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Mike Terry, Deseret News
Irene Harris is mentally disabled and is cared for by her sister, Terrell Dougan. Dougan says life with Irene is always an adventure.

Terrell Dougan was in the meat section of a grocery store, ducking the frozen chicken that her sister, Irene, had thrown at her, when it hit her.

Not the chicken.

It was the realization that life with Irene was always going to be an adventure, but maybe there were things in that adventure that would help, inspire and entertain others.

She was right. Dougan's recently published book, "That Went Well: Adventures in Caring for My Sister" (Hyperion, $24.95), details not only what it was like to grow up and eventually take over the care of a person with mental disabilities, but also the changing perceptions and programs in dealing with the mentally handicapped experienced by society at large.

It also demonstrates the power of love, humor and compassion in any life.

Irene Harris was born some 60-plus years ago. Doctors later speculated that trauma at birth deprived her brain of oxygen and left her with mental disabilities that meant she would never learn to read and write, that her emotional age would never progress beyond about age 3, that she would respond to love and affection, and that her brain was wired for tantrums.

At that time, there were two choices for children like Irene. The parents could place them in an institution, or they could struggle with them at home. The Harrises chose the latter course.

The 1950s and '60s were a time when attitudes toward those with mental handicaps began to change. "It was a remarkable time, and we were right in the middle, thanks to my father," Dougan says.

Richmond T. Harris, an advertising man who later co-founded the Harris and Love advertising agency, decided there must be other parents in similar situations, and in 1952 he put an ad in the newspaper asking them to contact him. Fifty people responded and organized themselves into the Salt Lake County Association for Retarded Children.

They didn't know that other parents around the country were doing the same thing. In fact, two years earlier, 40 people from 13 states had met in Minneapolis to form the National Association for Retarded Children. But they knew they could work together to effect change.

Years later, Dougan herself would serve as president of the Utah Association for Retarded Citizens for eight years and would serve on the board of the National Association for Retarded Citizens for two terms.

Over the years, the terminology has changed along with the attitudes, and so have opportunities for mainstream education, group homes and sheltered workshops, greater acceptance by children and adults. And Irene has been there for it all.

One thing they learned early on, however, Dougan says, was that Irene was a true homebody. She really preferred to stay home and sometimes let that preference be known in extreme ways.

She is now "retired" and lives in her own home, where paid companions take care of her and see that her basic needs are met. "We are really lucky that we have the resources to be able to do that," Dougan says. "Irene is much happier on her own than she would be living with me, although that is always our fallback plan."

These days, Irene is a "happy camper," Dougan says. She still plays with her dolls. She follows people around and scams them for money. She's made friends with the local firefighters. She can ride the bus and make transfers.

"She has also learned how to get what she wants and is smart in ways we're still learning," Dougan says.

For example, for Christmas Irene got a phone to keep by her bed. She has a list of phone numbers and is able to copy them onto the phone. But she has to keep that list downstairs, so she doesn't call people at all hours of the night.

"But what we didn't know is that she figured out that the phone will redial the last number called. So one night at 11 p.m., she started pushing the redial button. She would say, 'Hi, this is Irene,' and then hang up and redial again. We didn't know until the friend called us. There's always a new adventure."

Irene has diabetes and has to limit intake of candy and sweets, which she loves, and that has sometimes been a trial — hence the flying chicken.

"But I've learned what some of the things are that trigger tantrums," Dougan says. For example, "I've learned I can't get a haircut or a manicure at the same time she does."

Another thing that has helped tremendously, she says, has been the local Relief Society of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Although Dougan is not a member of the LDS Church, the ward Relief Society "has made a community for Irene. They all watch out for her. That and Special Needs Mutual. I get teary-eyed at all they do. It's so heartwarming and character building — and it's good for the special needs population, too," as she likes to say. "Seriously, I'm in awe of their warmth and caring. Whenever I travel, and people ask me about the Mormons, I tell them, what you can do is count on the Mormons; you can count on them for help and support."

"When I go to Relief Society, they let me hand out bookmarks," says Irene, very pleased. "And they give me a job in the nursery. And they give me a job to ring the bell. Every time I go, they give me another job."

Irene also likes to tell the story of when "me and Kathryn were driving and the policeman pulled us over, and he told me I'd better put my baby in a car seat." Irene had her doll. "It wasn't a real baby," she says with a laugh.

No, it is not always easy, Dougan says. But it is what it is. And over the years, she has discovered that humor is one of the best coping mechanisms.

That, in fact, was how Dougan turned to writing.

"I had always been drawn to the great humorists; they were my lifeblood in high school and college. They all talked about how an underlying source of humor is pain. When things get so bad, there's nothing left to do but laugh."

Dougan reached that point when she was a young mother of two, living in Colorado away from her family, with a husband whose job as a geologist often took him on the road, and with a giant German shepherd that spent its life either licking or drooling.

One night, after a particularly frustrating day, "I got up in the middle of the night and started typing. Shortly after that, we moved back to Salt Lake, and I sent a column to Evelyn Mazuran, who was then the women's editor at the Deseret News. Two months went by, and I heard nothing. Then one day, Evelyn called and said they liked it, and could I do it on a weekly basis? I thought she was only doing it because she knew my mother, but the column lasted for 13 years."

Irene didn't figure much in that column, because her parents were still the primary caretakers, but as that role fell more and more to Dougan, she found that humor was still a big help.

After the incident with the chicken, Dougan attended a Writers@Work workshop and wrote an essay about Irene. And as she told stories about Irene to her friends and family, they encouraged her to write more.

Eventually, there came an agent and a book deal, and now the book "has made the monthly lists of all the book clubs, like Book-of-the Month and the Book Guild. I've been so surprised at the reception. Irene and I were even in People magazine."

Irene has also been pleased. She and her sister have gone to book signings, where she gets to use a stamp for her name. "It's fun," she says.

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Dougan is starting to work on another book, which will be along the lines of "dreadful lessons I have learned about life, marriage, children, grandchildren and aging for fun and profit in my lifetime."

She also teaches water aerobics, serves on the boards of Red Butte Garden and This Is the Place Heritage Park (where she has volunteered for years), and is a grandma.

But through it all, one thing has not changed. She is Irene's sister. And that, she says, has been an adventure, but also an honor.

E-mail: carma@desnews.com