The Greatest Gift

Even in moments of tragedy, there are still opportunities to leave behind unexpected gifts.

The Giver of Gifts

I had a brother named Richard who was “retarded.” He would have been 53 years old this past January. My parents did not know his diagnosis right away. It just became apparent that something was wrong after he didn’t meet milestones as a toddler. He was slower to walk and was a bit uncoordinated and even walked on his toes. After his doctor did some testing, he was diagnosed “brain damaged, or “retarded”, as were the words used back then. Today it would probably be autistic. 

He was very smart and read all the time and had many interests. But he was still put in “Special Ed” classes for school because he was “slow.” He loved music but could not really dance. He was so uncoordinated that he would just bend up and down at the knees to the music. Our family loved to dance and for some reason we were always dancing with our mom in our living room. We would also go with our grandparents to the Elks Club to teach the “special needs” kids to dance, Richard being one of the kids being taught. This memory of dancing is one of my favorites.

When Richard was 9, our whole family was on a local radio show. (Our grandparents were friends with the show’s host.) My grandfather was an Elk at the local Elk's club there the "Special Needs Kids" had their dances and Richard would be interviewed about this. He introduced Richard as “one of our special retarded friends” before beginning his interview. He did not say it with cruelty but this was part of the language back then. He referred to him this way throughout the entire interview and ended it with playing "God Bless The Child" by Billy Holiday, as the song for our 'special retarded friends."

Maybe my brother would still be here if he wasn’t “retarded.” Maybe he would have been able to drive. Maybe when he left for work at McDonald’s one day, a work program set up for special needs kids, he wouldn’t have panicked that he was missing his bus home. Maybe he would have realized he could catch the next bus or call mom for a ride. Maybe he would have realized that he wouldn’t be able to beat the traffic that was coming as he ran across the highway, trying to get to the bus waiting on the other side. But he was too slow and uncoordinated and he never saw the car coming. He never made it to that bus. And in that split second of indecision, our lives would be changed forever.

The worst phone call of my life came of September 16, 1986, letting me know that my brother had been hit by a car and was taken to the hospital in serious condition. I do not recall the drive over there but remember seeing him in the ER, not responsive. We did not know the seriousness of his injuries when he came in. Unbelievably, he looked fine, but his pelvis and legs were crushed, and they could not control his heart rate. It was beating at over 250 beats per minute and he had suffered a serious brain injury.

After three torturous days in a coma and being hooked up to life support, Richard was declared to be brain dead after performing an EEG. I'll never forget the nurse informing me of this as I went to place headphones on his head to listen to music. (I truly believe people in comas can hear and I was hoping that his love of music would help him heal). She simply said, "Oh, don't bother, he can't hear it, he's brain dead." This is how I was told. 

As the realization hit me that my brother was gone and I was first to hear the news, my mother walked in with my grandmother. It was heartbreaking as I sat and watched my mom hold Richard's hand, letting him know that Grandma was there and that he would be better soon.

I could not stand the pain of watching my mother and grandmother talking to him knowing that they were going to be told the worst news any parent or grandparent could ever be told. I left the room as they were "informed."

As a family we had a decision to make. Keep Richard on life support to see if his condition was reversible or turn off the machines that were keeping him alive. My mother believes that Richard kept us from making that horrible decision and he died on his own on the morning were were to come in and turn off his machines. His heart finally gave out after working so hard for so many days. I did go into his room one last time to see him without being hooked up to all the machines. It was now so quiet in the room without all the sounds of the machines and I knew that he was at peace. His suffering was over.

But Richard didn't leave without sharing a few gifts. His organs were not able to be donated because of all the drugs used to try and keep him alive. But there are two people in this world, one man and one woman who received his corneas. The woman was suffering from an illness that was causing her to go blind and a young man who who had a serious accident at a construction site. So there are two people in this world, one man and one woman, who were given the gift of sight and this gives me peace that a part of him is still here with us.

The other was a gift to me. I had a dream the night he died. I was in a room and the phone rang. Someone handed it to me and said Richard was on the phone. I grabbed it and yelled, “where are you??!!” And in his voice, clear as day, he said, “Don’t worry, I am always behind you. I’m OK, I can dance now.” One of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received and it gives me peace.

We are all human, regardless of our abilities or disabilities, and we all have gifts that we share. Some gifts are given with intent from our hearts and some are simply gifts that we give even when we are gone. Although our family grieves over the loss of our precious gift, we will always remember that through this tragedy another gift was given.

With Love,
Richard’s Sister, Denise 

"And remember, the truth that once was spoken, to love another person is to see the face of God."     —Les Miserables