This time last night, I was sitting in a classroom at Vanderbilt University’s Kennedy Center in Nashville, Tennessee while the final minutes played from Shooting Beauty, a documentary about a photographer who begins to redefine beauty when she starts a photography program for people with disabilities. The film was hard to watch at times as it provided an honest and intimate look at how challenging life really is for people with significant disabilities–from their everyday life to their desire to fall in love and have a family just like everyone else. The chairs around me were filled with new friends I had met earlier in the day–students attending Vanderbilt University’s program for individuals with intellectual disabilities–and I knew once the movie was over, our schedule for the trip was completed, and I’d say goodbye to my new friends and head home. Something about the film did me in though, and as it came to a close, I just sat in the dark and cried–could barely pull myself together enough to even rifle through my purse for a Kleenex.
I tried to explain it to my friend Liz later that night. “I couldn’t stop crying, Liz. I don’t even know. It just hit me, you know–how hard and isolating it can be to have a disability. How beautiful it is to find something that makes life better (in the movie, it was photography). Our girls–what they’ll face in life. How lucky I feel to get to be a part of this. How guilty I feel for how much pity I feel. My own prejudices. The responsibility. The opportunity we have to help. It’s just SO MUCH. I don’t even know how to feel, you know? I just–” And then I did that horrible thing I do where, when I can’t find the words, I keep talking rather than stop talking, and it’s really quite awful–the recording of which I’m sure I’d be assigned to listen on repeat if there was a hell and I was there.
The truth is, there are lots of times where I feel completely lost in how to feel about all of this, in how to prepare, in how to parent, in how to process experiences, in how to advocate.
But I always return to what’s never lost–my driving force, my standard against which I weigh all the things–and perhaps it was the word I was trying to find last night when explaining why I cried my way through the documentary.
I just feel love.
In the most overwhelming sense that it consumes me. For the people in the movie. For kids who just want to fit in. For anyone whose disability challenges what they really want in life. And for Nella. Sweet mother of all things holy, for this girl I love so much.
Right before I left for Nashville, I popped in the girls’ bedroom to say goodbye. With Nella snuggled in on one side and Lainey tucked in to the other, I told them where I was going.
“Remember Ruby’s mama? Remember what I told you she does? She helps people who have Down syndrome go to college if they want to. Don’t you think that’s awesome? Well we’re going to go visit them and see their classes and talk to them about how much fun they’re having and what they’re learning.” Lainey smiled her shy smile–the one I can predict now for conversations like this–and Nella? Well, she reached up and touched my cheek. Locked her eyes on mine just like she did when she was born–like she knows everything there is to know, even the things I haven’t figured out yet. And then she kissed me….
…and another little part of me I hadn’t realized was sleeping came alive.
There. That’s it. Those are the words I was looking for. That movie, this week, the people I’ve met on this journey and all their stories I’ve been learning these past six years–they’ve awakened parts of me that were sleeping. And though that awakening brings responsibility and sometimes makes me sad, I promise you it’s far more fulfilling to live fully awake. I want to keep looking for more sticks to stir up all the bioluminescence in the world so it glows as bright as it can be. Pardon me, I just saw The Good Dinosaur, and the firefly scene kind of stuck.
This morning, after a few days peeking into the future of possibility for Nella, I couldn’t wait to hug her. “Let’s go get Nella early from school,” I told my dad when he picked me up at the airport. That is, of course, after he made fun of my thrifted suitcase. I was holding my suitcase, waiting for him to pull up, and–not noticing he was already there–I looked down at my phone to see a text from him: “Maria von Trapp called. She wants her suitcase back.”
It feels good be home, a little more awake than when I left. We have a lot of work to do, and next week I’ll tell you all about the trip and how you can play a very important role in awakening the sleeping parts.
You know what was in this girl’s school bag last night?
A paper with her new site word…CAN. She had to circle all the places she saw CAN on the paper, and they were everywhere. So many circles. CAN CAN CAN CAN CAN.
How much we can do when we’re fully awake. Now go get a cup of coffee. Happy Thursday, friends. Thanks for tagging along.