A family of rhinos took my attention away from my daughter. The parents were coaxing the two young ones to move along towards the next treat station. They had to maneuver past several princesses, a clunky Thomas the Tank Engine, and our very own 2-year-old little Statue of Liberty to reach the prized bowl of Twix bars. The plaza at Lincoln Center offered only five candy stations, but the costume watching made it worth spending Halloween morning in the company of hundreds of other New York families.
After filling Norah’s jack-o-lantern with Snickers and Skittles and suckers, we found a splash of sunlight between the shadows of the Metropolitan Opera House and the Library of Performing Arts to take a break and let Norah enjoy some of her spoils. She sat content with her lollipop dripping down to her sea green Lady Liberty robe. I thought it was the sticky red candy and parade of costume-clad children that was holding her attention while I chatted with friends, but after a while she seemed unusually calm despite the abundance of sugar and live characters.
I followed her gaze through the crowd to the benches across the walkway towards Juilliard’s grass lawn. I saw a family of mice, more princesses, and a proportional amount of tired parents – but nothing out of the ordinary for Halloween so I turned back to my conversation. After several more minutes, I felt a tug on my arm. Norah looked up at me and simply smiled before walking towards the benches. I followed a few steps behind to see where her curious heart would lead.
As she approached the bench I saw him. He had deep wrinkles on his face, and his lonely eyes cast downward, curling his back along with them. He sat alone in the midst of adults holding hands and children laughing, enjoying being together. The long black braids in his hair told me the Native American coat he wore was not donned only one day a year – but rather with pride whenever it was cold enough to wrap around his shoulders.
Norah placed her small hands on the bench next to him and with incredible toddler strength she vaulted her way in to the empty space beside him. She smiled and asked him his name. He mumbled something neither of us could understand. But as he mumbled, those deep wrinkles I thought were set in a frown creaked their way to a slight smile. His eyes still held that loneliness, but they smiled too. Wisdom beyond her years told Norah not to press him on his name like she typically does if she doesn’t hear the answer she wants. As I sat in the spot next to her, she placed her hand on his knee and said, “This is my new friend, Mom.” Then, as if to explain why, she leaned in to me and whispered, “He’s an old man,” and nodded knowingly.
When she nodded like that, I saw my mom in my daughter. I think she was really trying to say, “I see Jerry in him.”
My mom is always noticing people like this man — people who seem to just need someone to acknowledge them. I remember one Christmas Eve when she came home an hour later than we were expecting her from work. She walked in the door, smiled, and told us about the young man at the store who was flustered because the person who was supposed to give him a ride to his friend’s house for dinner never showed up. My mom watched him grow more anxious as he called everyone he knew and no one answered. So she told him to wait until the store closed at 6, and she shuttled him where he needed to go, offering him a warm car and friendly, encouraging conversation to boot. It might seem careless to allow a stranger in to your car and then let him tell you where to drive, but my mom couldn’t care more. “I could see Jerry in him,” was always her reasoning, and we could never argue with that.
Jerry was my uncle – my mom’s younger brother. I often wonder what he would have been like if the schizophrenia hadn’t held him captive his entire adult life. That disease made his journey much more difficult than it needed to be. But our family’s love was stronger than his disease. My grandparents and my mom along with her siblings fought for him louder than the voices did. He always had a seat at the table for after-Christmas games of Michigan Rummy or Left Right Center – even when he chose to spend many of those evenings smoking a pack of cigarettes in my grandparent’s garage. When he was done and came huffing in the door, there would always be loud calls of, “Jerry! Come join us!” He never lasted more than a few hands before getting frustrated, but he wanted to be a part of the fun. You could tell by the twinkle in his eye when he smiled after winning a hand that he craved the company more than the silent garage. And while I will always wonder who he could have been, I will cherish who he was.
He was thoughtful when his disease allowed him to be selfless – like the Christmas shortly after Brett and I were married. Crumpled wrapping paper was piled in the middle of my grandparents’ living room, and everyone was oohing and ahhing over their new gifts. Jerry got up slowly and reached his shaky hand into his pocket, coming out with a wad of $5 bills. He carefully made his way around the room, saying “Merry Christmas” as he handed one bill to each of us. He had exactly the right amount for each of his siblings, nieces, and nephew. That is the only gift I remember from that Christmas.
He was kind when he wasn’t battling his demons – like the time a few years ago when my grandparents brought him to my parents’ house so he could meet our daughter, his first great-niece. After a meal full of loud laughter and storytelling, all of the adults were in the kitchen cleaning up. I heard Norah’s giggle over the clink of dishes in the sink and looked back to the dining room to find my 6-month-old daughter in a deep babbling conversation with her great-uncle Jerry. The kitchen grew quiet as we all watched the incredible connection forming between these two people who couldn’t quite communicate to the rest of us the way they wanted to, but found ease with each other.
I had these opportunities to see Jerry for who he was behind the dark schizophrenic cloud because he had a family who loved him fiercely and never gave up on him. My uncle died almost two years ago, but my mom hasn’t stopped looking out for her younger brother. She has a heart that finds people who don’t have the gift of a family who loves them fiercely like his did. She looks for the Jerry within the crowds and then takes action. Sometimes my dad is recruited in her efforts – like the time she had him come to the store, pick up a confused young man who needed a ride to the bus station and buy his ticket to get back to his own big sister about an hour away. She got his sister’s phone number, and once they connected the woman offered to reimburse my mom for her kindness. My mom declined, saying she had a brother who would need someone to step in to help him sometimes too.
There is a lot of discernment that goes in to knowing who to help and how to help them. I’m glad my mom’s Jerry-sense seems to have rubbed off on my daughter. I hope I can learn from both of them.
The old man’s smile was still on his face when Norah turned back toward him after her knowing nod toward me. That nod that said, “I see Jerry in him, Mom. He needs us to be his family right now.” My instinct was to get up and walk through the crowd back toward the comfortable circle of friends who were waiting for us. But Norah sat firmly, and the man seemed to sit a bit taller with her small hand on his knee. My 2-year-old daughter could see Jerry in this man, and I was sure my mom would have seen him too. Norah needed me to sit with her so we could be his family for a moment. So we stayed. We sat on the bench, an awkward family of three watching costumes in silence, and no one was alone.
Image via Thinkstock.