Greg In Mid-Life Reflects Your Investment

It takes a walker and a shuffling gait for Greg, my fifth child, to get around as he celebrates his 36th birthday.

But the man himself is remarkably stable halfway through his fourth decade: Aware of a surprising amount of the world around him, not concerned with the shutdown or the sequester but intensely interested in the menu for supper, the weekend’s sports games and brightening everyone’s lives. He contradicts, and sometimes shatters, the conventional wisdom about the limitations of people born with the Down syndrome genetic defect.

And he is an incorrigible smart-aleck.

“Old man me!” he says, mangling the syntax but conveying his satisfaction at having attained another year.

And, “Old man you!” he chortles, softly punching my arm.

The stereotypes suggest that most people with Down syndrome remain childlike throughout their lives.

Not really. Children don’t say “Hubba-hubba!” when a good-looking woman enters a room. Greg does, and gets away with it because it’s a genuine compliment, not a double entendre.

I don’t think he has ever met a woman who is not, in his phrasing, “Loo-le-pul!” It’s the smiles, and the sparkle in their eyes, not just hourglass shapes. Oh, Greg loves cheerleaders. But he loves nurses, too.

And guys. He lives with three guys in a group home in Warren, also home to a gaggle of extended family. His roommates, Francis, Ralph and Steve, reciprocate the feelings.

The staff at his residence, and the staff at the sheltered workshop are “whole lot liked.” He works five days a week making “whole lot money” (to us, a pittance, but to the workers there, a chance to do something of value, no matter how repetitive or low-wage).

Oh, he gets mad, and sad, and sometimes he behaves badly. But with Greg, moods are either “on” or “off.” Once the reason for sullenness (a TV show he does not like) or sadness (missing his now-dead grandparents) abates, the cheerfulness returns.

He appears childlike in some respects. His speech is limited to phrases, not complete sentences. But he carries himself these days as the adult he has become.

I write to you about this for two reasons. October is “Down Syndrome Awareness Month.” I get cynical about Americans’ endless preoccupations with “days,” but they do serve a purpose.

The second reason is that it is because of you that Greg is who he is today, rather than a pathetic non-verbal, incontinent creature peering out from behind barred windows as happened a century ago.

As a society, we decided this was not right. We started to differentiate between people who are a real threat to themselves or others, and people who are developmentally disabled but live peacefully and productively among us.

It takes tax money to support disabled people in small-group settings.

“Pay it,” you said. “Let’s keep these people with us.”

So some of you saw Greg exiting a restaurant last week near Brookville, and you smiled and stepped aside so that he could make his way off the curb. You laughed aloud when, tripping slightly, he shakes the walker slightly and chastises it with “Whoa, horsie!” as though it, and not he, had caused the trip. Greg laughed, too.

Not all of us actually embrace everyone with disabilities. I am comfortable around people with Down syndrome due to three decades of Greg. But I still am uneasy around obviously mentally troubled people. When I am near some people disturbed by autism, I feel a helplessness that can breed anxiety.

But I try, with some success.

So do you. Greg’s circle of friends has expanded from those who knew him during his early childhood in Warren, through his decade and more living in and around DuBois at school, church, the mall, the parades … in the community … and now back in Warren.

Not every one of us can embrace every other one of us. People just don’t work that way. Those with whom we are comfortable are “us,” and the rest are “them.” It’s an ancient, instinctual thing, probably tribal, keeping “us” from harm by “them.”

Many of you have come to get comfortable with Greg. Some enthusiastically greet him. Some hang back, trying tentatively to smile but feeling the unease around him that I feel around others.

That’s human nature, not bigotry.

One proof: You continue to say, “Pay the money.” That allows the developmentally least-favored among us to stay among us, enriching our lives by their example of making the most of what life has handed to them.

Yes, Greg is, by his standards, an “old man” now. In my own childhood, the life expectancy of people with Down syndrome wasn’t much past 20. These days, it approaches 60. In those years that they spend among us, they love life and most everyone in it, enriching us in the process.

To him, happy birthday.

To you, thank you.

Denny Bonavita is a former editor at newspapers in DuBois and Warren. He lives near Brookville. Email: denny2319@windstream.net.