Anyone who's ever seen a three-year-old throw a major tantrum knows it can be a harrowing experience. Now imagine how much more harrowing it would be if the tantrum—complete with screaming, hitting, breaking things and even flinging packages of chicken around a grocery store—were the actions of a mature woman with the mind of a three-year-old. Terrell Harris Dougan knows only too well, because that person is Irene, her sister. Dougan writes about their relationship in That Went Well: Adventures in Caring For My Sister. It's a real eye-opener for people who have never dealt, on a personal or bureaucratic level, with the difficulties of caring for a mentally challenged individual.
When Irene was born in 1946, it was soon evident that the baby was "different," but the family didn't know the extent of her problems until she was tested at age six. They were told Irene's IQ was around 57, she would never learn to read or write, that emotionally she was about three—and that she would never fit into the public school system. Refusing to send Irene to a state institution, one of the few options at the time, Dougan's father instead decided to start a school for children with developmental disabilities.
As an adult, Dougan inherited the torch, becoming a key figure in establishing legislative changes in the rights of this country's mentally disabled citizens. But her relationship with Irene is the warm heart of this book. Despite Irene's tantrums, strong will and manipulative behavior, Dougan is quick to point out the many joys she has found in her relationship with her sister. Irene will always have the delightful qualities of childhood—she believes in Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny—and she can be hysterically funny.
Providing care to those who cannot care for themselves is an ever-growing concern in today's society. That Went Well is a pleasant reminder that joy can be found in the role of caregiver, so long as patience and a sense of humor are a healthy part of the process.
Rebecca Bain writes from her home in Nashville.