The first time I talked to Nancy Torbitt, tears began eating away at her words, then they cut our talk short.
Nancy had called to comment about a column I'd written. She said it made her feel so bad that she'd been crying for days--only she hadn't planned on crying now. She said she'd get back to me, this time by mail.
The column that upset Nancy told the story of Stacy, David and Dianna Phan and it went from bleak to darker still. Stacy had killed her disabled daughter and then herself. The story of the Phans was a tragic compilation of many wrongs.
Nancy Torbitt has known tragedy too. But her response, ultimately, has been something far more transcendental than despair. That's why she got in touch, to let me and others know that hope threads through misfortune, that even comedy can lurk in rather sinister disguise.
"It's like you have to find that lining or it is just going to rain all the time," she says.
Nancy Torbitt lives in Lake Forest with her daughter, Ali, 11, and her 9-year-old son, A.T. Ali is short for Alison, and A.T. is what everybody calls Alexander Torbitt V.
The childrens' father, Nancy's husband, is dead. He died at home, just days over two years ago. He was 45.
Nancy was with her husband when the cancer finally won. She had nursed him, alone, every day except the one before he succumbed.
"I just couldn't do it anymore," Nancy says, in a strange sort of apology, to whom, I am not sure.
We are sitting in Nancy's kitchen now, drinking decaf coffee late in the afternoon. Ali wants to make cookies, but Nancy says that at this hour that could mean that the two of them would just fill up on cookies and call dinner off.
"Oh well," Nancy sighs, "might as well go ahead." Mother and daughter share a conspiratorial smile.
A.T., meantime, is playing outside, among the neighborhood children. A paid caretaker watches nearby. When Nancy steps outside, she can find her son in the dark by his squeal, one of pure delight.
"A.T. was a real comfort to me during all that time, because of how he was," Nancy says, recalling her husband's last days. "A.T. was always the same. I could count on that. He just kept doing what he does. I would take care of him. That is what I do."
A.T., many would say, is another tragedy in Nancy's life. Only Nancy would not say that at all.
Her son has a rare genetic defect called Ring 22, a broken chromosome that makes him abnormal in many ways. He does not talk. It is unclear what connections his mind makes. He was only toilet trained last year. His muscle tone is poor, although he is able to walk with braces on his ankles. What the future holds for A.T. is unknown.
Which can open doors where others are closed.
"It's not bad," Nancy says. "It's just different . . . . For one thing, I don't have to worry about him cracking up on drugs, or growing up to rob some 7-Eleven."
Nancy's mouth lifts into a smile.
"You feel real sorry for yourself for a while," she says. "I think it is this overwhelming grief. It's like the child you expected died. There is a lot of 'Why me?' Coming out of it is gradual. I know I spent a year where I could not go to the park with him."
That is because the other mothers at the park would never say a word to Nancy Torbitt. They would only stand back and watch her with her son.
Nancy says that now she can understand why this might have happened as it did. As children, we are taught not to stare, or even look, at someone who has "something wrong." We are told that this is "not nice."
The legacy of that training, however, can be indifference. A clerk asks somebody else what \o7 she\f7 might want, when \o7 she\f7 is perfectly capable of answering for herself. Or mothers at a playground might be paralyzed by all sorts of irrational fears.
"I was real hurt and angry," Nancy says of those days. "I think it's all stages that you go through."
A.T. is full of energy now. He loves to be on the move, going somewhere, getting something \o7 done\f7 . And he likes everything in its place. Sometimes he'll empty the dishwasher without bothering over such trifles as to whether the dishes have actually been washed.
Ali and Nancy remember when one of Ali's friends had come to lunch for the first time. She didn't know A.T. and he didn't care much to know her. A.T. got up from his chair, walked over to where she was sitting, picked up her plate and dumped it in the sink.
The visitor got a new sandwich and they all got a good laugh.
Nancy Torbitt wants to write a book, or rather assemble a book, about families such as her own. These are people, like the other parents of Special Olympics stars, who can take delight in simple things, who can cry about something and then turn it into a smile.
The writing would be done by people, like herself, who have everyday stories of courage, laughter and inspiration to share. All would be close to a handicapped person in some way, or perhaps a disabled person would write his story himself.