One summer we took Dorothy to the mountains. It was a risk, but it had become necessary to initiate certain changes in her life.
Soft Dorothy was as citified as they come, though the city she comes from is tiny. She had lived her whole life in the shelter of her parents, who kept that life very regular: sleeping, rising, eating, a little work, a load of ease, and ice cream before she went to bed each night. Almost nothing interrupted the daily round of Dorothy—affairs. She never got caught in the rain downtown. She seldom walked to town. She rode everywhere. She had almost never been separated from her parents.
But her father was eighty-nine years old, her mother not much younger—and Dorothy herself was forty. The clock which ticked her day so neatly was likewise ticking the lives of her parents to their ends. It was time that she should experience a real separation from them before death forced the issue and sorrow complicated everything. So we took her to the mountains.
But it was a risk.
Round Dorothy was ever exceedingly private. She squirreled money in secret places in her room. More valuable than money were the pictures she clipped from magazines, pictures she hid so well they shan’t be found till doomsday. Her eyes would open wide with panic when little children entered her bedroom. Who can control little children? But even then Dorothy said almost nothing. She was private. She buried her thoughts; she muted her basic communication in grunts and grumbles. But she didn’t have to talk, after all. Her mother knew her needs, decided her desires, spoke for her—spoke, indeed, even before Dorothy thought she had a thought. It really was time, you see, for Dorothy to step out on her own.
But round Dorothy was also exceedingly—round. The woman stood no higher than my elbow, yet was wider than I am by half at the beam. Cute little ankles, prodigious thighs, and a body as round as a medicine ball. To the mountains with Dorothy? Why, she could scarcely climb the stair steps one flight up.
Her eyes are slant behind their glasses; her tongue lolls on the lower lip; her chins redouble backward; her expression is generally benign and vague.
Dorothy has Down’s syndrome. She is what people call “retarded.” She is also Thanne’s sister, my sister-in-law; and since I as to teach for several weeks at Holden Village in the Cascade Mountains of the Northwest, we took Hob in our hands and said: “Let Dorothy come with us.”
Her mother swallowed painfully, considered the need, wept with a mother’s solicitude, and relented. She packed for her daughter a suitcase the size of Montana (in which she squirreled handwritten instructions not shorter than the Book of Leviticus. For example: “Dorothy’s bazooka is in her underwear. She likes to play it.” Her bazooka? What was that? Ah, when we looked in her underwear we found her kazoo).
O Holden Village, hold your breath!—here comes Dorothy, the daughter of her mother. Holden, be patient and kind. We can all sacrifice a little to train this woman—child in independence, right?
Oh, and Holden? Please give us rooms low down, on a flat level with the rest of your buildings, because Dorothy is so very . . . round.
So we went to the wilds, the Wangerins six and Dorothy of the wide, wide eyes. It was an airplane flight from Chicago to Seattle, a car trip to the town of Chelan, a boat trip for three hours up the lake while mountains rose around us to dangerous sizes, and finally a bus trip up those mountains—miles high in the mighty, remote, foredooming mountains of God.
In Holden Village, then, Dorothy rolled her beanbag body off the bus, looked up at the craggy peaks yet higher than she, patted her bosom, and sighed: “Whew!”
The registrar met us. He pointed to our quarters. He pointed upward at an angle of forty degrees, to the top of a long road. Whew! We—all seven of us—bowed our heads and climbed.
“Whew!” said Dorothy. She moved as slowly as the moon. Whew! This medicine ball expressed herself in variety of sighs, one for each new height as she struggled upward.
And when we achieved the top of the hill—when still we stood at the bottom of the staircase that extended up to the front porch of our house—Dorothy stopped and pr duced a truly admirable cavalcade of sighs: “Whew! Whew! Whew!”—fanning her face, popping her eyes, and grinning. Grinning! She was Rocky Balboa at the end of his run.
Now I declare to you a wonder: Dorothy was no mute at all! She was profoundly expressive to those who had the ears to hear her.
Later, when she spied the busy ground squirrels, she paused and offered them a series of happy squeal-sighs, as if meeting with glee some long-lost relatives. When deer raised their noble necks and gazed at this round dollop of a woman, she honored them with murmurous sacred sighs as soft as lullabies. When she stepped on a slat bridge over roaring waters—which water we could see between the boards below our feet—she made a bleating sigh, and I realized how brave she was to stand so near the tumbling chaos. And when she lifted her eyes to the ring of mountains around us, and when she grew gravely still, allowing one long sigh, one eternal expulsion of breath to escape her languorous throat, I said in my soul: Listen, my sister is praying!
Retarded? Who is the fool that says so? This woman had an apprehension of the universe more intimate and more devout than my own. Her knowing was not troubled by extraneous thought. Dorothy had a language of genuine sophistication and of immediate response. Sighs were her words. Add to that some simple English grunts which even I could understand, and Dorothy was bilingual.
I had been to Holden Village three times before that summer, but I had never seen so well the crown surrounding it, had ever seen with primal eyes until I stood with Dorothy looking up and sighing. I took squirrels to my heart, honored deer, and praised the God of supernal peaks—because of Dorothy. She was the quick one. My responses were baffled and slow. She was the one who trained me, both in seeing and in speaking. I, in the high, green tiara of the Deity—I, in simple creation—was the retarded one. How often we get it backward. How much we miss when we do!
On the second night we were there, Dorothy went up on her toes and embraced me in a mighty hug and kissed my chin and murmured, “Whew!”
I, too, said, “Whew!”
He word meant, “What a good day!”
Mine meant, Thank you, sweet sister, for taking me to the mountains this summer.