Susie Q, the Dancing Angel

Susie Q, the Dancing Angel August 20, 2013


Medieval theologians—so goes the cliche—spent a lot of time arguing about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. (As with much medieval theology, you had to be there to get why this mattered.) I know an angel who has been dancing on the points of pins, of nails, of knives all her life. And now, thanks to another angel—a podiatrist!—her amazing dance will continue with less pain.

We were in high school when Susie Q was born. I remember how her twin sisters, my friends and classmates Patti and Terry, rode the roller coaster from joyful anticipation of the birth of Number 11 in their big, loud, happy family to tears when Susie was born with Down syndrome. The tears were most definitely not because of Susie’s genetic anomaly, though 46 years ago they knew well the cruel names she would inherit: mongoloid, retard. No, they wept, and we wept with them, because the opinions of medical experts doomed this precious angel baby from the start.

Susie was born with a hole in her heart; doctors suggested, firmly, that surgery to repair it might be wasted. And that was the moment that the Schallert family, following the lead of Mama Mary, went from big, loud, and happy to big, loud, happy, and fierce. The tears were set aside in favor of determination. Baby Susie had the surgery, because in this family no heart is ever wasted.

It was just the first of many fierce and determined moments for Susie’s family. Institutionalize her, Mama was told. She’ll never walk or talk or have any quality of life, and she’ll be a drag on you and the rest of the family. Mama just rolled her eyes. She knew better. And in a time when there were next to no resources for Down kids and their families, she became the resources. Where options and methods and best practices didn’t exist, she invented them. She networked before networking was heard of, connecting with and extending the circle of loving, fierce families who would later become the special needs community.

In the family, Susie was just Susie Q—one more beloved child among the pack. It’s a talented bunch, and Susie’s talent for love was just one more gift they shared with one another and with the world. There were more surgeries, each one accomplished in the teeth of medical reluctance. Susie walked. Susie talked. Susie’s quality of life lent grace to everyone she hugged (which was everyone). When she was 5, Susie showed me how to see angels. She took my hand, pointed to a corner of the living room ceiling, and said, “See? The angels are right there. You just have to look.” Through her eyes, I did, and I saw them.

And Susie danced. She is joy embodied when she moves. It’s why she was born, to be this dancing vision of life, this preview of the angelic choreography of heaven.

For 46 years, though—46 years no one but her family believed she’d have—Susie has been dancing on feet so twisted and malformed that, even with the higher pain tolerance that accompanies Down syndrome, it’s a hellish agony. Decades ago, when Mama Schallert begged doctors to do something, anything, to give Susie more ease of motion, they all refused. She’s lucky to be walking, they said. She wasn’t supposed to live this long anyway. Surgery on someone like her would be a waste.

But angels are drawn to angels, even if by our clocks it takes way too long. And Susie has been found by Dr Thomas Clemente, a podiatrist who was amazed that she was walking, let alone dancing. Dr Clemente is working to give Susie feet she can dance on for years to come. The local CBS station here in Los Angeles is documenting the process. Watch the story here, and I dare you not to cry at least as hard as Patti at the joy of it.

In Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of the Little Mermaid, the sea maiden makes a bargain to become human so she can have an immortal soul and go to heaven. The price she pays in exchanging her tail for human feet is that, while she will dance more entrancingly than any other woman, it will feel, every minute, as though she were dancing on the points of swords. Susie Q Schallert, entrancing dancer, made a different kind of bargain. She traded the immortal grace and joy of an angel for life in a broken human body, so the rest of us could find our immortal souls.

Susie and her family are real, big, loud, happy, fierce, determined people, not some prolife parable. But the next time somebody (a friend, a doctor, a pundit, a political candidate, a government—or some anonymous hater, to whom The Anchoress responds in kickass style) says “people like this” are a waste, a drag, a burden, something to be eliminated before or after birth, expendable, not worthy to be among the rest of us sucking up air, watch Susie dance. And think about it.

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