The Values Essays

The Value of Empathy

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

With a half-century of life behind us, my husband and I experience the best prom night ever and learn anew the value of empathy.

Obligatory formal wear sparkles, a Fifties rock n' roll theme adds gaiety and an Oscar-like Red Carpet lends to an air of celebrity. Limousines, including a stretch limo Hummer, line up along with a motorcycle brigade, pick up trucks, late model luxury cars and high-mileage, get-me-thru-one-more-year Fords and Chevys. As "celebrities" arrive, tux-clad greeters announce their names one-by-one to raucous applause. Rock Around the Clock blasts through the sound system.

A local mega-church with gymnasium and wide hallways provides the appropriate high school aura. Fifties frills fight the 21st Century and win. Poodle skirt and bobby sox clad assistants staff the Roxie Registration Station. Soda jerk hats lend authenticity to those dispensing pop in Flip's Fellowship Fountain. Off-duty nursing staff stand ready for emergencies around real soda shop booths dubbed The Nurses' Nest. Attendees stop by Betty's Beauty Parlor for the latest 'do and makeup application. Balloon towers with helium-filled saxophones atop anchor the band stand. And the crowd dances.

Ranging in age from sixteen to sixty, some attendees bear faces that cannot smile, hands that cannot wave or feet that cannot dance. More than a few need wheelchairs for mobility or straps to restrain unwanted motion. Smiles sporting sparkly lipstick upstage the familiar look of Down Syndrome. Lives, long since compromised by disorders with fancy medical names, refuse to give in to anything except a fancy dress, a fancy dance step or a fancy cummerbund.

Every attendee sports a 'date' on their arm. Many dates are eleventh graders from the church's youth group. Others include mentors, care-givers, workers, assistants---the title often depends on the diagnosis and level of care. Many escorts dress formally too and glow with pride surpassed only by parents who stand around the fringe with tired, sometimes tearful eyes but unabashed joy. Whether dancing, pushing wheelchairs, getting snacks or even escorting dates to the restroom, these selfless partners create the prom night of all prom nights. A young black man shepherds a middle aged white woman fighting a gallant battle with mental challenges. A pre-teen girl dances with a man who tells her again and again that he ordered his own tux. Gender, race, age, intellect, religious and political persuasions shrivel up into irrelevance as empathy rules the evening.

Back outside on the Red Carpet, the announcer practices his Elvis impersonation along with a young "celebrity" who has perfected his own Elvis. The greeter inquires, "Who are you so patiently waiting for?" The young man painfully articulates the divine name, "S---S---S---Sarah." Finally, she arrives. Also a "celebrity," sacred Sarah emerges from her Daddy's car, struggles with her dress and labors with her walking until she sees her favorite Elvis impersonator. They run to each other in a slow motion scene fit for Bogie and Bacall. The greeter chokes up but says loudly enough for us to hear, "That makes the whole evening worth while."

"All service ranks the same with God:
With God, whose puppets, best and worst,
Are we; there is no last or first."

From "Pippa Passes"
Robert Browning

updated: 7 years ago


promSaturday, October 16th 2010 11:39PM

Brenda, I adopted one of those precious children with Down Syndrome.  She's now 17 years, and went to her first prom last year.  The day I went shopping with her to buy her prom clothes was so special.  I remember thinking, "This is what I was meant to do with my life."  Love, Carolyn Cox