This is by far the most personal post I’ve ever written. If I had to sit down and write this to be published on The Wise Guise, it would have never been written, for a litany of reasons. But I wrote it as my personal statement for my law school applications. But as I recently watched the E:60 piece about the blessings of family members with special needs, as I went home to visit my sister and see her new adult day program, as tears streamed down my cheek watching multiple scenes with Max and Haddie on “Parenthood,” and as I think about how many unborn lives are ended in utero every day when prenatal screening reveals disabilities, I felt convicted that more people should read this than law school admissions counselors. It’s important for people who know me and people who don’t to hear about Mary. Because to understand me is to understand Mary and to understand Mary is to understand true joy, grace, and the purest blessings of life from our Creator.
“Atticus was right. One time he said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them” – Scout, To Kill a Mockingbird
Whether it’s a conversation over beers with a close friend or a soap box sermon for my out-of-control 2nd block U.S. History class from hell, Atticus Finch’s classic (and, some would say, cliché) advice is my go-to fortune cookie wisdom for someone in any walk of life who finds herself in my path and able to listen. But as I frequently find myself invoking the fictional Mr. Finch, I question myself as to why I connected so passionately to this maxim. The answer surprised and comforted me all at once. I cling to Atticus’ adage not because of any efforts of my own. I cling to it because of a person – because of my younger sister, Mary Rose Williams.
Mary Rose Regina Williams was born on August 20, 1989, exactly six weeks before I turned three. Months after she was born, it became clear that Mary was special – different from normal babies. While the diagnoses, tests, and many in the world would assess that Mary is ‘mildly to moderately retarded,’ ‘developmentally delayed/disabled,’ or ‘slower than normal kids,’ it is clear to anyone who encounters Mary that she was a gift from God, placed on earth to teach us all the true definition of unconditional love. In an introductory Anthropology class, I learned that Amish believe that all disabled people are a divine gift. This Amish principle provided me an articulation of my realizations that I had formerly been unable to convey.
Being Mary’s brother has not always been a bundle of smiles and rainbows. Having Mary in our family inevitably changes how we operate and coalesce together. There have been times when Mary’s disability has affected her behaviorally, resulting in violent outbursts in public and at school, towards friends, family, and even strangers. One afternoon, when driving her home from school, Mary released some leftover anxiety from school upon me, physically grabbing at and beating me. While this incident could have been just another sibling spat, it turned into a moment I’ll never forget. As I pulled the car on to a side street and stumbled out of the car, Mary barreled after me. As I wrestled her to the sidewalk to restrain her, an elderly man drove by, stopping, and screaming at me to “get off of that girl.” He threatened to call the police. Through tears, I pleaded with him to understand that I loved Mary more than anyone or anything in the entire world. I called my dad, who raced over to clear up the situation and usher us home. Climbing out of the car, still in tears, with my dad having sent Mary inside, I broke down in the driveway. My screams echoed throughout the neighborhood. “I LOVE Mary. How DARE that man accuse me of harming her? He doesn’t understand. He doesn’t know what I’ve been through, HOW MUCH I love Mary!”
Reflecting years later provides me with a list of traits attributable to growing up as Mary’s brother. Whether it’s crying out for understanding and justice or the humility and empathy necessary to not leap to judgment, I’m no doubt a better person because of Mary. As a senior in high school, I began telling people that one of my life goals was to write a book entitled, “What Mary Taught Me.” As I reflect on my life to date, it is clear that the person who had the greatest influence on me was my little sister. The moment of outburst and misunderstanding by a stranger (who turned out to have a special needs daughter himself) was overshadowed by decorating the Christmas tree, watching SpongeBob, reading to her, countless inside jokes, and immeasurable ways of making her smile in that way that continues to light people’s lives. Though not being academically “smart,” she’s more insightful and emotionally intuitive than most people I know. In fact, the majority of her outbursts result from her keen intuition for detecting even the most subtle of tensions between people. On the few occasions that she got into trouble at school, it was because she acted out against a student who was misbehaving, creating tension with the teacher and the classroom.
Though Mary will never discover a world-changing innovation, she is never forgotten by all who encounter her, whether the city mayor, the local weather man, or Coach John Calipari. (She’s on a first-name basis with all of them.) Mary shows unconditional love and a zest for life found only in appreciating the small things and forgetting all the tedious details that produce stress in life. She’s a loyalist, still cheering on Calipari while dressed in UK Blue, even as the rest of Memphis scowls. She knows everything there is to know (and more) about the Duggars, owning books, DVDs, and always having a batch of episodes on the DVR. (On one visit to Memphis, my wife and I heard her counting repeatedly while in the other room. When we arrived to find her watching 19 Kids & Counting, and we asked her what she was doing, she simply replied that she was counting Duggars to make sure they were all there. We joined in on the counting.) She loves all my friends, but especially my friend John Nesbitt, who instantly and forever bonded with her during a summer visit home, where he’d wake up at 5 a.m. and watch World Cup with her. Mary doesn’t like soccer, but she did love asking and answering questions from John… for 3 hours before anyone else woke up.) She reminds us all of the childlike faith we once had. And growing up as her older brother, I’m a changed man because of her.
Because of Mary, I always speak up for the underdog, squirming when I feel someone is unrightfully judging me or someone else. Because of Mary, I try to look past first judgments and impressions, and empathize with people I meet and situations I encounter. Because of Mary, I thirst for justice and appreciation of all human beings, no matter how diverse or different. Because of Mary, I recognize the incredible ways that the Lord uses His children whom the world labels as “slow”, “useless”, or “not viable” to show us His unfailing and unconditional love.
Wherever I go, whoever I meet, and whatever I do, my joy for life and my undying desire to understand people’s footsteps to that moment are because of only one person. It’s because of Mary.