My younger sister was born with a rare genetic displacement. From the standpoint of her DNA it’s almost exactly the opposite of Downs Syndrome; where people with Downs are missing a chromosome, Amy actually has an extra one swinging on the end of each of her genetic helixes. But from a practical standpoint the only real difference between the two is that Downs Syndrome, owing to the fact that it’s far more common, is more predictable. In terms of day-to-day functioning there’s very little difference. If you were asked to pick someone with Amy’s condition out of a group of people born with Downs Syndrome, it’s doubtful you’d be able to do it.
This is all really just to give you an idea of the level of cognizance at which she lives her daily life. By no means does it imply that she’s in any way dumber than I am (quite the opposite – she can memorize an entire movie after watching it once), but she does go through her existence on an entirely different mental plane than the rest of us, which can sometimes mean that she requires a different set of social circumstances.
Eager to both provide her with said circumstances and get her off of the couch, my mom signed Amy up with a local cheerleading team. It originally started out, apparently, primarily with the intention of cheering for the Special Olympics basketball games, but the cheerleaders have made such a stir in the local community that the club has evolved into its own separate entity. When I asked her what she cheered for, Amy just gave me a disdainful look and said, with the tone of a disinterested bachelor talking to a toddler, “Um, Helena.” Duh.
I was curious to see the group that had finally pried my baby sister away from the imaginary world of movies and books where she’s hidden away from the twenty-three years of the inaccessibility of her particular reality, so I tagged along when my parents took her to practice earlier this week. No sooner had we entered the door than we were swarmed with young women, all of whom possessed some degree of mental handicap and none of whom possessed any degree of social fear.
“Wow,” said Vicki, an especially friendly woman who works with my sister at a farm which employs people with special needs. She motioned to the bright yellow T-shirt I’d borrowed from my mom to work out in – a color, I might add, which does not flatter me – and cooed, “That shirt looks amazing on you! Where did you get it?”
I didn’t have time to answer before another girl, this one bearing an uncanny resemblance to Emma Thompson’s Professor Trelawney character in the Harry Potter movies, her heavily-lidded eyes magnified by thick glasses, approached and said seriously, “Excuse me. Do you have any animals? Say, for instance, a dog, or a cat? Or a hamster?”
“I have two cats,” I responded.
“Great,” said the Trelawney girl. “Do you know what I should do about a parrot with a biting problem?”
I said that I didn’t.
A young woman with bright red hair, meanwhile, was meandering around the room. She’s apparently not capable of talking, but she had an uncanny ability to mentally lock onto an object in the distance and go there, unlock, and then repeat the process with something else. She looked like the pull-back toy cars we played with as kids. I couldn’t help thinking that if someone took my own brain and whittled it down to its very essence, stripped it of all its petty mundane responsibilities and just let it to its own devices, it would very much resemble the ginger who was at the moment weaving her way randomly through other people’s conversations in pursuit of things of which only she was aware but which, I think, were almost certainly far more important.
Another woman, a little older than the others and with the thickest, darkest hair I’ve ever seen, and that sticking out so haphazardly in so many directions that she’d make Einstein look bald, came up to me and without any introduction said, “Where do you get your hair done?”
“In Seattle,” I said. I was about to add what I was sure would be a particularly witty comment about traveling to Seattle making for a very expensive visit to the salon, but before I could say anything more she continued.
“Hm. Yeah, I tried Great Clips last time, but I’m considering trying Supercuts next. I didn’t like it last time.”
And then she walked away.
“Are you going to take her home with you?” Asked another girl with glasses, motioning to Amy.
“No,” I said. “Amy will stay here in Helena.”
“No,” said the girl, raising her eyebrows at my stupidity. “I mean tonight. Are you going to take her home?”
“Oh,” I said. “Well, as far as I know. Yes. We’re going to take Amy home.”
And through went the redhead.
The leader, a volunteer cheerleader from the local college, called them to line up, and they did so with gusto, brandishing their donated professional-grade pom-poms with a special kind of pride, the little slivers of silver in the plumes of red sparkling as the girls shook their hidden fists in excitement. For them, this was barely even a rehearsal. This was a moment in their lives, and as such was to be treated with all the gravity that such an important event deserved.
“Which cheer should we do tonight?” asked the leader.
“I know!” Amy hollered. “Let’s do the one that I made up!”
I felt myself sucking in a little breath of pride. Amy? Made up a cheer? My Amy?
I should point out here that the members of my family are not necessarily genetically predisposed to playing well with others. We are born of a long line of cowboys and farmers and free spirits; it’s not inherently a bad thing, and it might even be one that has even served us well from time to time. But it’s certainly not something that leaves us naturally inclined toward team spirit. My mom said that when Amy first started on the squad she would insist loudly, “But I want to do things my way, mom!” This week, however, when it came time to leave for practice she couldn’t find her uniform sweat pants, and the ordeal nearly traumatized her. “It’s not okay!” She moaned. “If we don’t all look the same, how are we ever all going to look like a team?!”
“H-E-L-E-N-A! Helena! Helena! We’re number one!” Cried the cheerleaders. Then they waved their pom-poms, and Amy kicked her little foot into the air. She hollered at the top of her lungs, like someone had installed a bellows cramp in her stomach. I wondered, just for a moment, what she would have been if she had been born “normal.” And then I thought, God forbid. She’s a much better cheerleader this way than she would have been as a “normal” one.
The humanity, the innocence in the room was palpable, and it was all over far too soon. When they were done the redheaded girl tried to go in one direction until one of the volunteers caught her by the arm and redirected her energy toward different coordinates. Said coordinates turned out to be me, and she beamed as she gestured toward a button on my purse strap with a picture of a cat on it.
“Are you going to take Amy home with you?” asked the girl with the glasses a second time. I began to wonder if she’d been left behind somewhere at some point.
“Have a great trip home!” called Vicki. “Come back next year, okay?”
“Hey,” said Amy to Vicki, “I have an idea. Let’s don’t call ourselves coworkers anymore. Can’t we just be friends? I think that’s better than coworkers.”
Said Vicki, “Okay.”
And we got in the car to drive home, Amy sitting next to me in the back seat practicing her cheers.
“H-E-L-E-N-A.” She was whispering. “We’re number one.”