Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Christine and The String

If you have somehow missed the character that is Christine, here's a refresher: big, hairy, exuberant. Her multiple-diagnosis includes (but is not limited to) autistic tendencies, mental handicaps (emotionally and intellectually, she scores on par of about a 3 year old, despite being over 30) and obsessive-compulsive behaviours. This last disease was never more prominent than with The String.

As mentioned previously, Christine never left the house without her trusty fanny pack. She was particularly proud of it, because tipping the scales at well over 300lbs, it was only due to a recent weight loss to get down to this fighting weight that allowed her to finally squeeze into her already-modified butt-bag. But she always had a back pack on top of the fanny pack for carrying all her actual necessities (necessities for a 30 year old mentally challenged woman: her baton, for all her twirling needs, Oreo crumbs, and a handful of Barbie shoes). So if she had all her important stuff stowed away in the back pack, what could she need the fanny pack for? Why, string of course.

The String was her most prized possession. She took it out on the bus, at the dinner table, basically, everywhere and anywhere, all the time. To my inexperienced eye, it looked actually like several pieces of twine twisted together to form one piece of thin, woolly rope. Christine didn't talk about The String. But it was always there. She would twist it up and then let it untwist, like kids do on tire swings, over and over and over. Then she would dangle it over the surface (table top, bus seat, her lap or mine, when she was in a fix) and scrunch it down until the tip of the string lightly grazed the surface, then she'd jerk it back up, let it hover, and then gently lower it down again. And she watched it, transfixed, as if God himself might somehow appear to her in the string. As far as I know, he never did, but it wasn't for lack of her rapt attention. That string could keep her busy for hours. In fact, it was the only thing in the whole word that could hold her attention for more than 30 seconds.

The string was old and worn from so much use. I began to despair that one day it would just wear away, or worse, she would forget to put it back in the fanny pack for safe keeping and it would be left behind. My mission in life was to keep a sharp eye on The String. Christine, being the manic depressive that she was, would surely produce waterworks of catastrophic proportions if The String ever met its demise. At the very least (and quite selfishly, I admit), I at least hoped it wouldn't happen on my watch. So when Christine and I were out, I'm sure we both looked to be obsessive-compulsive because neither of us could take our eyes off the precious cargo.

I became not only Christine's mentor, but The String's body guard. I took this post quite seriously. Christine, in her lifetime, had already met with such heartache that I knew without really considering it, that I would do anything to prevent her with meeting with more.

Now, I have neglected so far to mention one nifty thing about our girl Christine. You see, Christine had "a gift". The media has made a lot of so-called idiot-savants ever since it was so cleverly illustrated by Rainman. Raymond (Dustin Hoffman) despite (or perhaps because of) autism, is able to do complex mathematical problems. When a boxful of toothpicks fall to the ground, he seemingly instantly calculates how many there are. Obviously, onlookers are dumbfounded. He could count cards at the casino, and yet lacked the ability to dress himself. While this case is of course typical of the hyperbole in Hollywood, it is not uncommon for the mentally challenged to sometimes have a special gift, or one highly developed area of expertise. Christine did not count toothpicks - instead, her head was an infallible calendar. Her mother had supposedly helped Christine learn about keeping a simple count (1, then 2, then 3, then 4) by marking it on a calendar. Somehow, in Christine's mottled brain, this took hold.

The first thing that Christine would do when she meet someone was to ask their birthdate. The second you responded (she always insisted on a year - modesty is unacceptable to the Christines of the world), she would tell you on which day of the week you were born. Many of us do not recall the exact day on which we were born, but no matter what you responded - confirmation, uncertainty, etc - she give a very firm shake of the head. There was no reason to doubt Christine. There was no question. She was always right.

It was uncanny, and there was no limit to this ability. She could regurgitate the date for hundreds of years back. She somehow always accounted for leap years and so forth. It was an amazing thing to see, especially for those of us who knew her and her many diseases. This was Christine's way to shine. We don't know where this knowledge comes from. The knowledge, which is extremely limited (called a splinter skill), is not traceable by modern science. Christine's brain anatomically looks like yours and mine. Her IQ hovers around the 25 point range, which makes her a barely functional human being. And yet, as far as dates and calendars are concerned, she is a savant (savant means learned one in french). Sadly, Christine is not intelligent enough to grasp the concept that her skill is unusual. She knows without understanding. It's hard to accept this trait in the mentally handicapped; often times her mother would have been glad to have traded in this "gift" if only Christine could learn to tie her own shoes, or regulate her food intake. But we don't pick and choose. Christine is who she is.

She swears like a sailor. She can't remember to look both ways before crossing the street. She cannot follow even the simplest directions. She must be constantly supervised. She has the attention span of a flea. And she loves her string.

Once I had been working with Christine for a few months, The String was looking truly pathetic. It was dirty (if you dropped your most prized possession repeatedly on the floor of the bus, it wouldn't look so hot either), it was splayed, and I feared its lifespan was drawing to a close. I literally had heart palpitations thinking about what might happen without The String around to keep Christine company. I thought about setting up a meeting with her support team to discuss the imminent possibilities when one day, out of the blue, Christine granted me the ultimate sign of her respect - I was entrusted with The String.

She handed it over to me gingerly. I remember being quite glad I was wearing mittens that could be washed since The String was beyond grubby. Christine was busy trying on ratty sweatshirts at the local thrift store (Christine believed that Valu Village was the highest end clothing store in the world, and never "shopped" anywhere else), and I waited outside with The String and the fanny pack (gladly - as we know, I could just as easily have been accosted with more nudity). Christine yelled at me through the not-wide-enough-curtain of her dressing room to place The String inside the fanny pack.

I sweated a little at the thought of this important task. I agonized over the possibility of getting it snagged in the zipper, and it being all my fault. I barely managed to muster the courage to break open ye olde fanny pack, but I'm glad I did because I have never before or sense enjoyed such a hearty belly laugh. Inside the fanny pack were dozens of identical pieces of string. It was a plethora of string, an unending supply, a sure source of many more hours of devoted string activities. I was never more relieved and glad than on that dreary afternoon in Valu Village.

Previous Christine found here.

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