Dinner With Frank and Bill

MY job over the last nine months as a Community Integrated Living Arrangement foster parent has been both challenging and demanding, not to mention frustrating at times. Living with two gentlemen who are mentally retarded has been the toughest job in my 10 years of employment. Most of my friends and family members tell me I'm nuts, ruining the best years of my life, and doing something they couldn't be paid enough to do. To be honest, all these thoughts - and more - have crossed my mind since I took on this nearly overwhelming responsibility. But an incident last December helped me reevaluate my role and inspired me, giving me more determination than ever.

Frank and Bill are the two men who live with me. For Frank's 42nd birthday last December, I had promised a fun and exciting party. For a variety of reasons, mostly beyond my control, the great party could not be held as planned. I remember feeling awful about that. Frank was disappointed, but decided that going out for dinner with Bill and me would be just as much fun. We invited two people who are friends with the three of us.

The big question of the evening was where we would go. Since it was snowing, we stayed close to home and picked Bellissimo's in Forest Park, a quaint and charming Italian restaurant.

I REMEMBER wondering, as many parents do about their children, whether Frank or Bill would misbehave or embarrass anyone. What if they acted inappropriately toward other people? Or dropped food on their laps or the floor, or smacked their food loudly?

But soon enough I felt at ease. The evening was moving along smoothly. For conversation, Frank and Bill brought up topics about their work. Looking around, I had noticed an average-looking couple to our left and a more sophisticated couple to the right.

The pleasant waitress insisted we have dessert, promising to give an explanation for her insistence afterward. When we were all finished, she came teary-eyed and smiling to our table. She told us the couple to our left had picked up the entire check, with their compliments. They had been taken by the companionship, camaraderie, and caring they had witnessed at our table. Apparently, they overheard Frank and Bill discussing their jobs at Burger King and McDonald's, and were impressed by seeing them out in public, noticeably happy.

The two friends and I were surprised. I remember feeling shocked - even stunned - and didn't know how to react. I tried to explain this unselfish action to Frank and Bill. But though they were thrilled with the attention and companionship of eating in a nice restaurant, to them this meal was simply one of many. For me, this dinner meant recognition of the disabled and a sign of progress toward their becoming accepted in society.

While driving home and feeling proud, I reflected on my doubts of the last few months. I came to realize that somehow, some way, all of us working in this field are making a difference.

That couple did much more for me than pay our check. They helped me again realize the importance of our work, and gave me an appreciation for society's change to a time when, just as on that day in December, there will be no prejudice or disgust, no hatred or gawking. What I observed that evening was pure unselfishness - each person caring about another.

The couple helped me remember how as a society, we owe it to this population to explore and expand the old boundaries. Though we move with caution, we must continue to move ahead. That couple helped me rededicate my efforts to the challenges and changes that lie ahead, reaffirming that I am a part of the efforts for the continuing change of attitudes toward the disabled.

This couple made a difference in my life that day, because of their unheralded generosity. For Frank and Bill, it was a great dinner. For me, it was a welcome change.

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