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For: Sister Mary Aquin O’Neill’s Class

March 17, 1992


Flowers

By Joseph C. Turbyville (Now M.D)

“Full many a flower is born to blush unseen and waste its sweetness on the desert air.” Thomas Gray

This quote from Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” is one of my favorites because it makes a statement about the intrinsic value of things. A flower is beautiful regardless of who is nearby to appreciate it. In our society too much emphasis is placed on outward appearance and materialistic value. We simply do not treat others with the respect they deserve by virtue of the fact that they are human. If we did, there would be no prejudice, and we would have no social outcasts. We would take time to get to know one another, rather than basing judgments strictly on outward appearance. We are surrounded by flowers, but rarely do we go out of our way to appreciate them.

When I returned to Notre Dame to begin my junior year, I had no new expectations. Campus looked the same as it had when I left and my class schedule appeared to be a continuation of the previous years. I did not plan on making many new friends because one makes most acquaintances in college during the freshman year. As usual, I arrived before any of my other roommates, so I decided to go visit with some of the other guys in the dorm. I went upstairs and Chris, a member of the freshman orientation staff. He was in the process of pairing brothers with little sisters, guys from our dorm with freshman girls from another dorm. I asked him how it was going, and he replied, “Fine, but I have a special request concerning one of the little sisters.” Apparently he had received a letter informing him that one of the girls was confined to a wheelchair, could not speak, was legally blind, and needed a big brother who could be sensitive to her condition. After thinking it over awhile I told him that I would do it. At first I thought it would be good for me because I could help someone else and score some points with God in the process. Now that I have known this girl for over six months I realize that she has given me more than anything I could offer her.

Dawn Parkot was born with cerebral palsy, “a neuromuscular disability caused by injury to the motor centers of the brain.” In many cases a person with cerebral palsy might have limited motor skills yet be perfectly normal in every other respect: “In 1862, Dr. William John Little first described cerebral palsy and this “disease” was given his name. However, according to his description, Little disease signified a feeble-minded child, drooling, grimacing, and with a scissors gait.” Thus the erroneous impression developed all children with cerebral palsy were feeble-minded… It is now known that impaired intelligence does not necessarily accompany the motor disability.” Approximately four out of seven victims of cerebral palsy have a perfectly normal mental capacity, and Dawn happens to be one such individual.

 

I often find myself wondering what kind of God could allow such a disease to exist. Mental retardation, for example, is a cruel affliction, but how many mentally retarded individuals really comprehend the fullness of their condition? Someone who is mentally retarded does not notice when another person stares, laughs, or purposely avoids contact. Dawn, however, is well aware of all that goes on around her. After twenty years she has no doubt learned to deal with the situation, but no one can totally harden oneself to such public ridicule.

It is a shame that people do not understand Dawn’s condition. Even when confronted with facts many are unaffected. For example, Dawn recently went to dinner off campus with one of her friends. As usual, the waitress immediately began to patronize her, treating her like a child: “You must be from Logan Center,” she said, “My sister used to volunteer there. We just love you people!” Dawn’s friend immediately interjected, “As a matter of fact, Dawn is a computer science/math major at Notre Dame.” As if she had not heard a thing, the waitress replied, “Oh, that’s nice!” and continued to patronize Dawn throughout the meal. Had I been there, I might have been tempted to explain to the waitress that Dawn’s I.Q is twice that of any of their employees and she does not need to be treated like a child.

On a number of occasions I have noticed how people go out of their way to say hello to Dawn, but they do it in the same manner that one would greet a small child. She understands that they mean well, but she does not like to receive special attention.

 

She gets tired of publicity, yet she always obliges when asked for an interview. She likes to do things for herself, and many are astonished when they learn of her capabilities. Perhaps life would be easier for Dawn if she went to school where she could receive special attention, but she is not one to take the easy way out. She is taking a stand against society, and in so doing will probably make life a little bit easier for any who should choose to follow in her footsteps.

In the words of Victor Frankl, Dawn is a tragic optimist of the highest degree.

 She has turned her suffering into a human achievement rather than buckling under the yolk. Not only does she tolerate her situation, but she faces it with a positive attitude. I can honestly say that I have never met anyone who laughs as much as Dawn Parkot does. I am not referring to a little giggle either; when she is amused, the entire North Quad of campus knows it. She is not worried about drawing attention to herself; the wheelchair takes care of that. Her laugh is but one indication that she knows how to have fun in spite of the obstacles that life has placed before her. I went to a formal with her a couple of weeks ago, and we both had a wonderful time. Despite my lack of rhythm, we danced for nearly the entire time. As I watched her moving her arms to the beat, I could not help noticing the number of people just sitting around watching other people dance. I remember wishing that I could walk up to those people, remove their legs, and give them to Dawn, because I knew that she would put them to good use.

I have a difficult time dealing with Dawn’s condition because I cannot imagine having an opinion and not expressing it because it is just not worth the effort that it takes to communicate. What is it like not to be able to do so many things that we often take for granted? How does it feel not to be able to use a telephone, or a fork, or the bathroom unless someone else is around to help? I often try to put myself in another person’s shoes, but I find that very difficult to do with Dawn. Fortunately, she does not hold everything inside, but expresses herself through writing. When I read the following poem, I thought, for the first time, that I understood at least partially how she felt:


Wheelchairs
By Dawn Teresa Parkot

confinement to an open prison
no way out
the object of objection, a barrier to affection no way out
no comfort no style no class just a pain in the ass
no way out
they look like fun…for awhile…covered with stickers SMILE but
no way out
better than staying in one place
better than having no face
but
no way out

Since I met Dawn, the word “prejudice” has taken on a whole new meaning. One need not ridicule another to be accused of prejudice. If I look at someone and treat them any differently than I normally would, based on what I see, then I am guilty of prejudice. There are many beautiful people who, for one reason or another, are treated differently because they do not conform to some ideal. Dawn Parkot is but one of many flowers in full bloom; poor are those who do not take time to smell the roses.


 

Footnotes

1) Quoted from memory
2) Phelps, Winthrop M., “Doctors Meet the Challenge of Cerebral Palsy,” The trained Nurse and Hospital Review, (April 1946), No. 4, 259-262
3) Cardwell, Viole E., The Cerebral Palsied Child and His Care in the Home,” New York: Association for the Aid of Crippled Children, 1947
4) Ibid