Keepin’ On, Keepin’ On
Silent. Solemn. Looking everywhere. Looking at no one. Five years old, but incomplete... odd-looking legs. “Retarded,” they said. Something ugly in those voices. Were they really his parents?
And the other with them, carrying a satchel filled with papers, “Kept him in the attic. Locked him there all day in a diaper while they went to work,” looking sideways at the parents, disgust in every line of her body.
Suddenly... Babel! “He don’t speak, Nurse.” Mother to Mother, “And his legs don’t work.” From the man, until now silent, “We had to go to work, we had to shop. He always messed himself. Didn’t matter how much I whupped him, he always...”
A hiss...”Be silent, both of you!” Turning to Mother, “The agreement is, the State gets parental rights... they don’t go to jail.” A breath... muttering, “I didn’t negotiate the deal.” Looking back at Mother, “He’s all yours, Mrs. Larlham. Please be kind to him. No one else has.”
Mother looked down at the handsome little five-year-old in the oversized stroller. Kneeling, she stroked his face. Her fingers found something... probed gently... moved down his shoulders, over the torso of the small blond boy who wriggled silently as her fingers touched, lingered and moved from rib to rib. I watched thunder gathering. Slowly she stood, straightened... all five feet ten inches of her. Dressed in starched white, wearing “sensible” white nurses’ shoes with two-inch heels and with a flared nurses’ cap pinned to her black hair, she stood more than six feet tall. For the case-worker, a question, “Are they allowed to visit?”
“No. In fact...”
Dismissing the case worker, she turned to the parents. “Go!” Alto steel. “Never come back here... ever! I will have you arrested... and I will press charges in this county for what you have done to that child. Go! Now!”
The case-worker was confused. “I have papers to be signed, and...”
“Charles, take this young lady to my office.” She turned to the parents. “I told you to leave.” Falling over each other, they scrambled for the exit. She took the stroller pushbar in hand and headed for the child’s assigned room. “Charles,” she said over her shoulder, “once you have shown her to my office, come to Billy’s bed in Room 1_ _.”
And that was how we met Billy. His legs looked “funny” because he didn’t have actual joints. All the bone ends had completed without building knees or ankles. Only his hips worked. That was project number one. The staff at Mother’s “hospital” for developmentally disabled children began working toward getting Billy in front of an orthopedic specialist who might build him some functional legs (this was in the mid ‘60s, mind you – there wasn’t a lot of leg-building going on, especially for children).
The next project was Billy’s voice... he didn’t seem to have one. Looking at his face, one would never suspect he had suffered severe developmental damage. His mental faculties were unknown because he was mute and seemed to be deaf as well. His legs would be very difficult to make in any fashion useful. All-in-all, Billy looked to be an utterly unsocialized deaf-mute with severe physical limitations. Getting around on his own was obviously a non-starter.
The next morning, Mother found him in the crib next to his, sleeping cuddled up with the little boy who occupied it... normally alone. A short investigation produced only denials from the night nurses that they had moved him. As a new patient, he wasn’t supposed to have direct contact with other patients.
For the next few weeks we all kept watch. Who was putting Bill-Bill (as my sister had taken to calling him) in that crib? There was something else going on, too. Whenever the little boy next to him was taken out of the room or either of the cribs was moved. Billy would shake the sides of his crib and silently weep. Tears would roll down his cheeks, but the only sound would be the rattling of his crib. But none of it kept Bill-Bill out of the crib next to him. And none of it led us any closer to the culprit, until...
The floor nurse stood in the door to Bill-Bill’s four-crib room, her entire body expressing a strange combination of shock, joy and humor. I walked up and looked over her shoulder.
“Go get your mother, Chuck.” She hadn’t turned a millimeter in my direction. I straightened up, but made no other move. “Well, go on.” That time she looked back toward me, and she laughed a little. “You come back with her.” She turned back to the room.
I went and fetched Mother.
When we got back to the door Mother said to the nurse, “Charles thinks you’ve figured out Bill-Bill’s secret.”
“Sort of.” The nurse turned to us. “Actually, I watched him do it.”
“Do what?” Mother’s patience on the subject had long since been worn completely away.
In response, the nurse walked into the room and reached down into the crib for Bill-Bill. He held up his arms and she picked him up. “Getting heavy,” she remarked, “but it doesn’t seem to matter. He’s done this twice for me, so I hope he’ll do it for you.”
“Do what?” We’ve discussed Mother’s level of patience on the subject of Bill-Bill’s perambulations.
For answer, the nurse stood back, and we watched as a supposedly developmentally disabled child of five pulled himself up the metal side-rungs of the crib, pulled and pumped a couple times, and was suddenly doing a hand-stand, legs in lotus position, on the top crossbar of the crib. Giving a last deep flex, he shoved down against the crossbar, thereby throwing himself upward and outward toward his friend’s crib. Executing a half-flip in the air, he landed seated in the end of the crib away from his friend, and immediately scooted over to him. Then he looked up, smiled... and waved at us!
“Oh my stars and garters! What ever are we going to do about this?” Mother rolled instantly into planning mode. Smiling and waving good-bye to Bill-Bill, she headed for her office. By the next day, there was a first class play-pen in Bill-Bill’s room, where he and his friend spent their days together. But something had been released in our puzzle-child. Suddenly he was scooting all over the building... both floors. He would scoot into the elevator and wait for a ride. Mother decreed that “Something had to be done!”
My sister was assigned to accompany Bill-Bill everywhere, and she persuaded one of the handier parents to put together a new stroller for Billy and his friend so she could take them both wherever in the hospital she went.
Life settled down a bit, but we all worried about what would happen when Lyndella and I had to go back to college in September. But Bill-Bill had one more surprise for us. In the kitchen one morning, she was baking cookies, and Bill-Bill and friend were seated at the counter in high-chairs. While his friend was strapped in, Bill-Bill was allowed to sit free of straps. Quick as a wink, Bill-Bill was up on the table-top and had two cookies. He scrambled back to his chair, giving his friend one of the cookies on the way. The significance of that act took us a while to understand, because...
“Bill-Bill, you’re a lemon,” said my sister with a laugh.
“You a lee-mon.”
*beat - beat*
“Mo-o-oom!” My sister’s scream brought us all running to the kitchen, sure she had cut herself or that something terrible had happened to Bill-Bill.
When we crowded into the kitchen, she was dancing Bill-Bill around the room, laughing and crying at once, and he was simply laughing and saying over and over, “You a Lee-mon.”
Bill-Bill was neither deaf nor mute... nor was he developmentally disabled. He was simply terrified of the big people in his life. Until he came to us, big people were people who hit him, broke his arms, bones in his face, his ribs and his poor, unfinished legs. Big people hurt, and silence and being motionless were the best ways to avoid their attention.
But Bill-Bill just couldn’t let that be all of it. He would never ski or skate or swim in the Olympics (and there were no Paralympics then), but he was determined to be a whole person, whether his legs worked or not. No one ever had truer Olympic Spirit. No one ever overcame more to be the best he could be, than our little Bill-Bill.
We found him an orthopedic team to give him functional legs, and to keep them growing with him. I don't know how "functional" they really were, but I am told he could walk. Not terribly long after he came to us he was adopted.
His friend? He was in need of another friend, but Bill-Bill had shown him how to approach someone to be a friend. Long before Bill-Bill left, his friend had a circle of friends. There were days when the big playpen that was his daytime home held as many as a half-dozen children, and would have several crowded against it.
“Big people help little people... they don’t take advantage of them.
Given time and circumstance, any person may fill either role at any time.”
Richard R. Larlham, aka The Old Man