Even mermaids grow up
As a teenage girl confidently maps out her future, her mom wonders if any of it can come true.
By DONNA WINCHESTER
Published March 29, 2007
Off stage, in a sterile, white tile restroom, her little girl is busy becoming someone else.
Pam McGeorge isn't there to see it, but she knows it's happening.
Emily stands in front of the mirror and shakes her sandy blond ponytail free from its plastic clip. She straps on two white clamshells over her pink sweater. She pulls on a stretchy purple fish tail with pink and green sequins that shimmer when she walks.
Finally, she sets a silver cardboard crown on her head, checks herself in the mirror, and strikes a pose.
It's show time for the Little Mermaid.
* * *
Pam has already made three trips to Nina Harris Exceptional Student Education Center to see the play. She's driving back a fourth time because Emily, her Down's syndrome daughter, has asked her to.
Emily can be like that. She wants what she wants when she wants it.
Just like most 18-year-olds.
Back home, Emily has a closet full of clothes. She has a TV set, a DVD player and a karaoke machine. Tucked into the frame of her mirror is a certificate that recognizes her as captain of the cheerleading squad and another attesting to her participation in a districtwide art show.
But for a while now, Emily has been looking toward the future.
She wants to get her driver's license. She wants to go to college. She wants to get married and have two babies. She'll name the girl baby Pam, after her mom, and she'll name the boy baby Gordon, after her dad.
Pam wonders how much of that will really happen.
Emily can't find her way home from school on her own. She doesn't know how to tell time. She frequently struggles to find the right word, and she'll probably never read as well as an average second-grader.
In May, when she graduates from Nina Harris, she'll receive a "special" diploma rather than a standard diploma, the kind colleges require.
Pam has no idea how she'll explain all of that to a daughter who still believes in Santa Claus.
"That's the innocence of her," Pam says. "I can't break her heart."
Pam realizes it will take more than a change of clothes and a cardboard crown to transform Emily from a child into an adult.
* * *
On the afternoon of Emily's next-to-last performance, Pam arrives at school in time to take a seat with a handful of other parents in the art room. A group of students scoot up as close as they can get to the stage. Medically fragile children in wheelchairs line the aisles.
The lights go low. A teacher assistant leans in to a blind girl and explains that the Little Mermaid has just taken center stage.
Pam's first thought when she sees Emily in the spotlight is how pretty her daughter looks with lipstick on. She marvels at how self-confident she appears. She offers up a silent prayer of thanks that she raised Emily to know she was different from other kids, but different in a good way.
The music starts and Emily begins circumnavigating the room, making swimming movements with her arms. She comes within touching distance of her mom once, twice, three times.
Pam keeps her arms close to her sides and listens to the words of an old Beatles song.
We would be warm, below the storm
In our little hideaway beneath the waves
Resting our head, on the sea bed
In an octopus' garden near a cave.
It's a perfect role for Emily. She could stay at Nina Harris, her safe place, until she's 22. But she knows 18 is the age at which other girls graduate and go out into the world, find a prince and live happily ever after.
Pam hopes her little girl is ready.
On stage, the lights flash off and on, simulating a storm. A cardboard ship, carried across the stage by two students, gets tossed about. The handsome prince tumbles into the sea.
* * *
Over the years, Emily has surprised Pam. About a year and a half ago, Emily excused herself to go to the restroom at Sam Seltzer's Steakhouse and came back to the table with a job application. Before they left the restaurant, the manager had hired Emily to roll silverware on weekends.
Since then, Emily has learned to endorse her paychecks and deposit them in the bank. She uses the money to pay her own cell phone bill.
Pam and Gordon have been talking about adding on to their house. If they build Emily an apartment, maybe she'll be satisfied, Pam thinks. Maybe that will give her the independence she's looking for while keeping her close by, safe.
Pam also has begun wondering if Emily could handle culinary school. Or maybe she could take a course at a technical institute.
Whenever she thinks like that for long, Pam gets nervous. She remembers what it was like when she and Gordon sent Emily to a "regular" middle school the year before they enrolled her at Nina Harris.
The kids there were cruel, Pam says. They talked Emily into doing things like squirting people with ketchup in the cafeteria. When she got in trouble, the kids would laugh at her.
"It's like taking care of a baby bird," she says of raising a child with special needs. "When an animal isn't perfect, it's taken under the mother's wing. It's just instinct."
* * *
Back in the art room, the evil sea witch, enraged that the prince is falling in love with the Little Mermaid, puts on a wedding dress and serenades the prince with the Little Mermaid's beautiful stolen voice.
Pam mourns with the Little Mermaid as the prince leaves her side, drops to his knees, and asks the sea witch to marry him. She cheers as a school of fish expose the sea witch for what she is, and toss her into the depths.
Pam wishes she could fight all of Emily's battles for her. But she knows in many ways, Emily is strong enough to stand up for herself. She has seen her do it with her three older brothers. She has seen her do it with herself and Gordon.
She gets misty-eyed watching the prince turn to the Little Mermaid and ask her to marry him. She leans forward as they stand hand in hand and sing an old song from her high school days.
Spring is here, the sky is blue
Birds all sing like they do
Today's the day we'll say I do
And we'll never be lonely anymore. From her seat in the next-to-the-last row, Pam watches Emily curtsy and throw kisses to the audience. She hears the narrator assure the audience that the Little Mermaid will live happily ever after.
Pam allows herself to believe it could be true.
Donna Winchester can be reached at 727 893-8413 or firstname.lastname@example.org.