There was a lady once, who ran my apartment building in Brooklyn. Her name was Lena and by and large she was a sweet woman with a lot on her shoulders. It seemed she had a son with a mental disability and he would stand on the stoop of my apartment building and watch the world go by. She had another son who aspired to become an engineer and attended college, and a daughter who was the youngest child, sweet and cute as a button and later in life became a nun. Lena and her husband came to America probably in the mid thirties and settled in Brooklyn to raise their family.
Being an immigrant was a hardship enough, learning a language, customs and social necessities of the times made for a difficult life. Italians since the war were being recognized as valuable citizens, the Italians were making every effort to prove that true.
And Lena, who on cold mornings made sure everything in the building was working, shouldered this one responsibility by herself. Her son Henry, a child in a man’s body, would stand in the doorway, in his grey slacks and black shoes, hands in his pants pockets watching children play, from afternoon to sunset. In the summer, one would find him early in the morning seeking something of interest to fill his day. Listening to the cadence of a child skipping rope, the drama of a stickball game being played out in front of him all filled his day. He was in his thirties, and if you left him alone, was a harmless person. Lena would sit nearby in her first-floor apartment, the window next to the entrance and keep an eye on Henry, she needed to protect her child, as big as he was. That was an Italian mamma’s love for her son, no matter what he was like.
Being a youngster, maybe 7 or 8 years of age, I grew up with Henry, as I played on the streets and sidewalk near my apartment. It never occurred to me to pay any attention to him since he was such a simple soul. But one day something happened that changed my life, and in later life I discovered just how profound it was.
I was running around with my friends one sunny afternoon when I ran toward this cellar door that was flush into the sidewalk. The cellar door hid what was actually a lift, the lift went up and as it did, the cellar doors would open slowly. Not paying attention to where I was going, I ran and fell into the lift, causing my pants leg to get caught between the gears of the lift, pulling me in! My leg was about to be mincemeat as I could not shake it from the gears, I started to panic, when suddenly, at the last possible moment, these two giant hands lifted me from certain pain and maybe disability! Henry, in his simplicity, was lifting me away from the gears, away from the danger! To this day, I will remember that. He was maybe a good 45 feet away standing in a doorway, saw my situation and acted immediately! I will never forget that day and that particular moment.
Fast forward about 18 years and here I was with my first child, my daughter Ellen and I was so proud, and my wife of just over a year, holding this special bundle of joy. A few months into Ellen’s young life, we discovered there was something wrong, something terribly wrong! She was not responding well as a newborn, not developing like the others kids her age.
The horrible truth set in and we discovered she had a birth defect, something both my wife and I were the cause of. It seems every one of us on Earth has some recessive gene. According to the genealogist, the chances of both the mother and the father having the same recessive gene was one-in-a-million! It couldn’t be a lotto ticket, that was not our luck. In those days, people sometimes gave up their child to an institution, as the doctors suggested we do, but neither my wife or I would throw our child away, instead we decided that we would take the road of emotional pain and raise her as best we could.
When the doctors gave us the news, all I could do was think of Lena, and how casual we felt about her situation, and why wasn’t anyone acknowledging ours! It taught me that life is not a bowl of cherries, that we all have crosses to bare, and we must bear them well, and deal with what life gives us, for only we can deal with it.
And so 8 years later we have a son, and the nightmare begins all over again. His name is Joseph, and for 20 months he filled our hearts with both love and fear, in and out of hospitals, injections, seizures, worry and more fear. Then one Sunday morning, my wife calls me from his hospital bedside that he has only a week to live. By then we had two children and as I fed my older son his breakfast, the scenario running through my head, I refused to believe it. As the week wore on, we were spending overnight in the hospital in the lounge sleeping in chairs sitting up. Finally, my wife could take it no longer and we went home to shower and catch a nap. It was about 5 AM when we got home. For the rest of the day, people came over to visit us and we chatted to pass what was little time there was.
That night, I suddenly had this terrible back pain and my wife was in the shower. The phone rang! I knew what it was. It was the doctor asking us if we would be willing to donate his organs, and that he only had minutes to live. When we got there, it was too late. Where was Henry when I really needed him?
Today is Joseph’s birthday, he would have been 37-years old, a man, just like Henry if he had lived.