'Something inside won't let me quit' Mae Hepple: She tells her story unflinchingly, without apology, accepting her own role in her suffering. It is a litany of woe, except that she has found peace by ensuring that her children will know she loved them.

January 21, 1996|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,SUN STAFF

Mae Hepple unlatches her apartment door and then maneuvers her wheelchair backward until she is planted in the middle of her sparse living room. A crooked, nervous smile flits across her pale face. Joy has been parceled out ever soparsimoniously in Mae's life, but in a few moments, when that door swings open, it will pay her a brief visit.

That it will be brief Mae accepts without protest or complaint. Her defining outlook is one of lowered expectation, of nearly noexpectations at all. It is a perspective born of disability -- cerebral palsy -- and poverty, twin maladies that have circumscribed her life and that she has been unable, Helen Keller-style, to surmount.

In Mae's 31 years, that fatalism has been affirmed again and again, so much so that when she learned she was HIV-positive a couple of years ago, she felt neither surprise nor rancor nor sadness. What she thought was, "Why, of course I am."

The door opens finally, and a pale, copper-haired girl of 12 bursts in, crying "Mommy, Mommy." Mae extends her bony arms like a scarecrow and envelops the child. A keening sound rises from Mae's throat.

Three days later, the scene is nearly exactly repeated, but this time with a dusky-skinned, 4-year-old girl all dressed up in Christmas finery -- taffeta, tights and shiny black shoes. Mae pulls this child onto her lap. The squealing noise begins anew.

Later, when the visit is over, Mae will feel the familiar letdown, abruptly emptied of the pleasure that steadily rose during her days of anticipation. Yet Mae does not consider herself unhappy.

She cannot care for her children, cannot be part of their daily lives. One day soon, she won't be part of their physical lives at all.

But they will know she loved them, and her love is the legacy she will leave them. That and the example of her endurance. For Mae endured. She endured it all.

Mae silences Toni Braxton with a flick of the remote. Outside her apartment window, swollen, gray clouds hover over Mount Royal Avenue, the JFX and, beyond that, the ash-colored rowhouses of the central city. On the living room are photos of her daughters, Pamila and Coley, and a few hangings of a Christian motif. Adjoining the living room is a tiny kitchen and a hallway leading to her bedroom.

Living alone

Mae does not have a job -- she subsists on a $458 a month disability check -- so she spends an inordinate amount of time within these walls. But it pleases her to do so.

As deep as Mae's feelings are for the girls, she has retreated from regarding them as the most essential elements of her life. "My independence is the most important thing in my life," she says on a December afternoon after Pamila's visit. "It's even more important than my kids. That may sound harsh, but I've lost my children; they're not with me anymore, so all I have is my independence. My home, something I can call my own. This is the only thing I'm able to hold onto. It would destroy me if I had to lose it."

On an earlier occasion, she had used similar language in describing her decision to have children. "I had this empty hole ever since I was a child, but with Pamila this hole was filled because I had something that was mine and nobody else's."

A little later, the hole needed filling again, so she had Coley. The hole now is empty of children. Pamila was taken away from Mae; last year, she gave up Coley to adoption.

Her insistence on living alone stems in part from contrariness. Her education -- such as it was -- never assumed independent living for someone so thoroughly afflicted. And the foster mother who raised her from infancy did not have the imagination to envision her living on her own.

Certainly, in appearance, Mae looks like someone who needs to be taken care of. She resembles a rag doll stuffed with a material too insubstantial to keep her erect in her wheelchair. Her narrow shoulders slump forward, especially after a trying day.

Her hands, particularly on her weaker right side, come to rest at unnatural angles. At the end of her frequent spasms, Mae's right hand often winds up perpendicular to her wrist with her twig fingers bent backward at the joints.

She is able to write, cook and do the dishes, but her hands operate in a way that suggest an inanimate pincer rather than a flexible human limb. She doesn't make the mistake of trusting them. She avoids carrying hot beverages.

Since the age of 13, Mae has been confined to her motorized wheelchair, which she operates with the dexterity of a seasoned backhoe driver. Manipulating a lever on the chair's arm, she expertly backs up or squeezes into tight spaces. When she rides along the streets outside her building, she leans out over her knees, straining against the seat belt that keeps her from falling over.

She looks like a figurehead on the prow of a ship, disappearing into the mist.

A pile of troubles

If she were of a querulous nature, Mae Hepple's grievances against the world would make Job seem a lucky man indeed.

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