Today I write from the midst of the Holiday Season. Around here we are gearing up for our annual tromp through the woods in search of the perfect wild tree, though there are some in the family who are vying for a well-groomed farm tree this year. We drive through town spotting Christmas displays, all three kids wishing we could be a little more like those families who go all out with inflatables and lights tracing every window. It’s a season for sledding and snowball fights with whatever traces of snow we get, and hot cocoa in front of the fire to warm up. My son is furiously circling things in the Christmas toy catalogs that just keep coming, and my daughter starts every morning amazed once again by lights strung around the living room, clasping her hands in front of her and breathing, “Mom, Christmas is coming! It’s almost here!”
But with the excitement, there are also worries. It’s our first Christmas without my husband’s grandmother, the mightiest of family matriarchs, and I worry the sadness we all feel will overshadow our celebrations. I worry that I’ll give in to the consumer craze and buy my kids too much, but will somehow still miss the one thing that would mean the most to them. This year we are having a small Christmas, with just the people who know our kids best, so I’m not too worried about the other stresses that arise when families get together this time of year – that eternal parental fear of being judged as a parent, of my kids’ foibles and quirks being misunderstood, of someone’s great aunt’s neighbor uttering some room-silencing, dated, ignorant thing about my daughter, of the roomful of teenagers talking and laughing together, one of them shouting out for all to hear, “Dude, that’s so retarded!”
Yes, the r-word, the outdated beliefs about disability, they well-intentioned but oh-so off-putting comments. I think we have all experienced this, whether in our own families, or out at some community event, a work holiday party or just pushing a shopping cart through Target. When I have moments like these – thankfully few and far between, and rarely from someone I love – I try to take a moment to remind myself that before I had Adara in my life, I, too, was capable of the grossest of gaffs. I, too, have said unkind things at the expense of people with disabilities, of people like my daughter and the dozens of incredible people she has brought into my life.
So, in the spirit of truth, I want to share a true story from my past. It’s not a story I’m proud of, but it’s one I hold onto, to help me remember the time before we had Adara, before she began to work her magic on this world. I post this with my big brother’s permission, and the name of my North Carolina friend has been changed.
The Sofa King
One gray day fifteen years ago I showed up at my mom’s house for Thanksgiving and was greeted by my brother Fabian, a scrap of paper in his hand, the smell of roasting turkey and wood heat wafting out the door around his grinning bald head. He handed me the paper as I walked in the door and watched me as I shook off the road and puzzled my way through his chicken-scratch.
“You have to read it out loud, Ab,” he said, with that big brother look in his eye that let me know I was being tested.
“I’m. we. Todd. did. I’m. sofa. king. we. Todd. did,” I read haltingly. I looked back at him, bewildered, only to be met with that same grin that had greeted me at the door.
“Not bad. Read it again.”
“I’m weetoddid. I’m sofa-king weetoddid.” It all clicked together suddenly. “Oh man, that’s awful, Fabe!” I groaned at the political incorrectness of it all, but it was funny. And clever. And so I laughed and closed the door against the November damp and went into the kitchen to help with dinner and settle in for a few days at home. That weekend, Sofa King entered the Braithwaite family vernacular, thrown out at someone who made a bad cribbage play or tripped over a door jamb and dropped five pounds of buttery mashed potatoes on the floor.
My family is clever, you see, and words are our specialty. Growing up, family reunions invariably turned toward pun-offs between my uncle Jeff and my uncle Colin, with the rest of us throwing in the best we could muster. Getting a laugh from the masters was a rite of passage of sorts.
Even my grandmother’s wake dissolved into our very own absurdist version of the dictionary game, after all but family and a few closest friends had nibbled and sipped and slipped away. Those of us who were left sat crowded into the long narrow living room of Colin and Deb’s row house, second cousins piled on laps on the sofa, my dad using the back of my chair to hold himself upright after an afternoon of grieving and scotch.
“We could play the dictionary game,” someone suggested into the tired silence that had fallen.
“What’s that?” asked my aunt Deb, a silver-haired school librarian. “Someone opens up the dictionary and says what page they’re on and the rest of us have to guess the first word on the page?”
Everyone laughed and then damn, if that’s not what we did for the next hour or two. We passed the tattered lap-sized Merriam Webster around the room, taking it in turn to open to a random page, read out a page number, and leave everyone to orient themselves in the minutia of the English Language. Hints came one letter at a time and the guesser was left to keep the letters in order in their head to make their way to the answer. Sometimes the peanut gallery helped, sometimes collectively distracted, but somehow the word was guessed every time. Fifteen years later one need only say, “Ent-hu-siasm” at a family gathering to bring everyone together in a moment of shared remembering.
Yes, we were clever, words were our thing, and I made a point of sharing our cleverness with whatever friends I deemed worthy of such elevated humor, and the Sofa King script joined “Defeat of deduct went over defense before detail” in my arsenal of quick wit.
I decided to try the Sofa King on my friend Angelique one day. She didn’t exactly wear her heart or her humor on her sleeve, but she had more integrity than anyone I had ever met, and getting a smile out of her was a daily challenge. She rented a room in the house I shared with a handful of co-workers, just on the edge of the state forest where we worked in a wilderness therapy program. We took troubled teens out into the woods to let nature and survival skills work their magic and gallows humor was par for the course, especially when we were off the trail, debriefing our two-week shifts over pizza and beer.
On this day, Angelique sat at the table eating a grapefruit, the morning sun filling the breakfast nook with North Carolina possibility. Six-foot frame, flowing blonde curls, she was the best solo hiker on our crew, and formidable in her silent stoicism.
I grabbed a cup of coffee and pulled a chair around. She looked up and offered a quiet hello, watched with mild interest while I grabbed a pencil and scrap of paper and scribbled a few quick lines, slid it across the table to her with a self-impressed grin on my face. Her eyes scanned the words on the paper, brow furrowed in concentration. Or so I thought.
That’s what furrowed the brows of most people who read it. I nudged her before I realized that she wasn’t confused. She had gotten it in one read and she was disgusted.
I took the paper back as she looked up at me, giving me her full regard for the first time that morning. “That’s not funny. You know, I have a friend; he bags my groceries. He is the funniest, kindest person I know, and he has Down syndrome. That’s just not funny.” I felt like I had been caught tearing the wings off a butterfly, and I shrunk away, no clever words slipping off my tongue now.
That was the last time I shared that joke, chastened by her earnest reprimand. But it’s not the last time I thought of it. Half a decade later, looking into my baby’s eyes as I digested the news of her diagnosis of Down syndrome, the little scrap of paper in the breakfast nook flashed in my memory, and the self-amusement turned into a deepest shame. Sofa King indeed.
When I asked my brother via email if he was ok with me sharing this, he answered almost immediately from his computer in England. “Yes you can put it out in the world because it is true,” he wrote. When I pressed, offering to change names he replied, “I am not proud of this, but I don’t need anonymity. Having Adara in the family has changed me and that is for the good.” I think sometimes about the ways Adara has changed our fast-paced, word-clever, somewhat cynical family over the past decade. She has helped us all slow down, think a little more deeply about our world and humanity, and about what matters. She’s also a wicked punster.