Alice’s schoolteacher handwriting greeted Gretchen when she flipped through the mail that evening. It was a floridly pious Mother’s Day card with a letter enclosed. Her mother must have sent it right after Gretchen had called about the board meeting fiasco. Oh Alice, Gretchen snorted pleasurably. I couldn’t have picked a better card myself.
Underneath the card’s summary appreciation for maternal sacrifices, physical and emotional, Alice had written, “Thought you might like to see the enclosed item right now. I think it confirms that we are related. I cannot take credit for why you are who you are but I did have a hand in it. Then again, you were always a rotten child. Not that I had anything to do with that. Love, Mom.
The letter was her mother’s same handwriting. Cheered, Gretchen set to reading it. It was dated from May 1970 and addressed to a Desmond Wallace, Chair of Fundraising Operations for the National Cerebral Palsy Association. Oh dear.
Dear Mr. Wallace,
I am writing in response to your recent invitation to my daughter, Gretchen Lowe, to have her photo appear on your organization’s poster. The answer is NO.
My first inclination was to thank you for your kind words about her. I am not going to do this because further consideration of your letter revealed what you think of my daughter. You think she owes you something because she is handicapped. Gretchen is a five-year old girl. She owes you, and the world, nothing.
I agree she would move hearts. What I doubt you recognize is how vampiric your request was, with its reference to money being the ‘life-blood’ of your organization. You say other children look back on ‘serving’ as an honor. You say that she will be treated like a princess. Princesses are the ones served, Mr. Desmond. And being a princess in your world does not seem like much of an honor. My daughter’s role in life is not to teach others how lucky they are not to be her.
You wrote that I must have learned so much about love through having an afflicted child. For one thing, that’s an insult to her brother. For another, you seem to think I need some special reason to love my own child.
There’s no need for a reason, because when people say ‘reason,’ they really mean ‘excuse,’ as if Gretchen needs to be excused, and I need to justify why I love her like I do my son. If I did, I’d say I was the one with the affliction. My daughter is a person. She’s not a chinning bar for me to build my character with. She doesn’t have CP to teach me a lesson.
The reason, if you can call it that, for why she has CP is because it happened. I wish more than anything that it had not but this notion that children are saddled with a handicap to teach adults some lesson, and that this is somehow a silver lining, is disgusting.
Gretchen walked to the phone and punched the numbers. A sleepy Alice said hello.
“Oops, forgot it was eleven there,” Gretchen said.
Alice mumbled back.
“Well, well, look who tore Desmond Wallace a new one.”
“You okay, Ma?”
Alice cleared her throat. “Fine. Yes, I thought you’d get a kick out of that.”
“Oh, I did. It was a rotten day but this made it much better.”
“Well, that’s good. Why was your day so bad?”
Gretchen tried to remember but it was a blur of complicated frustrations and overall boredom: “Work.”
“So, anyway, what happened after you sent him your letter?”
Alice yawned. “This is where I’m going to disappoint you.”
Gretchen said, “Oh. Tell me you sent it.”
She could hear the shrug at the other end. “I wrote it and then I thought about it. You were doing so well in their kindergarten and it was so well-run, and your brother’s school wouldn’t take you. I didn’t really think they’d do anything, I don’t know, unpleasant but I didn’t want to take a chance.”
Gretchen nodded. “I get it.”
“I ended up sending him a note saying No, thank you, we’re not interested. Not very impressive.”
“I seriously doubt your letter, as awesome as it was, would have changed much.”
“I really don’t like this princess trend, by the way. I see little girls in princess costumes – and they’re everywhere – I want to say, ‘You can’t all be princesses. All but one of you have to be commoners. Good luck figuring that one out, parents.’”
“Oligarchy is the bane of early childhood development.”
“The problem is that other forms of government don’t have such nice outfits. I’m going to go back to sleep now, Gretchen.”
“Night-night. Sorry I woke you.”
Alice moaned dramatically. “Oh, it’s nothing we mothers can’t bear with our customary grace.”
Gretchen sniffed heroically.
Alice went on, “I expect nothing less of you, by the way, should some facility where I live someday want to take my photo for a fundraising brochure. I would not be honored to pose half-naked on a bed-pan…I really have to go back to sleep now.”
“I do understand, you know, that you felt there was this huge thing wrong with me and you wanted it not to be there.”
Sheets rustled at the other end of the line. “No, you haven’t got that right. What I thought was that you had a fairly small thing wrong, on balance with the rest of you, and that you shouldn’t have to be bothered by this obnoxious, pesty little disorder, disease, whatever.”
[To Be Continued]
There’s No Cure for Gretchen Lowe is an unpublished coming-of-middle-age crip lit novel. Within the broader realm of literature featuring characters with disabilities — #DisLit and memoir — #CripLit presents an understanding of disability using the lens of the social model. It eschews disability as a narrative device and shortcut for conveying sentimentality, heroism, and disaster to readers.