Saturday, March 1, 2014

Riding the Bus with My Sister, Rachel Simon

Funny story. I really like the TV show The Gilmore Girls. I have a goal to someday at least ATTEMPT to read every book mentioned in the 7 year series. Which is no small task given that the character of Rory Gilmore LOVES to read and LOVES the classics. They also have about a billion pop culture references per episode and when those things pop out at me and they don't violate my own personal moral code (for instance, I don't watch R rated movies, so when they mention those movies, I don't track them down to watch). There is one episode with Lorelai Gilmore is attempting to get rid of some of her old VHS tapes of shows she taped back in the day or movies that were on TV. She insists that she needs to keep them for the original commercials shown at the time of original air date (which I do admit that I can sympathize with this idea, we have some old taped from TV VHS at my parents and when we forgot to pause the recording during the commercials, seeing those old commercials totally throws me back!). She has had a falling out with her daughter Rory and they are estranged and have been for months. She finds this movie of "Riding the Bus with My Sister" and gives a mocking review of the plot to Luke, her fiance. I thought to myself, I wonder if that is a movie that I could watch and mock and feel like a Gilmore Girl? Just for kicks. So I look it up, find out it was made by Hallmark, so it'll be appropriate, but more than that, I find out that it's a BOOK that has pretty high reviews. Being the purist I am, I HAVE to read the book before searching for the movie. And interestingly enough, the end of the episode is of Lorelai watching the movie alone-a movie she normally would have watched with her daughter to bond over mocking, and Riding the Bus with My Sister is a story of two sisters who don't understand one another and it's a little juxtaposition of Lorelai's situation. But that's how I even became aware that this book existed.

Riding the Bus with My Sister is a memoir. But it reads like a novel. It does help that the author is actually a writer and not just a person writing a memoir as some books tend to be a bit sluggish when not written by a true author. Rachel is the narrator,  and Irish twin with her younger (by 11 months if you haven't heard the term Irish twins) sister, Beth who is mildly mentally retarded. The story is told in alternating "current" time as well as childhood flashbacks, which are really helpful in painting the whole picture. 

I can identify with the author somewhat. I have a sister who as a disorder that wasn't even diagnosable back when we were kids, so I was always being asked questions about her that I never could answer, which Rachel has happen to her throughout her childhood too. And she struggles with truly understanding her sister, which is a challenge I face. Especially when you're fighting within yourself what you WANT to be doing and what you actually END UP doing, which are sometimes the same and sometimes not. And when they're not, all the feelings of failure to do what you intended to do and not knowing why you didn't follow through.

She also addresses societal issues, such as the fact that Beth is technically capable of working, what we'd consider "contributing to society" as opposed to being a "drain" on society, but chooses not to. And in the world at the time, and possibly still, there is a movement about self-determination, how we cannot (and should not) force a person to do anything they don't want to do. For instance, Beth does NOT like to eat healthy food, and she doesn't have to. She doesn't want to work, she doesn't have to. It doesn't help that if she even makes a tiny bit of money,  her SSI decreases by the amount she makes, so it doesn't matter if she works or not, she'll have the same amount to live on, unless by some miracle she obtained a job that would pay her more than her SSI would be. So in this light, why shouldn't she do whatever makes her the happiest? She's fairly independent living on her own with enough skills to take care of herself hygienically and at least enough food to sustain her regardless of its health benefits or lack thereof. But there are many people who just don't understand why Beth chooses to spend the time in the way she does-riding busses around the city from dawn (or earlier) to dusk 6 days a week. She has acute observations of people and the world around her, but really doesn't care what people think or say about her. Her confidence level is really quite astounding. 

There is one scenario where Beth needs eye surgery. She has fought surgery for so long, that one of her conditions is irreparable, but a secondary condition is making things worse and can be reversed with surgery. So one of the amazing bus drivers who not only tolerates Beth but is friendly with her volunteers to drive Rachel and Beth to the hospital on his day off, stays through the surgery, drives them back to Beth's apartment and THEN after Rachel takes care of her for the required 2 days, has Beth come stay at his house so he and his wife can care for her an extra "just in case day" longer. Rachel then says "During these two days, I learn, on the phone with Olivia [one of the members of Beth's care team], that this is how it's supposed to work. The system that supports independent living relies on it: the cultivation of friends in the community, who will, out of kindness and generosity, help out. Fortunately-amazingly-Beth has such friends, especially in Jacob [the bus driver who took her in]. But it seems like a lot to ask, in this selfish, materialistic, inflexible world of ours, where so many of us are rocketing single-mindedly toward some personal vision of happiness." I think that's the heart of it all-EVERYTHING that is a support for anyone, shouldn't be the end all. Us, PEOPLE, should-out of kindness and generosity-be helping other PEOPLE. We shouldn't say, "Oh, we'll just pay more in taxes to help those people out" and be proud that our tax money goes to help the poor, because honestly, do we truly trust government enough to give ALL they get to where it's supposed to go? And how removed is that? How rewarding is it to have a deduction on your paystub and think "well, I sure hope this is going to the right place" vs. actually helping someone in a tangible, I can see and hear and touch you right now way. I am sure that Jacob and his wife were edified in a way that even a generous donation to a cause cannot edify. We're so busy that we'd let a check take care of what our time should.

Another inner conflict Rachel continues to have is that of trying to decode Beth from her disability. WHY does Beth act a certain way? Is it because she CAN'T do something or WON'T? How much is the disability and how much is her stubborn personality? Can you separate the two? Not least not in this situation. Which got me to thinking about other challenges, like ADD/ADHD, and trying to get people to be honest with themselves, how much is the condition causing me to lose control and how much is my unwillingness to try to combat the symptoms? For me, I had Post Partum Depression really bad after both my daughters were born. With my first, it blind-sided me completely. I had to determine how much of my depression was the chemical imbalance happening in my brain and how much was me not choosing to be happy. In my case, I determined that my chemical imbalances were robbing me of my ability to choose happiness and therefore sought counseling and when that wasn't enough, medication to go along with it. And because many of these disorders are spectrum, everyone has to be completely honest with themselves about their abilities, but that's also the problem. Only and individual can know their abilities and limitations, the rest of us can only take their word for it. 

I'd like to end by returning to a reflection Rachel gives at the beginning of the book on page 7 "In the course of my life, cars and trains and jets have whisked me to wherever I wanted to go, and I was going places, I thought; I was racing my way to becoming a Somebody. A Somebody who would live a Big Life. What that meant exactly, I wasn't sure. I just knew that I longed to escape the restrictions of what I saw as a small life: friends and a family and a safe, unobjectionable job that would pay me a passably adequate income. Although this packages encompassed just the kind of existence many people I knew were utterly content with, I wanted something more. Then in the winter of my thirty-ninth year, I boarded a bus with my sister and discovered that I wanted broader and deeper rewards than those I would find in the Big Life."

Here's a picture of Beth and Rachel

And in 2005 Hallmark made this story into a movie starring Rosie O'Donnell as Beth and Andie MacDowell as Rachel (not bad for type casting, eh?). I haven't seen it yet, and it doesn't have very good reviews (4 out of 10 on IMDB) and I've read that Rosie was criticized for overacting the mental retardation, but I am going to track this down, watch it myself and make my own decision. It could just happen to be that in order to appreciate it you had to of read the book, since the cadence and stress of Beth's speech is typed out so you can hear in your head how it would come out. And no, I will not be mocking it like a Gilmore Girl, but appreciating the story and all the lessons about life I learned.

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