Tuesday, May 17, 2016
The saddest questions are the ones you already know the answers to, without having to ask.
“Awb oar!” the little boy said – all aboard! – but he was too big to speak that small. Except of course he wasn’t.
“His name is Christian.” Joe said that to me, a few months ago. He was speaking of his great-grandson, who was flailing his way onto the Coal Tender car of the Arrowhead mall choo-choo train, the open car just behind the faux locomotive.
I nodded. “And so is yours.”
I met Joe and Christian and Martha, Joe’s wife, just after New Year’s Day, the very first Saturday of a brand new year. I had just started driving the train, but they were old hands, and Christian has been a train fanatic forever.
How long is forever? That’s one of the questions I don’t ask. At a guess, I’d say Christian is eight years old, but I’m an easy sell on six or ten.
I haven’t asked what’s wrong with him, either, but it’s a lot: Random and unreliable muscle control coupled with a significant mental disability. Christian can want as well as any Toddler, and as stridently. He can intend for his muscles, but they will not cooperate for him, not well and not for long. He does almost everything he can do with help from Martha. He can verbalize, again like a Toddler – making sounds that are less than abstract ideas but still more than mere grunts – but he cannot conceptualize, as far as I’ve seen, and it’s plausible to me that he never will.
And I haven’t asked what Christian’s deal is, either, but this is what I know for sure: Christian’s deal is Joe and Martha. Your kid’s kid’s kid is your kin, and even if no one else stepped up to take care of Christian, Joe and Martha did.
And that’s saying something, because they’re no kids themselves. Joe was an Army Chaplain in Vietnam, and he has a hitch in his gait to show for the flak he took doing his job. He’s tall and lean and he has has snow-white hair – combed just the way it was in his seminary school yearbook picture, I’ll bet. Martha is shorter, with dark hair, and she is fit as only elderly Americans are fit by now – which is well, since Christian requires so much help.
And this story is about the Specials, of course. I’ve told you all about the Regulars and the Grotesques and the Normals at the mall, but I haven’t talked about the Specials, not until now. There’s a reason for that: It’s because it hurts too much.
I love the Specials at the mall. I love all of them, wherever they come from, whatever they do, however long they stay. There are other Special children like Christian, who get to ride the train, but there are other kids who don’t, and I want for them to be able to love the train with their eyes, even if they never get to take it for a ride. And there are Special adults, too, grown-up Downsy kids and other Special folks who are lucky enough to have family looking out for them. They love the train, too, as does anyone still brave enough to be a kid.
But the biggest cadres of Specials at the mall are adult residents of group homes who are ferried to the mall once a week or twice a month as – I wish I were joking – recreation. No money for anyone, except perhaps some coins for the gum-ball machines. Ignored, all but openly rejected by almost everyone, too, when all they want is what everyone wants from strangers – to be seen, respected and valued – to be welcomed. What they get instead is just a long, grim schlep from one end of the mall to the other on the ground floor, then that same trek back on the second floor. Recreation.
Here’s what I see: Every Special person, including Christian, is capable of a hell of a lot more than anyone gives him credit for. I know this: I play “impossible” games with Toddlers of all ages all the time. But that aside, every Special person – every person – should get the most and the best he possibly can out of every precious second of life.
I want for the Special people I see at the mall to know how special their lives are, despite everything. A flower entangled by a fence is still a flower, and an oak sapling straining under a slab of broken concrete is still an oak in every way that matters. We are lovable creatures long before we are human beings, and we are lovable – and loving – even when the fully-human life is forever out of reach.
Don’t believe me? Ask Joe and Martha. Or just ask Joe, because Martha wasn’t with him and Christian at the mall today. That’s another question I’ve never asked – what happens if she’s not up to wrangling Christian? – because there’s an even sadder question behind that one.
And today was a sad day for me, anyway. Guy Clark died, and I found out about it just before I got to the mall. It seems silly even to me to get so torqued about the death of a song-writer, but all morning all I could hear from the chuffa-chuffa rhythm section of the locomotive was Desperados waiting for a train.
And then I pulled into the train station in the middle of the afternoon and there they were, in the little lounge behind the station. Christian has a big-kid stroller, but between his wounds and his arthritis, Joe can’t even get himself into the train, much less help Christian. They came by to say hello, which is unbelievably sweet, and to let me know why Christian couldn’t ride today.
I didn’t ask the sadder question – what happens when both of you are laid up? – or the even sadder one behind that – what happens when both of you have passed away? Instead I drove my next trip and the ones after that and they sat and watched the train coming and going for a long time – desperados waiting for the hearse. Every time I drove back around that lounge I would ring the bell and wave at Christian and he would wave back at me, flashing a broken smile of delight and calling out “Awb oar!” – all aboard!
And some days you rob the train, some days the train robs you – and I owe Guy Clark for that joke, too. But one day very soon, no one will take Christian to ride the train, not ever again. He won’t be beaten or abused, I can hope, but he won’t be indulged or pampered – or cultivated – not ever again. Will he be lucky enough to get to come to the mall, at least? How sad is that question? And yet of all the sad questions not one of us ever wants to ask, the saddest question of all is the one that, someday soon, Christian will ask over and over again, the question no one will answer, not ever again: