Rituals

“Rituals are formulas by which harmony is restored.” Terry Tempest Williams

Wisdom can be found in unlikely spaces. Since Juliette came to us, the world that doesn’t know about Down syndrome assumes she’s different. They have lower expectations and assume she will have less to contribute. In fact, I’ve discovered that she’s often the smartest person in the room.

I walk in the door, thirty seconds behind Colleen. My wife needs her moments with Juliette before she sees me. But my granddaughter knows the drill. “Grandpa?”

She leans over the safety gate in the kitchen and screams my name when she sees me. Colleen unlocks the gate and and Juliette runs to me,  jumping into my arms. I toss her in the air again and again as she laughs. I hug her close. “How are you, baby?”

She touches her nose. “Me!” That’s our code word for dancing to Michael Bublé. I call to Alexa and she spins up Save the Last Dance for Me. I sing to her. We spin and twirl. I dip her upside down at the end of each verse. She makes a dancer’s movement with her fingers and puts a palm on her nose as the chorus comes around.

When the song concludes, she giggles and intones, “Down.” My granddaughter grabs my index finger with a tiny paw. “Come on,” she says.

Juliette pulls me to her play room. The plastic box with with two dozen tiny rubber animals is open. “Sit,” she commands.

For the next hour, she picks up the animals, one by one, announcing their color as she puts them into my open hands. “Red, Blue, Purple, Lell0w..” Her pronunciation is still rough, but her understanding of the pigments is perfect. When my hands overflow, I split them in the middle and let the figures drop like stones back into their box. She laughs and keeps going.

When she is satiated by the activity, she raises a hand. “Stop Please.” It’s time for the book. Out comes The Mystery Bug Collection. She and Hudson are the stars of my little tome about hand-washing, mask wearing and distancing. She plops into my lap, flipping the pages as I read, punctuating the end of each paragraph with the one word she knows. “Sneeze. Knees. Said. Head. Mother. Brother.” She has moved from one to two syllables. In time, the sentences will come.

Out in the living room, her parents are downloading the day’s activities as Colleen listens. The world is full of fear and uncertainty. You can cut the tension out there with a knife. We are grateful that our family has not been directly impacted by Covid. Everyone still has rewarding jobs. We are healthy. And yet, we worry.

But not Juliette.

The noted feminist and author, E. M. Broner wrote, “Ritual lulls our fear of disorder with the certainty of order.”

I think about this when the alarm goes off and I pull on my workout clothes, heading outside for an hour’s walk. It’s on my mind as I struggle with finding fifteen hundred good words to tack on to my latest story each day. I celebrate it every Wednesday when, at 5 p.m. sharp, I let everything go and concentrate on another date night with my beautiful wife.

For Juliette, there isn’t this inner struggle. She can’t comprehend the bigger picture that constantly fires frightening messages at us. She lives her rituals. All she cares about is working on her basics; the feeling of joy as the music washes over her when we dance, the mindful lifting of each small toy and the simple, binary satisfaction of connecting a word with a color. The rubbing movement of her tiny palms when she sees the page in our book where the pictures of proper hand-washing are displayed.

“Focus on the rituals that move you forward Grandpa,” she seems to say as I rock her to sleep. You may have to adjust when the world throws you curve balls. But the fundamental connection between goals and the activities that make them real can still prevail.

She fights the fatigue. There’s so much she still wants to do. “Couch,” she murmurs. Juliette knows that everyone else is still in the living room, laughing and talking. She wants to be part of it. But the gentle rhythm of the rocking chair, the warmth of my arms around her, and the humidity of my breath as I whisper, “I love you,” is another ritual that calms Juliette until sleep overtakes her.

“Secret,” she whispers, a smile creasing her face as her eyes flutter closed.

I nuzzle her nose and put my ear close to her mouth so she can tell me what her secret is. Juliette smiles and quietly says. “Ice Cream!”