Down Syndrome, a commonly misunderstood genetic disorder, may offer a deeper glimpse into the joyous essence of the human spirit. A Squamish-based writer shares insights about her greatest muse: a high-kicking, dance-partying, joke-cracking sister named Adele. By Andrea Helleman.
My mom knew something was up when my sister Adele was born and didn’t cry. It was the early 80s, long before genetic testing was common, so my mom had no idea Adele had been born with an extra 21st chromosome: Down syndrome. We could not predict how it would shape our lives.
Over the better part of three decades, I’ve watched my sister study and master the dance moves of virtually every MuchMusic video, perfect the martial artistry of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and create a variety of artistic works that fill her many closets. To those who know her, she is a self-taught superhero who has brought grown men to tears with her ability to present the truth, raw and unfiltered. To me, she is simply my sister. Adele Tara Helleman, age thirty-five.
When you first see this petite, small-featured, large-eyed, flat-nosed lady, you instantly say to yourself, “Oh, she has Down’s.” But once she pulls you in for one of her hugs, she destroys all preconceptions and personal boundaries, and you transition from your mind to your heart.
Adele discovered her ability to charm others into doing exactly what she wants early on. At the age of four, she began daycare. After the first week, my mom nervously asked about her. The childcare worker smiled, and told her Adele was a lovely child, but said that my mom should teach Adele how to eat with a fork or spoon. She thought Adele would “get it” if encouraged. I am positive this was the moment my mom realized she did not have to worry about Adele’s future. After all, Adele had been feeding herself with utensils for years. But at daycare, she had convinced grown adults to spoon-feed her and cater to her every whim.
Adele has made a lifetime career of charming people into not only doing everything for her but also living for it. She is a total boss.
What is it about my sister, and basically every friend of hers that rocks an extra chromosome, that instantly connects us to pure joy and innocence? To life before bills, before expectations—when you danced because you felt moved to.
I believe Adele refuses to get caught up in the drudgery of everyday life. She stays light and rules with complete honesty. If you accidentally swear in front of her, her eyes light up and she tells you that she “likes those words.” If she is upset, she erupts into quick tears but they pass just as quickly (usually with a close-contact hug). She doesn’t hold on to the negative. After our mom passed away, Adele moved to the city and quit her job at Shoppers Drug Mart. I asked her if she was going to get another job. She looked at me blankly and asked, “Why would I?” Nailing it again.
Adele stays busy, filling her days with her “work,” which consists of meticulously reproducing the Canadian Tire catalogue, colouring in her many books, or building life-size renderings of each Power Ranger. She is a hardcore Blue Jays and Habs fan, and she currently believes she is a Red Power Ranger from Mega Force Red. Her style of music is “loud” and her domination of the dance floor is legendary. She’ll dance in the ferry line-up, or start a conga line in public without hesitation. Hip-hop is her specialty, but she can hold her own with any genre, provided it’s loud.
Last year Adele put on her first dance class. She told me it was the best thing she’s ever done. She was a natural, and by natural, I mean she bossed people around, put on impressive displays of booty shaking and pulled people into the circle with her until she decided she had had enough and released them. Unwittingly, everyone became lost in Adele and just danced. By the time this goes to print, both the spring 2018 hip-hop and country dancing classes will have begun.
I know my brother and I are very lucky to have grown up alongside Adele. She is perhaps the greatest gift my mother gave to this world before passing away in the summer of 2012. At Mom’s funeral, Adele honoured her as only she could: lip-syncing to Destiny’s Child. Our childhood neighbour (now in his fifties) told me he held it together until that point. Even now, when I remember that moment, Adele with her eyes closed and singing as though she was Beyoncé herself, I feel at peace. Happy.
Squamish-based creative Andrea Helleman spends her free time in the mountains with her dog, Bella, and a camera in hand. She knows the secret to happiness is owning who you are, hugging even when you don’t feel like it and doing a lot of high kicks. She thanks her sister for always reminding her of this.