Leaving a Mark

In a Northridge Elementary School resource room, Mark Jefka looked at the final position of the plastic chess pieces. Smiled. And offered our usual closing invocation.

“Well,” he said to me, “you win some, you lose some and some you get rained out of. But you gotta dress for every game.”

You do lose some. And now we’ve lost one of the best.

When I learned that Mr. Jefka died on Jan. 30, it hit like a shot to the childhood. So much of my mind bears his touch on it, the fingerprints of a caring, patient man.

Patient men don’t often leave glamorous obituaries behind. No matter. The love they leave behind surpasses any marquee, planting the seeds of changed lives and a better world.

Especially when they meet those lives young.

My classmates at Northridge sometimes asked what I did when I left class to spend time with Mr. Jefka. “Play games,” I told them and indeed we did. But it went deeper than that.

You see, Mr. Jefka was trained in special ed, working with students who needed some extra attention. And in grade school, that definitely included me. My childhood epilepsy had come with some other neurological issues that required me to work on very basic skills, such as spatial awareness, balance and coordination.

I received help with this outside of school, of course (and one helper who did so much remains a very dear friend today). But inside the Northridge resource room, it was me and Mr. Jefka. And often a game as well. Each one with a different lesson hidden inside it.

When we dealt the cards for Concentration, the prize was greater memory and attention.

When we set up the board for chess or checkers, we were building an ability to focus, study a situation and anticipate consequences.

A slightly noisier game called Bombs Away – one that involved looking through a sight to try to drop plastic skydivers into targets on a moving board – sharpened reflexes and worked on my sense of timing.

Yes, there were tests and other standard measures to see what kind of progress I was making. There always are. But it’s the games I remember best.

No, that’s not quite right. It’s the man behind the games I remember. Always calm. Always pleased with me, win or lose. And ever ready to show me how to take either result with a smile. (And sometimes a gentle chorus of “The party’s over …”)

If I’m ever half as patient with others as Mark Jefka was with me, then I’ll know I’ve done well. Even now, I wonder who I may have touched in return and how Mr. Jefka’s gift is being carried on.

We don’t often get to know. We’re shaped by so many people and we shape so many, but we don’t always get to see the later chapters of the story. We just have to keep reaching out in love and kindness, trusting that something we’ve planted is flowering somewhere, that the light from our candle may be kindling others.

Sometimes we learn, if we’re lucky. But whether we hear the stories or not, we have to keep writing them.

Because it’s not about fame or renown. It’s about that moment when a life is touched for the better. So many lives, so many places.

Thank you, Mr. Jefka. Thank you more than I can say.

You may have left these games behind. But I’ll always be grateful to carry your Mark.

Logging Out

Once upon a time, the symbol of midwinter was the Yule log. Now it’s the forelog.

If you’ve never heard the term, please allow my Word Geek Brain™ to make the introductions. You know how after you come back from a vacation or holiday, the “backlog” is all the stuff you have to catch up with? Well, the “forelog” comes on the other end. It’s the piles and piles of things you have to take care of before you can relax.

And my oh my, does the forelog burn bright at the holidays.

We hustle here, there and everywhere like Santa without a sleigh. Gotta buy the gifts. Gotta WRAP the gifts. Only wait, did we remember Scotch tape? Never mind that, gotta plan for company. Gotta clean for company. Check the work schedule. Check the flight schedule. “What do you mean, they’re coming in on Christmas Eve?”

Pant. Gasp. Pant.

You know, I’m starting to understand the Grinch more and more every year.

If it were just sheer social obligation, it would be one thing. But for most of us, most of the time, it’s coming from the best of places. We want to be welcoming to friends and family and neighbors. We want to help co-workers out before the holidays hit. And of course, we want to give the season that we received, so many times from so many people through so many years.

And in a way, that makes it harder. When we get tired – and we will get tired – it’s easy to turn it inward as an accusation. “I should be doing more. They deserve better. I’m not a good person.”

Stop. Stop. And stop.

In a season of love and kindness, it’s time to show some to ourselves as well.

It sounds selfish. It really isn’t. In a way, it’s a reflection of the adage that so many of us learned long ago, to “love your neighbor as yourself.” As my old math teacher might put it, that statement’s reflexive – it suggests that we also need to show the same kindness to ourselves that we would show to a neighbor.

No, it’s not easy. It never has been.

But we need it, as surely as any gift we’ve ever found under a tree.

We need to remember that we deserve good things, too. Not the “stuff” that gets piled up in boxes and bags, but the essential gifts. Kindness. Grace. Love. Forgiveness.

All of us are carrying a lot, whether at the holidays or any other time. None of us know the full extent of each other’s burdens. Sometimes we don’t even know the full extent of our own – we’re just trudging on as best we can, tottering under the load.

It’s OK to pause in the midst of the chaos. No … it’s essential. Take a moment to look at yourself as you would your best friend. Show the kindness you would show to them. Say the words you would say.

One of our family’s favorite bands, the a cappella group Face, had just the right words for it in a song called “Pick Your Head Up.” The chorus declares “The things that you say to yourself are words you’d speak to no one else.”

I try to remember that. To keep my words from being a weapon pointed inward.

If you’re in a place where you need to remember, too, I hope this helps. Know that you deserve the light. We all do.

The forelog will pass. But the strength you find and the flame you kindle can be a gift that lasts.

Better yet – it becomes a gift you can share.

Lift it up. And let it glow.

Music and Memory

As the online music rocked, Missy partied like it was 2020.

By itself, the scene could have come from a hundred different nights. Missy, our disabled relative who’s physically in her 40s but much younger in heart and soul, has never met a dancing moment she didn’t like. Crank up her bedroom stereo or a YouTube video and she’ll move and sway as only she can, her smile beaming like a lighthouse.

But this night? Call it “Recent Retro.”  For the first time in several months, her favorite group – the Face Vocal Band – was livestreaming a basement concert. No crowds, no driving, just the joy of good a cappella rock on the doorstep.

“Yeah!!”

If you’re feeling a flashback, I get it. Two years ago, this was the music of lockdown. With masks everywhere and a vaccine nowhere in sight, live concerts became one of the biggest potential super-spreaders out there. So instead, musician after musician recorded quarantine videos and livestreamed concerts from their homes, keeping the music alive in the only way they could.

And in an off-balance world, they became a source of light. That not-so-simple act said “We care. We’re in this, too. And we want to make it better however we can.”

Since then, of course, many restrictions have eased or been put to rest entirely. People mix and mingle and even attend live concerts again. On the surface, things look – well, similar, if not the same.

 But when we look closer, we know it’s not really over. Not yet.

Not while so many are still so vulnerable.

I’ve written here before about my wife Heather, a wonderful woman with WAY too many autoimmune conditions for one human being. Even with the COVID curve so much lower than it was, it’s still totaling about 400 to 500 deaths a day in the U.S. That’s way too much virus for her to safely go out unless she has to.

She’s not alone. There are many others – more than most realize – for whom the pandemic is still a reality and a threat. For whom “normal,” or even this current fun-house mirror of it, is still a long way away.

And so I want to thank Face and others like them. Because once again, a not-so-simple concert said something special.

And this time, the message is “We remember.”

Easy to say. Powerful to feel.

And even without an uploaded video and a really kickin’ backbeat, it’s a message all of us can and should echo.

We remember that not everybody can come out and play yet. That post-pandemic is still mid-pandemic for a lot of us.

We remember that caution and courtesy are not just artifacts of 2020, but remain vital for everyone. That it’s not just about ourselves, but about those around us.

And yes, we remember that even in the midst of stressful times, we can still bring light to someone else’s world by seeing them and reaching out to where they are.

When we remember, we lift all of us up. And together, we become stronger. Maybe even strong enough to carry all of us to a better place.

That’s a pandemic attitude worth keeping.

And when it finally helps us break through to the other side – that will truly be a moment to dance.

I’ll bring Missy.

A Blake-Shaped Hole

There’d been a wonderful run in the mountains. As fast as a 15-year-old dog can run, anyway. He’d taken off on an impulse, just like the old days, keeping ahead of my wife Heather until she finally caught up with him near the road.

“Blake, you goof.”

Big Blake panted and grinned as only an English Lab can. All was right.

And then, back home, over the next few days, all began to go wrong.

For a long time, Blake had been slowing down. He’d always rally, sometimes from a change in medicine, sometimes from a laser therapy, sometimes from his own strong heart and a blessing from the Angel of Dogs. But each rally got a little shorter, each miracle a little less enduring than the one before.

Now what rallies there were seemed to come and go like summer lightning. A brief moment of courage to handle the stairs. Twenty minutes of ease while listening to someone read. Some excitement as Missy entered the room, stiffly heaving himself up to greet his developmentally disabled friend. And then, more pain and confusion.

The conversation that had ebbed and flowed for weeks began to accelerate in earnest as Heather and I tried to figure out how much time there really was.  Maybe two weeks? Next weekend? This weekend? Tomorrow?

Each time we looked at his hurting body and worried mind, each time we asked ourselves the question, the true answer got a little clearer.

Today.

And on July 29, after a hamburger of his own and half of Missy’s (this is still Blake we’re talking about), way too many french fries, and all the hugs and tears that a family’s hearts could hold – we let Blake go.

It hurts to write those words.

If it didn’t, something would be terribly wrong.

Because even when you’re ready, you’re never ready.

We touch so many lives, collecting heartprints from each one that embraces ours. We build a well of memories that refreshes our soul, we weave their story into our own for a richer, fuller tapestry.

And then the fabric tears away. And it leaves a hole behind.

It shouldn’t be a surprise. This is the bargain we make, every time we hold someone close in love – that loss will come, but that the having will somehow be worth the losing. We know it. But we let ourselves forget the day will come. We have to, in order to live.

Sometimes, it really seems like it won’t ever end. Big dogs don’t always last long, but Big Blake had an amazing gift of life. At 12, he had all the energy and athleticism he’d possessed at 6. Even into his truly old and slow years, he still had to be watched for acts of food burglary, still stuck to Heather like a second shadow, still often greeted Missy’s arrival with a loud THUMP, THUMP, THUMP on the floor from his muscular tail.

It fools you. Lets you think that maybe you won the lottery, maybe you finally discovered the one that’s truly immortal.

In a way, maybe we did.

Maybe we all have.

Every memory, every story, every past moment of love and exasperation, brings a bit of them back for a moment. It’s never enough. It never can be. And it hurts with the sting of salt water on an open wound.

But that’s part of the bargain, too. That if you give enough to each other, a piece of them stays on in you.

And so a little of me will be forever Blake. A bit of all our family is forever tied to that wonderful blockheaded klutz, with the voracious stomach and the mighty heart.

Once more, Blake is running ahead of us. Someday, we’ll catch up. Near the road, ready to smile as only an English Lab can.

We love you, Blake, you goof.

Wait for us, big buddy.

Anybody, Everybody

Alone in a pew, all in black, she could have been anybody.

Granted, in all her long life, Queen Elizabeth II has never gotten to be just “anybody.” That’s part of the package of being British royalty: people may adore you, detest you, gossip about you, or even accuse you of being shape-shifting aliens from another planet … but they will never, ever completely ignore you.

But for that one moment at Prince Philip’s funeral, in that one image circulated around the world, none of it seemed to matter. For that brief moment, the pomp and circumstance subsided into a figure anyone could know. A small woman, long married, newly widowed, the social distancing around her echoing the empty place in her heart and her life.

It could have been any of us. It has been some of us. Painfully familiar, in a world where so much has changed.

I’m not a close royal-watcher. (That was my English grandma Elsie.) I didn’t sit to watch every moment. But I did notice how even online, where the brash and the inappropriate can so easily intrude, the feel at that moment was overwhelmingly … well, kind.

I was relieved to see it.

Every once in a while, I wonder if we’ve forgotten how.

I’m not the only one. A friend sent me a message this week, dismayed at what her adult daughter had been seeing in the not-quite-post-pandemic world. As most of you know, it’s been a little like Rip Van Winkle as more and more people come out of their isolated state and back into a more engaged world. But like sleepy ol’ Rip, some of them didn’t seem to recognize immediately that the world had changed from what they knew, or were too impatient to care.

Maybe you’ve seen what she saw. The folks that expect restaurant service to be just as seamless as before, despite the crowds and precautions. Or perhaps the ones that cut in the self-service grocery lines, outflanking the ones waiting on their “distance dots.” Or other bits where the social gears are sticking instead of clicking.

I know. It’s not easy. Especially in the transition period we’re in, where the light keeps getting closer but at the speed of an inchworm. Many of us have had our shots, many more are on the verge, and we want to be D-O-N-E with this whole business. Back to business as usual.

And as we emerge, it feels more like a report from Mr. Spock instead: “It’s life, Jim, but not as we know it.” Each day, we get small reminders that it’s not going to be completely as it was. Maybe it never truly is … “normal,” after all, is a thing of today, always in motion, redefined by each generation.

But as so much changes, it’s vital that kindness remains.

if any lesson comes out of the pandemic, it has to be that. We’ve seen pain and disruption, adjustment and transformation. We’ve experienced brutal ugliness, heart-stirring courage, and even beauty finding its way out of isolation and into the light. And where we’ve made our best moments, we’ve made them for each other.  

Friends. Neighbors. Strangers united by nothing but a desire to help. That hasn’t been all of us, but it hasn’t been none of us, either. At the darkest, there have been hearts finding ways to help, even  when the hands had to stay six feet apart.

That’s the old truth that our new world has to remember. That it starts with kindness. With caring. With seeing other people as humans that matter, that we need and are needed by.

Like that little old lady in the pew, no one is just “anybody.”

 And that has a certain majesty all its own.

Hall(oween) on Wheels

Missy is just about ready for the season.

No, not the Christmas season. Missy is ready for THAT one at the drop of a jingle bell, at a pace that would embarrass even a major retailer. Holiday displays in September? Please. Missy’s been known to welcome in the spring with a 110-decibel version of “O, Holy Night” on the stereo, and you haven’t lived until you’ve seen the Face Vocal Band holiday video in July a dozen times or so.

No, I’m talking about the time of false faces and plastic pumpkins, of ghosts and goblins and culturally-sanctioned begging for food. Halloween is just about here, and Missy can’t wait.

As I’ve mentioned before, this is a new thing. Whether it’s because of her developmental disability, or just a personal preference, Missy never used to like being surrounded by people in masks and costumes, never mind struggling into an outfit herself. The magic began to happen when she realized she could become the heroes of her favorite stories, especially a certain Boy Who Lived. She’s been Harry Potter twice now, with another two Frodo Bagginses mixed in, and it looks like Star Wars might be on the way this year.

So now she points out pumpkins with alacrity and paints them with enthusiasm. (Yes, we paint rather than carve.) She ooh’s over costume pieces and keeps her Hogwarts robe handy just in case. And when October hits, it’s time to roll. Literally.

And that’s where the challenge sometimes comes in.

Because of her cerebral palsy and other balance issues, it’s hard for Missy to walk long distances. So once she’s all dressed up and has her pillowcase in hand,  she and I do the neighborhood trick-or-treat run by wheelchair.

And appropriately for Halloween, that’s when the unseen becomes visible.

If you’ve ever had to travel more than a short distance on your own wheels, you know what I’m talking about. A host of obstacles that most of us never even think about suddenly loom up with the inevitability of Freddy Krueger pursuing a teenage nightmare. High curbs. Cracked pavement. Cars parked on the sidewalk, or hedges reaching over it like a lurching zombie.

In many respects, Longmont is better than a lot of communities about this sort of thing, or we wouldn’t be able to consider trick-or-treating at all. But even so, it still requires constant awareness, regular rerouting, and enough effort in boosting her wheelchair over small hurdles that it pretty much becomes my Oct. 31 core workout.   Sometimes Missy giggles at the effort, sometimes it draws a “No!” of annoyance instead.

At times like this, I am grateful for the neighbors.

On a night when fun could easily become frustration for her, many of them keep a lookout for her. Some have met her at the bottom of porch steps with their bowls of candy, so that she doesn’t have to keep getting in and out of the chair. Some have given her an extra share, or kept a special supply on hand just for her, to make her night a better one. Many have greeted her or helped clear the way for her while going house to house with their own children.

It’s a parade of small kindnesses and moments of caring. And they make a difference.

Just as they do long after the costumes are back in the closet.

Many people face similar hidden obstacles, whether because of race or sex or disability or a hundred other things that are simply part of who they are. Most are like that crack in the pavement – easily crossed without thinking by  most of life’s travelers, but an insuperable barrier to some.

That’s where awareness matters. And kindness. And empathy. A realization that others walk on a different path and face different challenges than we do, and an effort to understand and meet those challenges.

It’s a basic trick. But it can be such a treat. And it makes all our days a lot easier.

Even the ones with overpowered Christmas carols.

Opening the Present

You could call it a Hallmark card with bite.  In the midst of a silent night, wise men reached out with their gifts toward the Holy Babe … while from stage left, the walking dead were slowly closing the distance.

“Hey, it’s not my fault,” one of the Shoebox characters said, as he rearranged the crèche. “When stores start selling Christmas stuff in October, they gotta expect a few zombies in the manger.”

Um … amen?

It’s a chorus that’s become quite familiar, even without George Romero joining forces with Dr. Luke. Every year, from every quarter, I hear people lament how the ever-encroaching Retail Christmas Legions of Doom are laying waste to the calendar. Forget November – Thanksgiving surrendered its shelf space to the forces of Santa, Rudolph, and rooftop icicle lights a long time ago. Now, in parts of the holiday beachhead , it sometimes feels like the masks and jack o’lanterns are just barely holding the line.

Yes, Mr. Grinch, you can say it: “I must stop Christmas from coming! But how?”

But not too loudly, please.

You see, I’m not convinced we celebrate it early enough.

No, my brain has not been taken over by the forces of Neiman-Marcus. It’s true that in our home, our disabled ward Missy has been known to play Christmas carols in the middle of July, at a volume that leaves the halls well and truly decked. And yes, I’m currently in rehearsals for “A Christmas Carol” at the Longmont Theatre Company. (Set to open at the proper time, I might add, on the day after Thanksgiving).

So out-of-season holiday greetings aren’t exactly unfamiliar to me. But that’s not where I’m going. If the lights and merchandise stayed off the shelves until after Pilgrim season, I’d be as happy as anyone else.

It’s Christmas I want – not the retail.

Since I’m in the middle of Mr. Dickens, I’ll let him explain, in the words of Scrooge’s persistent nephew Fred:

“I am sure I have always thought of Christmas-time when it has come round … as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time, the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!”

It’s not the stuff we’re lacking. It’s the attitude.

The real Christmas isn’t getting earlier. If anything, it’s been retreating. The spirit of “Peace on Earth, Goodwill to Men” has been getting outshouted by the opportunistic, the angry, and the suspicious. Hands that should be welcoming, giving, and healing are encouraged to double up in fists as neighbors are portrayed as strangers, if not outright enemies.

If this isn’t when we need kindness and generosity of spirit, when is it?

With or without carols, it’s always the right season for the hope that can find wonder in unexpected places.

Without a single pine needle, we can still be lights in the darkness, bringing joy to a cold night.

And without a single crèche in sight, we can still make the decision to open our hearts to others, instead of leaving no room at the inn.

Without that spirit, it doesn’t matter if we ultimately celebrate the holiday in December or June. No matter how bright the ribbons or how tall the trees, if the heart is missing, it’s just an empty shell.

A zombie, in other words.

Let’s leave that to the Shoebox cards, shall we?

 

Rules of the Game

Look out, world. Your next dangerous mastermind has arrived.

My 8-year-old niece Ivy has discovered chess.

In case James Bond’s descendants need the data later, some family photos have captured this historic global turning point. In one, Ivy and my dad have squared off across the board in the midst of a carefully thought-out match. In another, my grinning niece is throwing herself into a solo game, complete with self-generated commentary that my mom called “a mix between a roller derby match and the Hunger Games.” (“Let’s get out there and take chances, but play smart!”)

I had to smile. And not just at the thought of the next Bobby Fischer also being the next Howard Cosell.

After all, it hasn’t been that long since I was in the same chair.

Dad taught me to play chess. He taught all of us to play, really, but I was his most frequent opponent, carefully internalizing the values of rooks and queens, the surprises that knights could pull, and why you never, ever touched a piece until you were ready to make a play.

It was absorbing. Mind you, I was grown before I finally won a game against him – Dad believed in treating us with respect by not holding back on the chessboard – but it didn’t matter. It was the game that mattered, the time together, the fun.

And just maybe, the tools I was picking up without realizing it.

From an early age, I had petit mal epilepsy. After a couple of years, it was readily controlled with medication, but there were still some related neurological issues that needed to be addressed, ranging from physical coordination and balance to simple concentration. Among other things, this meant spending some time in the “resource room” at school each week, playing games.

That always sounded cool to my friends – and to me, come to think of it – but it was only later that I thought about what the teacher and I were doing. Sometimes it was card games like Concentration, building up memory. A few times, it was a noisy parachute game called Bombs Away, helping me with my timing and hand-eye coordination. And a lot of times, maybe most times, it was chess.

Chess requires planning. Memory. The ability to weigh choices. And most of all, situational awareness – the ability to be in the moment, thoroughly aware of what’s coming at you and what you have available to meet it.

Invaluable skills. Then and now.

I’ve thought a lot about those unspoken lessons. But it’s only recently that I started thinking about the other lessons that were being taught – by that teacher, by family, by the other professionals that worked with me. Not by a game or exercise, but by example.

Things like patience. Persistence. Taking the time with someone who needs it, no matter how small, no matter how much time they may need. Learning to value each person you encounter, to see not just what they are but what they could be someday … and to help encourage that, if you can.

Invaluable skills. Then and now.

For all of us.

It starts with pieces on a board. Then grows to people in a life. None of it comes easy. (Thanks, Dad.) But if we learn the real rules of the game, all of us can win. Not by storming our way to checkmate, but by being willing to sit down with the other players in the first place.

So good luck, Ivy. Take chances. Play smart.

And have fun storming the castles.

Turning the Page

Gee, I might just live forever.

No, I haven’t been listening to the theme from “Fame” again. (“I’m going to learn how to fly – high!”) But I have been getting some encouragement from Smithsonian lately. According to an article there by Erin Blakemore, reading books lengthens your life – and the more you read, the better it gets.

This is an exceptionally good thing for us for two reasons. Number one, our home is practically overflowing with evidence of immortality … which is a nice way of saying that there are books shelved, stacked and scattered in every single room, including the garage. And number two, both Heather and I possess a mighty tsundoku —  a useful Japanese word referring to the “reading pile” that has yet to be whittled down. At the rate we accumulate volumes, we might just need the extra lifespan to imbibe them all.

The details? The article cites a study from Social Science and Medicine that looked at 3,635 adults who were 50 or older. After controlling for other factors, those who read books lived almost two years longer on average than those who didn’t. Those who read more than 3.5 hours a week saw the best effects. And books produced better results than either newspapers (apologies to my former co-workers) or magazines.

It’s not solid proof. But it’s a good suggestion that, like so many other aspects of life, what we emphasize becomes powerful. Push your body and you strengthen your body, as we’ve seen in so many Olympic athletes this week. So why shouldn’t pushing your brain make it stronger, too?

Of course, there’s a corollary to all that, too. If a person builds what they focus on, then we need to be careful what we focus on.

We haven’t done such a great job of that lately.

We live in a social environment that has become increasingly toxic. One where people listen less and argue more – if “argue” is even the right word, as opposed to “overlapping shouting.” One that encourages people to look at differences instead of commonalities, to close out instead of bring in, to form up factions rather than attempt the hard work of compromise.

In a world that reasons by volume, the biggest bullies and shouters look like leaders. Not because they’re right, but because they refuse to let anyone else occupy the stage. And the more that people buy into it, focus on it, imitate it, the stronger they become.

And it doesn’t have to be that way.

Change the focus and you can change the reality.

Kindness and empathy haven’t died. Hope and consideration aren’t extinct. Courage hasn’t gone the way of the VCR and the floppy disc. They may not get the 6 o’clock news, but they’re still there. And if those “muscles” get exercised — if we refuse to be bound by fear, if we push back against hate, if we actively reach out to each other at every opportunity – then they, too, become strong.

Curiously enough, reading can be powerful there, too. After all, books are captured memory. They remind us that this is not the first time hate and fear have run rampant. And they remind us that those forces have been overcome before, and can be again. That the fight may be never-ending, but it’s far from hopeless.

And if we’ve been willing to touch a multitude of minds on the page, live a hundred lives that were never ours – then just maybe, it might train us to be aware of the minds and lives of others in the “real world,” too.

It’s all in where you put your time and attention.

The choice may well speak volumes.

Making It All Click

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.

…Snap.

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.