all of the selves we Have ever been
Every family has its stories.
Most often, these stories are shared around tables at family reunions, weddings, and funerals. Some family stories are thrillers, some romances, others pure horror. Occasionally, a family story finds its way into a text book as a case study or is dissected in a therapist’s office.
Whatever the genre, over time, a large, expanding volume emerges. The book of shared lives contains long and short chapters, forgotten facts, and colorful characters. There are attempts at editing and occasional re-writes, but fact-checking is difficult. Some keepers of the story die, others disappear, some change. Emotions color memory, and memory fades. Even among eye witnesses, vision is not 20/20. Lenses are shaped by events recent and distant--relationships that are new, loves that are old, needs never met, and hurts that won’t heal.
Our family tome contains its fair share of romance, adventure, loss, disappointment, and eccentric relatives. It also contains a fairy tale. There are no magic beans, no swords pulled from stones, no princesses brought to life by kisses, but upon fact-checking, we all agree, there is a benevolent giant, an unlikely prince, and a magical, once-upon-a-time kingdom. As is true of all good fairy tales, this story is not just for children. It is a morality tale of perseverance in the face of trials, and the ultimate triumph of love and community.
Once upon a time there was a Benevolent Giant. Five of the family’s children called him Dad. The rest of us called him Uncle. He was also known as Brother and Beloved Son. A steady presence in all of our lives, the Benevolent Giant was a fine example of kindness and human decency. He was unobtrusive but ever present. His watchful eyes saw everything but never judged. His was the voice on the phone in our darkest hours, quietly setting rescue into motion. A touch from his thumb kept our world on its axis.
A humble man whose stated goal in life was to get to heaven, our Benevolent Giant was a college football star drafted by the NFL. He was also drafted by Uncle Sam. Instead of dodging tackles, this Benevolent Giant dodged bullets in the European Theatre during World War II. When the war ended, he returned to the small village from whence he came, grew a family, and built a business and a life that took us all in.
After the births of three daughters, the Benevolent Giant and his wife had a son. They named the baby George. The birth was complicated, and developmental delays soon became apparent. It was a time when families were encouraged to place children with special developmental needs into institutions. Despite such advice, the Benevolent Giant could do no such thing, and he forged a path for George that would become a model for modern mainstreaming.
The Benevolent Giant taught George to crawl, to walk, and even to drive a car. Together, the Giant and George mastered every level of Boy Scouts and became lifelong members of the Boy Scout community. George grew into a gainfully employed man and an active and involved citizen of the kingdom. Now a senior citizen, George remains an enthusiastic member of many service organizations and a helping hand at all community parades and events. George is the man about town, and the doors of local churches, restaurants and businesses open wide for him.
The journey was not without struggles. George was not always accepted at school or by others new to him. George faced these many challenges not with a drawn sword, but with openness, innocence, and perseverance, secure in an armor forged from love. In more recent years, George lived through the deaths of both of his beloved parents, and the devoted older sister with whom he lived following those deaths. He adjusted to living alone in a house that was once overflowing. At the peak of the COVID epidemic, George was struck by pick-up truck while helping to set up for a local parade. In good spirits, he weathered the fear, the pain, the hospitalization, and the surgeries, the physical therapy, and a long recovery.
George continues to rise to every occasion. He is incapable of acting with ill intentions, and he is never a victim. George does not harbor hurt. He neither expects nor looks for the worst in others. George befriends everyone he meets.
The princely magic in George is an unshakeable belief that life will work out in his favor. And it does. This is no ordinary mental attitude of optimism. It is no coincidence. It is a sacred a gift from the Benevolent Giant, a loving mother, four devoted siblings, and a generous community. This gentle army of fairy godparents flutters about, tapping their wands, turning pumpkins into coaches that take George everywhere.
When George’s sister, housemate, and counselor died suddenly five years ago, we all wondered and worried, what would be next for George? Would he be forced to leave the family home and his familiar life? As his siblings wrestled with decisions about the future, a member of the community stood up at his sister’s funeral to say, “Don’t worry about George. He belongs to us, too. We will look after him.” And they have.
Somehow the child with special needs filled a special need in all of us. Like all good fairy tales, George’s life reflects our deepest desires for what can be. His story is a tribute to the love and devotion of parents, siblings, and an entire community that made him their son.
I close this chapter in our family story with words from another book that I love:
They drew a circle to keep him out, heretic, rebel, a thing to flout, but love and I had the wit to win: We drew a circle that took him in!
--adapted from the poem, Outwitted, by Edwin Markham in the book Reclaiming Lost Youth
by Larry Brendtro, Martin Brokenleg and Steven Van Bockern