It’s not a role I ever planned for, but a couple of Mondays ago, I sat in a courtroom in Milledgeville, the seat of Baldwin County, Ga., and agreed to take legal responsibility for another human being. It happened so gradually and painlessly that when asked if I was willing to accept the guardianship, I almost told the judge no. Panicking, I searched my memory: How did I get here, what does this mean? It certainly scares the daylights out of me, this guardian thing, but I must add that it is also (already) bringing me a certain measure of happiness.

I should mention that my protégée, if that’s the word, has more than her share of issues. Multiple congenital impairments confine her to a wheelchair and severely limit her mobility. At 32 years old, she is a high school graduate but reads at about a third-grade level. There is nothing, however, wrong with that razor-sharp mind of hers or her sassy take on the world, which she observes from a place of distant, dry irony.

“Okay,” I told her after the hearing as we chatted outside the courthouse in the August heat. “I’m Batman and you’re Robin.”

That was enough to dissolve both of us in laughter in spite of the fact that the hearing, which had also accepted a petition for dissolution of the role from her previous guardian, had left the two of us shaky and teary.

Truth to tell, though, that’s about how we perceive our relationship at the moment. We both asked for it, and we got it, and now we’re not sure what to do with it. But there’s good will and even love on both sides.

Her name is Amanda, and the story of how I came to be appointed her guardian starts three years ago, when I was director of a five-county service center of the American Red Cross and Mandy, as I call her, came every Wednesday morning to address postcards and shred waste paper for us. I quickly came to look forward to our brief conversations as she sat in the kitchen of the converted cottage that served as the service center office. Because of her impairments, Mandy is sometimes hard to understand, but the effort is well worth it. I discovered right away that she always had something on her mind and that she had no difficulty sharing it and her opinion about it.

I found out, on our morning chats, that Mandy is mad for wrestling and for certain (very buff) wrestlers. She has a boyfriend, Joey, she adores pizza, and she has very little patience with whiners. Despite her physical restrictions, she inhabits a broad mental and spiritual cosmos, and I found myself looking forward to her take on the world. In a word, we became Friends.

“Am I a brat?” she asked me one Wednesday as I refilled my coffee cup for the nth time.

Had I already taken a sip of the hot liquid, I’m sure I’d have done a classic Mel Brooks spit take. But I hadn’t, so I gamely replied, “What’s a brat, and why do you think you might be one?”

“People call me that all the time,” she said. “I guess it’s somebody loud and annoying.”

“So you consider yourself loud and annoying?”

She shook her head vehemently. “I stand up for myself,” she corrected me. “Some people don’t like that.”

I took the bait: “Why don’t they like that?”

She was ready. “They’re brats,” she chortled.

Color me hooked on her sly sense of humor. I began to try to shelter those Wednesday mornings with Mandy, to such an extent that I would be disappointed when floods, fires and tornadoes took me away from the office and interfered with our little sessions.

I discovered she was a hoarder. Upon arrival, she would expect to be served a Coke (her keepers decreed that it should be a Diet Coke) and would demand to know what snack foods were available. Candy was her favorite, but she was also amenable to Sun Chips, Oreos, cheese and peanut butter crackers, Doritos, and so on and so forth.

At first I happily supplied her with whatever we had available, but after awhile I began to see that she was collecting, not necessarily staving off hunger.

On rare occasions when I had no snacks she considered of suitable quality, she would rummage about in the multitude of sacks and backpacks appended to her wheelchair and something wonderful would appear: a packet of Rolos, a Snickers bar, a Twinkie or a bag of kettle-fried potato chips. As it turns out, Mandy travels with a well-stocked pantry of emergency food and drink which she replenishes regularly thanks to the kindness of strangers.

One Wednesday when Mandy rolled herself into the Red Cross office, there was a marked change. Her eyes were downcast. Her chin quivered. She sighed a lot as she bent over the stack of blank postcards and the computer printout of CPR experts due for refresher courses.

Her printing became more labored, more illegible. Her demeanor, over a period first of weeks and then of months, became more and more dejected and depressed.

“She’s on a lot of painkillers,” one caretaker informed me when I inquired about the change. “There are always mood swings in these situations.”

But the situation persisted. Months rolled by. Mandy might or might not appear. If she did, she was distracted, teary-eyed — just not at all her plucky, irreverent self.

I had already learned a little of her back-story. Her parents both died early, in their 40s. They had appointed a family friend, who was also a teacher of Mandy’s, as guardian and executor. Over time, situations morphed and alliances deteriorated. The end result, without taking any sides as to who might have been responsible, was that Mandy was ejected from the modest home in which she was born and grew up, and dispatched to a group home for mentally retarded citizens in far-away (30 miles south) Macon.

Brothers and teachers, I pondered, Who is helping this young woman? I stewed for months on end, watching Mandy grow grimmer and more distant, before raising my hand and asking, Who is helping this person?

Long story short, a lot of people loved her and wanted to help her, and some people wanted to help her but didn’t necessarily love her. Money was involved, because as a Medicaid beneficiary Mandy was in need of and qualified for intensive daily care. But all of those who lined up behind her and tried to understand and assist with her situation soon learned that many of Mandy’s friends and advocates were merely people who hoped to make a buck from taking care of her.

Thanks to a wonderful non-profit organization called Citizen Advocacy, I backed into the position of Mandy’s advocate, an unpaid role that I was already filling by asking pertinent questions and providing her with support in attempting to get herself back to the birth home that she so desperately missed while ensconced in a Macon institution for mentally retarded people for 18 months.

As her advocate, an unpaid position, I monitored the progress of her valiant efforts to be heard, to tell the world she had been displaced and was not about to accept it. When people discounted her because of her immobilization or her inability to speak clearly on the telephone, I spoke up for her. It wasn’t hard work and it didn’t take a lot of time. I found out along the way that doing it made me feel better about myself. Far from a do-gooder, I was merely a friend sticking up for a friend.

Well, yada yada. Fast forward to August ’09. Very little has changed, but I’m now a guardian. It’s the same friendship, the same commitment. I have had my own ups and downs, and Mandy has given at least as much as she has taken in our relationship. She has shown me courage and bravery as I’ve never before seen it. She has amused me and baffled me and forced me to look at my life in a different vein.

I treasure her and I feel privileged to be, as the current metaphor goes, in her wheelhouse. So now I’m her guardian. It doesn’t feel any different from being her advocate. If anything, just more fun. Mandy has figured out a way to call her boyfriend, Joey, on her Cricket phone and then conference me in. So, every few days, I get a conference call from Mandy and Joey, and it’s new and confusing and frightening but fun for all three of us. We don’t know what we’re doing yet or what the rules are, but we care about each other. Joey and Mandy want to get married as soon as she can get back into the house she grew up in, a challenge in which she is being aided by wonderful attorneys with Georgia Legal Aid. I told her when that happens we can have the wedding here at my log house estate, Kissing Pines, with, I hope, the wisteria and azalea in bloom.

It is, as William Shakespeare would have it, a “consummation devoutly to be wished,” and my heart and soul are devoted to helping it happen.

This is not something I do for charity. This is something I do for joy. I’m the recipient of so much inspiration and joy. Today, for example. Joey and Mandy called me. Just before she signed off, Mandy said, “Billie, I want to tell you something.”

“OK,” I said, a little warily, having received many non sequiturs from this lady in our time together.

“I love you,” she said.

It made my day.

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