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Literature | In Capital Letters, 2011 March


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Jennifer Cooper Excerpt

This excerpt derives from a piece written for Rachel Louise Snyder’s Fall 2009 nonfiction workshop. It’s a profile of Ashton Trescott, an 18-year-old girl diagnosed with autism, Down’s Syndrome and early-onset Alzheimer’s. Ashton was voted senior homecoming queen and this profile follows Ashton and her mother as they prepare for the big dance.

In the salon chair, Ashton’s eyes are heavy. The whites of her eyes are cloudy and pink. She sits with her mouth open, unresponsive to the bustling activity around her.

“She’s exhausted,” her mother Leah says, watching Ashton’s eyes flutter. “When you have a seizure it wipes your body out.”

With the crown back on her head, Ashton moves to a new chair for a pedicure. She knows what to do. She carefully rolls up her black cotton pants before crawling into the chair.

Her mother tries to persuade Ashton to paint her toenails and finger nails purple to match her dress, but Ashton wants orange. Leah holds out a bottle of purple polish and pleads with Ashton. Ashton shakes her head no and holds out an orange polish she had picked off the wall.

“I don’t think there’s ever been a time she hasn’t gotten orange,” laughs the manicurist as she rubs lotion over Ashton’s feet and up her unshaven legs.

Two high school girls come in and sit in the chairs next to Ashton. They know Ashton from drama class and try to make conversation, but Ashton is silent, seemingly unaware that anyone is talking to her.

The classmates are getting French manicures on their toes to match their nails. Their legs are bronzed and smooth. They talk about the upcoming dance and message each other on their Blackberries.

Her mother can’t help but make comparisons.

“Seeing the other girls here, it’s hard. She should be able to drive herself here.” Leah’s voice cracks as her eyes water. She stops talking, taking a moment to gather herself. She sighs and when she resumes, she’s changed both her perspective and her tone. “But I’m honored to drive the Queen. To be the driver, the cook, the butler, the laundress, the butt-wiper.”

Leah wasn’t always all these things. Before last year—a year she calls the Onslaught Year—Ashton was largely independent. In the mornings, she could bathe herself, blow dry her hair, dress herself and make her own breakfast.

At school, Ashton was a fireball of energy. She swam on the school swim team, played softball and loved to dance. Her instructional assistant, Cari Burke, remembers being exhausted at the end of each day.

Cari, then 25 years old, had never worked with special education students before being assigned to Ashton. Her background was in nursing, but her boyfriend (now husband) has a degree in special education, and he encouraged her to apply to work in the schools. Cari and Ashton met for the first time in July 2007, the summer before Ashton’s sophomore year. Cari, who speaks in a gentle tone and Southern accent that seem especially suited to her patient personality, didn’t know what to expect. When she walked in the room, Ashton came right up to her and squeezed her in a bear hug. 

Cari also began watching Ashton after school several days a week while Leah was working as a social worker. Sometimes, Cari would go the bathroom and come back to find that Ashton had rearranged her living room furniture or hidden her keys underneath the couch cushion or in a flower pot outside.

“Ashton loves to be loved, loves to give love, loves to make people smile,” Cari said. “She’s got an incredible sense of humor.”

As a junior, Ashton moved to a high school with a better special ed program. Cari transferred, too. At her new school, Ashton loved her classes, especially floral design. She could count to 20 in her math class, knew all of her shapes and could use a calculator to add and subtract. She loved her new classmates and teachers.

She was active, engaged and happy. And then—suddenly, mysteriously—she wasn’t.

Jennifer Cooper