The following essay was originally published in the Times Herald-Record on Sunday, May 29, 1994. It won me third place in the feature-writing category of the 1994 New York State Associated Press Association Writing Contest.
I dreamed about Uncle Jimmy last year. In a room of warmth and light he was standing unaided, and he was talking to me distinctly so that I could understand every word.
James Claudepierre has never been able to stand unaided, and his words have always been slurred. He was born to my grandmother in 1939 when she was almost 46. Within two years, his parents knew that Jimmy had cerebral palsy and was mentally retarded.
Jimmy’s condition led to the first of many wrenching decisions for Frank and Anna Claudepierre. They already had a mentally retarded son in a wheelchair, Dicky, who had suffered a birth injury to his head when he was born in 1929. They couldn’t care for both boys at home in Clifton, N.J. So, in 1944, Dicky was sent to live in a state home in New Lisbon in southern New Jersey. There, except for infrequent visits home, he spent the rest of his life before dying of pneumonia at age 36 in 1965.
In many ways Jimmy was luckier than Dicky. Dicky was frail and had trouble communicating. Jimmy was relatively robust and could make himself understood fairly well to those familiar with him. When he was young, he maneuvered my grandparents’ compact home with agility, using his crutches or propelling himself from doorway to wall and counter to table. He rode the sidewalk of Rutherford Boulevard on a two-wheel bicycle with training wheels.
My uncle attended the Elks’ Cerebral Palsy School in Clifton until he was 21. He received religious instruction and First Holy Communion. He neatly completed paint-by-numbers kits, and the finished watercolors hung in his bedroom. He loved to listen to the sweepingly sweet singing of Jerry Vale.
When my brothers and I were kids, visiting my grandparents on many a Sunday, we would challenge Jimmy to games of checkers or Parchisi or Junior Scrabble or a game whose name I can’t remember, where the object was collecting pictures of breeds of dogs. We’d also watch “My Ed” or “Jack Benny” on TV, and I delighted to hear my uncle’s snorting laugh.
When the Claudepierres visited our house, I would introduce Jimmy to my friends. My attitude was sort of matter-of-fact, though I was afraid, too. Recently, my mother told me that she also chose carefully which friends to bring home who could adapt well to meeting her brothers.
My grandparents were less afraid of what the world thought. They took Jimmy everywhere, to church, to Canada, to Radio City Music Hall, to the lake with me on a special outing, to a bazaar where as a boy I felt sad that Jimmy’s painting hadn’t sold. They gave Jimmy as much a normal upbringing and as many opportunities as possible, and if he was a tad spoiled, and stubborn, too, like his parents, he was also as physically and mentally adept as he could possibly be.
But such ideal conditions last only as along as aging parents can support their children and deal with their daily bodily needs. My 77-year-old grandfather suffered a stroke in March 1970, and when he returned home in May, part of his body was paralyzed and he couldn’t speak. By August, my grandmother made the painful but necessary decision to send Jimmy to live in the state residence in New Lisbon. Later that year, in October, my grandfather died.
During the 1970s, my parents drove my grandmother regularly on the two-hour trip to visit her son, and sometimes during the summer and for Christmas they brought him home. The last such visit was in 1977. I was back from college after my senior fall semester, and I arranged to run over to my grandmother’s house and meet my father so that both of us could carry Jimmy into the car and then drive him and my grandmother over to our house for Christmas dinner. That Jimmy needed help getting into the car made clear the deterioration of his motor skills in the seven years he had been in the state home, away from his stimulating home environment.
Then I didn’t see Jimmy for 15 years, though I sent him birthday cards and Christmas cards. His mother died in 1980 at age 87, and my parents gently told Jimmy during their next trip down; he sobbed at the news. My parents’ weekday trips to New Lisbon became less frequent as age started catching up with them. When they did visit, they had to stop taking Jimmy out to a diner for lunch because my father could no longer maneuver Jimmy up the stairs. My uncle had to be content with trips to a nearby mall, where my father could wheel him around in his wheelchair.
But in 1988 my father, who was the soul of patience with Jimmy, who could coax my uncle out of his silent moods by calling him Shamus or by telling a joke, died. Two years later Jimmy’s sister, my Aunt Ruth Ann, also passed away. My mother, who was Jimmy’s legal guardian, was losing her support team where Jimmy was concerned. She turned first to my sister and brother-in-law to drive her to New Lisbon, though the frequency of visits decreased to four or five a year. Then, at Christmas, 1992, my sister, who was now Jimmy’s legal guardian, was too busy caring for her 1-year-old son to make the trip. My mother then asked me to drive her down to Jimmy’s.
Though I agreed, I was apprehensive. Would he remember me? Would I be able to understand him? Would we run out of conversation, which would make me uncomfortable? Would the other residents make me uncomfortable? Such thoughts buzzed in my head during the drive to the Pine Barrens of New Jersey.
In many ways, the Pine Barrens — isolated, run-down, almost otherworldly — mirror Jimmy’s condition. In recent years, their boundaries have begun to shrink from encroaching development, just as age and withering abilities have borne down on my uncle. When I first saw him after 15 years, I noted his thin arms, clumsy fingers, gray hair, wasted body, the way he was strapped into his wheelchair to prevent him from falling out.
But almost immediately I began to understand his way of speaking, and that made me happy. I noted anew his easy smile and almost merry curiosity as he fumbled to open his Christmas gifts — a Mets cap from me, a new digital watch from my mother, other gifts from my Aunt Laurence in Florida and my sister — and asked my mother what dessert treats she had brought him (pudding and soda). Then we played dominoes, and I realized he still knew his numbers, still liked to play games, and still liked to win. In fact, he won the greatest number of games among all of us, which elicited from him a gleeful snort. And though I’m not sure how sure a grasp of time he has, he reminded my mother that he expected to see us in six weeks, which was the usual gap between visits when my father was still alive.
In the 18 months since that visit, I had my cryptic dream about Jimmy, and visited him twice. But the dream seems a little less puzzling now, for last month the state transferred him to a renovated facility in Totowa, N.J., which is only 15 minutes away from my mother’s house. Instead of months between visits, we can see him much more often. And, as I visit him, Jimmy’s way of talking will become more and more distinct to my ears. Though Jimmy will never stand unaided, at least he is promised more physical therapy in Totowa.
Unlike his brother, Jimmy seems to have my grandmother’s strong constitution, which may guarantee him many more years of earthly life. His move to Totowa after years of being so far away returns him to the bosom of our family, which is enough to light up our dreams, our lives.
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A 2004 addendum: Uncle Jimmy died July 24, 2004. The dream mentioned in the opening paragraph is now an otherworldly reality. Free of his earthly restrictions, Uncle Jimmy stands in the light, communing with his loved ones and with his Creator.