I first understood there was something wrong when I was eight years old. One summer day I was sitting on the couch in our living room, my bare toes plunged deep into the shaggy blue carpet. As usual, my face was buried in a book. I heard him walk in the front door, the screen slamming shut behind him. He leaned over the couch and asked, "What are you reading?"
"Henry Huggins," I answered.
"Can I see?" he asked.
He sat down next to me and picked up my book. As he struggled and stumbled over the words, I grew embarrassed for him. He passed it back to me and said, "Too many words for me."
I then opened my book back up and read aloud to my thirty-five year old uncle.
My mother’s older brother lived with us on and off throughout my childhood because of an ongoing battle with mental illness. One of my earliest childhood memories is of my mom backing out of the driveway and right into my tricycle. It was years later that I learned she was in a hurry to take my uncle to the hospital for psychiatric treatment. Twice he attempted to take his own life while living with us. Not only did he battle mental illness, he also had a low IQ. From late adolescence until the day he retired, he worked for the Department of Labor, in the photocopy department.
In many ways, he was like a child in a grown man's body.
Growing up, I sensed that he was misunderstood by everyone around him. It seemed like no one knew how to help him or how to relate to him. Sometimes, he was even taken advantage of by people he met. He tried multiple times living on his own but somehow always ended up back at our house.
My uncle had a deep voice, just like my grandfather, and a quick smile. But the older I got, the more I realized he was different than the other adults around me. One day during my teens, he called on the phone and I answered. He spoke in a whisper and told me someone had been in his apartment and moved things around. He sounded frightened and rambled such that I couldn’t catch everything he said. “Mom! It’s for you!” I called.
I suppose being around my uncle is part of the reason why when I left home for college I chose to study counseling. It was in college and then graduate school where I learned more about his problems and his needs. I was able to encourage the family to find a suitable place for him to live, a group home where he could be among other people with similar challenges, limitations, and struggles.
When my oldest son was about a year old, I took him to visit my uncle. He was older and the hard life was wearing on his body. He moved with slowness, both in mind and body. I met his roommate and saw where he spent his days. It was the last time I saw him.
When he passed away a year later, I wept both in sadness and in joy. Sadness at a life lived with such pain. A life where he was misunderstood, looked down upon, isolated, and different from everyone else. A life where he never fully functioned on his own but was dependent on those around him. But there was also joy because he had a child-like faith. I rejoiced that he finally had shed the curse and the brokenness of his mind and body and now lived with Jesus.
These days, my children have the opportunity to be around other children who are different than they. When they see someone behave in a way that is strange or peculiar or meet someone that looks different, we talk about it and discuss the possible challenges they face in life—the hardships and the sorrows. I want my children to love the broken and not to fear those who are different from them. I want them to look at the brokenness that is both around them and within them and understand the significance of the Fall—how all the sorrow, sickness, and brokenness we experience is the result of mankind’s fall into sin. I want them to see the need we all have for Jesus and his redeeming grace. I want them to have compassion and mercy for others, just as our Savior has for us.
I still have Henry Huggins on my bookshelf and whenever I look at it I think of my uncle. Part of me hopes that if not now, then in the new earth, he'll crack open a book—maybe even Henry Huggins—and read it from cover to cover. Perhaps I will even sit next to him and this time, he will read it out loud to me.