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The simple act of acceptance


THE WAITING is finally over! The young men and women who attend the Chimes Center for Developmentally and Physically Handicapped Adults eagerly anticipate the most important social event of their year -- the Holiday Dance.

My husband puts his coat on and shouts, "Let's get going!" He has other things he would much rather be doing than driving his 21-year-old son to a dance. Sam, on the other hand, loves music and looks forward to dancing to a real band -- and diving into those free refreshments.

As they enter the cement-block building, strains of slightly out-of-tune music fill the air. This neighborhood band of 12 fledgling musicians welcomes the opportunity to practice its music while earning the modest $100 fee available in the center's dance budget. Sam's father hurries in the direction of the music, while Sam plods along behind -- shyly waving to a few of his friends.

The multi-purpose room is no longer the colorless activity area in which many of the young people spend most of their days. Everyone has been working for several weeks to transform the drab surroundings into a welcoming party place. Red poinsettias anchor the white paper table cloths on the tables that ring the dance floor; large, white glitter-sprinkled stars twinkle from the ceiling, and hand-made red and green paper chains drape the walls. Brightly colored crepe-paper swags, an oblong centerpiece of fresh pine branches and Christmas-tree balls, a sparkling punch bowl and assorted snacks, cookies and Santa-Claus plates shout "party" from the refreshment table.

Inconspicuously placed in a far corner of the room is a card table covered with evergreen wrapping paper -- the nurses station. Here is where the emergency medical needs are assembled. Sugar, orange juice and instant glucagon for diabetics who dance too long or too strenuously; small vials of various prescriptions, arranged alphabetically on an ice-cube tray, for those whose medications are due during dance hours; and, perched jauntily in a red basket, bandages, antiseptic solution and cotton balls. An extra chair with a big red bow is placed against the wall for anyone needing a break from the action. The nurse sports a sprig of mistletoe on her cap and a lighted Christmas tree pin on her jacket.

Chaperones greet the anxious guests, making sure that everyone has a place to sit and a friend with whom to talk. The young women, wearing special dresses for the evening, hesitate before entering the multipurpose room, making sure that hems are down, stockings straight and earrings attached. Many have added their own decorative touches: Art supplies, ribbon remnants, plastic (or real) flowers, and holly leaves adorn lapels, belts and purses.

The young men, combing their hair one last time, look serious in their sport coats and sweaters. One, somehow, has commandeered a light blue tuxedo jacket. Smells of after-shave, hair spray, mousse and musk permeate the air.

Special attention to appearance attempts to minimize some of the health difficulties. One guest, unable to stop drooling, carries a real handkerchief instead of the usual Kleenex, and wears a color-coordinated bib over his clean shirt. Another rides in a wheelchair decorated with red and green streamers. Sunglasses conceal a damaged eye, and hats cover early hair loss and misshapen heads. Each person has some distinguishing problem, and each problem has been provided with a compensating "fix."

Soon the young people begin to dance with each other. Although a few remain at home with their parents, most now live in institutional settings, and they treasure this moment of close contact. Usually, they go it alone except for the attention of salaried caregivers who make sure that they eat, bathe and clean their rooms. Many of these young adults ache for a caring touch.

Invitation to the dance

After making sure that Sam is seated at a table with friends, his father turns to leave. As he heads for the door, one of the guests, pushing her glasses further up on her nose, hesitantly invites him to dance. Surprised, he looks around for an escape. Realizing that there is none, he gallantly presents his arm and proceeds to the dance floor.

His six-foot frame, clothed in a dark suit, coordinated necktie and white starched shirt presents a dramatic contrast to his partner, who is no more than five feet tall and considerably overweight. But, as they twirl around the floor, she radiates an inner youthful beauty in her hand-me-down flowered dress, hiking boots and paper hair bow decorated with glitter. Looking flirtatiously over her shoulder, she waves serenely to her friends in the crowd.

The other young men and women enviously watch their glowing friend as she dances with Sam's father. Soon, they begin to form a line. Each in turn, eager for the warmth of a loved one, cuts in on the swirling couple for a spin around the room with the tall impressive man -- graciously and gracefully taking turns until the line is depleted.

Later in the evening, Sam and his weary father dance together, slowly circling the floor to the strains of the final song. Others, who earlier had borrowed the warm circle of his arms for a brief moment, wistfully look on -- wishing that their holiday dance would last forever.

Would that we all could enjoy and celebrate our differences as eloquently as did these young people from the Chimes Center. During the holiday season, perhaps the greatest gift that we have to give to each other is the simple act of acceptance.

Martha McCoy writes from Timonium.

Pub Date: 12/19/96

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