40: Stepping Out with Gail

40: Stepping Out with Gail

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Family Caregivers

Stepping Out with Gail

Sometimes questions are more important than answers.

~Nancy Willard, quoted in The Meaning of Life, compiled by Hugh S. Moorhead

My Reeboks awaken from their winter hibernation. It was a long, cold, and snowy New England winter. Although it is not quite spring, the weather has eased a bit so that I can resume my daily walk.

In the room next door, I can hear my sister Gail rummaging through her closet trying to locate her sneakers as well. “Are you ready?” I call out to Gail.

“I’m ready,” she answers.

As we step out the door, I notice that Gail’s jacket is not zipped closed and the lace on her left sneaker is loose. I quickly remedy this, and we begin our walk.

There is an eight-year difference in our ages. Actually, the age difference is much greater. Gail is developmentally disabled. Although she is 46 years old, she has the enthusiasm and curiosity of a young child and functions at about the level of a six-year-old.

We have a usual route that we take for our walks. Any walk with Gail includes a running barrage of questions.

We pass several people walking their dogs. “What kind of dog is that?” she asks.

“It’s a German Shepherd,” I say.

“Is it a boy or a girl?” asks Gail.

Granted, I’ve never seen this animal or its owner before, but Gail needs an answer from her big sister. To Gail, I am a fountain of all knowledge, and I do my best to provide the information—even if I do so with a little white lie.

“It’s a girl,” I say.

“What’s her name?” says Gail.

“Gloria,” I say. A few minutes later, we pass another dog, and Gail asks the same three questions. “Pug. Boy. Toby,” is my rapid reply.

Babies are another of Gail’s interests. Each baby she sees gets a smile. After they pass us, Gail always asks, “How old is that baby?”

I do my best to estimate the age of the baby. “Eight months old.”

I could say any number. The actual number is unimportant, as she doesn’t have a clear understanding of what various numbers mean. She simply wants answers to her questions.

I don’t know when or how Gail and I ended up bonding so tightly. I think our chemistry was a gradual process that began in childhood and blossomed throughout the years. It may have started when she was a toddler and occasionally would have a mild seizure. I was a kid myself and didn’t understand what was going on. I just knew Gail was in distress. I would sit by her side and hold her hand until the seizure passed. I guess that’s when I started being a family caregiver.

Gail is thankful for even the smallest gesture. Little things like buying a package of her favorite brand of cookies. Hunkering down on the couch on a rainy afternoon and watching a movie together. Spontaneously singing and dancing in the living room when a popular song plays on the radio. No matter what it is, it brings a smile to her face.

I’m not pretending that there aren’t challenges to being the caregiver to 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’s happy. I don’t have a magic wand that can make everything better for Gail, but I try to make sure she has a good life.

Because of her developmental limitations, there can be some moments of frustration for both of us. Sometimes I can’t figure out what’s going on in her head, and she can’t always express her thoughts clearly, which often leads to some tears. But her feelings are easily soothed.

As we pass a gnarly-looking tree, Gail suggests, “That tree looks like the one in the scary movie with the little girl.”

The computer in my brain turns on and starts running through all the scary movies we’ve watched. “You mean Poltergeist?”

“You’re right. You’re right!” she says, delighted that I filled in the blank for her.

After we’ve walked about a mile or so, we turn around, and the questions resume. We pass a gray house, and Gail wants to know who lives there. We hear an airplane overhead, and Gail wants to know where it’s going.

“There’s those little men dogs,” says Gail as two Jack Russell Terriers pass by with their owner.

“What’s that squirrel doing?” Gail asks.

“He’s looking for food,” I answer.

“He must be hungry,” says Gail. “Does he like spaghetti and meatballs?”

“No,” I say. “He likes nuts.”

After a walk with Gail, I feel like the smartest kid in the class because I’m able to answer all her questions. And that’s all she really wants—just someone to connect with. Isn’t that what we all want?

As much as she enjoys our walks, I think I get more from our relationship and time spent together than she does. Gail will never fully understand that going for a walk with her is quite simply the best part of my day.

~Maryanne Curran

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