All parents can scan a crowded park to imagine which adults might foreshadow their own kids, and most probably do. There she is, beneath that willow, studying, guitar case by her side, or there, leading the outdoor business lunch. Maybe that’s her, with the tongue bolt and coiled python, chatting up a biker claque. No one knows, even special needs parents, though theirs is a far tighter window.

Like many people, I was once discomfited by special needs adults. The sounds they made, their distractedness, the fidgety carriages, the disjointed speech or no speech at all, gazes that seemed to see things I didn’t – all of it unnerved me, and in that private unraveling I knew some filaments of poor character lay, compounding the discomfiture.

Shannon changed that. Now I seek such people out. Fortunately, families and society have allowed more access, no longer squirreling those with significant impairments away, allowing them to uncork the hosts of questions – from neurological to theological – that only they can. When you know that value well it’s irresistible, and whenever Shan and I encounter such a person I watch both them and my daughter, absorbing.

These happenstances, though, have costs. Though Shan is still young, with heaps of therapy and development to go, the signs are plain. I’ve seen people far less afflicted than her under constant supervision, and to imagine her even modestly independent remains well beyond both my and Karen’s scope. In a crowd, then, watching others, far less guesswork makes up our conjectures of Shannon’s future than for her neurotypical sister Flannery. Still, having spent nearly all of Shan’s life by her side, imbibing what seepage I can from that cloistered mind, I know what others will draw from her if they just stand close enough and absorb.


I’ve seen it already. Every day, strangers, perfect strangers, take muted solace in Shannon, piqued by her savage elations and boorish joy, her ignorance of custom, wordplay, and the persistent ennui fogging our lives’ numberless iterations. Shan and her kind augur emancipation, divestiture, reincarnating distant liberties we all feel need reclamation, those abandoned when the first hunched hominids settled into village life. People see this freedom, feel it, and I feel it in them as Shannon diddy-bops through packed parks and beaches, along crowded sidewalks and fairgrounds, astonished by everything around. It’s never spoken, but there they are, familiar looks on unfamiliar faces, whorled among the sorrow and pity, the emotive disarray that once marked my own reactions. I wasn’t aware of it then, but am now, though articulation remains a trick.


Purity is as close as I come. People crave it. Whether through fresh-fallen snow or pitch-perfect poetry, a forested springlet or a spotless marriage, we’re all bewitched by the unadulterated. What defines it is hard to say. We only know that it’s as fleeting as it is rare, compounding its pull, and source – or origin – likely generates that gravity, as a collective hunch that everything runs pure at the start pervades humanity. Even the silt-choked Mississippi, afterall, bubbles clean from wooded springs, something we see in ourselves as we gather before newborns, awed.

People like Shannon ooze such source, first source, our imagination’s undying umbilical, pumping in our greatest hopes and deepest fears. If the devout, then, believe we’ve fallen out with Creation, atheists and agnostics match them, unable to shake the sense that we’ve separated from nature, corrupting ourselves with that division. While special needs people – even children like Shan – are far from pure, they at very least seem dewed with those original amniotics.

Whether it’s true or not I have no idea, but I’ve heard that Native Americans left the insane alone. ‘Touched’ they called it, and killing or molesting such people fell under their definition of sacrilege. Watching Shan hop in place on a boardwalk, repeating her unintelligbles at ungoverned pitches, or bounding through surf, howling at oncoming waves, it’s easy to see. The faces around her sense what Natives must have when coming across a prairie-crazed settler. Touched by what no one is sure, God maybe, or original burst, but whatever it is, it’s present in all states – cankerous, joyous, sedative – wafting out our collective understanding of holy with all the damnation and beatitude that entails.