Finding Normal

Celia was having a fit. Again.

I should have been used to it by now, but it still bugged me. When we were kids, it always got her the extra kisses and hugs, the extra cookies and candy, and the concerned attention. Now that we were adults, it was all the more annoying. Instead of extra kisses, hugs, candy, and cookies, Celia’s fits were gawked at. Sure, they got attention, all right, but not the kind most people wanted. The problem was, Celia couldn’t tell the difference. But I could.

Celia was born with cerebral gigantism. What they told me when I was five was it meant she had a “big head.” I didn’t question the diagnosis. Her head always looked big to me, no argument necessary. What I later learned was that Celia had been born with a dysfunctional chromosome, which made her head large and her mental age immature. Even at the age of forty, Celia still made the choices and implemented the responsive behaviors of an eight year old.

Today it was because the Goodwill was sending her home early. As far as Celia was concerned, the store was going to go out of business without her there to clean the toilets and sweep the entryway. She ranted and swore and cried in the passenger seat of my third-hand VW Bug that I’d bought from an old hippie outside of a Sears at the mall. My wife had thought I was insane, until I reminded her that I was Celia’s personal taxi and baby sis was hard on cars.

“Then they said go,” Celia kept repeating, over and over again, crying crocodile tears into her grimy hands, which I hoped she at least washed after cleaning the Goodwill bathroom toilets. “They said go. They said, go Celia, you’re off early. Go, go, go. . . .”

Celia was why I couldn’t watch Rain Man anymore. She was why I wouldn’t have children. Why my patience could be rattled simply by Jehovah’s Witnesses coming to my door. She was probably why my parents passed away before reaching their sixtieth birthdays, too. Dad from liver failure thanks to his best friend Jim Beam, and mom from breast cancer. Not before they left provisions and instructions that Celia was my responsibility. Then again, she had been since the day she was born. By the time I was ten, I had moved into the role of third parent to Celia.

I didn’t go to school dances. I’d barely gone on dates. Any job I held fast became my solace from Celia. My respite. Sometimes I would ask for extra hours and I was always the gal fellow employees called when they were ill or had something better to do than show up for work. “Call Shannon. Shannon is always ready to come into work.” Now, I wavered, daily, on a fine line between losing my job at the law firm and remaining on probation until retirement, thanks to Celia.

“I want a Happy Meal,” Celia announced.

I was relieved she was no longer droning on about being let off early, but I had to get back to work.

“No.” The minute I said it, I felt my throat constrict with panic. I’d promised myself I wouldn’t say “no” to Celia anymore. That I would explain my situation and ease into a phrase that meant “no” without saying the word. I screwed up. Big.

Celia drew in a huge gasp, not because she was surprised by my response, but because it was the fuel behind her shrieking. I knew this. I also knew there was no stopping it.

Her round face, laden with patches of acne because she wouldn’t stay away from fast food and candy, flooded blood red. Beads of perspiration formed over her lip and on her forehead, dampening her blonde bangs. Her hair was arrow straight and I’d pulled it into a pony tail for her that morning. With her locks pulled away from her face, it was easier to see the pending eruption of emotion fester behind her indignant eyes, brown that darkened to black when she was angry. Her features contorted and she let out a wail that drowned out the traffic on the I-25, as well as Prince’s “Little Red Corvette,” on my radio.

My stomach churned. All I wanted to do was drop her off at the god dammed daycare program and get back to my job. All I wanted was some peace. Some normalcy. All I wanted was my life, without Celia creating one challenge after another for me.

Liz, my wife, was gently but determinedly trying to convince me Celia needed to be in a home.

“They have some nice ones here, Shannon,” she would tell me. “Places where Celia will be safe, where she can learn more skills, where she can feel independent.”

We checked a couple of them out when Celia was at work one Saturday. Liz’s favorite was “A Safe Haven.” Haven was a small apartment building with ten units, occupied by special needs adults. The building was staffed twenty-four hours. Occupants learned to cook, clean, manage their lives, hold jobs, and co-habitate with others. “Celia might make friends there,” Liz asserted, her tone overly bright, overly hopeful. She wanted normal, too.

We’d toured Haven two months ago and I still hadn’t made a decision, much less mentioned it to Celia.

When Celia began beating her fists on my dashboard, I pulled into the nearest McDonald’s.

“I want to go in,” Celia commanded, her tantrum almost immediately halted, with the exception of a few sniffles and chest trembles.

“I have to get back to work.”

“They sent me home.”

“Lucky you,” I mutter sarcastically, as the drive thru server’s voice crackled over the speaker.

I ordered Celia a Happy Meal, but not without her constantly interjecting that she wanted 34 fries in the fry bag, no onions on her burger, extra pickles, a soda and a girl toy. I could only imagine what the poor, skinny, barely-sixteen kid working the drive thru thought. He was polite and glad to see us go, but then again, I wouldn’t have expected any less once Celia told him she knew he had a penis.

She broke into the cookies immediately, and they exploded all over my car. Half expecting another tantrum, I instead found relief in ignoring Celia as she ate them off the floor, then proceeded to lick sugar cookie dust off the dashboard and passenger door.

Celia was like having a two year old. Actually, she had been easier at two. It was at the age of five that she began acting like Damien Omen.

I was mortified when my parents let her attend my elementary school. “But she isn’t like the other kids,” I had told my parents. In desperation, adding, “She’ll fail everything.”

“They have a special education program, Shannon, she’ll be there most of the time,” our mother had wearily replied. “I just can’t have her home all day anymore.” It didn’t take me long to see the toll Celia was taking on my parents. I knew by second grade. That was also when I learned that the proper response to noticing this wasn’t asking my parents why they didn’t just “send her back.”

“Oh my God, mom, you mean she’s going to be in there with all of the retards? The people on the short bus?” I squeaked in shock and horror.

By fifth grade, I was already walking a very narrow line between having some friends and having no friends and it was all primarily due to Celia. No one wanted to come to my house and play because if Celia wasn’t throwing a tantrum because she hadn’t gotten her way, then she was saying something inappropriate. When I was in seventh grade she asked my then best friend Laura if she played with boys penises and when Laura reacted with disgusted surprise, Celia laughed and added that Laura hardly had any boobs. By the time I got to high school, I realized that the only way to keep friends was to never have them over and to avoid Celia like the plague. It wasn’t an easy feat, because Celia stayed in special education programs at my schools throughout most of my academic career, with the exception of college. She was in nearly every nook and cranny of my life.

Now that we were adults, I was lucky to be surrounded by friends who better understood the situation, but I was still having to make daily amends with my boss and this was the fourth law firm I had been employed at in ten years, again due to Celia.

“I am bringing you to Sunshine,” I announced to Celia, referencing Sunshine Day Programs, where Celia spent her free time when she wasn’t working, until I picked her up in the evenings and brought her home with me.

“I hate that place,” she said with the insolence of a child, before stuffing six fries into her mouth at once. “Do you think the boy at McDonald’s had a penis?”

“What is it with you and penises, Celia? I mean, seriously, it’s really inappropriate. Do you realize you are forty years old and he is only sixteen? And do you know that if you talk to him like that, you could be arrested?” I stopped at a light, eyeing the red, realizing it was how I felt just then. Hot. Mad. Frustrated. Mostly because I knew that, while Celia could understand my words, she had no idea the implication. And it pissed me off.

“You won’t let it.” She shrugged, unfazed.

“I won’t let what?”

“You won’t let me be in jail.”

“Don’t bet on that.” I blew air out of my lower lip, the bangs on my forehead lifting a little, then falling, as I proceeded through the intersection. “I am not going to protect you from jail if you don’t listen to me when I tell you not to do something that’s wrong, Celia, do you understand that?”

“You have to. Mom and Dad said.”

“No they didn’t say that.”

“Yes,” she asserted, struggling to open a ketchup packet that I was relieved to know she’d never break into. “Yes, they did.”

“They told me to manage your care. They didn’t tell me to harbor a fugitive or to be an accessory to a crime.”

“Yeah, I don’t know what that means. Can you open this?” She pushed the ketchup packet against the back of my hand, where it gripped the steering wheel.

“I’m driving, Celia, you need to wait. Have Maeve open it for you at Sunshine when you get there.”

She grunted, but didn’t throw another fit, so I was grateful.

My cellular phone began singing the theme from the show Friends, and I glanced at it, where it lay in my center console. Work. Probably wondering where the hell I was. My one hour lunch had gone over by forty minutes already.

“I got it!” Celia proclaimed, reaching for it.

Like hell, I thought, snatching it up before she could, then silencing the call.

“I want a phone,” she griped for the billionth time in the last year alone.

“You’ve lost four, Celia, we can’t afford it anymore. You know that if you need to call when you are at Goodwill or Sunshine, you can ask to use the phone.”

“But Megan at Goodwill has Facebook on her phone. I want Facebook.”

But Megan is a normal twenty year old . . . But you don’t have any friends to put on Facebook . . . When you’ve had phones in the past, you couldn’t even figure out how to dial my number.

All very true responses and every single one would have set Celia off again.

Instead I lie. “Dr. Carter says that if you use social media too much, it will bring back your seizures. You don’t want that now, do you?”

“I want Facebook.”

I pressed my lips together and said nothing, though my armpits felt like a swamp. We were almost to Sunshine. I just wanted to get her there. They knew how to deal with Celia. It had taken me six months to find a new daycare for my sister, after going through four others, all of which could no longer “handle her behaviors.” Sunshine, thus far, loved Celia, and she seemed to be doing better there than she had at the other centers.

Not wanting to risk another tantrum, I changed the subject.

“Want to go to the zoo this weekend?” I asked, knowing it’s one of her favorite things to do.

“With Liz?”

I glanced at Celia. Her bangs were plastered on her forehead. Her eyes were a little red and swollen from crying, her cheeks still puffy and pink. But she was beaming. She loved Liz and, while Liz felt the best thing for Celia was Haven, Liz adored Celia as well. I had been fortunate there. Most of the women I dated had gone from tolerating Celia to no longer tolerating her, so it was a relief that the woman I’d chosen to marry actually had an affinity for my baby sister.

I tilted my head and playfully squinted at Celia. “I could just stay home and let you two enjoy the day, if you want.”

Celia didn’t always understand humor, so we had developed an unmentioned secret code over the years. If I winked, she knew I was joking. I winked. She immediately laughed, even if she hadn’t grasped my sarcasm.

“Ice cream, too?” she asked, hopefully, her dark eyes dancing. It was nice to see her happy. Easier to remember how much I actually loved her. That I wanted to do right by her.

“Of course! We can’t do the zoo without ice cream!” I exclaimed, laughing, and making a mental note to bring some Wet Wipes with me.

Her excitement building, Celia clapped her greasy hands together. “The zoo! Like the normal people do!” She repeated it, over and over, and I was reminded that all Celia really wanted was to be like the normal people. She would scream it as a child. Sob it as a teenager. And eventually become embittered by it as an adult. “Megan lives with two friends from high school,” she would tell me after a day of toilet cleaning. Before that it was about not being able to try out for cheerleading in junior high and no one asking her to high school prom. It was about not being able to go out of the house without supervision and never being allowed to experiment with makeup or having someone else shave her legs and armpits because she couldn’t be trusted with a razor. It was about feeling imprisoned by a large head.

Normal people. She wanted to be like normal people. Like me. Like Liz. Normal.

“What do normal people do, Celia?”

“They cook dinner and drive cars,” she said without hesitation. “They touch penises.”

“Jesus, Celia, enough about the penises. I don’t touch penises and neither does Liz.”

“That’s because you two are lezzies.”

I almost laughed. We allowed Celia to call us “lezzies” because her pronunciation of “lesbian” wound up sounding like a new venereal disease. It still made both of us laugh to hear her say “lezzies,” much in the same way it made our straight friends chuckle the first time their kids decided to repeat daddy’s cuss words.

“Normal people have parties and have Facebook,” Celia added quietly, looking out the window as we approached Sunshine.

“I don’t have a Facebook.”

“Maybe cuz you’re weird,” she said back, giving me her silly, challenged wink to let me know she was teasing me.

“You’re weirder,” I teased back, turning into Sunshine and taking the first handicapped stall.  I turned off the car. “Come on, I’ll walk you in. Let’s go harass Maeve.”

“No.” Celia said, the word a bullet of air hanging between them for a second, while she looked like she was wavering between speaking and having another meltdown. I felt a fresh pool of sweat form between my breasts as I waited for her decision. She surprised me by simply stating, “Normal people walk into Sunshine by themselves.”

“Being normal can be overrated, Celia.”

She didn’t reply, but the look she gave me spoke volumes. It said, Let me see for myself.

“Fine,” I acquiesced. “But I’m supposed to sign you in.”

“Let me go in first.” She was already messing with her seatbelt while trying to juggle her drink, her bag of fries, and her Happy Meal box. “But first . . . see? I got a Barbie.” She plucked a miniature version of a Barbie from the box. It was still encased in plastic and looked like it was in McDonald’s uniform.

“Very cool,” I said, picturing the collection of Happy Meal toys sitting on bookshelves in her room, you know, in place of actual books. “It will go well with your other Happy Meal girl toys.”

“I know!” she squealed in delight. She smacked a quick kiss on my right cheek, threw open the car door, and called over her shoulder, “Remember, no coming in until I’m already all in there with my coat off and stuff.”

“Five minutes?”

“Yeah.” She had no idea what five minutes was, so we pretended.

I watched my kid sister’s hefty frame sashay toward the front doors. She was wearing her favorite Pat Benatar sweatshirt with a floral-printed, Goodwill-rack find from months before. Her white socks poked out of her silver flats. She was quite a piece of work, my “normal” sister. As she tugged open the front door, she looked over her shoulder at me and beamed, so proud of herself, and I felt my heart swell.

As I exited my car, heading toward the Sunshine building, I knew I wanted what was best for Celia, and if Celia wanted to be normal, she deserved the closest thing to that I could give her. In the end, that is all my parents ever really wanted.

That Saturday, after the zoo and ice cream, Celia, Liz and I would go to A Safe Haven, and perhaps, just perhaps, Celia would be able to find her normal there. After all, it was worth a try.


Suzanne Calvin-YimSuzanne Marie Calvin-Yim is a late-in-life student, majoring in English with a minor in Secondary Education. A seasoned wearer of many hats, she has worked as a waitress, bank teller, paralegal, and a Certified Nurse Aide, in addition to having homeschooled her son and daughter. She has three published romance novels with Amber Quill Press, and has freelanced for The Colorado Springs Independent and Out Front Colorado. Suzanne lives in Colorado Springs with her wife, Juli, her adult son and daughter, and Lily the human Schnauzer. Her hobbies include swimming, hiking, biking, reading, watching British films, and thinking reflectively. Currently, she is working on two novels and a collection of short stories.