My grandparents lived in a small town in southwest Missouri. There wasn’t a whole lot there by the time I was a girl in the 70’s and 80’s. The town’s best years were long gone. But there was one place still in business: an old, white, one-story building. It was called the Candy Cane Inn.
The place closed almost 30 years ago, but I once saw something there that I have never forgotten. My grandparents both worked at the Candy Cane Inn where something like 18 disabled children and young adults were cared for. These children were sent there by the state because they had nowhere else to go. Grandpa and Grandma often worked the overnight shift and stayed in a room there.
My mother took my sister and me there during a visit to our grandparents one summer. Grandma happened to be working that day, so we walked on over. I was 12 at the time, and what I saw shocked me. Never had I been exposed so directly to so many with severe disabilities. One older boy, who was more of a man really, sat in the middle of the floor, rocking back an forth, while he made loud growling noises. One little girl came up to me and started pummeling me with her little fists. The sound in the room was deafening. Many of the disabled were no longer children in body, even though they were toddlers in their minds.
It was dinner hour, and they were feeding the children in shifts at a table. The sight horrified me. Grandma told us that the children came from various backgrounds–some with wealthy parents who just didn’t want them, others had parents who simply couldn’t care for them.
We came back later in the week to visit Grandma who was about to get off work. This time we went back into the older part of the building. It was a dark and dismal place. The tragedy of the whole thing sank deep into my mind and heart. How could Grandma stand working in a place like this, I wondered.
We found Grandma in a rocking chair in a small, cramped room. There in her arms was a boy with brown hair. Grandma said he was 14, and his name was Jamie. His limbs were twisted and his joints appeared locked, and he was so thin he looked skeletal. He was the size of a six-year-old, and Grandma was rocking him. She told us that she had noticed whenever she would come into the room and speak to him that he would turn his head and look at her. Wherever she was, his eyes would follow her. Sometimes, Grandma said, he laughed with excitement when he saw that she was going to pick him up. Whenever she would hold his poor broken body, he would smile up at her. So she rocked him during a part of each shift.
My grandmother did not have degrees in child development. She didn’t possess an academic pedigree of any kind. She attended a one-room schoolhouse in the Ozarks. But Grandma and Grandpa raised 8 children to successful adulthood. She also had something that many don’t have today: She had a compassionate, loving soul. She recognized the humanity in Jamie, and she did what she could to give the boy just a few moments each shift of feeling what love is.
I thought of Grandma and Jamie today when I read that 90% of all Down’s Syndrome babies are aborted. They’re killed because they aren’t “perfect.” It’s time to look at the deformed soul of America that accepts and even advocates the killing of the vulnerable and the imperfect on the altar of ego and convenience.
I will always remember Grandma Mary rocking Jamie. That scene was a profound picture of what it is to be fully human, made in God’s image. Jamie was a human being who deserved love and dignity. In Grandma’s arms, however briefly, he found that. Grandma is now in heaven, but I will always bless her for giving me that important lesson.