She came from around the corner and caught my eye. My breath stopped. I hadn't seen her for six or seven years. I didn't think she'd recognize me, we'd met during an emotional and traumatic time for one, I was now in a wheelchair for two. But when her eyes met mine the recognition was instantaneous. How could I have thought she'd have forgotten?
I was called in for an emergency consultation. A woman with Down Syndrome had been raped by a care provider. After the police interview she had asked to talk to someone and I was called. I wondered aloud if it would be better for a woman to speak with her, if my size and my gender would be too difficult for her. So much had happened, the rape, the report, the response. Now she was asking for something for her, I wanted to make sure that I would do. She said she didn't care if she spoke to a man or a woman, she just wanted to talk to someone.
The police OK'd the conversation but asked that I be supportive without questioning. I know the drill, I assured them that I understood and wasn't interested in investigating, this was about support and that was all. They told me that she'd been worked over pretty badly and to be prepared for what I saw.
You can't prepare.
Her face had been bludgeoned. Her eyes looked out past swollen and torn tissue. She did not cry. We were given some privacy and I began by asking a stupid and silly question, "How are you?" and immediately followed that with, "I'm sorry, I can see that things aren't good, do you want to talk?" She told me that she did.
She didn't talk about the assault, my mind was bursting with questions but I knew I could ask none, my will wanted to assert itself and take the conversation away from the everydayness of what she was telling me, but I knew that this conversation was hers, not mine. She was talking about her job, how much she liked it, about the people there and how much they liked her. She talked about her mom and her dad. He had died a few years ago but her mom still came and visited her. She talked about her favourite television shows and even laughed when talking about how silly Simon was on American Idol. She talked and she talked. She never looked at me much, glancing every now and then to assure herself that I was listening.
And I was.
Because I had come to understand what she was doing. She was asserting to herself that she had a life that she loved. A job and a family. Television shows and Taco Bell. She had been raped. She had talked to the police. But the world was still there, unchanged. Waiting for her. She had taken control of her own healing. She demanded little from me.
Then she asked me if she could ask me a question, and I told her self to go ahead. "Do you think I'm a dirty girl now that I've had sex?" Now the tears flowed. She had assured herself that the world still existed and now she wanted to know from me if she still fit into that world. The world where she had a place, belonged. Could she go back to that world, or was she now unsuited for it?
"You haven't had sex," I told her. Once again I had to shut my mind up, I wanted to talk to her about the idea of sex being dirty, that our sexuality is normal and part of us, but that's my agenda, she had a different one. So I stayed with, "You haven't had sex." She looked up at me confused, then she explained that he had put his penis into her. He had hurt her 'down there'. That was having sex. I told her that rape was not sex. That rape was rape. That she was not responsible for what he had done. It's all stuff we know. It's all stuff we hear on Oprah and on Dr. Phil, it's in every plot of Law and Order: SVU. It's part of our culture now. But it wasn't trite here. With her. She listened to me deeply. She asked a few more questions and I could see her process the news that she had been attacked but that the attack did not define her.
"Then, I'm still the same as before?" She asked with hope in her voice. I told her that she'd had different experiences and bad things had happened to her but that 'yes' she was the same as before.
"Thank you," she said.
I saw her one more time, several months later. She had asked to see me again and we got together for a coffee. Her face had healed, all except for what turned into a permanent bruise below her right eye. Again she talked about her life, her new job, her new home, and then she told me that I had been right, that she was OK and that she was the same girl as she had been before. Then she put her hand on top of mine and said, "If it happens to someone else, tell them that Emily's OK."
And now, here she was looking at me. There was a woman with her, a staff I'd guess, she patted the woman's hand in the way that meant, 'Stay here.' She walked over to me and asked if I was OK. I told her that I was in the wheelchair now. But I'm still the same as before. She smiled, the 900 watt smile that only those with Down Syndrome can do, and said, "So am I."