One week before St. Peter’s School’s end-of-year Mass and I, a mere sixth grader, had been chosen to read and write my own Prayers of the Faithful. Sister Luz Eugenia wanted six of them. Creative but traditional, she said. The first five prayers came easy: something about the poor, the hungry, the sick, the tired, and of course a vocational one for more nuns and priests. But I wanted the last one to be different. Something I’d never heard before.
“What’s this?” Sister Luz Eugenia asked when I gave her my first draft. She stared hard at the scrap of paper with that weary, burdened expression all nuns possess.
“This last one. The one about the mentally retarded.”
I shrugged. I wasn’t sure what she was asking. It occurred to me that they needed prayers just like everyone else.
“Come here,” she said. I stepped around the teacher’s desk. She placed her hand on my shoulder and smiled sympathetically. I could see my confused reflection in her thick bifocals.
“Your heart is in the right place,” she said. “But there are some things that, well, when you get older, you will realize there are just some things that are… difficult to talk about. They just make people uneasy. Well not they, but the topic. Would you mind writing another one? You might try something about the poor.”
Perhaps she’d forgotten I already wrote one for the poor. She handed back the paper and offered a clumsy pat on the back. When I got back to my desk, I wondered why it was okay for the poor to get two prayers when the mentally retarded couldn’t even get one.
I’m sitting at a dirty table in the Sac State library, staring at the white Google page on my laptop. The words mentally retarded flash in the search box. I know there are hundreds of books in the rows of shelves behind me that I could read. Better information. More expert information. But I’ve already taken my shoes off and the wooly cushion has already contoured to my ass.
My middle finger hovers over the Enter button. I’m not sure where my hesitation comes from. Even as I type this paragraph, my hands shake as though they want to write something else. Something comfortable. Sister Luz Eugenia was right – even now, 23 years later, there are things that are difficult to talk about, much less write about. I know the term “mentally retarded” has become politically incorrect. But “mentally handicapped” cannot be much better, can it? Perhaps I’m lengthening this paragraph to stall. Perhaps if I hit Enter, I will become aware of my own bigotry, a discriminatory subconscious conditioned by decades of silence. Not just my own but of those around me. Elephants made larger by an unwillingness to engage the invisible discourse.
For most of my teenage years, I lived next to the mortician. I called him ‘the mortician’ because no one knew his name, but we did know that he smelled like formaldehyde and drove a hearse that always looked one more mile away from exploding. The mortician hardly spoke. Once, after getting my driver’s learning permit, he stormed out of his front door and yelled, “How dare you park so close to my driveway!” Another time, we met at the community mailbox. I tried to ask him how his day was going, but he just grumbled something about the stupidity of today’s youth and slammed his mailbox shut. I stayed up many a night, writing horror stories about the lonely mortician who killed kids and buried them in the backyard.
Every Fourth of July, my extended family would come to my parents’ house for a huge celebration. While my father barbecued in the backyard, my cousins and I spent the day in the street playing basketball and football. At night, we gathered on the driveway and watched my uncles light up fireworks. The mortician never came out on those days – unless someone parked too close to his driveway – but we would sometimes see a ghostly face in the second-story window, watching us from behind a flimsy curtain.
In 1996, just before my uncles started the fireworks show, the mortician’s garage door opened. A gigantic man in his early twenties came walking out. He was hunched over and pudgy, his mouth smiling and slobbery, and wore a thick black coat that brushed his black, floppy boots. He lumbered across his lawn and mine in five long strides. None of us had seen him before. He sat down on the sidewalk next to my younger cousin, Janelle, and anchored his arm around her neck. Janelle shrieked, threw his arm off of her, and ran to hide behind her dad.
“Where you going, Janelle?” some of my cousins and I teased. “You finally found someone dumb enough to like you!”
My mother narrowed her eyes at us but said nothing. The huge man got to his feet, turned to us, and saw us laughing. With a deep and somber voice, he began laughing too.
For more, please purchase Under the Gum Tree, Issue 7: April 2013 here