I ’m almost never at a loss for words. I read them and write them all day long, and I’m generally not one to be quiet when something is on my mind.
That wasn’t the case earlier this week at the grocery store, and I’m still mulling over why I responded the way I did.
As regular readers of this column know, my younger daughter, Mary, has an intellectual disability. She’s an adult and working, and she lives with me. We are, she notes and I agree, best friends.
Mary and her friends with an intellectual disability share at least one thing in common. The word “retard” and its variations are the worst epithet they can think of, one they wouldn’t use in connection with anyone, no matter how angry they became.
Nor would they ever use it as a light-hearted reference to their occasional clumsiness.
I know that very well after 31 years with Mary. It’s sort of like what I know about saxophones, thanks to living with her. She hates them. Like many folks who share her genetic condition, Williams Syndrome, Mary has hypersensitive hearing. Saxophones, in particular, can reduce her to tears or screams in no time flat.
Thanks to Mary, saxophones make my skin crawl. And so, too, can use of the “r” word. I’m generally quick to respond to the latter with a brief, but I hope, kindly, discussion of what the word means to someone with an intellectual disability, to point out that just as I wouldn’t call someone who is overweight a “fatty,” or use a racial or ethnic slur, I won’t identify anyone, even myself in jest, with the “r” word.
My response has become more measured over the years, to be sure. When I learned how much the word hurt my daughter’s feelings, I’d respond as I suspect many mothers would, with a flash of anger. Once or twice, I even walked out of conversations to express my displeasure.
The older, wiser (I thought), more- measured Janet doesn’t do that anymore, but I still have the discussions.
Except this week, I didn’t. As I said, I was at the grocery store, down the aisle from a young woman and her companion when she sort of giggled and called herself a r----- for having dropped something.
I froze. I looked back at the woman and thought about approaching her, but I didn’t. She was on the move, to be sure, but catching up would hardly have been a problem.
And I don’t know why I reacted that way, even after thinking about it at length. My failure to address a problem that’s a major source of pain to someone I love beyond measure seems cowardly to me, and I had never thought of myself as particularly cowardly before.
You know the old saying about having the courage of your convictions, no doubt. We try to teach our children to stand up for what they believe in, and I’m pretty certain my parents gave me the same sorts of lessons. If someone’s being teased, or bullied or made fun of, say something. If you believe strongly about something, be it buying eggs from free-range chickens or advocating for the homeless, do it. And if you’re asked, explain why it matters.
Yet, I didn’t do that this week. I just stood there, dumbfounded, until the moment for action had passed.
I can’t go back and recapture the incident to give it what would be, for me, a much happier ending. I can hope and try to do better the next time, and I will. For now, though, I’m in the soul-searching that surely must come when we’re not so much disappointed in others, but in ourselves.
— Janet Stevens is deputy editor of The Bulletin. Contact: 541-617-7821, email@example.com