Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Good Night Mama Kaz

Mary Anne Kazmierski (Mama Kaz) died last week, a short eight months after her husband Carl. Both were vibrant, strong, faithful advocates for people with intellectual disabilities and for life. Carl was strong, pointed, and patient; Mama Kaz strode in and commanded a room. And when she entered, people either ran towards her, or as far away as possible. She was a formidable woman—full of fierce love; a powerful sense of justice; and a tenacious commitment to making schools, teachers, and administrators build inclusive classrooms and treat all students with dignity and respect. Schools hated her, and maybe that’s what I loved so much about her! She went out on a limb where very few were willing to go, pushed back boundaries, and was not afraid to yell “Shame on you!” to a principal who knew that they had allowed a student to be treated hurtfully on their watch.

She was also a very loving and proud mother, and brought those qualities to all her interactions with young people and their parents. She just loved you into being the best you could be and into sharing the best you could be with others.

Her obituary—written by her children Vince, Angie, and Greg (the first student with Down syndrome to graduate from high school here in Ottawa more than 20 years ago)—describes her well. It starts:

"Mama Kaz was called by God late on Saturday, November 5, 2011. After a life-time of fighting for others, mom died after a short, but tenacious fight with cancer. Her response when she received her diagnosis in August was vintage Mama Kaz: "That's no damn good," followed by "Let's just keep on keeping on." She spent her last days on her terms; with friends and family in her extravagantly decorated house, with good food (that she didn't have to cook) being served, surrounded by the sounds of celebration, of song and of prayer. The love that surrounded her was a living testament to her belief that: "if you want to love living, you have to live loving."

When I told Jessie that Mama Kaz had died, her eyes filled with tears and she quietly said “But who will call me to tell me that I’m doing a great job?” Indeed. And who will mobilize us and go in and confront school boards and fight for the very basic rights of myriad children denied not just education, but dignity and respect? And who will support the exhausted single immigrant mom battling with a school board over supports for their child with a disability? And who will encourage the family camped out protesting the school denying their daughter the right to attend the school closest to home? And who will call the father, exhausted from negotiating with the school for basic adaptations, to tell him what a brilliant job he is doing? And who will badger the superintendent and ask him if his priest knows what he is doing? And who will wear turquoise blue anklet boots and a matching Eiffel tower purse to funerals? Who, indeed?

Mama Kaz was one of a kind. She touched everyone she came into contact with in a very unique way. Everyone who knew her has their own delightful and often improbable story, and each story reflects another facet of the diamond that was Mama Kaz.

We first met Mama Kaz when Jessie was only two years old, and she found me a bursary and made me apply to go to the McGill Summer Institute on Inclusion. That experience (I have posted the article I wrote about it here) radicalized our lives and drew us into the circle that was fighting for inclusion. It changed the way I thought about Jessie, and about life. And it connected me to people who were rich in their experience of delight and in their understanding of what it means to be human and connected.

While inclusion has come a long way since then, our kids still need champions. Mama Kaz was one of those ‘til the end, and she will be missed. But we owe it to her to keep on keeping on. That means fighting for every child’s right to be educated, respected, and loved for who they are. That means gifting the world with the best in us, so that we may change the world and make it a place more filled with love and laughter. That means reaching out and encouraging others so that they feel strong and connected. That means not being afraid to stand up to the bullies, and encircling everyone in the embrace of love. Not as simple as it seems, but I will try to keep on keeping on, just as Mama Kaz ordered.

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