By Maryanne Curran
The hostess seats the two of us at a booth. The restaurant is fairly quiet – just a handful of other diners are there. We are late for lunch, but early for dinner. I’m not sure what to call a meal at this time of day.
My dining partner is Gail, my sister and best friend. We are not Foodies. Our tastes run to simple fare like the type of meals you can find at chain restaurants. I suppose that makes us Chainies. Give us a good burger, chicken teriyaki, or the like, and we’re happy.
As soon as I tell Gail that we are going out to eat, she starts smiling. She loves going out to eat.
Strangers often mistake us for mother and daughter. Although, there is only an eight-year difference in our ages, Gail looks considerably younger. Gail is developmentally disabled and functions at about the level of a six-year-old. She has a sweetness and simplicity to her face that makes her look far younger than she is. That coupled with the fact that I speak for Gail and order her meal along with mine, would make any new acquaintances assume this is a maternal relationship, and not a sisterly one.
Eating out with Gail is a fun activity for both of us. But it does require me to serve up an extra helping of patience, because Gail uses the time to pose an endless litany of questions and comments before, during, and after our meal.
Sometimes, it feels like Gail is Perry Mason cross-examining me on the witness stand asking me one question after another.
I answer her questions as best I can. Sometimes my answers are not completely truthful – but I have to phrase my responses in ways that Gail can easily comprehend. Because of our relationship, Gail trusts me and what I say to her. To Gail, I am a fountain of all knowledge, and I do my best to provide the information.
Once we have placed our order is when the questions begin. “What’s her name?” asks Gail about our server.
I can’t remember what the server said. “I’ll find out when she comes back,” is my response.
When our server returns in a few minutes, I check her badge. After she leaves, I say, “Her name is Diane.”
“That’s a good name,” says Gail. “Where does she live?”
I’ve just met this woman. I’m not going to ask her where she lives like some kind of creepy stalker. I always tell Gail that the server lives in the same town as the restaurant is. It’s a guess. But it’s probably a good one.
“How old is she?” asks Gail. That question is a little easier.
“Thirty-four,” I guess.
I could say that our server was 16 or 66. The actual number is unimportant, as Gail doesn’t have a clear understanding of what various numbers mean. When asked how old she is, Gail often says the wrong number.
For the most part, Gail’s questions are simple ones. Occasionally, she poses a question that is not so black-and-white. It’s the gray questions that stretch my sisterly caregiving skills thin.
In particular, Gail’s questions about the whereabouts of our parents are an going exercise in patience for me. Our mother passed away in 2008; dad followed a few years. Gail knows that our parents are gone and now reside in a place called heaven.
Gail thinks heaven is like the mall and wonders why her mom and dad can’t drive back to see her. I try to provide consistency when answering these particular questions and choose words that are easy for her to understand. But it can be difficult to explain a spiritual concept to someone who sees things as simply as Gail does.
Thankfully, today’s questions are her standard ones and easy enough to answer to satisfy Gail. When our meals arrive, Gail starts eating and enjoying her meal. As I watch her, I’m struck by how lucky I am to have Gail in my life.
Lucky? You? (I can almost hear the disbelief as you read these words.) Yes, I’m lucky to have Gail in my life.
I’m not pretending that there aren’t challenges to caring for an adult with special needs. Every day, there are issues that cause me concern. I worry about her safety. I worry that she is healthy. I worry that others will be kind to her. Most of all, I worry that she is happy. I try to make sure she has a good life.
My friends sometimes wonder about how I handle caring for Gail, 24/7. It’s easy. When you love someone as much as I love my sister Gail. The joyous moments that we share together outweigh any challenges that we may face.
Occasionally, I wonder what my life may have been like if Gail was not in it. I would have been a very different person, most certainly. Because of our relationship, the positive attributes that make up my character make me a better person.
Because of Gail, Santa Claus lives, rainbows make me smile, and I know what unconditional love is.
Maryanne Curran is a freelance writer from Lexington, Mass. When not exploring new places to walk with her sister, Maryanne enjoys reading, traveling, and spending time with family and friends.