Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Well, You Got Something

      Heading back to South Carolina on Sunday afternoon, Sissey was in a less than stellar mood. It made for a very long drive, each mile punctuated by her snippy comments and snarly remarks.  Perhaps it was because summer was drawing to an end, perhaps it was the extreme heat and smothering humidity, perhaps it was having to leave her brother and father and home behind, perhaps it was the nervous anticipation about beginning another school year, but whatever the cause, our gal was not in a good mood.
      I kept asking every couple of miles, "Sissey, what's the matter?"
      "Nothing," she would grumble.
     A few miles latter, I tried again.
     "Sissey, are you OK?"
      "Yes," she growled.
     And finally, "Do you have something wrong with you?"
       "NO!" she barked.
     "Well, you got something," I shot  back, knowing this would bring a smile.
It did, she had to laugh, as I knew she would, because that one little line contained  the gift of humor, the ability to make us smile in the most intense of situations, and the secret that could make us laugh at ourselves. It was a gift innocently given to our family by a homeless man, four little words that he hurled at my daughter one Friday morning as she served him coffee.    
    Every family needs a good motto, and we came about ours naturally. It was ascribed to us by a perfect stranger, not of our own choosing, not a saying we would have originally selected,  not necessarily a flattering description of the Daly clan, but it was an apt one at best and we were graciously claiming it as our own. Quite simply, it suited us, and we couldn't have come up with a better motto if we had paid the scribes of old Scotland to select one for us. The words that landed on our familial foreheads were so honestly hailed, so spontaneouly spoken,  that we had to name them and claim them and adopt them as our own.
    It happened one Friday morning during a school service project in the basement of a church. St. Peter's Church is an historic inner-city congregation located next to the capital of Virginia. It was dedicated in 1834, making it the first and oldest Catholic Church in Richmond. The cathedral was built on a street named Grace, which seemed to foreshadow the natural expectations that God's goodness and mercy would be bestowed upon those who knocked at His door. Over the years, the inner-city church participated in a homeless feeding program, a multi-denominational organization which provided Richmond's local homeless residents the opportunity to enjoy a free hot meal, a warm place to sit for an hour or so, some friendly conversation, and the ministrations of a multitude of cheerful volunteers.  Each church selected one day a week to host the program, with Friday being the day of honor for St. Peter's.
  Sissey attended a small private school in Richmond called Northstar Academy. The school had been created to provide a quality education for students with a wide variety of disabilities, and it provided a safe place for children whose lives were complicated with disabilities that often made them the target of bullies, teasing, ridicule, or ostracism at other schools.  We laughed when Sissey arrived home after her first day there and announced, "I love this school. Everybody there has issues and we all just talk about'em. It's no big deal!" It was a relief for her to finally be at a school where she wasn't the only one that was "different."
     Northstar Academy was dedicated to giving their students the most normal educational experience possible, even while dealing with issues as complicated as Cerebral Palsy, Fragile X Syndrome, Asperger's, Autism, Down's Syndrome.  For their very first time, these "different" kids were now playing on the basketball and soccer teams, were selected as cheerleaders, were elected Class President and Homecoming Queen, were running clubs and holding fundraisers and attending proms and making friends.  These students were not only being nurtured and loved, they were also expected to give back to the community, albeit a community that had often rejected them. It was an important part of the educational package for the students to recognize that they had the capacity and responsiblity to be contributing members of society. Community Service was a big deal, and it was required of every student before they could graduate.
      For many years, thanks in part to the guidance of the very catholic Dean of Students,  the senior class had chosen to participate in the inner-city homeless feeding program  at St. Peter's Church.  So each Friday, they loaded into the school's blue and white mini-bus and made the trek downtown.
    Upon arriving at the church, the students greeted the familiar faces of the regular homeless clientele, then donned latex gloves and hair nets and headed to their work stations.  Some served hot food from the large stainless steel servers, some rolled napkins and silverware into neat little bundles, some handed out plates or filled glasses with ice or prepared the salt and pepper shakers. Everyone had a job to do, and Sissey was the coffee girl.  Her particular chore was to sit at the coffee table and cheerfully hand out cups while also keeping  the creamer bowls filled with powdered dairy product and the sugar bowls replenished when necessary. True to her nature, she took the job seriously and was adamant that the creamer and sugar never ran low. 
    Part of the irony of cerebral palsy is that the harder you try to make your muscles complete a fine motor skill, the harder they work against you. As Sissey scooped sugar and creamer out of the plastic storage bins to fill the small bowls, her hands would tremble, part of the "palsy" that gives name to her condition. Of course, with shaking hands there also comes spillage, so part of the powder ended up on the table and not in the bowls, which was not a big deal for most of those at the homeless shelter.  It was a free meal served by volunteers, after all, and most people were just happy to be there and to have the prospect of a hot lunch.
     But oh, there always has to be one in the bunch that has to make a big deal out of everything.  One particularly scruffy fellow, perhaps a little irritable due to lack of proper nourishment, perhaps just not a pleasant person to begin with, but whatever it was that plagued him, he was not happy with our gal's performance at the coffee table. 
     He sauntered up to get his free cup of joe, watched her trembling hands scoop his requested sugar and cream into the mug, then he snarled at her," What's the matter with you? You scared or sumpin?"
    "No sir, I'm not scared," she replied with a smile.
    "Well, what's the matter with you?" he growled again. "You got a NERVE PROBLEM?"
     "No sir, " she answered. "I don't have a nerve problem."
     "Well, YOU GOT SOMETHING!" he yelled as he grabbed his coffee and stomped off.
     Oh, you just had to laugh. And she did.  By the time she arrived home from school, she could barely tell the story without laughing till tears streamed down her face. We all laughed, laughed until we cried, laughed until we almost wet our pants.  Then we had to call everyone we could think of and tell them.  What a genius of a man, an indigent from the streets of Richmond, an unknown soul we will never meet again, but the seer into the deepest part of the soul of our family.  His pronouncement of 'You got something" summed up our entire lives, our entire world for that fact.
    "Oh, mom, he was just so right," Sissey proclaimed. "We've all got something!"
     The fact that our family motto was ascribed to us in a church sort of made it holy, as if it had been bestowed upon us with God's blessing, so we embraced it heartily and happily and with great gusto. And now, barely a week goes by that something doesn't happen, or that someone in this big ole world doesn't do something, or that someone doesn't say something-- I can guarantee you  that just something will happen that makes us all stop, scratch our heads, pause for a second and then say with a great big grin, "Well, you've got something!"
    So Sissey's got something, and this week  it happens to be the "back to school blues." Tomorrow will bring issues of it's own, and she will deal with those with the same grit and determination that have gotten her this far, and when things get a little dicey, she'll just have to laugh and realize, we've ALL got something.

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