My sister Steph wants to write a book about her 7-year-old daughter.
The title would be What Katie Didn't Do. Why?
Because Katie is what society would describe as “handicapped.” She was born four months premature and spent rather a long time in the hospital. Accompanied by a nursing team, she came home to a house wired for oxygen.
Katie had two strokes when she was tiny and is now classified as autistic. Which means many things to many people. I'll offer one example.
A large hospital in England. My dad lies in bed, having also suffered a serious stroke. We all sit around and do the usual hospital things—make jokes that aren't funny, pretend that everything is OK, be abnormally normal. Katie walks in. No inhibitions, none of our silly preconceptions and prejudices.
She climbs on the bed, gets under the blanket, puts her arms around her grandpa and cuddles up to him. And for the very first time since he was hit by fate's cruelty, my father smiles. A smile as wide as the world itself.
Katie achieved that. Because that is what Katies do. What the physically and mentally challenged do every day. Cut through the nonsense and the fear. They are in the frontline of the battle for civilization, teaching those of us who are without disability what honesty and simplicity are all about.
They are also the last people who have to fight for civil rights. Much as we congratulate ourselves on our liberal attitude toward those who are different, we regularly discriminate against the Katies of the world. The handicapped have no powerful lobby group behind them, no multimillion dollar advertising campaign, few friends in the media and in Hollywood.
Goodness me, her mom and dad have witnessed discrimination for years: They even had to change their church because their daughter was not accepted.
We know the way it happens. Oh boy, don't we.
“Of course you are welcome here—there's a ramp for you outside and we'll fine anyone who parks in the handicapped parking space. Of course you are welcome here. As long as you don't get in the way, speak too loudly or make any of us, the lucky ones, feel in any way uncomfortable.”
Katie can do jigsaws like Super-Girl. She starts not from the outside but from the middle. The complex shapes that so baffle us take form in her beautiful mind. Wonderful pictures come alive and speak. Speak in a way Katie cannot. Hey, not like Super-Girl. She is Super-Girl.
She doesn't have an extensive vocabulary, even though her parents have added “speech therapist” to their many other roles. But sometimes words aren't so important. When I arrive in England she walks straight up to me, grabs my hand and takes me to a chair. She crawls all over me, showing total and unconditional trust and love. Katie doesn't impose rules and regulations on her affection. She sees goodness and beauty in everybody and everything.
It's true that she doesn't always look you in the eye and that her attention seems to wander and that she appears to be distracted. Unlike, of course, those people who always look you straight in the eye and seem to take in every word you say. Then forget your name and care not a fig for your life or anything in it.
I sit down and chat to my sister. Has it been difficult? “Yes, but also joyous beyond belief,” she tells me. “A new adventure every day and a new path of discovery. Wouldn't change it for the world. Katie has made us all grow so much, taught us things we didn't know about ourselves, about what it really means to be human.”
We chat about the number of abortions of unborn children who are shown by ultrasound to possess some sort of handicap and how in many countries Katie would never have been allowed to live. We discuss the plight of the handicapped in society and the fact that there are allegedly serious philosophers about who make cases for euthanasia of the Katies of the world.
“I remember one woman looking at me, then at Katie, and saying, ‘It's such a shame, isn't it,’ and tilting her head as is to show sympathy for my terrible condition,” my sister says. “I felt like tilting it a bit further until it came off,” she says, laughing just to reassure me that murder was not really on her mind.
“Yes we cry, but we laugh, too. Actually being a mum to Katie is about saying ‘yes’ to things. Yes to life, yes to love. Yes.”
At which point Katie trots her way into our conversation, into our world. She wants to watch a video of The Jungle Book. She's seen it hundreds of times, but that doesn't matter. It pleases her and she learns from it. Katie doesn't need expensive toys or fashionable luxuries. She's so much more than that. Perhaps so much more than us.
Fly Super-Girl, fly Katie. Fly as high as the mountains and as swiftly as the eagles. And never care about those who would clip your wings.
Michael Coren writes from Toronto.