I have always tried my best at being politically correct when speaking about race, religion, people with disabilities, etc. It’s not something I have ever tried to push onto others; I just always wanted to be conscientious of the way I spoke so I wouldn’t hurt anyone’s feelings. I grew up in a family where anything less was unacceptable. “Don’t judge a person until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes” and the classic quote from Bambi: “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all” are phrases I constantly heard throughout my childhood.
I was extremely fortunate to grow up surrounded by so many aunts and uncles. I am so grateful that they are all a continued and constant part of my life, even living so far away. I consider myself to be close to all of my aunts and uncles; but my youngest aunt and I are very close. She was born with spina bifida. She is one of the strongest, bravest, and most influential inspirations in my life.
Ever since I was a little girl, Aunt Mary would take me everywhere with her. Even at the age of 5 or 6, I was aware of the stares. She taught me very early in life to hold my head up high and not be ashamed of who I am. It didn’t matter that those people who couldn’t look past her disability stared; they were the ones missing out. I got to hold her hand and see the world through her eyes. I was aware that my aunt walked differently than the rest of the adults in my life, but to me she was (and still is) fun, smart, and a bit crazy (in a good way) Aunt Mary. Aunt Mary who loves to be with her nieces and nephews more than anything and who has forever spoiled them rotten. Who can make you laugh so hard you fear you’ll pee in your pants. Who loved to host sleepovers. Who has to have all our love interests pass the “Mary test” before a “relationship status” can be set.
When I was old enough to talk to her about her experience with a physical handicap, I learned so much about this amazing woman. She was made fun of nearly every day of her elementary and secondary education. And still she somehow managed to get out of bed everyday and walk through those school doors (of course, my grandmother would have it no other way). Not only did she have a physical handicap to challenge her everyday (including leg braces, multiple surgeries, a shunt, learning to walk without the ability to feel the ground beneath her feet), she was constantly teased and ridiculed for it. She had more people holding her down than up. But with the love and support of my family and her unnervingly strong will, she has accomplished so many wonderful achievements.
My aunt graduated from college with a degree in psychology and went on to earn a Masters’ degree in Social Work. She has spent so much of her life bettering the lives of others, mine especially. She is one of the most intelligent, beautiful, funny, caring, compassionate people I know. It saddens me that so many people didn’t or don’t look past her physical difference to see what I and all of the people her life touches get to see.
Aunt Mary taught me many lessons; some big ones, some small ones She taught me at age 4 that punching my little sister in the toilet definitely wasn’t going to get me the orange pop I wanted, or anything else for that matter. She taught me how to apply make-up and how to paint my nails. She taught me that giving up is never an option. She taught me what being a true friend really means. She taught me what I deserve out of love and life, and to never settle for anything less. She taught me to look beyond the outside, to see within. She, more than anyone else in my life, taught me how to laugh at myself.
When I was ten she taught me never to use the word “retarded.” She made me so very aware of the ways words, unlike the common “sticks and stones” phrase, can really hurt people. She taught me to think before I speak. And for this I am eternally grateful.
Fast-forward to today. I am the mother of a beautiful baby girl who was born with an extra chromosome. Who will undoubtedly, like all children, one day have her feelings hurt by words. However, my baby, like my aunt, is different than the “norm” because of a syndrome she was born with. And will, like my aunt, face more ignorance and, undoubtedly, more hurt than the “typical” children her age. Before Annie was born it never bothered me how other people talked, I just tried to be incredibly careful of the way I talked.
Now, I am on the other end. The end where those words sting. So today I am asking that you try and think before you say, “I’m retarded” because you forgot the grocery list, or “What a retard!” when the quarter-back fumbles the ball. And also that you try a little harder to take the time to look past the outside to see what there is inside. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised!
I love you Aunt Mary! Thanks for all the lessons!