“Ramona was as squat as a bulldog and had a great round belly. Her shoulders were beefy and her walk was determined, unstoppable—like watching an oversize bowling ball coming at you.”
Ramona Rivera was in love. Her attachment was so strong, her passion so enduring, that they were almost legendary around the Center, though she looked more like a peasant woman than like a celebrated seductress. At twenty-two years old, she was as squat as a bulldog and had a great round belly. Her short brown hair was greasy and she had a bit of a mustache. She looked at you with only one eye; the other one pointed off to the side.
Her shoulders were beefy and her walk was determined, unstoppable—like watching an oversize bowling ball coming at you. She’d throw her legs out forcefully and land on splayed feet. Her walk was bursting with excitement, as though she couldn’t wait to get where she was going.
On hot summer days she wore a baseball cap that was usually about thirty degrees askew, while in the winter she wore a bright serape on which the buttons were always one buttonhole off, giving it a perpetual cockeyed look. When she worked in grouting, she wore our largest coveralls, but even so, she couldn’t pull the zipper up past her belly; I had to do it for her. I’d tell her to suck her stomach in but she didn’t know how: she’d start taking quick, deep breaths, but her stomach wouldn’t move. So it took some tugging to get the zipper past the bulge.
Ramona, then, may not have fit our image of a romantic lead, but on the other hand her beloved probably didn’t, either: wiry, moderately tall, mustache, metal-frame glasses.
Me. Ramona was in love with me.
Whenever I took a cleanup crew out to the campground, we’d gather around one or two picnic tables at lunch. Ramona would sit across from me or, better yet, next to me. After she finished eating, she’d gaze up at me, enraptured, for the rest of the half hour.
In the lunchroom at the Center she gazed at me also, but from a distance. Sometimes when I glanced her way, she’d grin and say, “Hiiiieeee!” Other times, feeling more demure, she’d close her eyes, trying to hide. A few seconds later she’d peek at me through narrow slits; if she saw I was still looking in her direction, her eyes would clap shut.
On the workfloor Ramona generally paid attention to her work, but occasionally her hands would be grouting or steelwooling while her eyes were fixed on me.
“Watch your work, Ramona,” I’d say.
Once I spent a half hour sitting next to Ben, helping him with his grouting technique. After I finished, Ramona pulled an empty chair over to her work station, looked at me, and pointed at the chair.
Compared to me, all other supervisors and teachers were ciphers. She wouldn’t even go to the bathroom without my blessing. If, in the lunchroom, Hannah or Craig or Lynn told her she could go, she’d remain in her seat, as immovable as a boulder, looking at me expectantly. We didn’t want her to disregard the rest of the staff, but then again, we didn’t want to push her bladder to its limits, so eventually I’d ask, “Ramona, would you like to go to the bathroom?”
“Uh-huh!” she’d say in a high, excited voice. Then she’d march in there with a big grin.
Even when I was on vacation, she thought about me constantly, walking into the Center every morning and asking, “’Lenn here?” The day I returned, as soon as she saw me, she shrieked with laughter.
In her more serious moments she sometimes whispered, “I wuv you, Hon’.”
“No, Ramona, you just like working for me.”
Wherever I was, that’s where Ramona wanted to be. This led to a set of questions that, in the two years I knew her, she asked me literally thousands of times: “Hey, me-you?” and “Me go you?” and “Me go you Tuesday?” Me go you was the most common, though she often added the word Tuesday. Evidently over the years people had tried to teach her the days of the week, but that was the only one that stuck. It eventually became her all-purpose time word, which, depending on the context, could mean right now or an hour from now or three days from now.
Every chance she got—in the lunchroom, in the lobby, on the workfloor, on the ramp—she skewered me with questions. They were never-ending. Her high-pitched, penetrating voice made them seem even more inescapable.
“Hey, me go you?” she always asked at the end of morning break.
“No, Ramona, it’s time for you to go to class.”
“Ramona, please don’t ask me those questions.”
She’d put her finger to her lips and say, “Shhhh.” But a few seconds later she’d whisper, “Hey, me-you? Okay, Hon’?”
“No, Ramona, you go to class now.”
“No, me go you,” she’d say, this time in a half-mournful, half-pleading tone, before reluctantly heading off to the classroom.
I found these questions nerve-racking, but at the same time I knew they were irrepressible. Ramona loved talking to people, but her vocabulary and mental age were at the three-year-old level: she had the instinct to converse but not much to say. Her range of thought was indeed limited, but demanded expression nonetheless. Her mind dwelt upon, and her speech revolved around, that handful of things she really enjoyed and never seemed to tire of. Being with me was foremost among them. As a result, I was the most interrogated, the most beleaguered, of supervisors.
No one, however, was immune. For instance, Ramona had an absolute passion for taking the trash out to the dumpster at the end of the day, a task that became doubly delightful if the person with whom she was carrying the barrel was Chuck—or Guck, as she called him. For a while, in the grouting area, Molly was her supervisor, and every morning Ramona would walk up to her, point to the nearest trash can, and ask, “Hey Mol’—garbage?”
“I don’t know, Ramona. Cleanup time is almost six hours away.”
Ramona would look around, and if she spotted Chuck she’d point at herself, then at him, and say to Molly, “Me-Guck? Garbage?”
“We’ll see, Ramona. If you work hard today, you probably can.”
This answer would quiet her only for the moment; Molly knew she’d hear the question again and again before the day was done.
Ramona’s once-a-week speech therapy session was another unending source of questions. Several times a day she’d approach a supervisor or teacher and say, “Speech?”
“No, Ramona, not today.”
“No, Ramona, speech is on Friday, and that’s still two days away.”
Next to speech, Ramona’s name-writing class was her favorite. There she made slow but surprisingly steady progress. When she came to the Center in mid-1980, she wrote her name, RMNA. Six months later it was RMIANA, and six months after that, RAMNARIVNA. By early 1982 she was writing RAMONARVERA, and sometimes she got the I in there, also.
She once spent an entire morning break writing her name over and over on a piece of paper. At one point she showed me the paper, and when I complimented her on how much her writing had improved, she extended her arm with great pride, and we shook hands. Later, as everyone was leaving the lunchroom, she tapped me on the shoulder from behind. Bracing myself for our usual after-break exchange, I was about to say, “Ramona, please don’t ask me those questions. You know it’s time to go to class.” But she hadn’t said anything, so I turned around and there she was, silently offering me my pencil. I laughed, thinking about how her presence was sometimes so suffocating that I’d forget she was also helpful and cooperative. I thanked her for the pencil. Pleased with herself, she gave a single, emphatic nod of her head, then strutted off to class.
Ramona was full of vitality. Our daily expeditions to the campground excited her to a degree I found astonishing. Neither the heat of the summer nor the countless trips we had already made could dim her enthusiasm as we boarded the van each morning. She was one of the best I had on that crew—a good walker, always glad to race across a field to retrieve a piece of wind-blown trash. Whenever there were rocks or branches to be moved, she joined in eagerly.
Sit-down jobs were harder for her: she had so much energy but so few skills. In the case of grouting, for example, she was trying to do a task that, much like pottery, called for the simultaneous and coordinated use of the thumb, fingers, palm, and heel of the hand. All this was too much for Ramona. So she developed her own style of grouting—applying, spreading, and smoothing tiny bits of grout using only her index finger. This method was exceedingly slow, but she worked at it intently.
It was exhausting to have her on your grouting crew, however, because of her constant demands for attention. When she was doing active, physical work, she required less frequent doses of praise because she loved the work itself; but with more sedentary, more exacting jobs she needed continual encouragement. Every few minutes—whenever she finished grouting one small section—she’d holler across the room, “I’m done, Mol’!” or “I’m done, Hon’!”
Afternoons were especially long. At lunch she’d spread her food out on the table, like a banquet, then devour it all: a sandwich, a piece of chicken, a hard-boiled egg, a Coke, and a big piece of cake. When it was time to go back downstairs, she’d call me over, point to her stomach, and say, “Hurts, Hon’.”
“Ramona, maybe you should start bringing a smaller lunch to work.”
“Well, I’m sorry it hurts, but there’s not much I can do about it. I’m sure it’ll feel better once you start working.”
“Seeeck, Hon’,” she’d say, her eyes filling with tears.
“Ramona, you know what? It’d be a big help if you could finish grouting that glass you were working on this morning. Do you think you could hurry downstairs, get your coveralls on real quick, and finish it for me?”
“Okay, Hon’!” she’d say, instantly transformed.
“And as soon as you get the top edge done, will you raise your hand and show it to me?”
“Uh-huh!” she’d squeal—this woman whose tones of voice were so much more expressive than her words. Then she’d rush off to the basement.
But after working for a few minutes she’d ask, “Go home, Hon’?”
“Pretty soon, Ramona. In about two hours.”
“Me go home?”
“Later. Right now you keep working.”
This conversation would be replayed throughout the afternoon unless I could find some physical work to rejuvenate her. She was a laborer, not a craftsman. Nothing excited her more than a big pile of boxes that had to be hauled to the storage room. She’d put two or three on top of each other, so high you couldn’t see her face. Then this two-legged stack of boxes would charge down the hall, seemingly self-propelled.
Even at home she was a workhorse. She had lived there all her life, attending Special Education until she came to the Center at age twenty-one. Her parents separated that same year; Ramona remained with her mother. She helped out around the house by filling the dishwasher, setting the table, and vacuuming. Ramona didn’t like watching TV; instead she’d spend hours tearing magazines into tiny pieces and stuffing them into a variety of containers. She had been doing this for years, though her mother had no idea of the origin or purpose of the activity.
The same doggedness that characterized Ramona’s conversations with staff showed itself also in her dealings with other clients. She didn’t besiege them with questions—on the contrary, she was quiet, even shy, around them—but she sought their company tenaciously, despite receiving little encouragement. She particularly liked being around Chuck and Jerry. But they already had their circle of friends—especially Gus, Herbert, Candy, and Wanda—and regarded Ramona as an intruder. Sometimes she’d walk over to an empty chair at their lunch table and chirp, “Me here?” “No!” Chuck would snap, while Jerry, annoyed, would answer her with an impassioned, and largely incomprehensible, monologue. Ramona would listen respectfully; when Jerry stopped talking, she assumed that meant she could sit down. She basked in their presence, undeterred by the fact that she wasn’t wanted: Ramona was used to seeing her enthusiasm for others go unreciprocated.
Despite the reactions she elicited, she especially enjoyed being around men. One day Ed and I were talking about the problems he and Sharon were having when Ramona walked up. At the first opportunity she pointed at Ed, looked at me, and said, “Eb.”
“Yeah, that’s Ed,” I answered. Then he and I resumed our conversation.
The label intellectual disability encompasses an enormous range in levels of intelligence. Indeed, in terms of understanding the world and being able to engage in ordinary conversations, someone like Ed (whose intellectual disability was classified as borderline) or Ken (whose disability was mild) was much closer to you or me than he was to Ramona (whose disability was classified as profound). Yet a stranger, watching from a distance, might have supposed we were having a three-way discussion, with Ramona understanding everything Ed and I were saying. Her desire to be a part of the conversation was so great that she kept her eyes on whoever was speaking, seemingly spellbound by our words; and occasionally, at completely nonsensical and inappropriate times, she slapped her cheek and said, “Oh, no!” as though we were telling tales too incredible to be believed.