Garden of Friends

by Norma Kilpatrick

Norma Kilpatrick

For over 20 years, I worked with members of the community of people with cognitive disabilities, trying to sow the seeds of understanding, acceptance and inclusion in the garden of mainstream society. The work entailed starting theatre workshops which included disabled people with so-called “normal” people, creating a safe environment for all to express themselves freely. Most people with mental disabilities live their lives in tightly-controlled settings, being tended, her ed and “helped” by workers, but without ever being asked how they feel about anything.

I can not imagine more rewarding work, to witness the blossoming of people discovering abilities they never knew they had, finding confidence and improving their self-images through creative expression. Though I no longer do this work, I keep the memories alive in my garden of some of the most remarkable individuals and their growth.

Ryan, who did not speak or otherwise communicate, came to our first workshop in Trail. As a regular part of the process, I put people into groups and asked them each to tell a story of an incident in their lives when they felt left out. I didn’t know how Ryan’s group would manage to get him to tell his story, but to my amazement, when I looked over to their corner of the room, there was Ryan telling his story with his hands and some occasional grunts. My heart sang. In the end, Ryan became an able performer on the big stage, developing a clown character and connecting with the audience. In my garden, I think of Rick in the garlic patch, full of underground passion and finally blooming into colorful, whimsical “scapes”.

Another original member of the troupe, an older woman named Hannah, lived in a wheelchair in a group home. We couldn’t tell if Hannah had ever been mentally handicapped because her mother put her into a mental institution at age 8 due to physical health challenges, including a hunchback and one crippled side. After working and performing in our theatre group, Hannah could find happiness by dancing joyously in her wheelchair. My memory of Hannah emerges when I’m picking patty-pan squash, her yellow hair, scalloped edges and stubborn embrace of life shining through.

Tomatoes abound in my garden, and they remind me of my friend Linda. Linda loved performing in our annual Big Lip-Sync Contest, sometimes alone, sometimes with me or others. She really shook her fat, juicy self on Shania Twain’s song “Up” and Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock ‘n Roll”, although I had to warn her repeatedly not to take off any clothes. Her efforts made her turn red in the face.

I’ve always had my biggest garden success with green beans, pole beans that grow 14-16 feet tall; I need a ladder to pick them. My friend Marvin, a string bean himself, tall and thin, always wanted to perform as Elvis Presley. Marvin could not speak except in a gruff whisper, but he won the hearts of the audience at our last lipsync contest with his over-the-top, emotional and romantic Elvis performance.

Sweet Susanna comes to mind in my many basil plants. Another inspired performer, she could sing it, swing it, and talk about it, always ending with big hugs.

I fill out the garden, protecting it from bugs, with marigolds, represented by Philip, a slender, fairy-like young man, whose passion made him dance. For several years, Philip participated in theatre workshops and performances, but he always wanted to perform as Tina Turner, doing “Simply the Best”. His caregivers said he couldn’t do it but I thought he could; once onstage in front of 400 people, with the music playing, he forgot to lip-sync the words. I ran to the front of the stage and yelled to him, “Don’t forget to sing!” And he sang, performing his heart’s desire. The judges told me afterward that I should have warned them that he was handicapped/disabled/challenged/special needs, whatever label you choose.

But wasn’t that the whole point? To include people of all abilities and then to treat them as equals? The seeds that we planted, seeds of understanding, acceptance and inclusion, only took root very sparsely, and for a short time, I spread my arms around my little band of eager performers to protect them from the sting of social exclusion, much like the wire fencing around my garden.

Longtime West Kootenay resident Norma Kilpatrick lives in the Slocan Valley with her partner.  She has been a theatre teacher, director and performer, giving workshops, creating and producing plays, and hosting lip-sync contests as the Grande Dame of Ham.