Thursday, August 18, 2011

Nature's Severe Mysteries

         Nature has many mysteries,
some of them severe.--Mary Oliver

I am the oldest of five siblings. Number two after me is a brother who is two years younger than I. Our only sister is seven years my junior, and the youngest brother is nine years younger. But between the second sibling and our sister, we had another brother. His name was Jerry. Few people outside the family knew about Jerry because he never went to school, he never attended church or Sunday school, and he never attended any of our school functions. Furthermore, I never talked about him with my friends and acquaintances from school. By the time he was seven years old, he hardly ever would have been found at our home.

Jerry was mentally handicapped--profoundly so. We used the word "retarded" back then, but I understand that word is out of favor now. We didn't know of his disability at first, of course, but it became more and more apparent when he simply didn't develop as a normal infant. A short time before his seventh birthday, my parents made the difficult decision to have him institutionalized because they didn't think they could care for him at home anymore. Caring for him simply took all of my mom's time.

Mom always hated that decision, even though she realized it was the only reasonable option. At first, Jerry lived at one of the state hospitals and was there treated little better than the livestock at some of those huge "factory farms" that we read about. We would go pick him up and bring him home as often as we could, usually on Sunday afternoons, but we could tell that he wasn't getting very good care.

Jerry's room and board at the state hospital cost our family four dollars per day. That was a lot of money in the mid-1960s for a family on one income with four small children at home. So mom made another decision that was difficult for her: she began working outside the home. At first, she worked as a housekeeper for the motel that her brother and his family managed. Then she took a job as sales clerk at a convenience store. Eventually, she was hired at the post office, where she sorted mail at first, then later became a window clerk serving customers.

Eventually, my parents were able to transfer Jerry to a nursing home that specialized in the care of people like him. (Some years after that, the state closed the hospital where he had been housed.) The care was better, but still he didn't get the kind of care he would have received at home, so mom still brought him home as often as she could. The nursing home was farther away than the state hospital, though. Eventually, though, the family no longer had to pay for Jerry's care. But Mom continued working anyway; college expenses were looming (beginning with me), and it simply made sense to keep the additional income flowing.

The chief reason I never told classmates about Jerry was fear. There was a small band of kids at school who teased and taunted me unmercifully. I figured that if any of them ever learned about Jerry, they would use the fact that I had a "retard" for a brother as an excuse to tease me all the more. So I never shared information about Jerry with anyone, for fear that it might get back to that group.

On April 11, 1992, long after the youngest of us had left home and gone out on our own, mom and dad brought Jerry home for another visit. One thing that Jerry always loved was taking a bath, so they would always put him in the bath right away. This day was no different. After putting Jerry in the bathwater, mom went to prepare his lunch. (He was never able to feed himself and basically lived on strained baby food which had to be spoon-fed to him.) While mom was taking care of getting lunch ready, Jerry somehow managed to turn on the hot water tap and scalded himself. Before anyone could do anything, Jerry was unconscious.

They rushed him to the emergency room, but it was too late. An autopsy was later performed, and I believe it was determined he died not from the burns themselves, but from shock leading to cardiac arrest. Jerry's death was ruled accidental.

We had a private family service for him; viewing hours were not advertised to the public, and no obituary was published in the local paper.

Jerry was 34 years old when he died.

Mom had been diagnosed with breast cancer in 1988. After the usual treatments--mastectomy followed by chemotherapy--her condition stablilzed, though the cancer never really went into complete remission. Mom's medical condition was still stable at the time of Jerry's accident, but mom always blamed herself for Jerry's death. "I wasn't there for him when he needed me," she would say. Of course it wasn't her fault; it wasn't anyone's fault. About a year after Jerry died, the cancer started spreading again, and two years later, on April 23, 1994, mom was gone too. I believe she had lost some of her will to live after Jerry died.

Mary Oliver's poem, "At the Pond," tells about six baby geese that the poet observed one summer. She would go every morning to the pond to watch them, and she describes how they "would paddle to me / and clamber / up the marshy slope / and over my body" (lines 5-8). At first it seems that the poet is simply going to continue describing "such sweetness every day" (10) that she observed that summer. But halfway through the poem, the tone abruptly changes. "Not there, however, but here / is where the story begins," the poet announces. "Nature has many mysteries / some of them severe" (14-17). Five of the six goslings grew normally: "heavy of chest and / bold of wing" (19-20). The sixth, however, "waited and waited / in its gauze-feathers, its body / that would not grow" (21-23). At the end of the season, the five that had grown up normally, along with their parents, observed their instincts and flew south for the winter:
And this is what I think
  everything is about:
      the way
         I was glad

for those five and two
   that flew away,
      and the way I hold in my heart the wingless one
         that had to stay. (25-32)

Like the baby goose in Mary Oliver's poem, my brother Jerry never developed and was never able to "fly" either. He simply didn't posses the normal mental capacity to attend school, develop talents and abilities, or eventually live on his own. And just like Mary Oliver's little gosling, Jerry's time with us was and continues to be a mystery. Why was he born the way he was? Why did he come to our family?

Mom always told us that she believed God knew Jerry would need special care and so gave him to our family, despite the fact that we weren't really able to care for him all the time. Perhaps Mom was right.

Mom and Jerry are buried side by side in a cemetery about 10 miles north of our family's home. The family paid for a memorial tree to be planted in Jerry's name; there's a plaque at the base of the tree. My wife and I visited the cemetery this past Memorial Day and took pictures of the plaque, the tree, and the graves.

We will continue to hold Jerry, our wingless one, in our hearts.

Work Cited
Oliver, Mary. "At the Pond." Evidence. Boston: Beacon Press, 2009. 34-35.