Thursday, April 23, 2009
Terrell Harris never expected that the beautiful baby sister born on that stormy March day would be different from the other children in the neighborhood, but as she ducks a flying chicken thrown at her by her sister in the supermarket isle many years later, she reflects back on her life with Irene by her side. As youngsters, the girls' parents struggled to give them the most joyful life possible. For Terrell, that meant going to the theater, taking horseback riding lessons and learning to ice skate. For Irene, things weren't that simple. Functioning at the mental level of a three year old, Irene grows up throwing dangerous tantrums and is unable to learn to read or write. Her disability forces her personality into disarray and she is in constant need of attention and affection. All the while, her loving family strives to give her the least restrictive and most fulfilling life possible, knowing that to do otherwise would be a grave disservice to the little girl who touches so many lives in the community and at home. Advised to institutionalize Irene, both her parents refuse and begin the long fight to create agencies and programs for the handicapped in their community. Their desire is to create a safe place for people like Irene to go to school, have friends and adjust to the rigors of normal life. Working tirelessly, they spearhead campaigns, speak to governors and senators and fight against the state for control of their daughter's future. In the process, they meet other parents who are going through the same situations with their handicapped children.
As their parents begin to age, Terrell steps into their shoes and begins to selflessly devote herself to giving her sister a normal life. But Irene can be stubborn, and sometimes doesn't want the things that her family wants for her. And so begins the struggle between the sisters, for each has their own interpretations of the ideal life for Irene. But this is not a sorrowful story, for Irene is a natural comedian and loves to endlessly thwart those around her. Whether she is inviting the firemen over to partake of her lemonade stand, holding a secret garage sale, or stealing the show by announcing for the seventeenth time this month that it is her birthday, Irene remains engaged and engaging. She is inspired, confident and headstrong, and by some strange turn of events, she teaches those around her to live with meaning and substance, proving time and time again that one can never underestimate those who we think are different.
I have to say that this is by far the best memoir I have read over the past two years. The courage and tenacity of Terrell and her family's reaction to Irene's handicap stunned and moved me. I can't imagine being as brave as these people were, and the fact that they fought to such extremes is both impressive and inspiring to say the least. Terrell makes no bones about how difficult it can be to look after Irene, and her uncompromising honesty is the glue that holds this book together. To me, Irene sounds like a card, and I laughed with glee at her antics and behaviors. I especially like her adamant refusal to change her Mickey Mouse socks, even when going to a formal event, or her sly attempts at sneaking junk food whenever she can get her hands on it. But underneath all that, there must have been some really frightening times for this family. I think back to the time when she was lost somewhere in the bus terminal, and her family didn't know if she was on a bus halfway across the country or just hidden in a bathroom playing with her dolls. I think about the times when her tantrums cause her to injure herself, or when she is violent with other people, and I marvel at the fortitude that her family shows when the unthinkable becomes the everyday.
Terrell goes on to explain that her husband and children all look after Irene with the same love and attention that she has demonstrated, and that, too, warms my heart. It was angering to see how little support was given to the families of handicapped children at that time in the United States. It seems that everyone thought the best thing to do was to lock them up and forget about them, and changing this was an uphill struggle all the way. But the Harris family had other solutions. Using behavior modification, they manage to get Irene to comply with many things and they strive continuously to improve the quality of her life with new and inventive methods that others had never even thought of.
Another wonderful thing about this book was the strong undercurrent of feeling running through it. Whether Terrell was tired, frustrated, elated or dejected, she never spared her truth and forthrightness, and that was something that elevated this book in to the must-read category. This is not a woman who sits around feeling sorry for herself, this is a woman who sees the path she is on,and marches straight downit with a resolute strength that many would not have. Although Irene is a handful, and sometimes her life seems a never-ending set of trials, Terrell maintains her plucky attitude and stays the course. Did I mention that in the intervening time she has made a name for herself with a weekly newspaper column? Well she has, along with raising a family, helping her parents, and lobbying for the mentally handicapped. Terrell also has an extremely humorous presence on the page, at times laugh out loud funny and at times quietly amusing. She seems to have the gift of portraying everything with just the right touch of levity. This book was written both cleverly and deeply, and there were times I wanted to laugh as well as cry.
Please don't just take my word for it, go out and get this book and see for yourself! As I have said before, it is a must read in the category of memoirs, and I would highly recommend it to all types of readers. The story told within these pages is an honest and awe inspiring tale of one family's love for each other, and it was such a pleasure to read. One day I hope to get a chance to tell the author of this book how much this story touched me, and how wonderful I think she and Irene really are. A stellar read.