A Silver Lining, by Elaine Benton

I have often said that I was born with “the happy gene”. Other than during adolescence, a difficult time for most everybody, I have generally maintained a cheerful outlook. When bad things happen to me, rather than cursing my luck or sinking into depression, I usually think first of practical ways to ameliorate the situation. If that proves impossible, I tend to start thinking of what I can learn from the experience. Of course, I get outraged by injustice or dishonesty and am saddened by the trials of others or the loss of friends. I can also be quite grumpy if I haven't gotten enough sleep. But overall I'm pretty even-tempered. This attitude isn't the result of any skill or effort on my part. As I say, I just seem to have been born happy.

So I was surprised near the end of Benton's memoir to come across the same diagnosis: she too says that she was born with “the happy gene”. Diagnosed at five with Gaucher's disease, a genetic disorder that affects the liver, spleen, lungs, and bone marrow, Benton's life has been one of great physical pain and increasing disability. At 44, she was also diagnosed with Young-Onset Parkinson's disease. Blows such as these seem like a recipe for bitterness and depression, but Benton decided at a young age that she would “make the best of a bad situation; put a smile on my face, be cheerful and in good spirits.” Judging from this book, her efforts have been successful.

Her illness plays a very small role in this memoir. Rather, it acts as a backdrop to a series of gentle, mostly humorous anecdotes about everyday life. For example, she tells the story of meeting her future husband when, having torn his trousers just before an important meeting, he happens to duck into her office in search of a sewing kit. Some years later at the beach when she and their daughter became caught in a rip tide, he dives in fully clothed to rescue them. A perhaps not-uncommon experience, but she relates the story and her other anecdotes in a warm and charming voice. Although her subject matter is different, the tone of the book reminds me of All Creatures Great and Small. Rather than the experiences of a country vet, Benton writes about a woman's experiences—a “magic laundry basket” that refills no matter how often it is emptied or puzzlement over “one size fits all” clothes—and life events that we can all relate to such as the birth of her daughter and the loss of her father.

I was especially taken with the combination of humor and sadness in the description of the descent of her once strong and capable mother into dementia. She tells of her mother trying to change television channels with the cordless phone and repeatedly bringing in loads of laundry and rehanging them outside. I think this chapter appealed to me because a dear friend is going through the same thing with her mother just now and not letting her sadness prevent her from laughing at the often absurd goings-on.

When Benton does mention her diseases, she generally uses a comic approach. For instance, she describes the many bizarre uses she finds for the IV stand on wheels that she has at home to deliver the medication for Gaucher disease: holding ironed shirts on their hangers, drying laundry, carrying strips of quilting fabric attached with clothespins. She parses the the papers that come with her prescriptions, wondering if the caution to avoid operating heavy machinery could be used to persuade someone else to do the family laundry. She also finds a peculiar warning, that the medication could cause “obsessive compulsive shopping tendencies”, and concludes that it constitutes an excuse for a new pair of shoes.

Benton's purpose in writing this book is to challenge the stigma of disability. Too often, people seeing her in a wheelchair speak in loud, overly enunciated voices as though she were deaf or mentally deficient. Sometimes they speak about her in the third person to her companion. There is also the assumption that she must be miserable or angry because of her physical disability. Just because she suffers great pain or needs crutches or a wheelchair, she is no less a person with the same joys and sorrows as anyone else. The truth of this statement is amply demonstrated by her pleasant book. It is a light read, but I enjoyed the time spent in her company.

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