What Florence Taught Me
When I was fifteen years old, not only did I get the amazing privilege of getting to be an exchange student, I got the opportunity to get to know a very special person. My host mother’s oldest daughter Florence was mentally handicapped. They didn’t have any diagnosis for her condition. She had the mental capacity of a four or five year old, but her speech was very limited. She was very attached to routine. She would get extremely distressed if my host father did not put his slippers on immediately after dinner, or if his cigarettes weren’t sitting perfectly squared on top of the television.
Florence was obsessed with her younger sister. My youngest host sister, Marie is the same age as me. Florence always wanted to know where her younger sister was and what she was doing. She followed Marie all over the house when she was home and it drove her absolutely crazy. My host mother tried to explain that Florence had trouble conceptualizing the passage of time and in some ways it seemed that she still believed Marie was a baby. The same way that she was, the first time Florence ever saw her, when she was brought home from the hospital.
I never understood anything about living in a family with a mentally handicapped person before I got to do it. I think that Florence had taught my entire family a great deal more about patience and anger control and gratefulness than people with normal families are forced to learn. I discovered that laughing at the handicap itself was a survival method to the members of my family, especially Marie. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. I know that it may sound that way, but laughter can heal a whole lot of pain.
Marie did a fantastic impersonation of her older sister, and sometimes when we were out and about she would spot a handicapped phone booth. They have these all over the place in Europe. My sister would always instantly fly into her impression of Florence, loudly and intentionally, in front of others. Back then; it was incredibly embarrassing for me, especially the first time that it happened. Now I understand it though. Marie needed that fun and laughter to ease her pain. It can’t be easy knowing that your parents are not going to live forever, and that one day you may be the one and only person around to care for your older sibling.
People living in families dealing with a mentally handicapped child deserve so much consideration and support from the rest of their community. I don’t think that many people know how hard life is some days for people in those families. Sometimes mental illness is a part of the lives of people much more functional than Florence was. Sometimes the handicapped family member is mean and angry and cruel. Imagine how guilty you would feel to have anger towards a handicapped person, but be constantly preventing yourself from addressing it because you know that it is the cause of their handicap, not their heart.
I got to go for a walk with Florence by myself one day. She was incredibly curious about the fact that I loved to go on walks all of the time, so one day I offered to take her along with me. We held hands the whole time, she was a little nervous about the new experience. We didn’t talk. We had to go very slowly up and down the curbs because she had very weak depth perception, and was afraid of falling. She has always remembered that day. When I went back to visit six or seven years later, she kept reminding everyone of the day that she and I had gone on a walk. I am crying as I write this. She taught me a lot, and I am immensely grateful that I have gotten a chance to know her. Merci Florence.