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What Is She Thinking:
A Canyon of Quandaries

By: Michele Johnson Keesee

© 2008 by Michele Johnson Keesee.

Two beautiful, ocean-blue eyes stared blankly from behind scratchproof lenses. Her mouth gaped, and the sauce from the breadsticks she ate moments beforehand stained the corners of her mouth. Her facial muscles slacked and her shoulders slumped. Her mind had retreated to that special place, her face utilizing its shield, guarding her private thoughts.

Over the years, I watched my daughter grow from a premature infant into an immature teen. I sat in the far corner of the room, watching Kali and thought, “What could I have done? I did everything the doctors told me to do.”

Born six weeks early on an unseasonably warm winter day, Kali triumphed, insisting her right to exist. She required no assistance in maintaining her unexpected early arrival. Breathing and eating, just like any full-term newborn, four days after her birth, the hospital released her into my care.

I remember the joy and the feeling of pride. Looking down in my hands, remembering how wonderful it felt to hold Kali when she was an infant. How was I to know something was wrong? That problems would arise and the feeling of helplessness would soon conquer all?

Alarms rang inside my head as the time neared and passed for each milestone, eventually achieved, but much later than the norm. Assured by professionals, together, we muddled along. After drudging through the years, dealing with daily bouts of unruly behavior followed by excessive clinginess, she reached kindergarten age.

Day one…unsatisfactory behavior. Day two…harassing another student. Every day unfolded another setback and on top of everything else, the test results came. She failed the hearing assessment provided by the elementary school. After thorough examination by experts, the results discovered ninety-percent hearing loss in her right ear. Nerve damage. Nothing could be done. It was an undetected birth defect. In addition, the school’s aptitude evaluation implicated mental retardation, which, also, was later confirmed by specialists, mild ’MR’, an IQ of 53.

How could this be? She looked normal. Unblemished skin, lively eyes, ideal body weight and height, everything appeared to be average. But what about her speech, slurred and unclear? What about her inability to make friends and get along with others? And, last but not least, her inappropriate actions spoke for themselves. Annoying and disobedient conduct caused everyone, including myself, to feel stressed and fatigued.

In spite of all the evidence, unwilling to accept my daughter’s fate, I sought the advice of numerous health professionals and specialists. In the end, each one confirmed the last. Struggling to cope and praying for the patience to understand, nothing seemed to work. Things only worsened day by day.

Gradually, as she slogged her way through the elementary years of her life, an unsightly mass began to grow within her left cheek. Only noticeable at first within her mirrored image, it eventually ballooned into a shocking growth. Hemangioma, they called it, an overgrowth of lymph nodes and blood vessels. Disfiguring and oppressive, an operation proved to be a temporary fix, and yet, still another inevitable curse.

Jumbled teeth and poor eyesight, for most, easily corrected. But what about the task of keeping the lenses clean and the food cleared from the braces? How can a child with such appalling hygiene accomplish these things? How can I, a single, working mother, juggle the numerous, menial, yet, essential tasks when financial situations require my absence from home? Somehow, together, we manage, as time spins round and round, never really moving forward, just simply spinning.

Trapped inside a third-grader’s mind, her sixteen-year-old body still grows, while her immaturity becomes more evident. Peers harass with snide remarks and disdainful jokes. Adults gawk and whisper, condemning and forming opinions. I become angry and defensive. She hides and retreats into a place of her own.

Sometimes, I wonder what dwells inside this place. Perhaps, pastures of greenery and fields blooming with pale-blue forget-me-nots, their delightful fragrance perfuming the air. Do blue jays soar overhead singing a delightful melody, enchanting the land, while the sunshine warms with a caressing touch? Perchance, each child is the same, accepting each other. Not one singled out or ridiculed.

But then again, I see the look on her face, that bland expression of emptiness. I recall those nights where deep, guttural slurs disturb my sleep. Moreover, the look of hatred that stabs whenever I reprimand. Yelping and snarling, our pets slink away. With an uncaring hand, my daughter swats and then growls. These are the actions of a troubled child. These major sirens blare deafening tolls throughout my mind and trigger my worst fears.

What if the place she disappears inside is a wicked lair, where she reigns as ruler and punishes all? Does she inflict great pain on all who have scoffed, and feed on its darkness like a ravenous carnivore?

Ensnared by a life-long obstruction, fencing her mind within the realm of an eight-year old, will society force her into a world crowded with malevolence? Will the wide-eyed innocence of her fated childhood be battered and bruised until she is no longer recognizable?

Although mental retardation is a lifelong condition of impaired and incomplete mental development, my daughter is still a person. She still has thoughts. She still has feelings, and she is every bit as much of a human being as any other citizen in the United States.

She may be limited in her communication and social skills, but she has the divine attribute in sifting through the sordid, allowing her to find the good in every person. I admit, she may have self-help issues and members within the community may consider her value to be zilch, but while helping another, her reward is in knowing she eased someone else’s burden. In my opinion, this is a true gift. Something extremely rare in an environment where one absorbs another merely to gain access to a higher rung upon the ladder.

As a mother, I am helpless, unable to define or clarify. I cannot see through her eyes, nor can I suppress the briars that pierce with unjustified pain. I simply watch and I wait, straining to keep my own thoughts at bay. If only allowed to cross the invisible threshold, could I not ease the burden of indifferent mockery? Could I not construct a barrier of satin and lace to soften the blow of reality? Chase away her demons and carry her distraught body from darkness into light? How do I protect, when I do not understand? How do my daughter and I move forward when this moment in time has forever stood still?

Each day we battle over simple tasks. Things another does automatically without thought or reason. But then, just when I think my limit has peaked, she does something refreshing, innocent and sweet. She draws me a picture of our family, stick people with no clothing and dogs without mouths. Flowers bloom with bright, red petals. Black birds soar high in the sky. The sun is always shining with rays that touch the ground. We smile and hold hands, just like in the picture. There is no struggle, no battle, just a glimpse of peace and a pause in the fight.

Together, my daughter and I, confront tidal waves of colossal height, all the while, the undercurrent tows us beneath into depleting depths. Sorrow’s tide rushes ashore, attempting to destroy the tiny, yet, momentous sand castles she has managed to erect over the years. And still we strive, more determined than ever.

I have no grand words of wisdom, no insight into a miraculous cure. I have no answers to the questions that seem to multiply, as the years pile atop one another, almost suffocating with their vast continuation. I do have sparks of hope and treasured moments, although the dreams I once had, have all but faded.

And more importantly, the helplessness that overwhelms my emptiness can, in no way, compare to what I imagine my daughter must feel. This, I cannot grasp, for she retreats once again, and reveals nothing but an insipid expression.

Judge not, this is all I ask. First, walk within my shoes, while plodding my daughter’s path. Keep your own condemnatory thoughts at bay and experience for yourself the lack of acceptance and the desperation of isolation. Once you have endeavored our narrow trail, then, if you must, brandish your sword. Hold your head high and laugh at my daughter’s fate. Walk away the victor, as she huddles and cowers, tears streaming down her face, regressing deeper into her own private space.

Life is full of tribulations. This is a fact. Everyone experiences their own troubled bridge, their own canyon of quandaries. Not one individual will be spared the anguish of realism. Reflect if you will, upon your own field of pain. Remember the heartache and the desperation of defeat. Expose your own wounds before your unclouded eyes, and then imagine you are looking through my daughter’s lenses.

Statistics show, somewhere between two and ten percent of the prison population in the United States suffer from mental retardation. This is primarily because the mentally impaired are easily swayed and are constantly seeking acceptance. Sometimes the vulnerabilities they encounter within their daily routine, surmount and multiply, aggravated by the enormous laughter and ridicule that echo within their minds, thus, provoking tragic consequences.

If an eight-year old strikes another student due to harassment, are the children held accountable or merely considered to be standing up for themselves? If an adult, trapped inside the mind of an eight-year old, lashes out, dispersing the demons cloaking the darkness of society, are they to be held accountable or merely struggling to stand with acceptance in the light of day? Should society stand liable for their lack of acceptance and for rejecting what they cannot embrace?

Breathless and weary, I stand by my daughter’s side. The hairbrush now rests on the bathroom counter. After begging and pleading, fighting and fussing, her freshly washed, sandy-blond hair dangles from a navy-blue ponytail holder. An hour has passed, sixty minutes of harrowing turmoil, simply getting ready for school. Nothing comes easy. Nothing is trouble-free. Mental retardation, maddened by the mental illness bipolar, can only foresight the countless battles to be fought before the war of acceptance ends.

During the drive, my daughter and I remain speechless. We exchange a faint ’I love you,’ and then she walks down the sidewalk toward the high school. I wonder, what is she thinking and where does she go? Will society, as a whole, continue to mock my intelligence by pretending to recognize and understand, or will people finally push their judgmental opinions aside and actually offer a sincere helping hand?

My daughter will never mature. She will never be able to properly function in a society that is unwilling to accept and welcome what they cannot comprehend, and moreover, what they undoubtedly fear. But one thing my daughter will always be able to do, something I admire and commend, she will always be innocent to the extent of nature’s wickedness. For every cruel word and for each tainted action she encounters, with the gentle warmth of a kind smile, she is always more than willing to forgive.

I ponder the future. What path will it unwind? What will become of my beautiful daughter who will never establish an independent lifestyle? Someone who cannot count money or grasp the concept of time. My daughter, whom is easily persuaded and naïve to the vindictive ways of the numerous sharks stalking the sea. Will she be another statistic, shoved by society, plunged into darkness, until she feels propelled to lash back? One day I will wither and someday I will die. I will not always be able to shelter and protect. When that day arrives, I wonder, what will she think and where, then, in this society, will she go?


Michele Johnson Keesee


Michele Johnson Keesee lives in Atkins, VA. with her daughter Kali. She has an older daughter, Brandy, and two wonderful grandsons, Jason Cole and Hunter Gage. She is also the author of the novel, Shadow Box.


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