My uncle is the R word (retarded). I’ve also heard him referred to as special, handicapped, or disabled. All these words are supposed to have some sort of negative stigma attached to them, so I’m never sure which term to use to describe my Uncle Buddy. He’s an old man now, my mom’s twin brother.
He and my mother both seemed perfectly normal when they emerged from my grandmother 60-something years ago in rural Georgia. But as the years passed, Buddy didn’t grow as tall as his twin Sissy. He kept falling off his bike. He couldn’t keep up in school. Then he started having seizures. By the time he was 11, he had to be sent to Gracewood Institute in Augusta, a One-Flew-Over-The-Cuckoo’s-Nest kind of state institution for the mentally and physically disabled.
There’s a lot about my Uncle Buddy’s life that I don’t know. I don’t know what it was like to be separated from his family (there were 5 siblings), especially his twin, my mother. I don’t know what life in Gracewood was like in the late 50s. I don’t know what kind of medications or treatments he’s been subjected to. I don’t know what his relationships to his minimum wage caregivers have been. So much of his life will forever be a mystery, mostly because he can’t communicate very much.
I do know some things. I know that my grandmother kept her family together. On visiting weekends, she’d be up before dawn, preparing a picnic lunch, including fried chicken and a coconut cake (Buddy’s favorite). The kids would be groomed, and crammed into the car with the picnic lunch and my grandfather. They’d tootle on down the road to Augusta from Hinesville, check Buddy out of Gracewood, and spend the next few bittersweet hours playing and eating and being a real family. Then Buddy would be left behind, the rest of the family would go back home, and everyone’s hearts would break again. Buddy hated Gracewood.
I remember when Uncle Buddy could still walk around. That was when I was little, in the 70s. Buddy’s balance wasn’t the greatest, and he had massive scars on his body where he’d taken some nasty spills. That’s why he wore the football helmet. Yes, you read that right and I am not making that up. The stereotypical “retard” joke is the guy wearing a football helmet who talks funny and falls down a lot. Well, in the 70s, that was totally my Uncle Buddy.
His body has continued to deteriorate gradually, so that now, in his 60s, he is wheelchair bound and can’t move much except his head and hands. Quite honestly, I don’t think anyone expected him to live this long. And yet here he is.
And he IS here. He is mentally retarded, but his mind hasn’t deteriorated at the same rate as his body. Buddy is still here. He laughs at my jokes and wants a hug and asks me about things we talked about in our previous visit. He gets tickled to the point of tears when my sister and I “fight” over which one of us is his favorite. He gets grouchy and doesn’t like some people. Sometimes he finishes my mom’s sentences when she’s in another room and drifts off. He talks about love all the time (it’s pretty groovy).
Just last year, Buddy was moved from Gracewood (where he’d lived for over 50 years) to a house near Savannah with 24 hour care and a wheelchair bound roommate named Philip. My mother and her sisters worked and worried over the transition in his care, coordinating it all while traveling back and forth from Texas and South Carolina to Georgia.
During the day, he goes to the Coastal Center for Developmental Services. He calls it his “work”. So today, my mom came and got me and Little Boy. I packed a picnic lunch: tuna salad, homemade bread, spinach salad, carrot and red bell pepper strips, hummus, lentil dip and a banana. We crammed into Grandma’s car and met Uncle Buddy at work for lunch. It was 80 degrees and sunny. We ate at a shaded table out back by the Center’s vegetable, herb, and flower garden. A gorgeous day. Smiling faces. Happy bellies. Lots of love.
Well, mostly lots of love. Today Little Boy confessed that he gets “bored” when we visit Uncle Buddy. I told him I do, too. He gave me that look he does when he’s trying to figure out whether or not I’m messing with him. “Seriously?” he asked.
“Seriously,” I said. “It’s totally boring. I mean, we just sit there mostly, right?.”
He looked puzzled. “Then why do we go?”
“Because it’s not boring to Buddy. This lunch is just a little boring to us, because there’s no cartoons or rides or magic tricks. But to Buddy WE are the magic. He loves his family more than anything. We can fill his whole day with love and smiles with just a little bit of patience and some homemade bread. It’s a pretty cool gift to be able to give, when you think about it.”
He considered this. “Mommy,” he finally declared, “I want to go have lunch with Uncle Buddy.”
I grinned. “Me, too.”
Then we pinkie swore that we would mind our manners and not use any rude words out in public today.