She is sitting in front of me. Sad. Defiant. Thinking that she is so alone in the world. Thinking that I could have nothing to offer her. How could I? She has Down Syndrome, she's been dumped by her boyfriend, her world is at end. I'm just some guy who doesn't understand. She spits out the words 'social worker' like they were distasteful in her mouth. I don't know her history with helping other, but that's not what worries me now. The referral said that there was fear of suicide. That the break up with her boyfriend had been sudden and he'd been a bit unkind when it happened.
After a half an hour, I couldn't get her to open up even slightly. She wound down into her world, a world that excluded me, her family, her staff, anyone who wasn't Down Syndrome was out. We could not get it. We would never understand what it was like to be her, to lose something so valuable. She, like many with diabilities, saw the world as full of haves (us) and have nots (her). And that was it. I offered her another coffee, she accepted, and I left the office.
I could have called for coffee but I wanted to be out of there. Her depression had sucked the air out of the room and there was nothing left, no room left, for anything else. She was dragging me down in the current of her self hatred and self pity.
Pouring her coffee, I got an idea. I quickly went to a phone and called Joe, I asked him to get me a book out of my library and bring it to the office as fast as possible. While on the phone he picked it off a shelf on my desk where it has sat since I bought it. Close at hand to bring down and flip through.
He was at the office twenty minutes later and the secretary knocked and handed the book in. I told the young woman that I wanted her to see the book. She snorted, actually snorted, now she knew I was dumb as a post. I flipped the book through the the last page and said look at this. She didn't look up. A couple of prompts later and she looked up with that attitutde that if I don't do what he says, he won't stop asking.
Her eyes hit the picture and froze. Time stoppped.
"Who is that in the picture?"
"You really want to know?"
"Yes," she sits up staight, interested.
I take the book from her and pick out a couple of lines "Gretchen L. Josephson was born with Down Syndrome ..." The book was almost ripped from my hands. She flipped back to the picture and looked at it for a really long time. She then looked up and asked, "She wrote this book?"
"Yes," that had her floored, but that's not why I brought the book, "The book is called "Bus Girl" in it she writes poety and some of the poems are about the break up with her boyfriend after an impassioned love affair. I thought you'd might like to hear some of the poems."
She simply nodded, stunned that such a book might exist. I began to flip through the book to the section under Love, for disappointment and despair and she took the book from my hands again, this time more gently. She looked at the picture again. Her fingers traced the outline of Gretchen's face and then she handed it back.
I read first, The Bedroom Blues
When I wake up in the morning
I still have tears
running down my face.
I rub my eyes
My bones creak
When I see the empty bed
And the love that was there
I sure do have
The bedroom blues.
This is followed by a few other poems. She is crying now. The good kind of crying. The crying because it hurts. The crying that gets the hurt out. Then I put the book down and wait. Now we really talk. Her distrust of me has gone, no I don't have Down Syndrome and don't know what it's like for her but I had brought her a voice that she could hear. She asked if she could come back and we could read some of the other poems together. I told her that Gretchen wrote poems about being happy too, that the pain didn't stay forever that she grew out of the pain and into a life without her boyfriend. She nodded, "I'd like to hear the happy poems too."
When she left I picked up "Bus Gir: Poems by Gretchen Josephson" flipped to the back of the book and gave the picture of Gretchen a little kiss. She managed, like artists do, to reach through the pages of her book and help someone else.
It was a good day today.
Josephson, Gretchen (1979) Bus Girl: Poems by Gretchen Josephson, Brookline Books: Cambridge MA