A Fish In Water: Ghree’s Story

Ghree Lockard makes her way to the YWCA pool the same way she negotiates the rest of the world, a little unsteady on her feet but without fear. She parks her walker out of the way, takes a few steps to the pool and grabs hold of the railing. There are five wide steps into the water. Ghree takes them sideways, one at a time. At the last step, she lets go of the railing. The water comes above her waist and all at once there is grace in the way she moves.

She says the water gives her power. “I move faster and it’s relaxing.” She swims two lengths in a steady crawl, then two more on her back. When she’s in training for the Special Olympics, Ghree can swim a full hour, with short rests. But the season hasn’t begun yet, and she is out of shape and needs a break. Ghree remembers the first time she went swimming – or tried. She was about 6 or 7 years old, playing in an uncle’s pool in Florida with her cousins. She slipped off an inflatable float and sank. An aunt jumped in and rescued her. She decided then she would learn to swim.

Her grandmother, Judy Lockard, doesn’t remember this moment. Judy raised Ghree and her sister and is now her guardian, but there are all kinds of details that they don’t always agree on. Ghree remembers learning to swim as a child through trial and error. Judy remembers her surprise when the group home on Stockton Street enrolled Ghree in Special Olympics and the next thing she knew, her granddaughter was winning events. But there is much they do agree on. For one thing, there’s no dispute between them that Ghree is fearless. Ghree has been falling her whole life, so it feels normal to her. And in a way it does to her grandmother too. When Ghree was small and would fall, her grandmother would simply say, “Are you OK? Well then get up and let’s go.” They laugh, imagining that anyone who overheard these exchanges would think that Judy was coldhearted.

Judy knew, however, that Ghree wasn’t developing the way other children do. It wasn’t just that she was clumsy. She also fell behind at school, where she was placed in classes with disabled children. Eventually, other kids began making fun of her. Ghree never thought of herself as disabled. In her mind, she fell, and sometimes she got hurt. But she has a high threshold for pain, so often didn’t notice. She taught herself to read in high school, but math remains a mystery. Finally a family doctor examined her, diagnosed cerebral palsy and prescribed a pair of leg braces. She was 16. “I remember thinking, ‘It took them long enough,’” Ghree says. “It was reassuring because I finally found out what I had, what was wrong with me.”

When Ghree was in high school, Judy began to worry about what would happen to her granddaughter when she was gone. Someone suggested she consider a group home. Judy was stunned when she learned about the extra services that would be available to her granddaughter. She had never heard of the county’s jobs program or the monthly dance for disabled adults or Special Olympics. Ghree had no interest in leaving her Mimaw and Pawpaw, but Judy thought of the future and insisted. Ghree lived in two other homes before moving into the Stockton Street group home over a year ago. During the week, she works at Forsyth Industrial Systems, a jobs program for disabled adults, with contracts with local companies for piece work. Her favorite contract is the bottle-packing job with Texas Pete. Last year she saved up for a laptop and waited for the Black Friday sales. She also paid her own Internet bill, and opened a Facebook account, which she uses to keep up with aunts and uncles and a host of nieces, nephews and cousins. She especially likes news of new babies in the family. And she’s a big fan of the Twilight novels, the bestselling series of fantasy novels. All this amazes Judy.

The administration at Group Homes of Forsyth noticed early on that others in the home turned to Ghree for advice. Several of the other women in the home have difficulty speaking. Ghree understands when others don’t. She often finds herself mediating disputes among the four other women in the home. That skill led Group Homes to assign Ghree to take complaints from residents at all seven group homes when they get together for monthly meetings. She’s also served as a public spokeswoman for Group Homes. When the county was considering budget cuts last year for non-profit agencies, Ghree spoke to the board of county commissioners, reading from prepared remarks in a clear voice. She wasn’t afraid, she says, until she was done. “I just don’t have fear about stuff. You have to try it to at least know if it’s going to be right or dangerous.”

On Thursdays, Ghree is back at the Y. Sometimes some of her housemates join her, but they prefer the exercise machines to the pool. She changes into her Speedo at home so that when she gets to the Y, all she needs to do is get out of her clothes and shower. The leg braces make the bottom of her feet burn, so she is glad to be rid of them for the hour. She tosses them into the locker and makes her way through the shower room to the pool side, parks the walker and grabs the railing. In five steps she is walking in water and soon swimming in a steady crawl, 25 meters back and forth, the falls and clumsy walk washing away with each stroke. “It’s like I’m a fish in water.”

Phoebe Zerwick, October 2013