Monday, April 17, 2006

Slán, Aunt Lucille

My wife's Aunt Lucille died last night. She was 63; she'd been in a nursing home for a few months, on a decline that worldy logic would say should have happened a long time ago.

"Worldly logic" had very little to do with Lucille.

Lucille was my father-in-law's youngest sister. Like him, she was born in a rural Georgia town which, despite the high level of improbably against it, has the same name as my last name. Cosmic coincidence, or a sign of fate? Who knows? She was the last child, and born well past the point where it was advisable (at that time) for women to bear children. The chances of certain genetic abnormalities are much higher, and in those days, they had no kind of screening to have known in advance that there was anything "wrong". "Wrong" can be a relative term (especially when you're talking about relatives). Not everything that seems like a mistake is; sometimes, it's our attitudes and mindsets that are out of tune with the melody that an individual's life "plays".

Lucille, you see, was born with Down's Syndrome. She had the classic characteristics, both physically and mentally. Most children born back then with Down's Syndrome didn't live past perhaps twenty years of age, and this is what the family was told to expect. She seems to have beaten the prognosis by well over forty years. "Why, that's exceptional!" you might say. Indeed, but still not the most exceptional thing about her, nor that she lived a pretty good life and was a very happy person. That latter quality was the most irrepressive quality about her. Having married into the family and being from nowhere near the place (New England being in some ways another planet), I only met her within the last twenty-five years. I've only seen her when we've visited up there, which is always a unique and interesting experience, not the least of which is that I sometimes have trouble with the language spoken there. The family is quite the collection of singular personalities. Naturally, I know only some details and can speak only from my own experience.

Lucille was what they called "developmentally disabled" or other technical terms for what the word "retarded" meant when I was young. I grew to hate that word, because people imbued it with ignorance, negativity, hate, and possibly the worst, indifference. I have no idea what Lucille's effective IQ was, but she was quite functional in many ways. Certainly, she needed assistance in caring for herself, and there were a lot of things she couldn't do.


There were a lot of things she could do. Socially, she was quite functional. Not only could she speak well, she was quite chatty and loved talking to people. Whatever she was talking about, she was very intent on and fascinated with. She was a really good listener, in her way. She had a way of making you forget that you might have just "lost her"; then again, she might not have been listening to merely the subject. Such was one of her gifts. She could do simple things, and actually loved to do things with her hands and was very creative. She lived at a sort of "school"/group home. She received very good care there, was surrounded by people to interact with, even had a "job", as the center would contract with local companies to do simple tasks like stuffing envelopes, packaging things, and I forget what else. When it was time for a visit to end & go back, she was perfectly happy to do so, and the family could rest easy, knowing she was happy & in good hands. In any case, she was never far away and was around most of the times I've been there. She was bubbly, loving, and a constant bright spot. I looked forward to seeing her.

Perhaps that's too much preamble, but whenever someone leaves this world, it prompts me to think about them and what part of them I will carry with me. In fact, some of the things I will remember about Lucille are things that she could not do. Things that some people do and take for granted, and more or less expect others to do.

Lucille was not "stupid", but there were certain notable things that she just didn't know how to do. Like lying. Lucille had no concept of dishonesty, I think; perhaps it takes "a higher mind" to conceive of it. She was utterly guileless, and didn't have an agenda. She didn't know how not to like people; perhaps that's not going far enough, and she didn't know how not to love people. She seemed to take to everyone, and wanted to be friends. That's just not "normal", is it? "Normal" can be terribly over-rated.

She didn't know how not to know God and feel his presence. She didn't know how not to feel God's love and be a channel of it to other people. And she didn't appear to know how anyone could not know the same. If she did notice, I wonder if it puzzled her how someone could miss something that was so plainly obvious to her? In any case, she absolutely had no idea how to behave any differently about it. Most "smarter" people "know better".

"Knowing" and "knowing better" are also very relative terms. "The World", on the whole, regards itself as being much more on the ball about "knowing better" than a child-like woman from the Georgia countryside. Well, what does the world know?

Inevitably, the first thing I think of at the mention of her name (and always will be) would be saying Grace before eating. In a deeply Christian Southern family, it's something that isn't overlooked, as most of the "normal" world does. If Lucille was there, nobody else could lead the prayer; that was her special province. It had to be done her way, not that anyone could possibly mind. We had to all join hands and stand in a circle. Then she would sing (sort of) "Into My Heart", sweetly, simply and with sincerity. And then we could eat; all that needed to be said had been said. Well, there was one famous exception, on an occasion of a dinner at her sister's house. They had a very large cat named Leon, and Leon had an attitude, presence and voice that made it clear that he was always the one present who was most important. He approached the circle that evening, sat down, and clearly decided that he was ready to eat and punctuated the song with a loud and declarative "MEOW!" Sheer, warm hysteria. And the quintessential "Lucille moment": Love, laughter, a circle of loved ones, tasty aromas in the air begging to be chased, and the momentary suspension of time, in a far prettier world than the one I spend most of my life in. All enclosed and held in the palm of God's love. Perhaps the length of her days is best explained by that; a wondrous gift of "Lucille moments" spanning far more years than anyone could have guesses. What a perfect example of our cup running over.

So, at this moment in time, I'm thankful for God's gift of Lucille to the world, and for helping our paths to cross. I hope that some of her has rubbed off on me. However "smart" and "educated" I may think I am, I hope that some day, I won't know some of the things that Lucille never knew. Because in her way, she was one of the wisest people I've ever met. See you again soon, Lucille; in the meantime, your "Grace" will always be with us. Thanks.