Prom night

June 26, 2005|By Margaret Burns

THE CALL came about a week ago. Minutes later, while I was curled up half-asleep, exhausted, Katie whispered quietly in my ear. "It was Adam. He wants me to go to the prom with him on Friday. I told him maybe. Is that OK?"

I stirred. "Oh, Katie, you must go, that is so nice of him to call!" Days later, I scrambled to find Adam's number, remembering that my sister knew his family from church. Knowing that Katie would not have thought to write down his number, I needed to confirm the prom date for the next day. I called Adam's mom. All was set.

I was not prepared for prom night.

Katie, 20, was dressed beautifully in her soft ivory sheath, flecked with soft roses, her graduation dress from last year. Her hair was neatly combed in the plain bob that she has worn for years. The simple cut allowed her to independently manage her daily grooming. She had never mastered the ability to blow dry her hair like her teen sisters. She was really 20 going on 8, and her petite build betrayed her age. Although the oldest of our four girls, she needed constant loving care and answers to life's simplest questions, sometimes to the point of frustrating all of us.

Adam, 24, was a friend from the therapeutic drama group that met during the school months and included many disabled friends. They were brought together by the warm tug of Miss Barb, who practiced with them each week during the school year for a spring performance.

Prom night, I drove Katie to the Ridge Ruxton School and met Adam on the sidewalk as he slid from his parents' van. Ridge Ruxton, a public school for the disabled, was home to Adam for most of his school years. Although he had received his certificate, he looked forward to the annual prom, a night out. Adam grinned when he saw me walking with Katie toward the school's front door. He pulled his square shoulders back, put his arm on her shoulder and gently nudged her through the door. We went to the cafeteria, adorned in a Mexican theme.

A lump came to my throat.

Before me was the most disabled group of teens and adults I had ever seen. The entire group appeared to be dressed in Sunday best, flowing skirts, fitted suits, shiny jewelry. A wristlet corsage adorned the wrist of Katie's friend. Smiles everywhere. Although this group did not resemble the models and beautiful people who adorn the covers of teen fashion magazines, in my heart they were uniquely beautiful and simply glowing.

A boy from Katie's school saw her and gestured loudly and emphatically. Katie hugged him. A sweet-faced teen played with a baby toy and seemed amused. The girl fretted about the loud music, and her parents tried to urge her to the dance floor as they both took a hand on each side. Others in wheelchairs clapped and howled to the loud beat of the disco music.

Conflicted and anxious, I was overcome. But before me stood a lively group of disabled men and women having a great time on prom night. On the dance floor, several couples slowly bobbed from left to right, between shouts of excitement. An older attendee, who I did not know, proudly pointed to his father's tie. The disc jockey paused briefly to dance with a thrilled teen.

Devoted parents sat in folding chairs around a festive table of green punch, cheese, fruit and cake. I was struck by how similar we were. Most of us were well into middle age, grasping a piece of our past, recalling prom nights from decades ago. We wanted our children to enjoy this night.

The tears flowed as I nervously reached for the punch. I felt special that I could witness such a fragile moment. And yet my mind was spinning.

I remembered how long ago I had comforted a church friend who had just lost a disabled child. We are special, I told her, because God had chosen us to be mothers of kids like Katie and Josh. And I was reminded that such overwhelming handicaps did not always disappoint or overwhelm. A strange peace soothed me. Despite all of my anxiety, I realized the privilege of witnessing this special evening.

At the evening's close, Adam urged Katie not to leave before the last dance. In his best English, he leaned over to me and whispered, "I request the last song." Slowly the theme from Titanic, Celine Dion's "My Heart will Go On," filled the room. Katie and her escort joined hands and rocked back and forth. Someone snapped a picture. Katie looked in my direction and smiled.

I later realized that I neglected to track down the photographer. As I drifted asleep, I formed a perfect picture, a wonderful memory of Katie and Adam in their prom best - a treasure forever locked in my mind. And it will play over and over, especially when Katie slips in her favorite Titanic CD.

Margaret Burns, chief of communications for the Baltimore state's attorney's office, lives in Phoenix.

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