It was a Missy night in Chez Rochat. John Travolta would have been proud.
Anyone who knows our developmentally disabled ward Missy also knows her idea of a night well spent: loud music, strong beats and enough space for her favorite dance moves. Since she also has cerebral palsy, these tend to be fairly simple moves — including a carefully turned full-body spin — but no less heartfelt for all that.
One night the joint was jumping especially well when I noticed Missy shaking her hands back and forth. I looked more closely.
No. Not shaking.
Missy was trying to snap her fingers.
She couldn’t quite get enough friction. Sometimes it was even the wrong two fingers. But there was no doubt what she was trying to do. It was the same emphatic gesture I always used to keep the beat — and make her giggle — during a high-energy song.
“All right, Missy!”
There’s been quite a few moments like that lately. Moments with our mostly silent young lady where something just seems to … well, go “click.”
Like another dance step, one foot crossing over the other to point, despite her balance issues.
Or looking at a word list when I ask her to find “Blake” and picking out “Dog” — which he is, indeed.
Or even just the chattiness we’ve been hearing about from her day program, the stream of emphatic words, syllables and phrases that both surprise and delight the folks working with her. (One newer employee used to think she didn’t speak at all; not a surprising conclusion when you consider that Missy spends words the way Ebenezer Scrooge used to spend shillings.)
None of it is a huge spotlight moment, like Helen Keller signing “water” in The Miracle Worker. But small steps matter, too. Especially to the person on the inside.
That one, I know very well.
For me, too, it wasn’t exactly a snap. I showed signs of epilepsy as a young kid, and even after medicine brought it under control, there was still a lot to do. Physical therapy helped my balance and cross-body coordination. Games of chess in the school resource room focused my concentration and memory. But some skills took a long while.
And the one that I remember best, oddly enough, is snapping my fingers.
I couldn’t do it. Could not. I was embarrassed enough that in music class, if a song required snapping, I’d click my fingernails together so it would at least look right.
One night in fourth grade, I somehow decided I’d had it. With the door closed so no one would hear me, I sat up in bed, trying and trying and trying again, pressing and releasing my fingers until I thought they’d fall off.
I’m not sure what time it was. But I remember the relief and amazement when I finally heard that first sharp “snap.” To be honest, I almost couldn’t stop.
It was a small milestone. Maybe even more of a yardstone. But to me, it was huge.
It was an acknowledgment that I wasn’t that different.
I think most of us need that assurance at one point or another. Even those without disabilities. And the way we get it usually isn’t through brass bands and bright marquees. It’s by small gestures, even tiny ones, that affirm we’re worthwhile.
Think of it from the other direction. Most of us can still remember small wounds and humiliations we got in junior high school, tossed off without thinking. Why shouldn’t a small kindness last just as long?
Any of us can do it. More of us should. Some of us probably have without realizing how much we were doing.
Some things really are bigger on the inside.
Missy’s dance goes on. The steps look small. But each one is a celebration, a subtle triumph. Nothing flashy, true. Nothing you could lay your finger on.
But maybe someday she will.