She doesn’t look it. But it’s true. Missy turns 40 this weekend.
There was a time when no one would have bet on 20.
For the folks who don’t regularly read this column, Missy is my wife’s aunt and our developmentally disabled ward. She’s also an unofficial sister, a friend, a co-conspirator, a reading buddy, and a daily inspiration. True, she’s sometimes an inspiration who has to be talked into brushing her teeth or going to bed on time, but we all have our moments.
Her challenges are twofold: a cerebral palsy that affects her balance and coordination, and brain damage she received in infancy that affects … well, just about everything else. Depending on the task and the circumstances, her approach may be that of a 4-year-old, a 14-year-old or, occasionally, the 40-year-old she’s about to be.
Her parents were warned early on: “Don’t expect to have her too long.” They didn’t listen. This was their girl and she was going to have a life, however difficult that life might sometimes be.
And what a life she’s had!
It no longer surprises me when I see a stranger wave and call out “Hi, Missy!” She has a busier social whirl than I could manage in three lifetimes, including bowling every week, softball every summer, regular trips across town with her day program and even the occasional rock-em-out dance. I fully expect to discover one of these days that she’s got Todd Helton’s phone number in one of her many bottomless red purses, somewhere between the folded-up Archie digests and the 17 soda-flavored lip gloss tubes.
The outer life has an inner life to match it, though it’s harder to see. She speaks rarely and often simply – “I wan’ eat the food,” maybe, or “I’m goin’ bowling.” But when we sit down to read, she becomes absorbed. She’s giggled at Tom Sawyer, cheered the victories of Harry Potter and even gotten wide-eyed at the perils of Bilbo Baggins, asking with deep concern “Where’s Gandalf?”
During the big flood, Missy resorted to one of her favorite outlets – painting, in wide splashes and careful streaks. The first two days of heavy rain saw her cover page after page with deep blue; when the weather broke and the shovels came out, her backdrops became mud-brown instead.
So much could have been missed. But she’s never quit. Nor have the people who love her.
That gives me hope.
Michael Crichton once wrote that “Life finds a way.” Biology seems to confirm that, discovering organisms in the hot springs of Yellowstone, or the acid of a worked-out gold mine, or 11 miles above the Earth’s surface. Anywhere that life can go on, it seems, life will go on.
And sometimes, like Missy, it thrives.
Maybe that persistence is true in more than just the physical sense. Maybe, just maybe, if we refuse to quit, hope can be stronger than despair. Can even outlast it.
It’s not easy, of course. Entropy is effortless, building requires work. That’s true whether you’re building a family or a nation. It’s the simplest thing in the world to accept the judgment, turn out the lights and walk away.
But if it’s worthwhile, it’s worth trying to save.
I won’t give up on Missy, even on days when her balance is poor or her temper is high.
I won’t give up on this country, even on days when the federal government hangs out a sign that says “Closed for Repairs.”
I won’t give up on so many things that matter so much to me.
And I know I have friends and family who are every bit as stubborn as I am.
We won’t win every fight. I know that. But if we at least fight every fight, we’ll know where the victories can be found. Even the ones that hide in unlikely places.
Every day can be a victory. And enough victories strung together can be a triumph.
This weekend, we celebrate 40 years of triumph.
Happy birthday, Missy. Enjoy the cake.
And don’t forget to brush your teeth afterward, OK?