Excerpt from Oliver by Christopher de Vinck
I grew up in the house where my brother was on his back in his bed for thirty-two years, in the same corner of his room, under the same window, beside the same yellow walls. He was blind and mute. His legs were twisted. He didn’t have the strength to lift his head or the intelligences to learn anything. Oliver was born with severe brain damage which left him and his body in a permanent state of helplessness.
Today I am an English teacher, and each time I introduce my class to the play about Helen Keller, The Miracle Worker, I tell my students the story about Oliver. One day, during my first year of teaching, I was trying to describe Oliver’s lack of response, how he had been spoon-fed every morsel he ever ate, how he never spoke. A boy in the last row raised his hand and said, “Oh, Mr. de Vinck. You mean he was a vegetable.” I stammered for a few seconds. My family and I fed Oliver. We changed his diapers, hung his clothes and bed linens on the basement line in winter, and spread them out white and clean to dry on the lawn in the summer. I always liked to watch the grasshoppers jump on the pillowcases.
We bathed Oliver, tickled his chest to make him laugh. Sometimes we left the radio on in his room. We pulled the shade down on the window over his bed in the morning to keep the sun from burning his tender skin We listened to him laugh as we watched television downstairs We listened to him rock his arms up and down to make the bed squeak. We listened to him cough in the middle of the night. “Well, I guess you could call him a vegetable. I called him Oliver, my brother. You would have loved him.”
One afternoon, a few months after he was born, my mother brought Oliver to a window. She held him there in the sun, the bright good sun, and there Oliver rested in his mother’s arms, and there Oliver looked and looked directly into the sunlight, which was the first moment my mother realized that Oliver was blind.
My parents, the true heroes of this story, learned with the passing months that Oliver could not hold up his head, could not crawl, walk, sing; he could not hold anything in his hand; he could not speak So they brought him to Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York City for a full series of tests to determine the extent of his condition.
“What can we do for our son?” my parents wanted to know. Dr. De Lange said that he wanted to make it very clear to both my mother and father that absolutely nothing could be done for Oliver. He didn’t want my parents to grasp at false hope. “You could place him in an institution?” “But,” my parents answered, “he is our son. We will take Oliver home, of course.” The good doctor said, “Then take him home and love him.”
Oliver grew to the size of a ten-year-old. He had a big chest, a large head. His hands and feet were those of a five-year-old, small and soft. We’d wrap a box of baby cereal for him at Christmas and place it under the tree. We’d pat his head with a damp cloth in the middle of a July heat wave. His baptismal certificate hung on the wall above his head. A bishop came to the house and confirmed him.
Oliver still remains the most hopeless human being I ever met, the weakest human being I ever met, and yet he was one of the most powerful human being I ever met. Oliver could do absolutely nothing except breathe, sleep, eat, and yet he was responsible for action, low, courage, insight.
For me, to have been brought up in a house where a tragedy was turned into a joy, explains to a great degree why I am the type of husband, father, writer and teacher I have become. I remember my mother saying when I was small, “Isn’t it wonderful that you can see?” And once she said, “When you go to heaven, Oliver will run to you, embrace you, and the first thing he will say is `Thank you. ‘ ” That leaves an impression on a boy.
Of course it is I who must thank Oliver and my parents for defining for me the boundaries of love which were the house, the yard, the woods where my sisters and brothers and I ran in and out all day long, the fields where we ice-skated in the winter and caught snapping turtles in the summer, and all the time Oliver laughed and slept between his fresh sheets, under the window day after day.
I remember my mother explaining to me that we were blessed with Oliver in ways that were not clear to her at first. So often parents are faced with a child who is severely retarded, but who is also hyperactive, demanding or wild, who needs constant care. So many people have little choice but to place their child in an institution Each circumstance is different. No one can judge.
When I was in my early twenties I met a girl and I fell in love. After a few months I brought her home for dinner to meet my family. After the introductions, the small talk, my mother went to the kitchen to check the meal, and I asked the girl, “Would you like to see Oliver?” for I had, of course, told her about my brother. “No,” she answered. She did not want to see him. It was as if she slapped me in the face, yet I just said something polite and walked to the dining room.
Soon after, I met Roe, Rosemary, a dark-haired, dark-eyed, lovely girl. She asked me the names of my brothers and sisters. She bought me a copy of The Little Prince. She loved children. I thought she was wonderful. I brought her home after a few months to meet my family. The introductions. The small talk. We ate dinner; then it was time for me to feed Oliver. I sheepishly asked Roe if she’d like to come upstairs and see Oliver. “Sure,” she said, and up the stairs we went. I sat at Oliver’s bedside as Roe stood and watched over my shoulder. I gave him his first spoonful, his second. “Can I do that?” Roe asked “Can I do that?,” she asked with ease, with freedom, with compassion, so I gave her the bowl, and she fed Oliver one spoonful at a time. The power of the powerless. Which girl would you marry? Today Roe and I have three children.
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