Saturday, December 21, 2013

A Tribute to Howard

Linda and I were at our local recreation center working out this morning.  While I was on the elliptical, I watched a feature on ESPN about a young man named Owen (I think).  He is manager for a 7th grade boys basketball team.  He is 15 and loves basketball.  He was born with Downs Syndrome.

The story was extraordinarily moving.  Owen's dad asked the coach of the team at the beginning of the season if his son could be the team's manager.  The coach agreed to let him try.  Owen worked hard keeping the gym floor clean, putting away the basketballs, and cheering for his team.  He also practiced shooting every chance he got.

There were interviews with Owen's mom, dad, and sister.  When Owen's parents learned that he would be born with this disability that would limit his mental and physical abilities, they were understandably heartbroken.  They feared that their son would not be able to enjoy all the experiences they dreamed of for him.  His sister lived with the constant fear that her brother would be teased and made fun of, which, in fact, happened.  Kids can be cruel.

Everyone on Owen's team liked him.  Towards the end of the season, they came up with a plan that would allow Owen to play in a game!  The coach agreed enthusiastically.  Owen particularly enjoyed practicing 3-point shots, so the plan was to set him up for a chance to shoot from outside the 3-point arc.  The day of the game came and Owen was beaming as he entered the game, in uniform.  His dad was recording the action.  His teammates passed the ball to Owen and he threw up a high-arching 3 point went in!  Everyone in the gym went wild (maybe not the other team as it was a close game).  If he could do it once, maybe he could do it again!  And he did!  He made 6 points and helped his team win by a narrow margin.  Owen's dad's recording of the game became a hit on the internet and, thanks to a twitter campaign, ended up on Sports Center!  The next game was the last of the season.  Owen played again and scored 4 points as his team won again!

I had tears in my eyes as I watched this program.  It reminded me of my Uncle Howard, who also had Down's Syndrome.  Howard was the younger brother (by quite a few years) of my mom and Uncle Don.  I learned that my grandparents (Nonny & Bapa) were advised to place him in a facility for "retarded children".  He wasn't expected to live to be a teenager.  I can only imagine their anguish when they actually took him to this place, but decided they could not leave him there.  They took him home.  I don't recall too many stories from my mom about growing up with Howard.  It had to be challenging for her and Don.  Kids can be cruel.

Howard was a gentle, loving spirit in the body of a child who was strong as a bear.  He loved baseball and polka music in particular.  He always wanted to dance to the polka music with whoever was available.  I would compare dancing with Howard to dancing with a bear (not that I've ever done that).  It could be awkward and even painful due to his uninhibited enthusiasm and strength, so my sisters and I would try to make ourselves scarce when the polka shows were on TV.  That said, we all knew he never intended to do anything that would bring harm to us.  He never intended to anything that would bring harm to ANYONE!   He was friendly and loving to everyone he met.

He also liked to do jobs, like sweeping the garage for my mom.  He would refer to himself as "sissy's helper".  He worked tirelessly with Bapa at whatever he was doing.  When Bapa was still working for the New York Central railroad as a brakeman, Howard loved to go with him and ride in the caboose.  He was a huge Cleveland Indians fan and could recite historical information about the team with no problem.

After they retired, my grandparents moved to Tucson.  I am sure this was because they thought it would be easier on Bapa's arthritis.  They traveled a lot in those days, and we enjoyed watching their home movies of their trips to Muir Woods, Grand Canyon, and the one where the trees have turned into rocks.  We were all happy when they decided to move back to Ohio and bought a house a short ride from ours. 

If my sisters or I were in any kind of performance at school, Nonny, Bapa, and Howard were always there.  There was nothing they would rather do (interestingly, Linda and I were the same when it came to our kids and now, our grandkids).  I can still recall other kids pointing out Howard in the audience and making fun of him.  Kids can be cruel.  I don't think I had the courage to say that he was my uncle and not to make fun of him.  Maybe I did, I don't remember any more.  If I didn't, I wish I had.

Howard started having "spells" and heart problems as he got older.  My grandparents had moved to a condominium complex close to Uncle Don and not far from my parents.  My sisters and I were in college at Ohio State.  Howard passed away in his 40's, I think.  I would like to think that he knew he was blessed to have such loving, devoted parents.  They gave up a lot for him.  But they got a lot in return, too!  We all did.  I miss you Howard.

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