Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
The Unarmed Truth


Photo by Darcie Whelan Kortan

Photo by Darcie Whelan Kortan

This presidential election hit me hard—I was deep down depressed. Donald Trump sealed my fears about his character when he mocked The New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski in November 2015, imitating the way his arms and hands involuntarily contort and shake, due to his disability caused by arthrogryposis. As a mother to a child with multiple disabilities whose arms and hands also contort and shake involuntarily, this moment, more than anything, is what I think of when I touch the bottomless fear I have for our country—the shame that this is who my countrymen trust with my children's future.

The morning after the election, I lay in bed, unable to move, feeling hopeless and bereft of faith, without a hint of the optimism I knew I needed to show my kids about our country, about our future as a family. But I also realized that this depression had not started on November 9 when the tide seemed to be turning red. This depression had been in me for years, covered over by anxiety and anger about the logistics of caring for and educating my son, and the election had been the catalyst that pushed me over into the gravity of that black hole that I had been resisting for so long. In the depths of that hole, I found an aching knowing of my very real human limitations.

It's not that I haven't known I was depressed or even tried to treat it. For years now, I often wake up with what I call "morning panic:" a state of immediate near-terror that I can't explain. Luckily, it usually goes away within an hour. I have been prescribed anti-depressants and anxiety pills, but none of them seem to work or last. More nights than not lately, I have to resort to medication for sleep.

Sometimes, I even start awake a few hours later, after nodding off, and can't get back to sleep. The fatigue and exhaustion that builds up over time is a warped lens through which I see the world.  Recently, at a workshop about family and emotions, my daughter Charlotte told me, "Mom, you're always angry and stressed out."

I homeschool James because, no matter what we did, he was not getting an education in the public schools. I need to teach James to read, write, and do math, and I don't even kid myself that I will teach him world history, the solar system, how the human body works, or basic buffer equations. He needs to get by with a body that can't do simple things like pick up paper clips or make an intelligible phone call or spy a friendly face in the hallway. He needs to get a job with that body. And it's all up to me to get him there.

About a week and a half after the election, we were visiting my parents in Philadelphia for an early Thanksgiving celebration. They are members of the Unitarian Society of Germantown, where my father had helped to organize a "community day." My husband Daniel and the kids preferred to sleep in, which gave me the rare opportunity of attending some of the self-care sessions solo. Before the service began, I participated in a Dance of Universal Peace class. The group of us stood awkwardly, rubbing our hands for warmth in the morning chill of the echoing hall where we had gathered. The teacher began by leading us as we danced in a slow circle. Despite the cold, like cars gearing up their engines, running petrol through their tubes and lube through their bearings, we began to move.

We did a two-step, holding hands with strangers, and circled faster and more vigorously. As the dance became more fevered, we closed the circle in and out over and over again, singing "Ay-lie-lie-lie-lie-lie-lie-lie-lie!" We gathered in a knot of bodies foreign to us only moments ago and raised our fists, fingers clasped, and shouted the chorus of the traditional Jewish chant, "I am alive!" As the energy from these other humans coursed through my body, as I felt their hearts open along with my own hesitant heart, I haltingly sang these words. Very little sound passed my lips. I felt so moved that, if I had sung out with all my heart, I would not have stopped sobbing for the joy I felt.

I then joined the choir for the morning, preparing two songs under the sure guidance of their choir director. Again, as I sang the words, I felt the power of the singers behind me, around me. I emitted barely a whisper at times—so moved was I by the strength of our voices together. When the service began, we the choir were seated up behind the altar; Daniel sat with the kids far away in a back pew. So it was that I spent almost the entire morning away from my family, dredging my body for long-lost talents like dancing and singing and enjoying the deep satisfaction that comes from indulging my spirit.

As this was the Sunday before Thanksgiving, a dozen or so people stood up and said what they were grateful for: simple things like family, health, the good people of this community. We were asked to speak to someone nearby—I spoke to a kind, gangly baritone to my left—and to say something we were grateful for. I warned him that I couldn't speak many words because I was too emotional, but managed to squeak out through spasms, "I'm grateful for people who help my son." I was thinking of the many aides from the public school, college kids I hire to help me homeschool him, neighbors who love him and go out of their way to help.

Toward the end of the service, the children brought out fresh-baked bread to represent feeding all the needy, bread which they had patted and baked while I was dancing the hora and singing do-re-mi. It was as if the entire morning had been the hand pump to the well deep inside, priming my vessel and bringing up all the emotions that I avoid for most of my life—sadness and grief, gratitude in drenching waves, and joy in the sublime wash of it all.

Each of us received a warm roll from a child's basket. As the emotion welled up in me, I felt it in those around me too. With tears already warming my lower lids, threatening to spill over, I began to salivate at the aroma of that untasted roll. I wanted so badly to eat it; I could tell my fellow singers did, too. We gazed at each other, holding the bread under our flared nostrils. We wanted nothing more than to bite into that sweet risen dough, but we had a song to sing.

We all gathered on the steps of the altar, drawing out the long vowels of the song. "Draw the circle…draw the circle…draw the circle…draw the circle wiiiiiide," we sang. I thought of how foreign we all are to each other before our fingertips touch in a circle dance, before the timbre of our voices is shared, before we are labelled (alto, soprano, "normal," disabled, Republican, Democrat). But our voices swam together in such beautiful harmony, from baritone to soprano. In that moment, we were all included in a shining circle, a pool of love, and it welled up from each of us to lift our spirits, to bear us up in warmth like yeast in the center of that tiny delicious roll. Perhaps half the notes made it past my lips. The tears were hot as they dripped from the outside corners of my eyes, my face upturned toward the stained glass at the back of that sanctuary filled with more love than visible light.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "I still believe that standing up for the unarmed truth is the greatest thing in the world. This is the end of life. The end of life is not to achieve pleasure and avoid pain." I have been avoiding my emotional pain as I trudge through my life raising a child who is different from most, and trying to manage the rest of my family's needs around that. But in avoiding my pain, I have not achieved pleasure.

In those few hours in that church community, the nexus of heart and dance and song was too much to avoid it any longer. Beneath the pain is something deeper. It is not as simple as pleasure, for it is not the one-dimensional niceness of a hot bath or a pedicure or a great workout. It is a deeply satisfying connection, a joyful merging with something larger than myself. In digging under my pain, I found what binds us all together, the reason that warm little roll burst with flavor greater than the sum of its ingredients. I have met the unarmed truth that Dr. King talked about, and that truth is that we are all one hunger, one body, one need. And the greatest thing in the world is to stand together for that truth.


Darcie Whelan Kortan has an MFA in creative writing from Mills College. She has taught writing and communications at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, Marist College, and IBM. She wrote the blog Raising James: Low Vision, Multiply Disabled, Adorable for three years for the National Association of Parents of Children with Visual Impairments (NAPVI) website. She titled and wrote the first issue of Watermark magazine for the Beacon Institute for Rivers and Estuaries and has been published in Comet Magazine, The Poughkeepsie Journal, Wild Plum Anthology and the family memoir, The Book of Whelan. She has also completed a collection of short stories and a book of poetry. She lives in New York with her husband and two children.

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Just beautiful.
Oh, wow--YES! Brava!
We can only bow in gratitude and joy for such experiences of grace.
Very inspiring! Thank you, Darcie.
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