You're a good man, Dr. Smurf

Published February 16, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

I don't think I realized quite how obsessive people can be aboutappearances until I began to talk to some of Adam's physical therapists,who started working with him when he was two weeks old. First of all, you must know that the people who spend their lives working with disabled children are the most accepting, loving, optimistic-but-realistic humanbeings you could ever meet. To them, no child, no matter how disfigured or inept, deserves anything less than unconditional acceptance. Adam's therapists probably don't know that I, with my three Harvard degrees and my relatively sound body, got more from their sessions with Adam than did Adam himself. As I sat watching them, feeling the kindness in the air around them, all the parts of me that I had sent to the Deep freeze years before thawed and stretched and began to consider the idea that the world might not be altogether hostile.

This is not to say that Adam's therapists didn't make any judgments.They were, in fact, secretly appalled by some of the people they had met in their line of work. Two of them told me this one day when Adam was working out, trying to bulk up from nine pounds. (The workout consisted of things like grabbing for shiny objects, cranking his head back and forth to hear interesting sounds, and rolling around in a tub of dry beans.) The conversation turned to other children the therapists had worked with --specifically, those who were recovering from major surgeries demanded by parents who were dissatisfied with their children's appearance. The therapists had worked with children whose thigh bones had been shattered and reconstructed to correct slight bowleggedness; others who had undergone plastic surgery to correct "defective" features that had not yet even formed; still others who were given up for adoption because of anomalies as minor as a harelip. The therapists were outraged by these parents'inability to see beyond the issues of appearance to the core, to the child as a human being.

You must bear in mind that these therapists had chosen to work with"different" children, while the parents in question had had the experience thrust upon them. I'm certainly not one to judge them. I've had a hard enough time learning to handle difference without discomfort, to look beneath the surface. I do feel sad, though, for parents who might have had an opportunity to learn a new way of seeing, to look into the magical part of life, and let it pass them by. Then again, it may be that not all disabled children can do this. Maybe it's just Adam himself. In his strange, not-quite-human way, he is constantly reminding me that real magic doesn't come from achieving the perfect appearance, from being Cinderella at the ball with both glass slippers and a killer hairstyle. The real magic is in the pumpkin, in the mice, in the moonlight; not beyond ordinary life, but within it.

One day when Adam was five, I took all three of my children out to pickup a few household items. I parked the car, extracted my children (two fromcar seats), and began the process of herding them all into the store without getting killed by traffic. I had Lizzie by the hand, and the older children were following -- at least until we reached the doorway. We were at someplace like Kmart, where they sell gardening goods. That morning the store was holding a sale on ornamental plants. Flowers and shrubs werelined up on benches and tables just outside the door. The display drew Adam like a moth to the flame. His eyes got round -- well, as round as they ever get, considering -- and he began to coo with delight.

"Come on, Adam," I said, steering Elizabeth over to an empty shoppingcart. "Keep moving, keep moving, keep moving."

By the time I had lifted Lizzie into the cart, Adam had disappeared. I gave that weary sigh -- the one you remember your own mother sighing, the sigh that is sighed at least once a day by every parent of small children-- and went back a few steps to look for him. He was over by the gardening display, walking away from me.

"Adam!" I hollered, trying not to sound too much like a child abuser. "Come here! Get back here!"

He looked up and blinked.

"Come on!"

Adam shrugged and, with a lingering look at the gardening display,trudged over to my grocery cart. I had the two older kids grab the bars of the cart, as usual, and we headed into the store. Just then I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned. A very tall, very craggy, very elderly man was standing behind me. He was wearing a baseball cap with the name of a cattle-feed company emblazoned on it. He had the huge, rough hands of a lifelong farmer.

"Excuse me, ma'am," he said, doffing the baseball cap. "I was wondering if you noticed what your boy was doing just now."

I felt a surge of apprehension. Adam had done some profoundly embarrassing things in his short lifetime. He had hidden his shoes in mymother-in-law's microwave, crammed crayons into the baby-sitter's heating vents to watch them melt, gone over to visit the neighbors, alone, wearing only galoshes and a bra. My bra. I couldn't imagine what he might have done in the brief time I'd lost track of him outside, but his creativity in these matters always went well beyond my imagination.

I answered the old man with a cautious no, trying to look harried and innocent.

The old man leaned down to speak softly in my ear. "Your boy," he said,"stopped to smell every single plant in that display outside."

"Oh," I said uncertainly.

"He didn't just smell the flowers," said the farmer. "He smelled the shrubs, too. He smelled every bush they have out there. I think he even smelled the dirt."

I blinked at him, not altogether sure I was getting the point.

"Come with me." The farmer turned and gestured. He seemed very pleased, almost boyish. I turned my shopping cart around, children still attached, and followed him.

We went outside to the gardening display, the old man leading. I caught up to him next to a row of ornamental juniper brushes. He was leaning over, his eyes closed, inhaling deeply through his nose.

"Smell this," he said, pointing to the juniper. Katie and Adam had already begun sniffing. I put my face close to the shrub and smelled it. It had a tangy, sharp scent, somewhere between citrus rind and sagebrush. The smell brought back a sudden flurry of memories from my childhood.

"Huh!" I said.

"It's something, isn't it?" The farmer gave me a crusty grin. "Now try this one."

We went on smelling bushes for five or ten minutes, until we'd sniffed our way through the whole display. I was so relieved that Adam hadn't done anything illegal that I hardly even wondered why this gruff, practical-looking man was so invested in the whole thing. Adam and the girls thought it was wonderful; they snuffled through the rows of plantslike happy truffle hogs. As far as I was concerned, the bushes beat Proust's madeleine hands down; if you want to stir your imagination andyour memory, I recommend that you immediately locate and smell some shrubs-- whatever kind grew in your neighborhood when you were younger and closerto the ground.

When we were finished, the old man straightened up to his full heightand tipped his hat to me again.

"Things aren't always what they seem, are they?" he said.

"No," I agreed.

"It pays to look close," he said. Then he leaned over again, put his lips near my ear, and whispered, "My boy's twenty-three." Then he turned on the heel of one enormous boot and walked away.

Ah, I thought. No wonder. He's one of us.

That's the kind of life you lead when you have an Adam around. Oh, ofcourse it's not all lovely epiphanies. For every old man who invites you outside to smell the bushes, there are at least three obsequious salespeople who will congratulate you on having "such cute little girls," while they look awkwardly past the boy with Down syndrome, trying to pretend he isn't there. The prejudice, sometimes even hostility, can burn like acid. But along with this pain, Adam brought with him a sweetness that surpasses anything I ever felt before he was conceived. It comes from looking at the heart of things, from stopping to smell not only the roses but the bushes as well. It is a quality of attention to ordinary life that is so loving and intimate it is almost worship.

- - - - - - - - - -At Harvard, of course, I had learned to pay attention to very different things. The importance of prestige is so overwhelming in that culture that people hardly look at each other, let alone their environment. The attention goes to appearances: appearing successful, appearing smart, appearing utterly and absolutely unlike a retarded child. I began to notice this when I was pregnant with Adam, months before I had any solid evidence that there was anything "different" about him. Maybe his way of seeing, the depth of his appreciation for life, seeped from him into my bloodstream, or maybe it was the immediate proximity of his soul that affected mine. Whatever the reason, things began to look different.

It was mid-November and the few remaining leaves rattled on the trees. I welcomed the winter chill, since icy air helped keep my mind off the nausea. I breathed it carefully one day as I waddled over to William James Hall (known to the intelligentsia as Billy Jim) to attend a class. I arrived a few minutes early and decided to use the extra time to visit a friend in the Psychology Department, one floor above the Sociology Department, where my class was held. My friend was in her lab, conducting an experiment that consisted of implanting wires into the brains of live rats, then making the rats swim around in a tub of reconstituted dried milk. She told me why she was doing this, but I have no memory of what she said. Maybe she was making soup. Whatever the reason, she had put the rats and the milk in a children's wading pool, the kind you fill up with a hose so that toddlers can splash around on a hot summer day. The tub was decorated with pictures of Smurfs. Smurfs, for those of you who are not culturally aware, are little blue people whose antics you may have observed on Saturday morning cartoons during the 1980s. I personally feel that the Smurfs were cloying, saccharine little monsters, but Katie adored them.

After chatting with my rat-molesting friend for a moment, I excused myself and headed downstairs for the seminar. There were seven or eight other graduate students in attendance, along with a couple of extra professors who had come to hear the latest twist on established theories. Ifelt the way I always did when I walked into a classroom at Harvard, that I had just entered a den of lions -- not starving lions, perhaps, but lions who were feeling a little peckish. The people in the room were fearsomely brilliant, and I was always terrified that I would say just one completely idiotic thing, make one breathtakingly asinine comment that would expose me as a boorish, politically incorrect half-wit.

"Ah, Martha," said the course instructor, "we've been waiting for you." I blushed. I had stopped at the rest room to blow a few chunks, and had been hoping that the class would start a bit late. I did not want to be the focus of attention.

"I'm sorry," I said. "I was upstairs in the Psych lab, watching rats swim around in a Smurf pool."

"I see," said the instructor. "Yes, I believe I've read about that."

A professor, one of the visiting dignitaries, chimed in. "How is Smurf's work going?" he inquired. "I understand he's had some remarkable findings.""Yes," said a graduate student. "I read his last article."

There was a general murmur of agreement. It seemed that everyone in theroom was familiar with Dr. Smurf, and his groundbreaking work with swimming rats. It took me a few discombobulated seconds to figure out that everyone at the seminar assumed a Smurf pool was named for some famous psychological theorist. I guess they thought it was like a Skinner box, the reinforcement chamber used by B.F. Skinner to develop the branch of psychological theory known as behaviorism. Comprehension blossomed in my brain like a lovely flower.

"I think," I said solemnly, "that Smurf is going to change the whole direction of linguistic epistemology."

They all agreed, nodding, saying things like "Oh, yes," and "I wouldn't doubt it."

I beamed at them, struggling desperately not to laugh. It wasn't so much that I wanted to mock these people. I was giddy with exhilaration, because after seven years at Harvard, I was just beginning to realize that I wasn't the only one faking it. I had bluffed my way through many a cocktail party, pretending to know all about whichever scholar or theory was the current topic of conversation. I had always wondered how I survived among the staggeringly intelligent people lurking all around me. Now I was beginning to understand.

"He's a good man, Smurf is," said the instructor solemnly.

And thus I learned that at Harvard, while knowing a great deal is the norm and knowing everything is the goal, appearing to know everything is considered an acceptable substitute. I pondered this great truth during the two-hour seminar. I was so buoyed up by it that I didn't pay enoughattention to snorking up little bits of food in order to keep my nauseaunder control. I sailed right on into my next class, another seminar,confident that I could get through it without losing my lunch.

This was a mistake.

I still cringe when I think about that particular class period. I will continue to cringe about it until I am dead, and (who knows) probably for along time thereafter. The course was Sociology of Gender, and the two instructors had managed to book just about every famous scholar in the field as a guest lecturer. I had been looking forward to hearing that day's speaker, a specialist on family structures and functions, for weeks. It was worth the wait. I'll always remember that scholarly gentleman. And I think it's safe to say that he'll always remember me. Oh, he doesn't know my name, and probably couldn't remember my face if his life depended on it. But I'm sure he can still recall that, right in the middle of this particular guest lecture, one student leapt to her feet, staggered toward the door, and passed out, collapsing in a heap so that she was lying with her lower body still in the classroom and her head and shoulders in the hallway. I have given many lectures myself since then, and I think it is safe to say that this kind of event would be hard to forget.

This was one fainting scenario in which the bystanders were not apathetic. Both course instructors were warm and considerate people. They immediately rushed to my assistance. (I don't think it's any coincidence that both these scholars left Harvard after a few years.) I don't rememberhow, but I ended up on a couch in the office of one instructor, AnnemetteSørensen, confessing my pregnancy in a voice choked with shame."Well, there's nothing wrong with being pregnant," said Dr. Sørensen,"and if you're sick, you're sick. You might as well have been hit by a truck." I lay back on the couch, limp with embarrassment, warmed by her kindness.

"I'm better now," I said.

"How are you going to get home?"

I squinted at her. "I'm not going home. Class isn't over."

Sørensen pursed her lips, thinking. I could imagine her concerns;she hardly needed a repeat performance of my double-gainer to the classroom floor. To allay her fears, I took a long breath, pulled myself together, and sat up. Immediately, the hum in my ears increased to a loudbuzz, the familiar green darkness flooded my vision, and I flopped backdown again, briefly out like a light. When I came to, the secondinstructor, Lenore Weitzman, had joined Dr. Sørensen.

"We've got to get her home," she said.

"No, she says she wants to stay," Sørensen responded.

I tried to talk, but the best I could manage was an emphatic nod.

Dr. Weitzman looked at me as though I had just told her I intended to climb down the exterior walls of the building rather than ride the elevator.

"She's just pregnant," said Sørensen. In my seven years as a Harvard student, she was the only faculty member I knew personally who had actually given birth herself. "She'll be fine."

We reached a compromise. I spent the rest of that class period lying in the hallway next to the classroom. The door was left open so that I could hear what was going on. I had a notepad on the floor beside me, and I took notes in that strange, rambling hand you develop when your head is actually lying on the paper.

After class, a woman I didn't recognize asked if she could walk me home. She acted quite concerned, and the instructors, who seemed to have shouldered some responsibility for my well-being, were glad that I wouldn't be lurching the distance on my own.

My escort was another Ph.D. candidate. She was not in my department but had come to the gender seminar because of her passionate feminism. I, ofcourse, thought of myself as a feminist as well. Braced by the cold air and distracted by her companionship, I managed to keep up my end of an enthusiastic discussion of women's social roles. I liked my classmate very much.

When we got within eyeshot of the apartment building where I lived, I pointed it out and asked if she would like to come up for a little apricot nectar. I felt rather awkward doing this, but I wanted to thank her.

She declined the invitation, smiling. Then her face became very serious."I wanted to walk you home," she said, "because I think it's time you stopped kissing up to the enemy."

I didn't have the vaguest idea what she was talking about, but I felt ac hill in my gut. "Excuse me?"

The woman's face went so hard you could have chopped wood with it. "This crap about -- what do they call it? -- morning sickness. You know it isn't real."

I wasn't sure what to say. Morning sickness felt exceptionally real to me.

"Men have been telling women for centuries that it's hard to bear children," said the woman, as though she were repeating obvious facts to an Alzheimer's patient. "All that bullshit about the pain of childbirth, the'delicacy'" -- she said the word as if it tasted bad -- "of pregnantwomen." She shook her head in frustration. "Bearing children is what womendo," she went on. "There's nothing difficult or painful about it --unless you accept the party line. There is no such thing as 'morningsickness.' All of those myths were made up to justify denying women access to decent jobs and positions in society. And look at you -- kissing butt like it's going out of style. Don't you think it's time to stop faking it?"

I just stood there with my mouth open. All those years of practice, andI had still let down my guard long enough to get another slap in the face. After a long time, I managed to say, "I don't think I can help it."

She went on in a voice that made me think of the feminist phrase "a pendipped in anger," a voice that left no doubt that she put me in the same category with plague-bearing rodents.

"I don't care if you think you can help it or not," she said. "Stop it! It does not look right. It makes us all look bad. You're a dead weight on every woman alive. Just stop it."

As I look back now, my strongest feeling about this woman is regret that I didn't kick her. At the time, however, I thought she was right. I was so drenched in shame for being pregnant in the first place, for not being a truly committed Smart Person like everyone else at Harvard, that it was very easy to accept the idea that my vomiting and fainting spells were psychosomatic. "Um," I mumbled. "OK, I'll try."

The woman rolled her eyes. "Yes," she said. "You do that." Then her face relaxed into a smile again, as though we had just been discussing the weather. "See you next week."

"Right," I said. "Next week."

I waited until she had turned and faded into the crowd along Massachusetts Avenue before I set out for home. Mind over matter, I thought, and held my head up high. I took the longest stride I could. Six inches, maybe seven. Damn. I was suddenly hugely self-conscious, and I felt a sense of panic, not so much because I truly believed I was ruining everywoman's chances for a fair shot in life but because I knew somebody thought I was. "It does not look right," she had said. It does not look right. You do not look right.

I felt tears, those appallingly irrepressible pregnancy tears, forming in my eyes. And then, in the window of one of Mass Ave's many bookstores, I saw the cover of a children's book that bore the image of a small blue elf.It wasn't one of the Smurfs, but it reminded me of them.

"He's a good man, Smurf is," I said, imitating the professor who had said it earlier that day. A couple of passersby looked at me curiously but walked on. I felt the blossoming sensation in my chest again, the feeling of pulling back the petals and seeing the genuine heart of things. As I crept the final block toward the apartment building, I found myself actually smiling.

By Martha Beck

Martha Beck is the "Quality of Life" columnist forMademoiselle and the author of "Breaking Point: Why Women Fall Apart and How They Can Re-create Their Lives." She lives in Phoenix, Ariz.

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