A Royal Oak mom, who I had never met and is a member of a large Irish family from the greater crowd, sent me a message that she wanted to talk to me about a possible column. This is her story.
"My husband went up to our neighborhood party store this past Saturday afternoon with our 11-year-old son Patrick to pick up some last minute things for a family party we were having later in the day. Patrick is autistic. While in the store there was an accidental contact with a young man in his early twenties. Our son has a hard time with physical space and the young man interpreted his response as hostile and a chest bump was his retort. My husband said something like, 'hold on there, that's not cool.'"
The young man's said, "It ain't my fault you can't keep your retard kid under control."
"It ain't my fault you can't keep your retard kid under control."
If you have children or a niece or nephew or a brother or sister - but especially if you have children - words like those become nuclear weapons. You don't hear much after that, you immediately turn into Papa Bear or Mama Bear and protect your child from the attacking wolf. If you have a child with special needs, I'm guessing that the transformation is more like turning into the angry Wolverine of X-Men fame.
Patrick’s dad asked for some help from the party store staff, a man who knew him, but no assistance came. In the end, the young thug, and that's what he is, bought his beer and headed out the door with his fake puffery intact.
The father shared the incident with his wife, but the family party was beginning and it wasn't until they went to bed that night, both sleepless from anger and angst, that a simmering fire of emotions exploded. When the infuriation waned, they agreed that castration and/or a lobotomy were not really options for the insensitive culprit. What set in was the rising ache in the pit of their parental guts that that this was not going to be the last time their family was going have to deal with the iniquity of bullies.
That is where my conversation headed with Patrick’s mom. How do you deal with it? And, we're not just talking about the truly bad guys that are out there in life who throw grenades at those among us facing life's greatest challenges, but it's the casual dart thrower, too.
"I can't tell you how many times I hear the term retard thrown around casually. Yes, as the parent of a special needs child, I'm sensitized to the hurtfulness of language, but I wish people would think maybe just a little bit about the impact of their words. Nobody is perfect, and yes, as a kid, I called my brother a retard for hiding my dolls, but as we mature, can't we all grow up and take a look at the hurt we can cause?"
The wisdom of a mother is worthy of attention. The empathy of a mom with a special needs child can reach out and touch souls.
This mom’s words also struck home. It couldn't have been more than a week ago that I was taken to task by the lovely Kathy about using the word retard. I insisted that I was only using it descriptively and not to harm anybody. Her answer was more colorful than "that's nonsense, the word can hurt!"
Our daughter Moira, a high school teacher and young mom, offered her insight into the power of words.
“Words matter. All too often we don’t think about what words we use and what they mean," Moira said. "Communication is more than just what you think you said. It is also about how a person perceives the words we use. While one person may believe that a word like 'retarded' is an everyday word, it can be like a knife to others. Being careful is part of the art of communication.”
Moms should rule the world. And special needs children and their loving families are the best guides to a world of patience and kindness.