Dave was lying across my air mattress in Brooklyn. When we came into the room, the window was open, even though it was snowing, and the air mattress blew to the side of the room. He’d spent his last two hundred dollars on a flight to JFK which I’d hoped would be one-way, but wasn’t. He undressed like he lived there. He held my feet to keep them warm while we slept and five months later, I bought a one-way ticket back to Minneapolis where we’d lived the year prior. I moved back into the turn of the century bungalow we bought in our fourth year together, where he was still living The last I’d seen him was at Tim’s funeral.
Tim’s sister invited us back to the farm where they’d grown up together. She showed me where they’d kept the brown cows, the ‘chocolate milk cows’ Tim had called them, and the smokehouse for his favorite cured meats. She and her remaining brother fed us food of their Polish heritage and bright pink petit fours cakes they’d brought back from the church. The other caretakers had solemnly filed into vans, but Tim’s sister found Dave and I planted firmly to the rectangle of blue flowers in the upset dirt in her family plot.
Tim was fifty-eight years old when I met him and we adored each other instantly. Dave’s AMC Eagle had broken yet again and I had come to the Glencove Group Home to pick him up when Tim answered the door. Although he stood slightly shorter than me, he seemed to fill the doorway in his starch-pressed shirt and Air Force hat.
“You’re Dacey?” he asked.
He introduced himself as Tim Z., grabbed my hand and escorted me into the house, and into the living room where he arranged himself and me in two chairs facing over the coffee table. A small, trembling woman with large, brown eyes stared intensely at me from the her seat on the floor amidst a pile of pens and a tall woman in a wheelchair rocked back and forth excitedly from the doorway. A woman only a few years older than I peered around the corner and darted away each time I looked at her. Tim leaned in, looked me over purposefully and sat back in his chair with his arms folded. I realized I had stepped unwittingly into an interview.
“Dacey,” he began, “Do you like…tacos?”
“Sure,” I stammered, “I like a taco every now and then.”
“Not so much.”
Tim went through a litany of french fries, cole slaw, head cheese, pickled herring and chop suey before he leaned in and asked in a mischievious grin, “Do you like…to kiss on the lips? To take your pants off?”
“That’s enough!” I heard Dave bellowing from the base of the stairs. He was leaning on one elbow, James Dean style, smirking and shaking his head at Tim. “Go brush your teeth.”
“Your sweetheart,” Tim stage-whispered to him, “she likes tacos, too.”
The next week, I was offered the job to work with him and the other five residents of the Glencove Group Home. The home had started in 1977 as one of the first of its kind in Minnesota. Newspaper clippings told of a neighbor training her St. Bernard “to bite strange people” and letters to the editor wondering if Down’s Syndrome men would be violent or the women prone to kidnapping. I came to love Francis, her tiny hands and almost perversely meticulous handwriting, and Greg, his teddy bear affection surfacing between bellowing outbursts, but Tim was always my favorite.
He’d come with me to camera shops and mug for screen tests, we’d drive around singing Billy Holiday’s “It’s a Blue, Blue Moon” (“Oh Billy,” he’d sigh, “you’re beautiful.”) and we were fascinated by harvest moons rising above Lake Minnetonka. He wore the Air Force hat and jacket every day to work and when he came home we cleaned his shoes to a military shine.
Some of the Glencove residents were acutely aware of their differences. Greg had been a normal child until the age of eleven. His uncle was playing with him at a family gathering, swinging the boy from his ankles in the backyard when he lost his grip on Greg’s bare feet and flung him headfirst into a retaining wall. Others, like Neve, a very pretty young woman with Down’s syndrome, had no reason to question her difference to the world outside Glencove. Although he never mentioned it, Tim was aware of the caution and patronization of strangers and used it to his benefit. Messing with strangers of one of his favorite games. One summer, he, Neve and I were riding the bus to the State Fair when I noticed Neve staring at a couple beside her. She focused intensely on the athletic man, but kept darting her eyes to the woman on her immediate left.
“Excuse me,” Neve said, tapping the woman on the shoulder, “but is that your husband?”
The woman beamed at her charmingly. “Yes, he is.”
Neve pushed the woman aside and thrust her hand toward the bewildered man. “Hello, I’m Neve. You’re a hunk! I love men…”
As I rushed over to intervene, Tim intercepted.
“Neve, that’s enough! I’m sorry. She’s my daughter and she’s just a baby” he said, smiling gently and pointing to Neve. He rested his hand on my shoulder and said, “And this is Dacey, my wife. I’m going to drive us to get ice cream and donuts and we’ll all go home and take a crap.”
As his Alzheimer’s progressed, he saw alligators in the driveway.
“I’m gonna take ‘em to the butchers and have their heads cut off,” he told me.
“Then we’ll have alligator soup,” I offered.
He looked at me incredulously and said, “Shame on you!”
And then he laughed.
Tim was the youngest of four children raised on his family’s western Minnesota farm. His mother, Dorothy, was thirty years old when he came into the world and was advised by the family doctor that her Down’s syndrome baby was unsuitable for life with the other children and would likely destroy her marriage. Three years later, in 1949, she went alone to the Cambridge State Hospital as it expanded beyond epilleptics to the mentally deficient. Armed with the determination to keep her son out of crib cages and handcuffs, she kept Tim at home and raised him alongside his brothers and sister. Tim learned impeccable manners, board games, hygiene and a sense of humor Dorothy would describe as “rascal” right up to her death in 2004. Every morning, Tim would read the paper, although we were never quite sure if he was literate. He loved Bill Clinton and would give him adoring praises whenever he appeared on television. He remember blues singers and Johnny Cash lyrics. I took him to the V.F.W. once and he held his own with the regulars, taking hearty swigs from an O’Doule’s bottle.
In the last months of his life, he needed the bathing and toileting he’d mastered proudly since childhood. He took his diminishing independence with grace and aplomb. He danced out of the bathtub, shimmying his white buttocks as he crossed the room. When I cleaned him up from changing a particularly full Depends, he would look down at me, holding his nose and ask, “P.U! Did you fart?”
When I swallowed the growing lump in my throat, he’d put his cool hands on my cheeks and say, “Please Dacey…knock it off.” When he spent his nights crying on my shoulder, I knew we were near the end.
I was staying in a basement apartment across from the Loring Pond. The building was converted from storage space and only warmed from the spider-webbed water pipes jagging across the ceiling. Summer had made a false start and frost smudged at the corners of the windows. I was curled in a ball of blankets in the warmest corner of the room with my father’s yellowed neurology textbooks. Although he wouldn’t say it, Dave had been thinking the same as me; he traced the shadows of the frost with a warm finger making patterns the shapes of brains.
He looked up from the fret of the acoustic I’d lent him. “Why are you doing this?”
“I’m reading. Why am I bothering you?”
“The textbooks, I mean.” Scaling between C and D minor. “You’re not helping yourself.”
Beta-amyloid plaques. Neurofibrillary tangles. Relationships of set 21 trisomal mutations. Cool, dense Greek words I curled around my tongue and imagined breathing relief from the Wernicke region of my frontal cortex.
I was two years old when my brother was born and three years later, I was in a wheelchair. I suffered my third case of chicken pox and the resulting septic blood infection had set into the marrow of my left leg, confining my feeble frame to the chair for almost two years. As I became the fourth child in America to survive my infection without amputation, my brother became one of the earlier children diagnosed with autism without suggestions of the “refrigerator mother.” My mother threw herself full force into the emerging disability advocacy movement and as I regained my leg, I found myself walking among the autistic, the palsied, the mentally retarded, the schizophrenic. There was Jim, a gnomish Down’s man with a propensity for playing with the straps of his overalls and carelessly dropping his pants around his ankles. There was Phoebe, the MR girl my age that developed an intense interest in country music and her first male special education teacher. In a teenage fit, she dashed out into the suburban road in front of her house and was run over by a Toyota truck, killed on impact. It was in our eighth grade; I delivered her eulogy shyly to an auditorium of my peers. Many of our houseguests died and my mother always broke the news gently.
“They have delicate systems,” she would say, “They die early.”
At the farm, Tim’s sister showed Dave and I the last of the family’s cows and asked us to stand in a family photograph. Tim’s uncle, the Air Force pilot, took my hand and squeezed it hard. He asked for stories about Tim, the brother he hadn’t seen in fifteen years. Tim’s brash sense of humor had frightened his young nieces and the brothers estranged, even as the nieces grew into middle age.
“I saw you at the funeral,” he said, “shaking really hard. He was loved, wasn’t he? He had a good life for a mongoloid.”
That night, Dave and were sitting in the dirt pit behind Palmer’s on the West Bank on white plastic chairs and white plastic buckets, nestled in the bones of the evening. The rent had been raised in Loring Park and the basement apartment was gone. I’d been sleeping in my car that summer; he had no place to go. He’d watch my plane rise eastward in the morning on a one-way ticket with intentions of never returning. We got a room at the Metro Inn on Lyndale for fifty dollars. The light of the sign came in through the blinds, pink as a petit four cake and bright as the mouth of God.