A Recent Obituary
In my literary life, there have been four phases:
1. When I didn’t know how to read (birth to 3 or so)
2. When I loved to read! (3 until, say, 13)
3. When I hated reading and only picked up a book when it was assigned (13-17)
4. When I re-learned some passion for the written word; so much so I began to create my own (17-present)
For the last four or five years of phase #2, I’d often check out books from the public library in Montgomery City (just a hop, skip and a jump from my hometown). On Saturday mornings, you could find me sitting on the floor in the back of the library, flipping through giant picture books of warfare; everything from spears to M-16s in the Vietnam Conflict. In those shelves was where I learned the value of just how much knowledge there is in the world-and that’s probably why I want to know EVERYTHING now! The rebellious, slothful teenage years hadn’t kicked into full gear, so I was still able to dig books just because, well, I dig books. It wasn’t yet cool to NOT like reading (something I hope teens today don’t emulate.)
Anyway, there at the Montgomery County Public Library was an elderly librarian named Laura. The things I remember about Laura were 1. she was a heavy, heavy smoker (yes, this was in the days when no one seemed to have a problem with smoking in the library) and 2. she seemed to know EVERYTHING about books! It was Laura who first introduced me to J.R.R. Tolkein and the Lord of the Rings trilogy-some 15 years before the movies made “Hobbitt” a household word!
While at my parents’ home last week, my Mom was flipping through the local paper when she came across Laura’s obituary. Laura hadn’t really crossed my mind in years, but at the news of her passing, I thought back on those Saturday mornings. I also began to remember something Laura taught me without ever even knowing she was sending a lesson along…
Another library employee who worked with Laura was profoundly disabled. I don’t think I ever knew this woman’s name, and my best guess is that she had a severe case of cerebral palsey. This woman would sit behind Laura’s desk in her electric wheelchair, body twisted at what looked like painful angles, jerky, robotic movements to sort books into large metal bins.
What I assume was C.P. had robbed this woman of all but the most sparce of motor functions. She could grip a book, but couldn’t sit it down gently. Into the big metal bin the books would go, nearly shaking the windows with the clattering “BANG!” In the years I went to the library, this woman never spoke. Guessing here, but it seemed her disability wouldn’t allow her verbal communication, either.
Sitting just a few feet away from Laura, she’d do her tasks of book organizing, books banging all the while. Laura, meanwhile, checked the cards in each of my loans, talked to me about the content of each, asked me about the last books, I’d read, never once paying attention to the ruckus being raised just a step away.
Was she oblivious to the noise? Unlikely. She was, however, comfortable working with this woman and her limitations. At the first loud slam, it would have seemed proper to drop what she was doing, run to the aid of the woman at the rear, check to see if everything was okay. But she didn’t. Why? Probably because she knew nothing was wrong, just accepting this woman’s disability and the tiny inconveniences that went along with it. She didn’t offer help, didn’t hover, just let the woman perform her task.
Laura certainly never acted like her co-worker had any sort of cognitive disability. To this day, I don’t know if she did or not. My guess is no. She simply lived in a body that had more limitations than almost any other I’ve ever met. But Laura didn’t treat her like she was profoundly disabled-she just let her do her job.
Frankly, Laura’s comfort level with a person of this limited ability was disconcerting to my pre-teen self. It was, however, exactly how a person with a disability should be treated: with respect, honor and without making the disability their sole identity. Some of the best lessons are taught by inaction; when a loud crash would happen, Laura wouldn’t even look up. I wanted to yell, “What happened?! Is she okay?!” all while pointing toward the figure in the electric wheelchair. But I didn’t. Because Laura didn’t act like anything was wrong. That made me also think nothing was wrong. Laura would finish her stamping of my books, wish me luck and would turn back to her own novel and overflowing ashtray.
You know, I’m not sure I’d ever thought of this until I heard of Laura’s passing, but I have to think her actions (or more specifically, lack thereof) towards individuals with disabilities helped mold my opinions. Never assume that if one’s body doesn’t work well, that their mind doesn’t, too. Don’t hover, don’t coddle, don’t protect-just allow that person to live his/her life and to do their job.
When I became a person with a disability, I knew darned good and well I didn’t want to be treated in a way other than the respect Laura showed her co-worker. I hope this memory may remind you, faithful reader, of how to respect and honor the existence of all people, those with disabilities and those without. If there’s net access in the hereafter, I hope Laura may read this and rest assured she helped mold the life of one little bookworm many years ago.