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Don't Talk To Us Of Living Death!
WE HAVE a happy home life -- my wife and I. A simple statement, that, but we never make it to our friends. They can't believe it.
The uselessness of trying to convince them became clear just before our third child, Jeff, was born. Joyce and I had stopped at the Burnses' for an evening visit. The practical nurse who lives with us was at home with Eddie and Nancy.
Across the room I heard Mrs. Burns adopt the maternal tone which meant she was thinking of our boy Eddie.
"Oh, I know you're happy, my dear," she said to Joyce. "You and your husband are so brave, having another one. With living death right in your home that way. . . ."
Joyce merely looked at Mrs. Burns, smiled and said: "Living death? What is that?"
Mrs. Burns flushed and looked away. Joyce and I left as soon as we could. "Let's quit trying to make people understand," I said as we drove home.
We have never explained our home life since. Instead, we've made our home a mysterious island, immune to the probing pity and curiosity of friends and relatives. We inhabitants of that island are happy with it. We think that also holds true for Eddie, our first child, now nine years old, the real object of this misplaced sympathy.
Eddie is one of those children born in every generation whose brain never develops. In short, our oldest boy is an idiot. We accept that fact. But until that day four years ago when both of us faced it, we had no family life, were near divorce, and Joyce teetered on the terrifying edge of insanity.
Born a beautifully formed baby, weighing an adequate seven pounds, today Eddie looks like any normal nine-year-old, though his arm and leg muscles are slightly flabby from disuse. Brown curls twist over his head. His sole outward sign of feeble-mindedness is the vague shadow of a smile that flickers continually across his face.
We always speak of what happened to Eddie as "The Accident." Dr. Green, who delivered him, introduced us to the word. On Joyce's last evening in the hospital, I sat beside her bed, warmed by the sight of her fingers lightly playing across the baby's face.
The door opened softly and Dr. Green entered. His face was tight. "Don't take my word as final," he said, "yet I would be less than honest if I didn't give you my frank opinion. Eddie is the victim of one of nature's accidents. I'm afraid his brain will never develop. He has all the signs of feeble-mindedness."
"How can you tell?" said Joyce fearfully. She drew the baby closer in a protective gesture. "He's only five days old. How can you tell?"
Dr. Green's words came haltingly. "There are thousands of exceptional children born every year. You must not let it frighten you or affect your normal life."
As he talked, I reached for Joyce's hand. Then Dr. Green turned and, without looking back, left the room.
"Don't worry," I was saying to Joyce. "We'll see other doctors. Even Green admits he may be wrong. . . ."
On that note we set sail on a five-year voyage. Our ultimate goal: peace of mind. We could not know, we could not be told, that our route had been previously charted for us. When we finally could face facts, we learned that we had followed a pattern so commonplace as to be tragic. Parents, when they learn a child is so afflicted, pass through three well-defined stages. We went through them all.
Stage I began for us the day Joyce left the hospital and we resolved never to call Dr. Green again. A month later, I set out with Joyce and Eddie to see a Baltimore specialist. He gave his verdict quickly. For some reason, Eddie's brain was not growing. He told us that all babies are born idiots, because the cortex is the last portion of the brain to develop. Normally, after birth, the cortex cells mature faster than any other part of the body.
Sometimes, however, the stimulus required to start growth of the cortical cells is lacking. When this happens, the child will never possess any more intelligence than he was born with.
It seemed useless to question the diagnosis. Where Dr. Green had left a suggestion of doubt, this specialist did not.
"What can we do?" Joyce said.
"Get rid of the idea you're responsible," he said. "I find no clue in your medical history that explains why this happened. Nature just made a mistake."
At the end of five weeks, we had been to hospitals in Baltimore, New York, Chicago and Philadelphia. The result was always the same: no hope. The expensive tests and fees, plus travel expenses, had exhausted our savings. I was convinced the doctors were right. But I couldn't say that to Joyce. Then one night I awoke to hear her sobbing.
With her head on my shoulder, her sobs gradually died away. "I can't bear to hear another doctor say it's hopeless," she said. "We've nothing to be ashamed of. Our family and friends will understand."
THAT ENDED Stage I. Before we started on the round of hospitals, we had treated furtively all inquiries about Eddie. Now we welcomed questions and paraded our newly-acquired medical knowledge before all comers. But when I said such accidents might happen to anybody, a silence always fell on the room. The hostess usually changed the subject.