The last time I saw my older brother Thomas was when he was in his casket. That was 1983. I was 18 and he was 20. He had a blue and red button down plaid shirt on that was tucked into his jeans; his face was embalmed and he looked so serene, so peaceful, so innocent. I can barely get these words into print without tears.
I don’t have many photographs of Thomas; our family doesn’t have that many photos in general of us kids growing up. The last photo I have of Thomas before he left to live away from us is dated on the back: March 1968, Bloomington, Indiana, the month and location of my younger brother’s birth.
In the photograph, my mom seemed to be holding Thomas up a bit; he seems to be holding a bowling pin. My sister and I were next to them, I with a balloon in hand; I was almost four years old, Thomas 6 and my sister 7. Thomas seemed so happy, so sweet, so carefree.
But, Thomas was not what they called “normal” back then; he was classified by the medical professionals as “mentally retarded.” That was not a derogatory term, it was just what the medical term was. It is what you said back then. Thomas could not function on his own; he could not talk or read or write or control his bladder.
My mom had the shingles during the first three months of her pregnancy and she thinks that is what caused my brother to not develop correctly in the womb, and that is the suspected reason for my brother’s mental retardation.
The doctors ultimately recommended that my brother live away from our family as it would be too hard to have him live with us in a family with three other children, 7 and under. It is what many families with similar situations in the 1950’s and 1960’s did. It was heart-breaking for my parents.
So, three months after my baby brother was born, in June 1968 my mom flew with Thomas from Bloomington, Indiana to Salem, Oregon to drop him off at Fairview Training Center. He would not live with us ever again.
In 1970, we moved from Indiana back to Oregon where my father was hired as a business professor at Oregon State University in Corvallis.
Every few weeks, we would drive the 45 minutes north from Corvallis to Salem to visit Thomas at Fairview. After we checked into the front desk at the main office we walked to where my brother lived at his cottage. They separated the children and young adults at Fairview into cottages depending upon their ages and how much care each individual needed. Thomas needed 24 hour care; he could walk and sometimes he seemed to be trying to talk.
We rarely spoke of Thomas when we were away from him, it seems, as I look back on my childhood; it was like a different life, a different world. My parents just had a sadness about them when it came to Thomas. After moving from Corvallis to Portland, Oregon, it was an hour drive to see Thomas. We mostly visited him on site, but I have some photos of him and us all together at the beach. My sister remembers having him at our house a couple of times. She is older and has more memories.
Sundays were the main day we would visit Thomas at Fairview, and my mom agrees when I asked her, that it seemed like we visited less and less as we got older; she said we got busier with school and sports and friends.
What I remember about Thomas. He liked bananas and onions and had a sweet understated laugh. He walked with a bit of a limp. Here’s the hardest part: He cried sometimes when it was time to return him to his cottage where he lived. This crushes me thinking about it now. As a child, you don’t question as much. I wish I had. But, now, I ask myself, Why? Why did he cry when we dropped him off? I have sobbed thinking about the reality that there may have been physical abuse at Fairview, which I heard later may have been true.
When he cried, that should have told us something. Why didn’t we do something? What could we have done? I have more questions now than I did back then: Why did we have to drop him off? Why did he have to live away?
It was what you did. Many mentally challenged, mentally retarded children lived in institutions then.
When I posted a photo and story about Thomas on social media a few months ago as a tribute to my mom, my old swim teammate Al Franco from Cleveland High messaged me that he too had a sibling that lived at Fairview. He said it is also such a hard part of his past and he only realizes it now, as an adult.WWw
I loved my brother, but now I ask myself, why didn’t I visit, as I got older? Did I talk about him much to people? Why didn’t we pick him up for holidays, Christmas at least, more? All of our Christmas pictures in front of our artificial Christmas tree that was lit with real candles are with just five of us. My sister remembers one or two Christmases with Thomas there. She said they were hard with Thomas. My parents did the best they could and they loved all of their children.
It’s so hard thinking of Fairview. I did some recent research on the history of the institution, which closed its doors a few years ago and has since been torn down. In my search I stumbled upon a documentary called, “Where’s Molly?” The film follows the story of Jeff Daly, whose sister Molly was sent to Fairview when he was 6 and she was 2. He continually asked the question, “Where’s Molly?” but his mother never answered, and he never got to visit her. Ever. He was not even allowed to talk about her.
But, 50 years later, after his parents’ death, Jeff, with the help of his wife Cindy, found his sister Molly. She was living in a group home in Hillsboro, Oregon. He and Cindy produced a documentary about their family’s life and history of Molly being sent to Fairview, and they titled it, “Where’s Molly?” The circumstances surrounding Molly impacted Jeff profoundly his entire life as he felt such guilt and sadness.
But, you cannot relive your childhood through the lens of your adult self, as I am realizing. And, yet, I too have such a sadness and remorse over my brother Thomas now as an adult, as a mom of five children, and I ask myself now, through tears, why didn’t I talk more about Thomas growing up? Why didn’t I visit more as we got older? I am sad that I didn’t get to see him as an adult. I am fiercely loyal, and family means the world to me. I know it was (and still is) a heartache for my parents, thinking about their son.
Our family of six was visibly to others only a family of five in our family photos.
And, in 1983, when Tomas died, we became just that. A family of five. I do not know how my brother died. I heard he only had a half of a functioning kidney left and that may have caused his death.
He was 20 when he passed away and I was half way through my freshman year of college at The University of Portland, where my dad was a professor. I had my life before me, full of dreams and goals and visions. And, my brother was dead. Heart-wrenching. Not just that he died but for the life and family he never got to know.
After viewing Thomas’s peaceful body, my last time to see my older brother, we buried him on a rainy day at Riverview Cemetery not far from our Portland home. It was us five: me, my younger brother, my older sister, my mom and dad, my parents’ friends the Schafrinna’s and my mentor from Campus Crusade for Christ, Patty Burgin, and who had asked to join our family. Not many others even knew about his death, much less that I had an older brother.
We need to go visit the tombstone, the location where we last saw him, 35 years ago. My parents said the same thing as well recently as I’ve been talking to them about Thomas, asking questions.
We need to always remember. Every soul is loved, every life worth living. I do ask myself and pray to God about my brother and do believe God sees. I believe having Thomas as a brother has made me more compassionate and understanding towards those who may be different, towards those who may not be at a certain intellectual ability.
I want Thomas to know that he is loved, and always will be.
It’s taken me 35 years to write this, and I think it is only the beginning of remembering a precious life.