Joanne Palmer: Life lessons from my brother
July 10, 2012
"The plane is coming," my brother says matter-of-factly.
Mark and I are sitting at an American Airlines gate at DIA waiting for a plane to arrive that will take him from Denver to Chicago. Mark is developmentally disabled and has to fly direct. Changing planes, making a connection and getting from one gate to another is something he can't do. We have been waiting an hour, and while pretending to watch CNN I count five people on their iPhones, two on their iPads and three on laptops. We are the only ones just sitting. Not plugged in.
"How do you know the plane is coming?" I ask him.
"The light is flashing. See the light on that thing you walk on? The means the plane is coming."
"It does? What light?"
"Don't you see the light? It's underneath the thing?"
Amid all the sights and sounds at the airport — crying babies, endless announcements, people running to catch their flights — he has spotted a small flashing light tucked underneath the jetway. After a few minutes, I see it, and sure enough, moments later, the jetway telescopes out to meet the plane.
"How did you see that?" I shake my head. It is just one of the dozens of ways my brother has amazed me in the past two weeks.
Mark is 60. Cognitively, test scores put him at about age 6. Somewhere I have a thick file folder filled with all of his evaluations throughout the years. I never look at them. I know what he can't do. He can't tell time, he has trouble tying his shoes and his reading skills are minimal. But what he can do is inspiring. He never complains, always has a smile and is happy to help out.
One evening, I arrive home and find him talking to my next-door neighbor, a volunteer firefighter, on the front lawn.
"I'm going to ride on the fire truck in the Fourth of July parade," Mark announces excitedly.
"On the truck?" I say incredulously.
"Yeah, on the truck. Oh, Joanne, you know, the person over there" (he points across the street) "sold their house. There is a stray dog running around. And I'm helping out at the Bounce House tomorrow."
Of course, on the fire truck. Of course, talking to the neighbors. Of course, helping out. When it comes to a special event, or life in general, my brother likes to be front and center. He is not a sideline kind of guy.
My brother loves everything there is to do in Steamboat, but nothing thrills him as much as the gondola. As soon as he gets close to it, he breaks into a dead run.
One morning, I decide I should count all the ways he can use the word "gondola" in a sentence, but after 25 mentions, I lose track. Morning conversations go something like this:
"Do you think the gondola is running today?"
"Yeah, it's running. They must be taking freight cars up. It's a good day for the gondola. There isn't any wind, so they won't shut the gondola down today. The sun is out, so the gondola will be running. I bet my friends are working over at the gondola today."
His friends are working over there. The staff at the gondola has been nothing short of phenomenal. They roll out the red carpet for my brother and treat him like a visiting dignitary. They have given him a name tag, a staff shirt and a Steamboat ball cap. They patiently have explained how the gondola works and even let him help unload a freight car and scan lift tickets.
The world might see him as "special needs," but that has it backwards. We all have a special need for his light, his goodness and his positive attitude. It never occurs to Mark that someone won't like him, that he will be rejected for something he wants to do or that a person will say "no." Because of this, he goes after what he wants with great gusto, and most of the time he gets it. Not a bad way to live.
His flight is called, and he stands up to leave.
"Next time I come to Steamboat," he says, "I'd like to announce the rodeo."
He is my hero. Inspiration. And daily reminder that life is full of possibilites.