I was spellbound watching the grace of skater Peggy Fleming in the 1968 Olympics. I was eight years old. It was the first time I saw a woman float, dance, leap, twirl, turn, dance, spin on actual ice. Our family grew up in Southern California playing baseball and basketball but ice-skating (watching it!) opened me up to a whole new world of what the human body in lyrical, technical self-expression could experience. This New York Times article jumped out…check out the photos. It’s like watching the ’68 Olympics, all over again. xoxo
A fertile revolution challenging the status quo carved the social landscape of the 1960s. The events that had us riveted to the TV mirrored another one experienced in my childhood home, albeit one with a quieter face. In 1966, My youngest brother was born with what was called Mongoloidism. Mental retardation wasn’t cause for marches on the street. It was hush-hush news.
The scientific explanation for Down syndrome echoes as a fait accompli: A genetic abnormality occurs in mitosis with an additional 21st chromosome, and this accounts for an array of intellectual and developmental challenges. As a kid that meant little, beguiled as I was by the poem my mother had placed next to my brother’s crib: A meeting was held far from the earth. It’s time again for another birth, said the angels to God above. This child will need much love.
I was in the second grade when Joe was born. My parents didn’t learn of his diagnosis for months—after all these babies had long been sent to institutions and forgotten. But it was the ‘60s; the times were changing; Joe came home to be with us—two brothers and two sisters. Still, I noticed how my father, a special agent for the FBI, started smoking more cigarettes at night as my mother shed tears in the privacy of our living room. My emotions went underground until my teacher, a concerned nun, phoned home one night. She asked my mother why I had become so sad.
Her phone call instigated what became the first, of many, Official Conlon Family Meetings, presided over by my mother. We had reached the switchback going from Life Before Joe to Life With Joe: My brother’s birth was considered by many a “tragedy.” Our mission, if we chose to accept it, was to discover what the tragedy masked with instinct as our only guide.
I don’t want to romanticize the landscape of “intellectual disability.” Such often-called “accidents of nature” can cause heartbreak. The boy you envisioned as a quarterback can’t tie his shoelaces until age ten. The girl who might become a rock star instead boards the bus for special school. Opportunities have widened for people like Joe. Still, these children are paradigm busters. You don’t hear about them in wedding vows. And mothers and fathers who do devote their lives to raising them worry about what will happen when parents are gone.
All I know is that back then, I was Joe’s sister. Sister of Joe, S-O-J, the sister who helped him brush his teeth and get into his PJs; who took him trick-or-treating; who cheered when he ran, very slowly, in track and field at the Special Olympics. Voted Most Quiet in the eighth grade, I was the “pathologically shy” girl and he the “severely retarded” boy. We were a team.
I learned to understand Joe by following his eyes and lips, interpreting his one-syllable, often indecipherable utterances using intuition, pantomime and, later, sign language. I discovered he could remember words if I sang him songs, so I’d play the piano and sing Sunshine on My Shoulders or It’s a Small World then pause. He’d reach for the missing word as if it were a star from the sky.
Plagued by my own shyness, I watched as Joe scattered joy. After school he’d stand on our corner sidewalk and wave HELLO! to every passing car. The drivers, coming home from work, might crack a smile, some rolling down their window and waving hi back to the Down syndrome boy. Joe approached people in restaurants, the super market, ballparks, and church, extending his eager handshake and uttering his clumsy hello. Nobody was a stranger.
My father the special agent was a gravely quiet and sometimes cynical man, but he fell in love with my brother—you might say he became obsessed with Joe—taking him for ice cream cones, or to the local playground so Joe could drive his motorized go cart. After biting into his sandwich one day, my father quipped that normal people were really the retarded ones. Perhaps his work in the shadowy underworld shaped his sentiment. But I could decipher my father’s words, too: Joe annihilated the walls we “normals” spent our lives constructing. Joe connected us to our hearts and taught us how to live in the moment.
After all these years, my parents long gone, Joe and I, still sing songs together even though we live 1000 miles apart. I call him on the phone and ask:
Okay! “Sunshine on my shoulders makes me…”
Even as our present day landscape reflects so many social clashes and the ever-pervasive fear of the other, I am grateful for the lesson I learned from Joe: that despite our vulnerabilities, or maybe because of them, the world needs us, you know, we so-called normal ones, to scatter joy, to reach out, and maybe offer our own version of a clumsy, hello.
I recently read a book entitled, Trauma and the Soul, written by Jungian analyst Donald Kalsched and learned that the word disaster, at its root, means to be separated from one’s star. Such a “dis-aster” might not be worth writing home about, unless it is our star within we’ve lost sight of.
I remember long ago as a teenager how I’d camp out in the backyard at night, all cozy on the lounge chair as I studied the array of stars overhead. I imagined the stars had voices and that they could sing, if only I would listen deeply enough.
By midnight, my mother, in her terry cloth robe would venture out, nudging me, gently, to head inside for bed. I hated leaving the night world—it was the natural place to ponder life’s big mysteries. Once when visiting nearby Seal Beach with friends, I stood in bare feet and stared at the canopy of twinkling stars and wondered if our mind was just as scintillating as the night sky—if we possessed a sea of internal stars.
Such are the musings of youth. Still, I try to remember this sense of wonder even if it’s not easy in this season of darkness, or if it sounds Pollyanna to talk about one’s internal star. But it may be just as “dis-aster-ous” to forget about our connection to that light source within, to forego our natural spontaneity.
As I ponder the dark night, I feel the reassurance of the fiery glow inside, as I stand in wonder, watching the sky, happy to be in the company of fellow bright, who knows, maybe even singing stars.
“What the very young see is literally incomparable—nothing like it has come before—and these encounters are the raw material, the imagery of their psyches.”
Seasons, sounds, smells, the touch of emotion all bring this raw material—the imagery of our psyche—right back to us.
Imagine: The first bite into a summer strawberry, the first snowfall of winter, the smell of grass in late spring or the sound of kids yelping “trick or treat” at Halloween.
We think childhood is long ago and far away, that mental cobwebs drape over that earlier time of our lives.
However, underneath the cobwebs hums the rich imagery of our young psyches; at certain moments, those feeling-images return, zoom out of the blue, resounding like a bell chiming from down the valley.
From deep within, these raw memories of our younger psyches tug at us, saying: Remember this—this is when you first felt so alive!
First Felt so Alive—I don’t think that feeling ever has an expiration date.
My father, a special agent, and pictured here with my brother’s boy scout troop at FBI headquarters in Los Angeles, loved baseball as a kid. He took my siblings and I up to the local field and hit us balls when we were young. On weekends, I often found him in the garage, polishing his black FBI agent shoes while listening to the California Angels on his transistor radio. My father could be in a slight trance, as if the garage had transformed into his dugout, as if the leather from his FBI shoes sported the same whiff as his old childhood mitt. My father was that serious FBI Agent who fought crime all day—but maybe his secret, younger psyche never left the ball field of his youth.
As his watchful daughter who loved spying on him, I could see the wonder in his eyes when he listened to those games. These clues into his mysterious soul shone like jewels. To this day, I smile and think of my father when I hear a ball game on the radio. It’s almost as if we are back on the field together.
“FBI Girl: How I Learned to Crack My Father’s Code” goes into its reprint edition and also is released in audiobook format Fall of 2017. This coming-of-age memoir is a love story about my family, about the place, the sights, tastes, sounds, conversations, longings and silences of where I grew up—a testimony to the raw imagery of my first fourteen years when I first felt so alive.
There is so much to tap into once you realize this inner real estate called “childhood” isn’t so long ago and far away. You can hear a hum, feel the pulse of the wind connecting you back into your own humanity, back into the mystery revealed of what made you, you. And that’s a story worth stepping into.
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