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Twenty years ago, a family shut a child away. Now he brother opens
By Chip Brown
Usually I say that I am the oldest of four kids. It doesn’t
seem like much of a lie. If you look at the pictures on the piano
in my parents’ house, you’ll see that we’re four
– Toby, Tory, Cam, and me. We clutch high-school diplomas. We
troop off to proms. Our smiles attest to the handiwork of a pricey
orthodontist. We are a presentable bunch.
The truth is, I am the oldest of five. I have a sister whose picture
isn’t part of the family gallery. Her name is Christopher
My sister Christopher lived with us for almost five years, and
in all that time she never spoke. She grunted and cooed and cried.
She rocked for hours in trances. She picked the grasslcloth paper
from the wall above her crib and tore apart a vinyl clown. But she
never spoke. She was the cipher with the cornsilk hair. She lived
in the room at the top of the stairs, the middle child, third of
five. Cam and I named a game after her. We marched around the fenced-in
yard with yellow buckets on our heads, gobbling like turkeys. We
called her the Human Garbage Can, because she would eat our cream
cheese sandwiches and the hot cereal with the hateful lumps. It
was handy having a sister who’d eat anything and never breathe
a word to anyone. When Cam and I broke the glass door roughhousing
in my parents’ shower, we dodged the wrath from on high by
It wasn’t until my parents noticed a dramatic difference
between Chris and a three-year-old cousin that they realized something
was wrong with her. Shocked by the contrast, they called on a battery
of specialists. At four, Chris was diagnosed as mentally retarded,
the degree “moderate,” the cause unknown. For a while,
she attended a local school. A social worker counseled my mother,
who bore the brunt of the caretaking while my father decamped each
morning for his job in the city. I know Chris strained their marriage.
They were desperate to find a place for her, and greatly relieved
when she was accepted at a state institution in Southbury, Connecticut,
a few hours from home.
There is a snapshot of the day she left. I was nine, Cam seven,
Chris not yet five. We are in our winter coats at the front steps
of our house. Some ironic god contrived for me to be holding a schoolbook
called Our Big World. We had no idea what was going on. I think
I do not understand family better now than I did that day –
these obligations imposed by the accident of birth, these ties that
rise from a common pool of genes. For a while after Chris left,
we did the familial thing, trooping up to see our little cipher.
The trips were more upsetting than visits to the dentist. The cottage
where Chris lived was full of blotchy, pop-eyed kids, slobbering
and moaning and rocking on the linoleum, spectacles of nature gone
awry. Chris was prettier than many of them, but, as before, she
had nothing to say. There was no way to tell what difference our
Over the years – normal years for the four of us –
Chris faded out of the family. It happened with surprising ease
and evoked less guilt, on my part, than pulling a fade on an unwanted
lover. We stopped sending birthday cards. We stopped visiting.
Still, the power to ignore is not the power to eradicate. The deeper
my indifference grew, the more I began to mark it. I stumbled over
my evasiveness, evading the thought of Chris. How could I be so
blasé about her – for that matter, about Cam and Tory
and Toby? About women I loved? How did I get so adept at fading
away? For many years, I would have dismissed the suggestion that
Chris had something to do with my power to detach; but eventually,
I began to see patterns. I began to understand how families work,
how certain events can travel inside you for years before they break
into the light.
As it turned out, I moved into a city apartment down the street
from a group house of retarded people. Every morning, a yellow bus
would stop in front of the house, and a line of retarded people
would climb aboard. In the afternoon, the bus would return, the
people file off. The first time I saw them, I crossed the street,
filled with shame. The second time, I glanced their way, piqued
by a sense of shared fate. It was as if I had come to a kind of
door – the door to the closet where the monsters were stashed.
And so, one morning last August, I decided to open the door. I drove
up to see my sister Chris for the first time in twenty years.
In 1984, when she was twenty-seven, Chris had been transferred
from the Southbury Training School to a group house in Bethel, Connecticut,
where she lived with six other retarded people. The house was run
by a nonprofit organization that bused Chris to a vocational facility
for the retarded and handicapped in nearby Brookfield. It was there
that our reunion took place.
I parked behind the tan four-story building and sat in the car,
smothered with dread. A stocky girl paced about the asphalt lot.
When I finally got out, she smiled and stared at me. Keys dangled
from her pink phone-cord necklace; a little tiger clung to the strap
of her dress. As I brushed past her, something about her eyes was
Inside I met Daria, the social worker with whom I had arranged
the visit. She saw the girl I was staring at.
“That’s her,” she said to me. “Christopher!”
she called. The girl with the familiar eyes came over. “Christopher,
this is your brother. Can you shake hands?”
She held out her hand. I took it. We shook hands. We shook hands
like a couple of investment bankers winding up a deal. I might have
done something less formal, but my wits were scattered by the fact
of her, the idea made flesh, the tangible reality of hands and hazel
eyes. I was amazed to see the genetic shadow of my family (Cam’s
hair, my father’s nose, the husky frame of paternal cousins);
amazed to see the handiwork of twenty years in her thick neck and
sagging breasts. Christopher Robin had grown up.
“Kee-kah, kee-kah,” she said. That was Chris’s
way of pronouncing the name of Daria’s dog, Kosha.
“Can you make the sign for brother?” Daria said.
Chris touched her thumb to her forehead, palm flat and perpendicular
– the sign for father. The hand dropped down, thumb to chin
– the sign for mother. She folded the thumb across the palm
– B for brother – and finally formed the shape of a
C – for Chip. My name, as she conceived it, paid homage to
the union that had issued her as well: mother, father, brother,
“All the workers are on a break right now,” said Daria.
“Kee-kah,” Christopher said, and wandered off.
Sop began the day. I had to smile through my sense of grief and
loss: Chris’s immoderate happiness was contagious. I watched
her work. I talked to her keepers and friends. I learned about her
behavior problems, left over from her days in an institution. She
took medication for hyperactivity. She was known to steal things
and hoard food. She had bitten some staff members. Enraged once,
she had ripped a door off its hinges.
But I mustn’t get the wrong idea, everyone said. Chris was
a great person. She could understand what you said. She was smart.
She had a personality. She was particular about her appearance,
she washed her own hair and did her own laundry. She loved sports.
She’d started writing. I saw her palsied signature affixed
to Christmas cards and medical reports. Strangers regaled me with
descriptions of my sister’s talents and her character, how
much her birthday meant to her, how she loved the Rolling Stones
and the Grateful Dead. She understood what family was. She got sad
at Christmas when her housemates went home with relatives. I paged
through piles of institutional reports; I read the inventory of
“client preferences.” Chris liked clothing, money, candy,
food, eggs, plants, large slow dogs and jewelry. She disliked authority,
chores, vacuuming, meat and elephants. Under “family input”
someone had scribbled a poignant note: “Family does not attend.”
Grief was turning to relief, relief to exhilaration. These were
things I had in common with my sister! The family had treated Chris
as if she were dead, when in fact she was vital enough to rip down
a door. She was cared for, esteemed and even loved. Here, people
dwelt on her talents, not her deficiencies. They were not blinded
by what she could have been. They saw her for what she was. While
I watched her work, she showed me a book about rabbits and made
her sign for rabbits, puffing out her cheeks.
The social worker said Chris would understand me if I asked her
to lunch. “Ta-ta,” she said and pumped her arms, like
Rocky. She amazed me again, tucking my arm through hers so that
I might escort her out.
Lunch went well; we were accompanied by Daria, who interrupted
Chris’s medley of birdlike sounds. But later, when I drove
Chris back to her house, things took a turn for the worse. That
was the first time we were alone; waiting in the car to go, we sat
like people from separate countries. The car was a rental and hot
as an oven, and when Chris began to bellow – from the heat,
I assumed – I pawed at the bewildering dashboard in an effort
to get the air conditioning to work. Daria came to the window to
search Chris’s bag, and then we pulled out, Daria leading
the way in her Datsun. The car was still hellishly hot. Chris began
to grunt and pound the dashboard. I could taste panic, trapped in
a car with a heat-crazed animal. What the hell was wrong with the
air conditioning? I discovered that I had switched the wrong knob
- I’d been blasting us with hot air. Deliverance! The temperature
plunged, Chris grew calm and I trued to keep up with Daria as she
raced ahead through the curves, her arm slung indolently out the
Chris lived in a roomy white house on a benign suburban street
bordered by woods. She had been there almost a year, but the last
two weeks she’d been staying at another place to give the
staff a break. At work, she behaved – she was earning money;
at home, she was harder to handle.
As we pulled in, we were greeted by Duchess, a golden retriever,
large and slow. Inside the house, staff members were waiting for
“No hug?” said one.
Chris looked distraught. She went to her room and paced about.
The were cat posters on the wall, and her bulletin board was festooned
with blue ribbons from Special Olympics victories. As she unloaded
her belongings from a big cardboard box, she began to pant. She
whimpered and grunted as she restored her underwear to the dresser
and plugged in her pink clock radio. I picked an album from the
rack by her bed. “No!” she said, yanking it from my
“It’s probably a combination of your visit and the
first day back,” said the residence manager.
Chris took a doll she had sewn and crushed it against her face.
She started to bray.
“Gah-be-you,” she said, her phrase for goodbye. We
I hung around the kitchen as Chris’s housemates trickled
in: Margaret, Kevin, Neil, Eric, Charlie. They looked like people
on the yellow bus. Some of them could speak. From the vantage of
the kitchen table, after a day with my sister, they seemed to have
all thehues of normal people.
“Kevin, do you know who this is?” said Terry, pointing
to me. “This is Chrissy’s brother.”
Kevin gasped “oh, no!”
For the first time that day, I threw my head back and laughed.
My father once told me he wondered if his life would have meant
more if he had been more involved with Chris. If he could have seen
her handicap as love’s challenge. He did not. Nor did my mother.
That the sorrows of Chris affect my parents differently was plain
to me when I went to visit them a day later. I brought a few pictures
and relayed my news, including the story of Chris being lonely at
My father said he would like to bring Chris home over the holidays.
Instantly the air was tense. There isn’t a subject my mother
dreads more. Having Chris was “a terrible mistake,”
she said. “She’ll hang over me like a sword until I
die.” The more I learn, the sorrier I feel for her, so defensive
after so many years. She can see no value in her daughter’s
life, only how the girl reflects on her. Part of the reason is her
hard opinion of herself, the sense that she has left no mark apart
from her children. Self-esteem is precious, and she protects what
she has – like Chris, in a way, hoarding her food.
For a while, I savored the thought of my sister’s singularity.
She was no more monstrous than my perception of her. She helped
put my problems into perspective – those weighty vexations
of lovers who won’t heel and projects that don’t bear
fruit. She showed me how my own complexity keeps me from living
in the moment. I do no mean to say that I would want to exchange
our handicaps – I only mean that inside her terrible limitations
she lives as fully and as purely as anyone that I have ever met.
But, sad to say, the savor did not last. I did not want to be her
guardian. I couldn’t afford to replace my doors whenever she
got mad. Who was I to second-guess the decision my parents made
over twenty years ago? To question the protocol our family evolved
for dealing with a painful situation? The very night I got back
to the city, I saw three young women strolling to a party in skirts
and hats and stylish shoes, and all at once the reality of Chris’s
condition pinned me to my mother’s grief: Oh, why couldn’t
my sister have turned out like one of those girls, laughing and
beautiful, on her way to a party?
Perhaps the handicap of selfish people is a barren sense of family.
Perhaps the curse of selfishness is the lost chance to know yourself
in the life of others. Most likely sending Chris away was the right
and only choice. Had she stayed with us, we might be other than
what we are. But in truth, we had shut her in the monster’s
closet long before she left the house. We saw how we were not like
her, not how we were the same. We looked at her with eyes that seized
on her freakishness at the expense of her humanity. It’s not
like we haven’t paid a price for having eyes like that. We
pay it in the way we look at each other – in the distance
we keep, our power not to care, our wariness of love.
Before I left my sister’s house that afternoon last summer,
I went to say goodbye. I was not sure when I would see her again.
The example of her happiness had made a deep impression, but it
is the look in her eyes that I will remember. I stood by the bed
where she lay covered by her favorite blanket. I couldn’t
get her to respond. One of the staff members came in, pulled the
blanket down and removed the doll that was pressed like a blindfold
over her eyes.
“Chris, can you say goodbye to your brother?” the woman
“No,no,” she grunted.
And then she looked right through me. She looked like a rabbit
in the lights of an oncoming car.
“She’s breaking a bond,” said the woman sadly.
The shades were drawn and her clock was stuck on the wrong time,
dire red numbers blinking in the gloom: 1:01, 1:01, 1:01.