Monday, September 07, 2009

Happy Birthday Zack-Man!

It's not that hard to smile. Really, it isn't. It's not that hard to show a little concern. Or care. Or kindness. Or interest into an other's life. Really, it isn't.

And whenever I think it is, I think of my brother Zack.

Zack turns 19 today. He's a nice fellow to have around, always chatting and keeping you company. He shows great interest in everything you're doing and asks a million-and-one questions about things related to your life. He pretty much always has a smile on his face and a song in his heart and begs his siblings to just sit down at the piano and play lively little tunes so he can beat his African drum to the music.

And he never misses a beat either. He's like a living metronome and keeps us all in line.

By today's standards, Zack has many reasons to be unhappy. He had a rough start in life and spent the first 2 years of his life in and out of Children's hospitals. He struggled developmentally for years and actually still does. He will never have a successful job nor will he marry and have kids. He can't talk very clearly nor can he carry a tune. But, he loves to do his chores. He loves kids. He loves to talk. And he sings every chance he gets.

Zack has Down Syndrome.

Zack smiles at everyone. He's always friendly and remembers people's names. He thrives on people. He's taught me the value of smiling and being cheerful and showing friendliness to everyone. Not just to people I know.

Like yesterday when I rode a Ferris Wheel for the first time in my life. We were at the state fair together and it was a special occasion. Not to mention that Toby really wanted me to ride the Ferris Wheel with him. Ever since I was a child, I had always wondered what it would be like to ride one so to have the man of my dreams invite me on one, was special indeed.

While we waited in line, I anticipated our ride. I knew it would be special. Toby and I would sit on one side, our arms around each other. The kids would sit around us, enjoying the scenery. I just knew it had to be a spectacular and romantic moment.

Meanwhile, an older man stood ready and waiting at the gate. He had his tickets in hand and he stood in line for a long time. I didn't notice him until right when we got up to the gate ourselves; he was a little guy and almost appeared to be a child from behind.

I noticed his toe nails were over grown and cracked. He was severely wall-eyed and you couldn't tell where he was looking exactly. He walked slow, almost in a shuffling manner. He had a quiet voice but he was excited about the ride ahead of him.

When it came time for him to go through the gate, he started walking through but the ticket man stopped him and asked if he had someone to go with him. The older man smiled and pointed to his chest and nodded. He was obviously alone, even if he said he wasn't. With sympathy, the ticket guy told him he couldn't let him on by himself; he had to have someone to go with. The lady and daughter next in line were motioned to step forward.

The older man stepped back, looked around and didn't really know what to do. He seemed confused but really wanted that ride. So he kept waiting in line. He was excited about his ride and held the tickets in his hand expectantly, waiting for his turn to get on. He obviously hadn't understood that he was disqualified because he kept his handful of tickets ready. The bright look on his face showed he was undaunted. He was clueless as to the let down of what this meant.

This man had Down Syndrome.

When it came time for us to get on the Ferris Wheel, I glanced up at Toby, asked if he'd care (which I knew the answer to already), and then told the ticket guy the older man was welcomed to ride with us.

The ticket guy warmly thanked us and he and another staff arranged our gondola for us. They seemed to be taken back by our willingness to let a stranger go with us and made a pointed effort to thank us.

We climbed in and our guest ungracefully clamored into his seat. He landed with a bit of a thud. He was unhurt but his balance was unacceptable for a swaying fair-ride contraption and we realized later, he really did need assistance going over uneven surfaces. But he was excited about his ride and kept motioning with his hands what the Ferris Wheel was doing.

The wheel started turning and we tried to have a conversation with our friend. It was hard to decipher most of the things he said but I tried to translate -- his speech was similar to Zack's only worse because his tongue was almost lazy about pronunciation. But he never gave up trying to talk. If we asked him to repeat it again, he'd take a deep breath, kind of look away and then say it again. He was very patient.

We asked what his name was. First he said his name was Todd. Then it sounded like Tom. Then it sounded like he said Ty. He mumbled and didn't make much sense in his speech But, he did talk about the Marines and pointed to his army-print shorts and saluted.

He asked us what our names were and held out a limp hand to shake our hands in greeting (just like Zack). He told us he was 55 and wanted to find "an old lady to marry" and with a funny grin on his face, pointed at me. We laughed and enjoyed the scenery and listened to "Ty" talk about Milwaukee and Las Vegas and his brother and how he got to the fair by bus.

When we got off our ride, a lady was waiting with a smile at the end of the exit ramp. She was "Ty's" caretaker and told us his name was actually "John." She laughed when we told her he said he was from Milwaukee and she thanked us profusely for letting him ride with us. She gave us 2 extra ride tickets that she wasn't going to use and then tenderly took John by the hand back to the group they had come with.

And so concluded my first ever Ferris Wheel ride. I have to admit, it was memorable indeed. Probably even more so than I ever thought a first Ferris Wheel ride could be. In a way, it felt like I spent it with Zack. The mannerisms that John had were identical to Zack and I loved how natural and comfortable he felt with us. It was just like Zack.

Every time I see a Ferris Wheel from now on, I'll remember the importance of a smile and the special experience it is when you do the least expected to "one of the least of these."

"And the King shall answer and say to them, Truly I say to you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these my brothers, you have done it to me." Matthew 25:40

But really, if you ask me, people like Zack and John are almost pictures of what heaven will be like. They carry no grudges. No shame. No pretense. No guile. They don't worry about the stock market. Or their jobs. Or what they're going to do tomorrow. They just love unconditionally.

It's funny how we tend to look at "special" people and think they really miss out on life since they can't enjoy things "normal" people can. I have come to realize that people like Zack and John may not have the greatest physics. But their hearts are the biggest pumping muscle known to mankind. And it makes me wonder if really the ones missing out are maybe us "normal" people. Maybe in reality, those special folks are created so perfect that they have a perpetual tunnel of vision into heaven's glory which is proven in the the way they treat others. They understand us yet we at times never understand them.

And no matter how they're treated, they still smile. It's no wonder Landon's middle name is after my brother Zachary. Zack has always been my hero. His strength, his confidence, his happiness, his honesty and his unintimidated way of loving is absolutely phenomenal.

I hope he has the Happiest Birthday ever today because he deserves every bit of it.

Zack and my brothers Gabe (piano) and Levi (guitar) jamming it up for another round of "The Syndrome Brother's Band." Go here to listen... And then go here to hear another classic.


Ruth Ann said...

I have a sister with Down Syndrome who is the JOY and light of my/our life. She is the perfect addition to our family, and from the time she was very little has taught us what compassion is really all about... She is 10 years old now, and keeps us smiling and laughing.

So I can very much relate to your sentiments about your brother Zack ~ and so glad you could be a blessing to that man on the ferris wheel. :)

Thanks for sharing these thoughts, it was a blessing to me today!

pat ve said...

Oh Courtney, this blog really touched my heart. Just the things we learn from those people. The scripture says that God uses the weak things of the world to confound the wise. I do hope Zach has a very happy birthday.
Regarding the Ferris Wheel--my maiden name was Ferris. I was always afraid of "rides", but "took the risk" in my 30's and went on one just to say I had been on one. Last summer I took a Ferris Wheel ride in a glass gondola car in Niagara Falls, ON to see out over the Am. and CA falls. I went with Val's family, fully expecting that one of her girls would be scared, but no one was, and it was a fun ride.
I am so glad that John got to ride with you.

Anonymous said...

Oh Courtney, that was really really wonderful to read!!! I am so proud of both of you!!! I will send this to all my friends to enjoy. Thanks for taking the time out of your busy life to write this. And thank you for making this a special day for both those special guys.

Love from your momma!!!