March 07, 2006

My Cousin Sharon: Priceless

By Michael B. Owen

AUTHOR'S NOTE: My cousin Sharon Price is probably the most responsible member of our family. She looks for ways to help others and is always willing to do what is needed -- she is obviously a woman of strong character. But it has taken me many years to recognize the priceless nature of Sharon's role in our family.

Forty years ago when we were both children, I was afraid of Sharon. I felt uncomfortable around her. I thought her appearance and behavior were strange.

Sharon seldom spoke. When she did, I could not understand her. She laughed loudly and randomly. Sharon never looked directly at me or anyone else. She just stared at the floor.

I remember my mother whispering to me, "Sharon is mentally retarded." But no one explained to me what that meant. The women in our family referred to her as "poor little Sharon." The men never said a word about her at all.

All families have surprises and role reversals. Our family's most interesting one is the evolving relationship between Aunt Sis and Sharon.

In those days Sharon's significant cognitive disability was not the most problematic circumstance in her life. She grew up in a difficult neighborhood in Louisville, Kentucky. Her father, Jesse James Price, spent most of her childhood in prison. During his brief periods of freedom, Jesse abused alcohol and engaged in other behaviors that guaranteed return engagements in "the pen."

When Sharon was 14, Jesse died in a mattress fire started by his own cigarette. I remember hearing my parents speculate that Jesse must have been very drunk indeed to have slept through a fatal mattress fire.

I never met Sharon's mother. I assume she was a magician, because she disappeared within a few months of Sharon's birth. Her disappearance occurred 48 years ago, and none of us, including Sharon, have seen her since.

Sharon's grandfather, J.O. Price, was around long enough to build a relationship with her, but he died when Sharon was six. His widow, Daisy Price, claimed that J.O. died from an ingrown toenail. Apparently he developed an infection from an untreated ingrown toenail that required the amputation of his foot, then his lower leg, and eventually his entire leg. According to Daisy, "the doctors just kept hacking away at him until there was so little of J.O. left that he just died."

With no one else willing or able to assume responsibility for Sharon, her grandmother Daisy became Sharon's legal guardian. Sharon grew up believing that Daisy was her "mama," and Daisy never said anything to challenge that belief. Daisy was an extremely devoted parent. She was also a devoted member of the Pentecostal Church in her neighborhood. The Pentecostal dress code required women to wear very long drab dresses with long sleeves. Daisy and Sharon strictly adhered to the dress code and to all other expectations of the Pentecostal lifestyle. On the rare occasions that they went out together in public they were a striking couple.

Sharon spent 37 years of her life in the protective custody of her "mama."

Daisy believed that Sharon needed to be protected from people who might mistreat her, and she seldom took her eyes off of Sharon. She diligently protected Sharon from any chance of ridicule and risk. Unfortunately, she also isolated her from the kind of stimulation and exposure to social situations that Sharon needed.

When Daisy died, Sharon was faced with a difficult transition. After more than three decades of social isolation, Sharon had very few of the basic skills she needed to live independently.

Once again someone in the family needed to demonstrate responsibility and character. This time it was my mother who stepped up to the plate. She requested and was granted legal guardianship of Sharon.

photo of Sharon Price and her Aunt SisSharon had grown up referring to my mother as her "Aunt Sis." Aunt Sis emerged as the only member of the family who could provide what Sharon needed -- unconditional love and commitment. Aunt Sis also provided effective "case management" skills to make sure that Sharon's interests were protected and that her practical needs were met. Most significantly, Aunt Sis encouraged Sharon to take risks and to explore a wider range of personal choices. Over the course of a decade my mother helped Sharon navigate her way into independence.

Sharon now lives in a condo that she shares with her close friend, Judy. Their condo is in a pleasant neighborhood with shops and friendly people within easy walking distance. Sharon is a valued member of a nearby Methodist Church. She has a small dog and is a responsible pet owner. She diligently protects her dog from ridicule and risk.

Aunt Sis is now 83 and needs support herself. It is Sharon's turn at the plate, and she is responding admirably. Sharon calls Aunt Sis every morning at exactly 8:45 to make sure she awake and okay. She calls two or three other times during the day to "check in." She routinely helps her Aunt Sis with laundry, cleaning, and other household chores. Sharon remains "on call" to help Aunt Sis anytime there is a need. Sharon gives Aunt Sis support that no one else can provide.

All families have potential surprises and inevitable role reversals. Our family's most interesting example is the evolving relationship between Aunt Sis and Sharon. Sharon's role in my mother's life and in the life of our family can only be described as -- priceless.

Michael B. Owen is from Louisville, KY. He now lives and writes in Chapel Hill, NC. Read his humorous essay for Ragged Edge, An Enhanced Death Benefit.

Posted on March 07, 2006