I would watch her slowly plodding through The Village, eyes fixed on the ground, arms hanging at her sides.
She didn’t strike me as being either happy or unhappy. Capable or clumsy. Quick witted or slow. She was just . . . there. Not a positive, but not a negative either.
In my little world of colorful Village People – David with his love for his grandma and his treasure box, Claude with his ancient wisdom born of patient endurance and his childlike enjoyment of coloring books, Keisha with her wholehearted enthusiasm for nail polish and lipstick, Nikki with her flirtatious smiles for any man within a 50-yard radius – Shakira was a neutral.
I believed this even after the first time we made Cucumber Ginger Juice and she approached me to ask if there was any left for her. There wasn’t, but I told her we’d be making smoothies in a couple of weeks and if she’d remind me, I’d make sure to pour her a cup.
We did and she did and I did. And that was the first time I saw a spark.
“Aunty Sarah, it is very nice! I like it a lot. It’s cool and refreshing!”
But what I thought was just an instinctual reaction to food was so much more.
She joined us for our second Cooking Class: Omelettes (being the speedy folk we are, it only took us 3 hours to make 15 of them). It was the first time she’d come to one of my activities.
She chose to cut the sweet pepper and immediately grasped the knife like a pro. No hand-over-hand needed here! I watched her out of the corner of my eye as I held the pepper for her. Her face was filled with pleasure as each perfect slice of pepper fell to the side.
“Shakira!” I said in amazement. “You can cut! The pepper – it’s beautiful!”
“Aunty Karen,” she said, turning to my partner in crime, “I learned to cook in the kitchen in Crossroads where I grew up!”
I let go, stepped all the way back, and watched her slice and dice with ease. First the pepper. Then the onion. Then a tomato. Each perfectly proportioned. She was clearly in her element, and I was playing catch up – trying to adjust my perception of her to the reality that was unfolding before my eyes.
“Shakira,” I said the following week, “you said the kitchen in Crossroads was where you learned to cook. Was that a school? Or a home?”
“Yes. The seizures did not come to trouble me until I was older. It was only when I was eight that they came. Then I had to go to the home in Crossroads. I learned to cook. I learned tie and dye. I rode the bus. It is only when the seizures come that I have trouble.”
Then came the sentence that wrenched my heart: “Aunty Sarah, I am a normal person like you.”
“Yes, Shakira, you are,” I managed. “You can do so much. I can’t even cut peppers and onions as good as you can.” (Truly, I can’t.)
She smiled. “I am a good cook. But, the older I get, the more I want to see my family. My mother and my father. I have brothers and sisters that I have never met – can you believe that? I want to go out and see them.”
What do you even say in response to that? Especially when you know, as I do, that many of Mustard Seed’s kids don’t even have birth certificates. They often come to us from hospitals or the street or a pig pen or a neglectful home. They may arrive with nothing more than the clothes on their back. They may arrive without even a name.
It all too often points back to the same story – a family that can’t care for a child with a disability. A family that, in many cases, isn’t going to seek contact with their son or daughter.
At our next two Cooking Classes, she was my right hand woman; watching the stew when I had to dash out for a rag, demonstrating to the other residents how to slice bread.
“Aunty Sarah,” she would say, “today is Wednesday. I will come to help you cook. What do you need me to do?”
On my final Tuesday in the Village, I did the ladies’ makeup one last time. Shakira was there.
“Last time you did this I had to go to the hospital. But today I am here!” she said joyfully. “Aunty Sarah, you can do mine, too?”
“Shakira,” I said when I had finished applying her eyeshadow and lipstick and blush, “look in the mirror.”
That beautifully expressive smile that I had come to know and love immediately appeared.
“Shakira,” I said, “look in the mirror and say, ‘I am beautiful.'”
“I. Am. Beautiful.” she repeated, grinning at her reflection.
“You are beautiful, Shakira. You have beautiful eyes and lips and hands. And you do beautiful things, too. helping me with cooking class and helping the aunties with the other residents.”
“Aunty Sarah, I miss you already. We are just now starting to do things and you are going.”
“I miss you already, too.”
My last day at The Village, she dictated a letter for another Aunty:
. . . And I’m sending you a photograph of me training to cook in Jamaica because of Aunty Sarah. I appreciate the training that I got from Aunty Sarah teaching us how to do things and do it well. Thank you because I am number one chef in Jamaica right here. I learn from growing up how to cook and do things in the kitchen.
And also teaching how to do it make me feel good in myself. The teaching – no matter how small it is – I can do it on my own also if I get the chance. But one thing spoil [i.e. the seizure disorder] but it is under control. But I feel good to know that Aunty Sarah teach us how to do things on our own.
If I wasn’t here I would be getting teaching how to prepare my own meal and share it out that everyone can have a taste of this cooking because I am the first one that know everything about how to do these things. Thank you. Bless up.
Shakira, you are a normal person.