#260: PART 2: AN ELEVEN-YEAR-OLD ME AND WARD AT FOURTEEN
Read "Part 1: Ward" in this series, if you have not already.
Before the age of eleven, my childhood looked fairly normal, or at least I did not think that anything was different about it. Even now, looking back, it is difficult for me to see that life was not the way it might have been if Ward had been born under different circumstances with better technology and a less inept doctor.
When I start talking about it with someone, like I did with the Fiery One last night, I am able to unearth a lot of the repercussions, but if I don't take the time to think seriously about it, I fall back to thinking that growing up with Ward offered me nothing out of the ordinary. Human beings are incredibly adaptive and can normalize stressful living conditions in order to cope. It's a little like Stockholm Syndrome, if you anthropomorphize an entire set of circumstances as though they were an individual.
I want to make clear from the get-go that I do not blame Ward for being individually responsible for the culture within my family. The family dynamic I grew up within would have been screwed no matter what the circumstances. Of that I have no doubt. But I am not going to pretend that his physical and mental disabilities did not factor into the stress and silencing that were a part of our daily lives together.
When I was eleven, things changed for me. Up until that point, first I and then the additional Fidridge were the youngest siblings. This meant that I had very little familial responsibility as far as taking care of Ward was concerned. As soon as I turned eleven and completed a babysitting course through my parents' church, though, this changed drastically. For fourteen years, my parents had been living as though they had a toddler, only a larger toddler in need of much more extensive care, and so they took their soonest available opportunity to get out of the house and hang out with other adults without children around. I don't blame them. If I go for a week without socializing outside my house I start getting squirrelly.
That first night alone babysitting Ward was terrifying for me. He had to be watched obsessively. He was three years older, larger, and stronger than I was. On top of that, he was unpredictable, self-injuring, and going through the moodiness of puberty. Aside from his issues, I was suffering through my first bout with an emotionally debilitating paranoia. I spent most of the night curled up in a blanket with my back to a wall, positioned so that I could keep my eye on all three front, deck, and garage doors, sobbing and feeling completely vulnerable and helpless. At one point, I ran to the neighbours' house where they were visiting and begged them to come home, but they would not come, so I took up my post in the entranceway of our house again. I fell asleep there on the floor, and when my parents came home, my father carried me to bed while my mother told me what a good job I did and what a good time they had. Thankfully, Ward stayed in his room that whole night, because I had been much too paralyzed by my own fear to know what was going on. I remember hating my parents bitterly as I fell asleep.
I grew used to helping take care of Ward, though, and I didn't really mind it at all. It was simply a part of living in my house. I fed him supper when my parents went out. I became quite proficient at administering the Heimlich maneuver, because Ward's medication for his epilepsy would start wearing off around supper time and he would choke on his food. I was small for my age, so I had my own stepping stool that I would use so I was tall enough to hoist his lower body in the air for diaper changes. I memorized the telephone number for the poison control centre after he drank half of a large bottle of Ivory dish detergent as a joke. (It was alarming to find him frothing at the mouth and grinning at me maniacally, but the detergent did little else than give him a case of foamy diarhea). I learned how to get blood out of just about anything, because Ward's headbanging (less to do with listening to metal music and more to do with smashing his head into the floor) gave him regular nosebleeds.
I was acclimatized to a physically, shall we say, rambunctious home life. If I had a friend over while my parents were out, they would follow me around from task to task, watching me with intense curiosity. There was no such laissez-faire attitude at their homes when it came to dealing with mashed raw eggs in the carpet, skin burns from hot water taps, and heads going through hallway walls. My barely pausing in conversation between feeding Ward a spoonful of potatoes and giving him a quick Heimlich-style squeeze was fascinating to them. Then, I was more than a little numb to the stress levels that there must have been in my house, but now, I think I would break down if I had to deal with that kind of stress through every waking moment at home. Again, we are adaptable creatures.
In my early teens, I developed an interest in trying to teach Ward things. My mother had told me the story about the book of birds, and I knew that he loved to be read to, understood us when we spoke to him, and never gave up trying to control his nearly non-existent fine motor skills to manipulate things. I felt that there was an intelligence there that was not being recognized. I don't know to what end I thought this teaching would take us, but I was determined to make a difference in his life. I got out an Audobon Society book on birds and tried showing him the pictures. He pushed me away. (He never liked me being too close to him physically, so I don't know why I thought he'd let me look at books with him). I made up large cardboard squares, each one a different colour, and then tried getting him to point to the right one when I said a colour. I even tried working on simple sign language with him so that he would have language to communicate his needs like thirst or hunger.
If you know Ward now, you will know how idealistic it was of me to begin such a project, even then when he was a little more able physically. Nothing came of my efforts whatsoever. Because he did not like me to be around him unless it had to do with some more practical function like eating (his favourite activity), he spent most of these sessions trying to push me away from him. More than once he shoved me clear off his bed and onto the floor.
This was what our relationship was like. In his mind, I was always that baby my mother brought home from the hospital, that person that he did not want. We never hugged each other, cuddled, or shared in mutually satisfying activities. Our different personalities and abilities always left a gulf between us. I never felt any sense of rejection over this, though. We each had our roles, we were who we were, we did what each of us did. Our relationship was as unique as his particular set and level of disabilities, and I loved him nonetheless.
If there is a third part to this series, it will begin thusly in my next entry:
The summer of 1988 marked a huge change for our house. On August 18, Ward was moved into a large care facility. He was eighteen years old and was becoming more and more difficult for us to care for.