It was because of Irving that I learned what true love was all about at a very early age. Irving was one year younger than I, almost to the day, so we grew up together, but he was different than I. He couldn’t talk or even put words together to form a sentence because at his birth someone made a blunder when tying his navel. That blunder changed all of our lives forever.
The knot opened up and they found this beautiful little infant baby in a pool of his own blood. They worked hard to save him and thank God they did, but he paid a heavy price because he was left with brain damage. Yes, I learned about love when I saw my mother’s love and caring and the undaunted devotion that she gave to him. When I was a child I remember thinking, “Why did this have to happen to him?” I remember feeling guilty because “I” could talk, and he couldn’t. Yes, I remember many things. I remember cruel remarks that kids made, and even some older people staring as if it was some catching disease. My mother would walk all through the neighborhood with Irving in a stroller with me holding her hand as I walked by her side. She never denied him or hid him from the world and neither did I. He was really a beautiful boy with a head full of curls. Looking at him, you would never know that anything was wrong, until he made those Tourette’s Syndrome involuntary sounds, which actually diminished as time went by.
I’m sure my mother’s prayers helped that to come about. She said that she would always take care of him and constantly prayed for his recovery and never gave up hope, but when he was older and he learned how to unlock the doors in the house and she saw him walking outside in the middle of the road with cars narrowly missing him, she realized that she had no control of him anymore and had to make the most dreaded decision of her life. I remember her saying, “Better away and alive, than at home and dead!”
After much thought and research and deliberation my parents enrolled Irving in a place that had a country setting called Letchworth Village. It was composed of many individual stone cottages which were probably on a few acres of land. It had well-kept winding roads leading to all of the cottages. I’m sure that the founding planners of all of this had their hearts in the right place. It was an institution for retarded children, as they called it in those days. He was then 11 years old.
My mother held back her tears when we were taking him there in our car. I remember how she kept talking to him about this nice place that he will be staying at and we will come to be with him every Sunday. She spoke mostly in Yiddish and he understood all of it. Leaving him there was not pleasant for us or him.
That first night we hardly slept. We worried if he was frightened or if he was crying; was he eating, did he miss us too? From that day on my mother and father and I visited him every Sunday without fail. If there was a wedding or such on a Sunday, we visited him on Monday. My father would take the day off from work at his shop to visit him. We never forgot him but others did, they forgot at times that he was a human being. Although there were some who never forgot, the rotten apples that could care less prevailed. There were a few whose hearts never forgot, who did their job properly and were very careful at “tying that proverbial knot.”
At Letchworth it was a gradual progression of terrible things that happened to Irving. Black and blue marks, scratches on his body, a cauliflower ear from being hit. His perfect nose was broken. When we pleaded, with tears in our eyes and asked, “What happened?” we were told that he fell or he did it to himself and we had to accept all of those filthy lies and bite our tongues for fear of repercussions and even more harm being done to him. At that time there was no one of true authority to complain to. Today, heads would roll!
Good people like Geraldo Rivera helped to change that with his expose of what goes on in these institutions. And because the Kennedys’ daughter was not hidden from the world things started to improve in these troubled institutions. The caliber of the personnel that were hired changed for the better. I wonder why. I’m sure that money had something to do with it.
Irving suffered through the bad times along with many others. I can go into details of how he was cut open like a person having a heart transplant to remove a cup full of festering food and puss from his lung to save his life, all because they gave him heavy doses of tranquilizers which altered his control of breathing and swallowing food, causing him to aspirate food into his lung to fester there. God love Dr. Steinglass for diagnosing this and operating on him and saving my brother’s life at that time.
My parents were fine, God-loving people, who never could understand the motives of the money-motivated people with their legalities. They were “green” to that. They never sued the hospital for what happened to Irving. They accepted what they were told, “It was an accident!” However, knowing my mother, I’m sure she felt that it would be like getting paid for what happened to Irving. It would be ending the relationship that she had with God and she wasn’t about to do that. She was seeing progress in Irving. Her prayers were being answered slowly but nevertheless, answered. As for me, at that age, I was angry about everything and I became hardened. As Irving got older and stronger he was transferred to other cottages and he learned to watch his back and eat his food quickly before someone stole it from him.
My mother spent every weekend preparing and cooking our food. She kept the covered pot of hot food wrapped in towels in a sealed, rubber-lined, zippered bag, to keep it warm and we made a fine picnic outing of it. At times we would eat in the Mess Hall in the cottage, and my mom would feed some of the boys that we knew, whose parents didn’t come up every weekend. My sweet mother made sure that Irving ate two soft-boiled eggs and some buttered challah bread. She cooked them on our folding Sterno stove.
We drove to different places and we had a routine, such as going to the Ice House to get a chunk for our ice chest to keep the cold food fresh. We went fishing at the lake and we’d catch little sunfish and catfish and throw them back. Irving enjoyed that. Sometimes we would park the car and take a walk on a nice path to an overlook scenic area, and sit there enjoying the view. In winter the lake would freeze over and people would go skating on it. I once walked on it with Irving and watched his face as he smiled and wondered about the whole thing; it was something he’d never seen before. There were horses and a barn to see which was a part of the landscape nearby. We’d always stop at the ice cream shop and sit outside with the local people and their children to partake in the sweet treat. It was such a pleasant and normal thing for Irving to see.
Every couple of weeks my mother would give Irving a pedicure and check him over to make sure that he was OK. Observing the devotion that my mother showed towards Irving as the years went by was the epitome of caring and loving for a child. I’m sure that my father loved her even more because of that expressed devotion. I could tell by how he looked at her when she was doing this.
The saddest day of my life was when my mother left us and went to Heaven. Her last words to me as in a confident reminder were “Take care of Irving.” She knew that we would. It’s difficult for me to say any more about sadness. My father lived for 10 years after my mother’s passing, and I cared for him at home when he was older and we did things together. I ran the business at that point, and I’ll never forget how he pulled me to dance in the kitchen when the building’s mortgage was paid off in full. It was his dream fulfilled.
When they were closing Letchworth and placing people into small group homes, we were given choices and we turned down many of those homes because they were in busy, highly trafficked areas. The man in charge of those transfers, God love his soul, knew how fussy we were about this, especially when I made him understand that my mother’s haunting memory would not allow me to put Irving at this stage of his life into a home that she herself would not like, and I knew exactly what she would, and would not, like. I’m sure it must have been a motivating factor for that gentleman because shortly after that we received a phone call from him to go and see a home that he was certain we would take. He said to go see it before someone else takes it. He said that he was waiting for a home like this for Irving. We put everything on hold and rushed to go there. It took us a while to find it because it was kind of hidden with a very long driveway. The house was set way back in a wooded area and as he said, it had a beautiful country setting, with so many trees all around it, that from the house you could hardly see the quiet country road that bordered the land. It looked as if it might be on a few acres.
The house was “mansion like” and very impressive with a very high ceiling in the living room and a huge back porch. I knew this one was it. This was going to be Irving’s new home and I knew he would love it. And I knew my mother would love it. Walking in the front door at the foyer you saw the large kitchen, which was straight ahead for a distance with a massive oak table and chairs which would accommodate the eight residents. A sliding glass door led to the deck. The house had many bedrooms but they had to double up in some, which is why I chose the smallest one-person bedroom. We weren’t there when they brought Irving to the house, but we were told how he reacted. I wish we could have been there to see that.
For the second time in his life Irving had his own room with a window facing the front and he loved it. At last, he had privacy with peaceful surroundings. He could shut the door and take a nap when he felt like it and many times he did so. He was taken every day by van to a special school program where he was taught things according to his ability, and when he came back from program we were told that he liked to change into more comfortable clothing. He ate in the kitchen with the seven other people, and everything was calm and appreciated by all. The people in charge in that home loved Irving and took good care of him. When I asked him which seat at the table was his, he pointed to the one at the head of the table and put his hand on it.
Irving was intelligent and he understood just about everything you said to him in what I call street language. I remember walking with him when we were children and teaching him words as we walked along. He repeated the words like sign, tree, grass; he would say rass, he couldn’t pronounce the “g.” He’d say Ma, Pa; he called me Dee. Icetiss was ice cream. He knew the names of every part of his body and everything that was in the kitchen. He understood everything you said to him. When you looked into his eyes you could see how smart he was. All of this he learned when he was very young and living at home. Radio was a word he never said, probably because it had so many vowels. He made up his own word for radio and everyone knew what that word was. It could be considered laughable, so I’m not going to divulge it. He loved cowboy music and he said “cowboy” almost perfectly.
Once, Mr. Miller, a staff member, who knew Irving for many years, said to me in an earnest remark, “Your brother is a very nice person!” I’ll never forget that simple phrase. It was a perfect description of Irving.
When Marilyn and I would walk with him on that country road he would hold our hands, and if Marilyn would stop to pick some wildflowers, he would wait for her to come back and hold his hand again before continuing on.
I learned so much from and because of him and the strength that he exhibited as he tried to overcome his handicap. The way that he took control and made himself understood to all those around him with every bit of awareness that he could grasp. When he couldn’t pronounce certain words he made up his own words that were similar and easier for him to say. Anyone who knew him understood those words and when he saw that you understood him he would always smile. Looking at him you knew that there was something more to him than what meets the eye. It was in his smile and in the sincere look in his searching eyes that yearned for understanding and a desire to be an integral part of things.
My wife Marilyn and I visited him as often as we could. We knew that he was now safe and in a good home in pleasant surroundings with people that cared for him. It gave us peace of mind while knowing that we did the right thing for him exactly the way my mother, God love her soul, wanted. Everyone knew the special bond that Irving and I had and treated us like family when we visited him.
He loved riding in that van. One day, we arrived just as the residents were boarding the van to go to a park; Irving saw us and refused to go into the van. I told him, “Go in the van, we’ll follow you” No! He waved his hand in an upward motion as he pulled me towards my car. He wanted to be with me and Marilyn in our car. I was so touched by the fact that he chose us over everyone that he knew. He also knew that he was absolutely in charge of making that decision.
When we rode in the car Marilyn sat in the back and he sat in the front with me and I popped in a tape of his favorite music, “The Three Tenors” and when Pavarotti sang he would get a look on his face like he was drinking it all in. As we were riding along and listening to Nessun Dorma, my right hand was on my knee, holding a napkin, and when Pavarotti came to that high note, Irving at that very moment placed his hand on top of mine, as if to say, “Are you listening?” “This is so beautiful!” as that high note came through enveloping us all.
It’s not so much how many words you can speak that counts, it’s the love that’s in your heart, and when it came to that I couldn’t have had a better brother in this whole wide world. Whenever I visited him I whispered in his ear many, many times, “I love you, Irving,” and he understood exactly what that meant.
I know he’s now with my mother and father and he’s speaking perfectly and talking to them in “two” languages, English and Yiddish.
God love his beautiful innocent soul, in the light of heaven. Baruch Hashem.
By David S. Weinstein