I was about 10 when I first met Uncle Jimmy. I don’t remember ever even hearing about Jimmy until one day in the car-ride over to one of our much anticipated trips to my grandparents’ house, Mom and Dad tried to explain that we’d be meeting Dad’s younger brother and that he was different and that we should all be very kind to him. I really didn’t understand what “different” meant as my exposure to different had been pretty limited in my small-town, Catholic school childhood. So when we walked in Grandma’s front door, I wasn’t prepared for the grown man that came walking over with short, quick steps and extended his hand to my Dad. “How do Brother John” Jimmy said with a big toothless grin. After my dad said hello and shook hands with his brother, my dad turned to all of us and introduced us to Jimmy. I remember shaking his smooth, limp hand as he said “How do Pammy.”
Jimmy was indeed different. I starred, I’m sure a little too long and intently, at my uncle, a tall lanky man with questionmark posture, his pants hiked up a little too far over his white button-up shirt, and his hair combed over and plastered down like a young boy’s. He was like no grown-up I’d ever met before. Grandma tried to explain. “When he was only two,” she said,” Jimmy got very sick -- so sick that his brain stopped growing and got stuck. He’s been about 2 ½ or 3 for his whole life.”
Adaptable beings that we were, we kids, especially the younger boys, accepted Jimmy as one of us. My brothers Johnny and Jamie, (who eventually just became one person in Jimmy’s world -- “John-James”) as well as my cousins Davy, Joey, Greg, Hugh and Kent would spend hours playing cars, trains, and airplanes with my uncle, who loved anything with moving parts. He did have some pretty cool toys -- and in a kid’s world that was pretty important. Plus Jimmy could do a mean impression of a train; we often heard him “locomotoring” down the hall before we saw him. “Choo-choo train go woo-woo” was a fact he often shared with us. And he talked for years about the airplane ride he took when he travelled from the group home in Georgia where he had lived for many years out to my Grandma’s house in Southern California to live with his parents again.
Jimmy also loved looking at picture books and would walk up with book in hand ready to “read” with anyone who would sit with him. He enjoyed not only the game of naming the pictures in the book correctly, but, jokester that he was, also naming the pictures incorrectly and waiting for the surprised reaction from his playmate. “Dog-rooster” was his favorite incorrect response. “What’s this Jimmy?” I would say, pointing to a picture of a donkey, or a turtle or a car. “Dog-rooster,” he would say, followed by an inhaled guffaw. How he loved making that joke. And it was funny every time.
Over the years, we came to look forward to our visits with Jimmy and he looked forward to seeing us. He would wait in the drive-way as we pulled up, walking quickly over to the car with extended hand, to again greet his brother John. We became familiar with the many Johnny Cash or old folk songs he would sing or hum as he walked through the house. After a while, he wasn’t different -- he was just Jimmy. And his story became part of our own. His difference became familiar and we grew to love and appreciate his quirks and talents and the innocent child-like love he had for his Momma and Daddy. And eventually the mythical “Dog-rooster” became our family mascot.
I know caring for Jimmy wasn’t easy for my grandparents. Imagine a 3-year-old’s mind in a grown man’s body and the challenges that would be involved. There were outbursts and tears that were difficult for them to control and physical care that stretched their abilities. And there was grief. My grandma often used to wonder what kind of man Jimmy might have been if he hadn’t gotten sick. Listening to him singing as he walked down the hall, I remember her saying “He might have been a great musician.” It may have felt to her that Jimmy’s was a wasted life -- a life that could have been, that might have been so many things. And that might be true to an extent. But his life had more value than I think she realized. Because I will forever be grateful to Jimmy for the lessons he taught us about life. I think my siblings and all of my cousins would agree that Jimmy helped us to be more compassionate, more understanding, more accepting people. I don’t know that we would have received the same lesson in a different scenario.
The world is made up of different people. We are lucky that way. Sure, different can be scary because it’s something we don’t always understand. But “different” can also expand our thinking, provide us opportunities for kindness and understanding and growth. We all, each of us, are “wonderfully made.” We all, every one of us, have our song to sing. We all, whether we realize it or not, make a difference in this world.
Hello! My name is Pam Reynolds Baker and I am a mom/wife /English teacher and lavender farmer located in Dundee, Oregon.