Some Say the R-Word, I Say Rock Star

girl  in  grunge interiorI had a cousin named Wayne who everybody called Waynie.

No one ever referred to him as anything other than my cousin, but it was obvious that Waynie wasn’t like the rest of us.  For one thing, he didn’t dress like everybody else. Nothing seemed to match; he wore very thick lensed glasses, high-waisted pants, heavy-soled shoes; his speech was a little slurred; and I remember he was in Mr. Alvino’s “special” class in high school.

“Special Education,” my mother had explained softly, with great solemnity

I also remember Waynie smiled a lot.

He just seemed so nice.  Friendly and easy-going.  Sweet is the only word I know to describe Waynie. And even though he was older than us by at least fifteen years Waynie seemed boy-like, more like us kids in elementary school than someone who was in their 20s and already out in the world.

No one ever gave us a diagnosis of why Waynie was different; we were just told that something happened to him when he was a baby, and it affected his brain, and he was never like the rest of us after that.

Waynie was just different.

He lived with our elderly Aunt Irene in her guest house in the backyard, and he held down a little job “making things” for a “handicapped organization.”  That’s how it was explained to us.  I can’t ever remember anyone ever using the “R-Word” when they talked about Waynie.

I didn’t hear the “R-Word” until I started going to school.  And then, I’d hear it being kicked around the playground with as much ease as a dodge ball making its rounds around the blacktop.  It was the “go-to” word whenever one of us made a mistake, didn’t measure up, or just did something that fell short of what everyone else was doing, or what everyone else wanted us to be doing.

It was the worst kind of insult.

That was years ago, of course, and the world has changed since then.  But maybe not so much on the blacktops and playgrounds of the world.  The R-Word is still thrown around; I catch it at times being tossed off by one kid to another. I don’t know these kids that are using it, so I keep quiet.  And maybe that’s wrong.  Maybe that’s why the R-Word still has some life in it.  Maybe next time I hear it I should say something, and risk being called the B-Word.

I don’t often think about Waynie but he popped into my mind the other night when we were visiting a loved one at an assisted living home. The facility is filled with people on walkers or in wheelchairs, along with those who have Alzheimer’s or dementia.  The campus is absolutely beautiful – looking more like a resort than anything else. The people who live here are able to afford the steep monthly bill for such beauty, and I guess you can say, in many ways, they’re lucky.  But still, there’s a sadness here for families who come to visit, and so, dinners are oftentimes just for the residents after families have made their obligatory weekend visit and then, gratefully fled back to their own lives and their own purposes in the world. The residents dine only with themselves: table after table filled with grey-haired and stooped-over remnants of their former selves.

When we visit here, it’s hard not to be sad.

Until I look around the room and see Kyle.

The wait staff here is made up of young people – most of them high school students or recent graduates.  My husband is a teacher, and some of these young workers were  students in his English classes.  Kyle was one of those students in a class that was filled with second-language-learners, at-risk kids, and six Special Ed teens, Kyle being one of the six.  These are the kids who aren’t the easiest to reach.  A population of students that most teachers would rather not see sitting at a desk in their classroom.

But these kids, including Kyle, did just fine.

It’s hard not to think that doing just fine comes with its own rewards, confidence being one of them.  That’s what Kyle brings to the dining room of this fancy assisted living facility,  with it’s padded high-back chairs, linen-covered tables, cozy fireplace, and piped-in soft melodies of the 50s. Kyle is front and center the grand master-of-ceremony of an evening to remember.

With a smile that lights up the room just because he’s in it.

Tall and proud, sporting a tiny Clark Gable moustache, he welcomes each resident as they enter and leads them majestically to their table.  At times, offering a lady his arm – like Fred Astaire to Ginger Rodgers.  It doesn’t matter who they are or how they look, whether with an aide, a walker, or shuffling alone by themselves, Kyle is there for them.  Helping them to their seat, adding an extra chair or taking one away, making sure the water glasses are filled, the menus are in place.  And all of this is done with such charm and care. With a hello and a how are you tonight?  And when they answer he listens.

Even if the answer is lost and rambling.

Kyle listens, and nods, and smiles the most amazing of smiles.  He makes a little joke, and maybe sometimes, on a good night, they even laugh.  He knows which ones are restless and which ones are cranky.  And he gives each and every one of them whatever they need.  Patience when their mind wanders, and respect when they’re frustrated and lashing out.  He is there for them in many ways  that families are afraid to be.  He accepts each one for who they are – right now – not for who they used to be.  Kyle is fine with each and every one of them for this moment in time, this moment only.  He’s truly amazing to watch as he works the room with his charm.

Kyle’s a Rock Star.

And that’s the only R-Word that fits.