From Chicken Soup for the Father & Daughter Soul

Sour Pickle

Tis not enough to help the feeble up, but to support him after.

William Shakespeare

“I’m absolutely not going to be caretaker,” Jarred* stated adamantly. “She’s just going to have to go into a home.”

Paula* had agonized over it and talked with her husband, Jarred, for the whole of their fifteen years of marriage, until they’d shelve it. But it was always there, blinking like a Las Vegas neon sign. They tried to figure out solutions, create “what ifs” and make reasonable plans. They worried about what would happen when nature commanded, and responsibility and duty would impel resolution.

Paula felt responsible, even though she was not blood kin, often discussing her distress with her mother and me.

“I just don’t know what we’re going to do!” she’d lament.

Aggie, Jarred’s sister, had been born late in his life and grew “strange.” For his mother, this daughter was an untouchable, a never-to-be-discussed secret that was crammed into the closet, along with her guilt. She hid the girl from most of society, bending only to go out for weekly groceries, lunch with her son and daughter-in-law, and church. By keeping her away from everybody, the mother was, in some tangled way, cloaking her daughter’s existence from the world, her husband and mostly herself. For thirty years Jarred’s father, who by everyone’s account was as sour as a pickle and equally remote, was not allowed to interact with and clearly showed no interest in this other human being who occupied space in his house. Aggie was terrified of this stranger who was her father. The couple had no friends or family, except Jarred and Paula.

Then the impossible happened. Jarred’s mother had a stroke and died. Absolutely certain that their father would completely fail in caring for this strange daughter, Jarred and Paula were fraught with new agonies about Aggie’s future.

As the weeks passed, Jarred and Paula spent countless hours up at the little house, but then something amazing began to happen without the counsel or direction of either of them. The father began to take control of a situation he’d never been privy to in three decades. First, he contacted the retarded citizens associations in town to get direction and help for himself and for Aggie. Next, he made an appointment for a complete physical for her, the only one she’d ever had. He was soon told that rather than being a “strange” human, she was a very high-functioning Down’s syndrome person, in need of glasses and hearing aids.

“I could never talk to her; I had to shout,” Paula declared. “Now, she actually answers questions and converses, instead of saying something completely off the wall. We all thought she was goofy coming up with totally inappropriate sentences. She couldn’t hear, for gosh sakes, and she was just trying to be a part of conversations! And she’s as nearsighted as a bat!”

We all simply shook our heads, contemplating the years Aggie had spent with that cloistered, well-meaning but frightened mother who was acting out of some misplaced sense of love and duty. In the coming months Aggie bloomed. She began reading simple books and developed a wonderful sense of humor. People heard her laugh for the first time. Paula and Jarred looked forward to being around her and, wonder of wonders, that sour-pickle dad now showed a sense of humor. After a lifetime of noncommunication, things were thawing. Often father and daughter were out and about just hanging around with each other, going to the zoo, museums, just about anything. Aggie made such swift strides that, with her father’s help, she was placed in a group situation, got a job, held it, and found friends for the first time in her life.

Then another bombshell dropped on the family: The father developed brain cancer. Again, Jarred and Paula agonized about what they would do, how they should take control, banging all the old, tired what-ifs around while they cared for the dying old man. They planned to take Aggie because they were all she had.

Grief-stricken when the father they’d just begun to know and love died, Jarred and Paula moved in to take control of Aggie, but were dumbstruck to be told by their father’s lawyer that everything had been set in place months back. With mouths agape, they listened as the attorney conveyed information from the will. The home that had been almost a prison to Aggie, and later the place where father and daughter had at last found each other, had been deeded to the Association of Retarded Citizens. It carried the stipulation that as long as Aggie lived, it would always be her home.

Today, eight special people and their helpers live together happily. They keep house, which Aggie’s mother taught her to do brilliantly. They garden. They shop. They live full and meaningful lives for and with each other.

Last year, Aggie began to show a remarkable talent for illustration and painting with watercolor. Some of her landscapes and flowers, delicate and full of subtle color, are displayed and sold at the Association of Retarded Citizens’ functions and have been used on the covers of their publications.

Jarred and Paula often take Aggie out to suppers, movies, plays and community events. Jarred is so grateful he had time to get to know his little sister, who is learning a mean game of checkers—and his dad, a “sour pickle” who showed the sweet relish of a dad’s love for his daughter.

Isabel Bearman Bucher

*Names have been changed.

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