An excerpt from I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou and an essay on special needs parenting:
“In our society, where two-legged, two-armed strong Black men were able at best to eke out only the necessities of life, Uncle Willie, with his starched shirts, shined shoes and shelves full of food, was the whipping boy and butt of jokes of the underemployed and underpaid. Fate not only disabled him but laid a double-tiered barrier in his path. He was also proud and sensitive. Therefore he couldn’t pretend that he wasn’t crippled, nor could he deceive himself that people were not repelled by his defect. Only once in all the years of trying not to watch him, I saw him pretend to himself and others that he wasn’t lame.
Coming home from school one day, I saw a dark car in our front yard. I rushed in to find a strange man and woman (Uncle Willie said later they were schoolteachers from Little Rock) drinking Dr Pepper in the cool of the Store. I sensed a wrongness around me, like an alarm clock that had gone off without being set.
I knew it couldn’t be the strangers. Not frequently, but often enough, travelers pulled off the main road to buy tobacco or soft drinks in the only Negro store in Stamps. When I looked at Uncle Willie, I knew what was pulling my mind’s coattails. He was standing erect behind the counter, not leaning forward or resting on the small shelf that had been built for him. Erect. His eyes seemed to hold me with a mixture of threats and appeal.
I dutifully greeted the strangers and roamed my eyes around for his walking stick. It was nowhere to be seen. He said, “Uh…this this…this…uh, my niece. She’s…uh…just come from school.” The to the couple – “You know…how, uh, children are…th-th-these days…they play all d-d-day at school and c-c-can’t wait to get home and pl-play some more.”
The people smiled, very friendly.
He added, “Go on out and pl-play, Sister.”
The lady laughed in a soft Arkansas voice and said, “Well, you know, Mr. Johnson, they say, you’re only a child once. Have you any children of your own?”
Uncle Willie looked at me with an impatience I hadn’t seen in his face even when he took thirty minutes to loop the laces over his high-topped shoes. “I thought I told you to go…go outside and play.”
Before I left I saw him lean back on the shelves of Garret Snuff, Prince Albert and Spark Plug chewing tobacco.
“No, ma-am…no ch-children and no wife.” He tried a laugh. “I have an old m-m-mother and my brother’s t-two children to l-look after.”
I didn’t mind his using us to make himself look good. In fact, I would have pretended to be his daughter if he wanted me to. Not only did I not feel any loyalty to my own father, I figured that if I had been Uncle Willie’s child, I would have received much better treatment.
The couple left after a few minutes, and from the back of the house I watched the red car scare chickens, raise dust and disappear toward Magnolia.
Uncle Willie was making his way down the long shadowed aisle between the shelves and the counter – hand over hand, like a man climbing out of a dream. I stayed quiet and watched him lurch from one side, bumping to the other, until he headed the coal-oil tank. He put his hand behind that dark recess and took his cane in the strong fist and shifted his weight on the wooden support. He thought he had pulled it off.
I’ll never know why it was important to him that the couple (he said later that he’d never seen them before) would take a picture of a whole Mr. Johnson back to Little Rock.
He must have tired of being crippled, as prisoners tire of penitentiary bars and the guilty tire of blame. The high-topped shoes and the cane, his uncontrollable muscles and thick tongue, and the looks he suffered of either contempt or pity had simply worn him out, and for one afternoon, one part of an afternoon, he wanted no part of them.
I understood and felt closer to him at that moment than ever before or since.”
Tears, in glasslike sheets, now soak the lower half of my face, pouring down my neck, filling the concave spot at the base of my throat, running down my chest as if I were a human downspout directing a flood. This…now this I understand. Only one who has experienced judgment and rejection could write in such a way that captures this specific and underrated need…the intense need to feel normal, if only for a moment. Only one who has known the shameful embarrassment of standing out the wrong way in a crowd could appreciate the total joy of disappearing in blissful anonymity.
As the mother of an autistic child prone to violence, elopement, and very demonstrative public fits, I know all too well this craving to blend in, to feel normal – even if only briefly. During painfully public displays, I too have frequently caught the eyes of others, reflecting like mirrors, either contempt or pity. After years and years of such reflections, I can no longer remember what I actually look like. Somewhere along the line, these gazes have become my truth. I have, at times, come to believe that I am the despised beast or the pitied creature… this, and nothing more.
And so I’ve manufactured ways to convince others of my normalcy, that in turn, normalcy might be reflected back to me; and so that I might believe, albeit momentarily, that I lead a normal life. Like Uncle Willie, I stand erect, hide the cane, disguise my limp, shoot daggers at anyone who might threaten to give away my secret. Normalcy has become both my shield and my crutch. If I look put together, no one will know that I am a mess. If my house is well-decorated, no one will know that I am crumbling inside.
But somewhere along the line, “normal” began to lose its appeal. It became common and dull. I looked with fresh eyes upon my “high-topped shoes and cane, my uncontrollable muscles and thick tongue,” and I held them with the tender love and compassion of a new mother. I allowed myself the freedom to cry the tears long dammed, and in reverential silence, bore witness to the shame and embarrassment so deeply buried. I gave myself permission to grieve the looks of contempt and pity and the years of feeling anything but normal. I looked closely at the “me” who was hiding behind the protection and shelter of attempted normalcy and extended a soft hand to ease her transition into the light.
And as this timid part of “me” stepped forth in high-topped shoes, leaning heavily on a cane, thick-tongued and muscles yet uncontrolled, I grabbed her and pulled her close in an understanding embrace and softly whispered in her ear, “I love your cane. I love your high-topped shoes. I love your thick tongue. I love your uncontrollable muscles. Look no longer into the eyes of others for feedback; from now on, look only within. Enter the world, not as you wish to be, living the life you wish to be living, but enter as you are, living proudly the life you actually lead, back into the world as it actually is. Limp as you will, but limp with your head held high. For within that limp is contained all suffering, sorrow, madness, and despair. Within that limp is contained all things wild and uncontrollable, and within that limp is contained all love, joy, beauty, and depth of soul. Our humanity is held within each fragile and broken step we take, and so, do not hang your head in shame for that which is shared between all humans. Re-enter the world, still broken, still healing, and reclaim your rightful place within.”