasn't long before Sam and our other friend were apartment mates. They were ideally suited, as one could read and type, but was hopeless at managing money. The other could manage money like the best of financial advisors, but couldn't read and write. They happily supported each other in their lives for many years, until Sam died.

When I think about belonging, I think of the fact that so many people that we support have lived with the horrifying reality of being trapped where they did not belong, and knowing it.

Society eventually caught up--with the realization that no one belonged where they were.

People with exceptional needs belong to communities in which their God-given gifts are valued and respected.

4 comments:

mercygraceword said...

Sam and your friend - reminds me of Body and Soul - Diana and Kathy's story of victory through unity.
Thank you for your commitment to revealing what we have been and are becoming as a society.

Deborah

Belinda Burston said...

Thank you Deborah. We must honour people's history and honour them for surviving it with such grace and dignity.

Susan said...

Thank you for recognizing the significance of this story and for sharing it here. It is deeply moving, but so much more than that... These lives lived, this story told, is nothing less than holy ground...

Belinda Burston said...

Thank you Susan!