O M G I ’ M A G UARDIAN! !
It’s not a role I ever planned for, but a couple of Mondays ago, I sat in a courtroom and agreed to take legal responsibility for another human being. It happened so gradually and painlessly that when asked if I was willing to accept the guardianship, I almost told the judge no - panicking, I searched my memory: how did I get here, what does this mean? It certainly scares the daylights out of me, this guardian thing, but I must add that it is also (already) bringing me a certain measure of happiness.
I should mention that my protégée, if that’s the word, is a 32 year old high school graduate, but like so many children with disabilities she was under-educated, to such an extent that she currently reads at about a third-grade level. Her multiple disabilities have not impacted that razor-sharp mind of hers or her sassy take on the world, which she observes from a place of distant, dry irony.
“Okay,” I told her after the hearing as we chatted outside the courthouse in the Au- gust heat. “I’m Batman and you’re Robin.”
That was enough to dissolve both of us in laughter in spite of the fact that the hearing, which had also accepted a petition for dissolution of the role from her previous guardian, had left the two of us shaky and teary.
Truth to tell, though, that’s about how we perceive our relationship at the moment. We both asked for it, and we got it, and now we’re not sure what to do with it. But there’s good will and even love on both sides. Her name is Amanda, and the story of how I came to be appointed her guardian starts three years ago, when I was director of a five-county service center of the American Red Cross and Mandy, as I call her, came every Wednesday morning to address postcards and shred paper for us. I quickly came to look forward to our brief conversations as she sat in the kitchen of the converted cottage that served as the service center office. I sometimes had trouble understanding Mandy, but the effort to do so is well worth it. I discovered right away that she always had something on her mind and that she had no difficulty sharing it and her opinion about it.
I found out, on our morning chats, that Mandy is a huge fan of wrestling and for certain (very buff) wrestlers; she has a boyfriend, Joey; she adores pizza, and she has very little patience with whiners. Despite her physical disabilities, she inhabits a broad mental and spirit cosmos, and I found myself looking forward to her take on the world. In a word, we became Friends.
“Am I a brat?” she asked me one Wednesday as I refilled my coffee cup for the nth time.
Had I already taken a sip of the hot liquid I’m sure I’d have done a classic Mel Brooks spit take. But I hadn’t, so I gamely replied, “What’s a brat and why do you think you might be one?”
“People call me that all the time,” she said. “I guess it’s somebody loud and annoying.”
“So you consider yourself loud and annoying?”
She shook her head vehemently. “I stand up for myself,” she corrected me. “Some people don’t like that.”
I took the bait: “Why don’t they like that?”
She was ready. “They’re brats,” she chortled.
Color me hooked on her sly sense of humor. I began to try to shelter those Wednesday mornings with Mandy, to such an extent that I would be disappointed when floods, fires and tornadoes took me away from the office and interfered with our little sessions. One Wednesday when Mandy rolled herself in to the Red Cross office, there was a marked change. Her eyes were downcast. Her chin quivered. She sighed a lot as she bent over the stack of blank postcards and the computer printout of CPR experts due for refresher courses.
Her printing became more labored, more illegible. Her demeanor, over a period first of weeks and then of months, became more and more dejected and depressed. “She’s on a lot of painkillers,” one caretaker informed me when I inquired about the change. “There are always mood swings in these situations.”
But the situation persisted. Months rolled by. Mandy might or might not appear. If she did, she was distracted, teary-eyed - just not at all her plucky, irreverent self. I had already learned a little of her back-story. Her parents both died early, in their 40s. They had appointed a family friend who was also a teacher of Mandy’s as guardian and executor. Over time, situations morphed and alliances dete- riorated. The end result, without taking any sides as to who might have been responsible, was that Mandy was ejected from the modest home in which she was born and grew up, and dispatched to a group home in far-away (30 miles south) Macon.
Brothers and teachers, I pondered, Who is helping this young woman? I stewed for months on end, watching Mandy grow grimmer and more distant, before raising my hand and asking, Who is helping this person?
Long story short, a lot of people loved her and wanted to help her, and some people wanted to help her but didn’t necessarily love her. Money was involved, because as a Medicaid beneficiary Mandy was in need of and qualified for intensive daily care. But all of those who lined up behind her and tried to understand and assist with her situation soon learned that many of Mandy’s friends and advocates were merely people who hoped to make a buck from taking care of her.
Thanks to a wonderful non-profit organization called Citizen