I sit down on the floor of a school for the retarded,
a writer of magazine articles accompanying a band
that was met at the door by a child in a man’s body
who asked them, ‘Are you the surprise they promised us?’
It’s Ryan’s Fancy, Dermot on guitar,
Fergus on banjo, Denis on penny-whistle.
In the eyes of this audience, they’re everybody
who has ever appeared on TV. I’ve been telling lies
to a boy who cried because his favourite detective
hadn’t come with us; I said he had sent his love
and, no, I didn’t think he’d mind if I signed his name
to a scrap of paper: when the boy took it, he said,
‘Nobody will every get this away from me,
in the voice, more hopeless than defiant,
of one accustomed to finding that his hiding places
have been discovered, used to having objects snatched
out of his hands. Weeks from now I’ll send him
another autograph, this one genuine
in the sense of having been signed by somebody
on same payroll as the star.
Then I’ll feel less ashamed. Now everyone is singing,
‘Old MacDonald had a farm’, and I don’t know what to do
about the young woman (I call her a woman
because she’s twenty-five at least, but think of her
as a little girl, she plays that part so well,
having known no other), about the young woman who
sits down beside me and, as if it were the most natural
thing in the world, rests her head on my shoulder.
It’s nine o’clock in the morning, not an hour for music.
And, at the best of times, I’m uncomfortable
in situations where I’m ignorant
of the accepted etiquette: it’s one thing
to jump a fence, quite another to blunder
into one in the dark. I look around me
for a teacher to whom to smile my distress.
They’re all too busy elsewhere. ‘Hold me’, she whispers. ‘Hold me.’
I put my arm around her. ‘Hold me tighter.’
I do, and she snuggles closer. I half-expect
someone in authority to grab her
or me; I can imagine this being remembered
for ever as the time the sex-crazed writer
publicly fondled the poor retarded girl.
‘Hold me’, she says again. What does it matter
what anybody thinks? I put my other arm around her,
rest my chin in her hair, thinking of children,
real children, and of how they say it, ‘Hold me,’
and of a patient in a geriatric ward
I once heard crying out to his mother, dead
for half a century, ‘I’m frightened! Hold me!’
and of a boy-soldier screaming it on the beach
at Dieppe, of Nelson in Hardy’s arms,
of Frieda gripping Lawrence’s ankle
until he sailed off in his Ship of Death.
It’s what we all want, in the end
to be held, merely to be held,
to be kissed (not necessarily with the lips,
for every touching is a kind of kiss).
She hugs me now, this retarded woman, and I hug her.
We are brother and sister, father and daughter,
mother and son, husband and wife.
We are lovers. We are two human beings
huddled together for a little while by the fire
in the Ice Age, two hundred thousand years ago.
What does this poem by one of Canada’s finest poets say to me, as a relatively able-bodied and able-minded middle-aged Irishman with the usual set of fears, worries and prejudices? Because it does say something to me—I came across it by accident while looking for another poem, and it moved me enough to want to share it with my fellow-worshippers at the Dublin church I attend.
This must mean I believe it has some lessons, both human and spiritual, to impart. So let’s start with the human lessons—always easier to express—and hope that out of them will emerge the spiritual lessons.
The poem is about a writer visiting a school for the retarded—the intellectually challenged, we might say in these more politically correct, although not necessarily more compassionate, times. The writer is alternately uncomfortable, embarrassed, ashamed and fearful in this situation, as the children in adult bodies surround and pay court to him as an honoured guest from the ‘normal’ world outside the institution’s walls—the world that brings them music, TV, and, the residents hope, love.
These feelings of discomfort, embarrassment and guilt are those which many of us would expect to feel in such a situation (and have felt on the rare occasions when we have been in the company of people with mental and intellectual disabilities). We are ‘ignorant of the accepted etiquette’ for relating to these unsettling people. Should we talk to them as we would to children? Should we speak slowly and distinctly, as we would to an elderly relative suffering from deafness and the onset of mental incapacity? How do we avoid appearing patronising or unfeeling? How can we overcome our own feelings of inadequacy and distress so as to learn how to greet them in the welcoming and open manner that we would try to use in any new and unfamiliar social situation? And ultimately, how do we relate to them as adult and equal human beings, with similar needs to be loved and respected, but with experiences that are articulated in such a different, inarticulate and alien way?
Because deep down, I suspect fear of the unknown is what many of us feel in the company of such people. We feel that they are alien beings, and therefore are frightened of them, in the way that we are often frightened of difference and strangeness and our inability to understand and empathise with it in our fellow human beings. Tied to this is the feeling that we don’t want to get involved with the messiness and unhappiness of other people’s lives, people who may be needy or wounded, frightened or mad. It is the same feeling that makes us pass quickly, eyes averted, by people in the street who are shouting or gesticulating in an uncontrolled manner; or put money in the beggar’s cap and hurry on, hoping he won’t engage us in conversation or ask us for anything more of our ability to give than a few coins.
The challenge when we meet people with intellectual disabilities is the same challenge that faces us in all situations where we meet strange and unsettling people: how to summon love to our aid. It is the power of love that will overcome the fear of strangeness, and show us that every human being has the same need to be affirmed, to be held, to be cherished, to be loved.
In the poem the writer overcomes his fear of the alien and responds to the plea of the young mentally challenged woman for a fleeting gesture of affection from the outside world. As he does so, he gains the insight that love is what can overcome the greatest fear of the long fleeting moment that is the human lifespan: the fear of death. He realises that on the threshold of death we are all like that young woman, wanting to be held and comforted by someone who will love us. And he thinks of other people who were held, or yearned to be held, by a loved one when at the point of death: Nelson in Hardy’s arms at the Battle of Trafalgar, Frieda gripping D.H. Lawrence’s ankle ‘until he sailed off in his Ship of Death’, the Canadian boy-soldier screaming in fear and pain on the Normandy beach.
So the poem is about the power of love to overcome the fear of the unknown and the fear of death—variations on the one universal, spiritual theme, one might say.
For Alden Nowlan seems to be saying that by holding and kissing and showing affection to that strange young woman, the writer in the poem is, in some small way, facing and overcoming his own fear of death. He is recognising that her plea to be held is a universal plea, and that the writer’s response is the only one that is truly human: defying death with an act of selfless loving that momentarily banishes the fear of extinction—which both of them share.
It is this realisation, that they live and suffer and die together, that makes him understand that this young woman—who in society’s eyes is a weaker and lesser person—is actually equal to him, as equal in mutual love and need as brother and sister, father and daughter, mother and son, husband and wife. It makes me understand for the first time what friends with Down Syndrome children have told me: that these children’s capacity for human love is so extraordinary in the richness of its giving to parents and siblings and friends that they feel they are receiving more from the affected children than they give to them.
So we arrive at the final, powerful lines about the terror and fragility and shortness of human life since conscious life began, and the conclusion that the only way to overcome the terrifying loneliness of that consciousness, if only for a moment, is to love. ‘We are lovers. We are two human beings huddled together for a little while by the fire in the Ice Age, two hundred thousand years ago.’ And the writer realises that it is he, not the young woman, who has gained more from this encounter of two flawed and vulnerable human beings.