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On Monday, July 14th, my retarded aunt died. 

That’s how I first knew her:  my aunt, my mom’s sister, was retarded.  As a grew up,  I became intellectually enlightened –  the term “retarded”  had evolved in society to the point where its sole function was to insult, so I was forced to retrain myself to think and say “mentally challenged.”  Soon I was sufficiently inured to wince when I heard my mom used the term “retarded” on the phone with doctors and social workers. 

In pursuing my teaching certificate, though, I discovered that even this was not enough.   Once, in a “Disabilities in the Classroom” class, I was marked down in a paper in which I referred to her has “mentally disabled” as opposed to “having” a mental disability, the former still being vaguely insulting, I learned, as not verbally isolating the affliction from the afflicted.    

Even later, newly pregnant with my first daughter, I discovered that “mentally disabled” itself is a slippery term.  Asked to define her mental disability on a medical form, I was surprised to find that, at 31, I had no idea how to do so.  She was able to live on her own, said the state, but not able to drive a car.  She could maintain a job through a work program sufficient to earn a small income, but not financially secure enough to live without a trust fund.  Things got even more confusing when I tried to determine the etiology of her mental state.   As a child, I had discerned from casual eavesdropping that it perhaps had something to do with a high fever during a bout of polio.  Still, there was some familial speculation that it was maybe something as “easily” treatable as severe dyslexia, something just not addressed sufficiently in the 1940s. 

Mentally challenged, dyslexic, it didn’t matter.  She was my favorite aunt when I was a child – we’d play cards, she’d show me her stuffed animals (each carefully named, first and middle,) and watch TV, mostly cartoons and reruns of old shows.  It should have lasted forever.  Of course, it didn’t.   First, I grew up.  I always felt that she considered this to be a betrayal.   

Later, the betrayal came in the form of pancreatic cancer, its claws sinking into a body weakened by a diet of mostly frozen over processed meals and Mountain Dew (but, as it turned out, strengthened by good genes.)  In the end,  as these things go, she left, leaving behind numerous gremlin dolls, boxes full of mismatched playing cards, and collections of U.S. quarters, relics of what she did and who she was on earth. 

She is buried now, next to her parents.  She had no religion, but I am confident that her spirit resides in a place better than this, unfettered by disability.  My mom confessed a few weeks ago that when the phone rings during dinner that she still expects her sister to be on the other end.  She is missed, and I hope someday to meet her again.

Written by Jen Szymanski

October 9, 2008 at 11:40 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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