I have a cousin with special needs. She was born when I was thirteen or fourteen, and I’ve been kind of crazy about her ever since. She’s nonverbal and has Down syndrome and some other things that we don’t quite understand.
She lives in a lovely house in Massachusetts, and I visit her when I go to Cape Cod. The minute she sees me, she smiles, gives me a hug, then takes my hand and leads me to her room, where she takes off her shoes and presents me with her feet, which I rub. When she’s had enough, she takes my hands and makes me clap them, and I sing her a variety of songs: Rubber Ducky, Baby Beluga, maybe a few show tunes. I do a hand-clapping game, which she seems to like.
My cousin is pretty short, and I’m pretty tall, so she still seems like a little kid to me, though her hair is prematurely gray. Silver, really, like her dad’s. Sometimes we walk around the block if she’s up for it, and I narrate what we’re seeing, holding her hand, steering her this way and that. She often tries to get into my car, but I don’t have the proper safety harness for her, and I often have a dog with me. She doesn’t like dogs, though Luther may have won her over a bit the last time we went.
The hardest part of visiting her is saying goodbye, because I can’t. She gets too upset, so her aides distract her, and I just slip out the door. Sometimes I cry a little bit in my car. My heart always feels achy and swollen after I visit, but I keep going. She’s my little sweetheart, after all.
A few years ago, I dreamed that my sweet cousin could talk. I said, “I love you, honey,” and she said she loved me, too, and I ran to get her mother, so my auntie could hear her talk, too.
And someday, in the next life, I hope I’ll get to hear her voice for real.