Joanne Palmer: The lessons I've learned from my big brother

Life in the 'Boat


My brother, Mark, can't tell the difference between a penny and a quarter. He'll never drive a car, read a bestseller, go to college or get married. At 54, he has the reading ability of a third grader, the writing skills of a seven-year-old and knows almost no math.

Mark is mentally retarded. The reason he's retarded is simple; the effect it's had on me is profound. He's retarded due to something called the Rh factor, an incompatibility of the blood. Today, there are sophisticated tests and a vaccine. But 54 years ago, there wasn't enough.

It never occurred to me that anything was "different" about my brother until we moved from Pennsylvania to Illinois. The new neighborhood kids, observing Mark's wobbling attempts on the playground equipment or his repeated efforts to learn to ride his bicycle, peppered me with questions, "What's wrong with your brother?" "Why does he still have training wheels on his bike?"

With every question, Mark turned his hazel eyes to me as if he too, were waiting for an answer. So with my fists clenched, my stomach knotted in fear, I'd yell, "Nothing is the matter with him." When they'd stare back at me in disbelief, I'd add, "Leave us alone or I'll fight you!"

Even though I acted as his tough bodyguard, it was Mark who taught me to be brave. It never mattered to him how many times he failed - he'd repeat a task until he mastered it. Slowly, we developed the perfect symbiotic relationship. I was the brain; he was the body. I analyzed; he acted.

We used this strategy to learn how to ski. On our first day of skiing, we stood buried underneath itchy sweaters on the slopes of a small ski area in northern Wisconsin. I figured out how to lace up our ski boots and read all the signs and instructions. But now I was too afraid to go down the hill. Jingling dimes for hot chocolate inside our mittens, we stared down the impossible precipice of the bunny hill. No parents or ski instructors were available to show us what to do - it was all up to us. "C'mon, fat butt," Mark mumbled teasingly through his scarf, "Let's go." He pushed off down the hill, fell at the bottom and waved for me to join him. I did. He never did learn to snow plow, execute a turn or stop, but we spent the rest of the winter skiing anyway.

Even though my brother and I are separated in distance, there's not a day that goes by that I don't think of him. This winter as I click into my bindings, in preparation for the first run of the ski season, I know I'll be filled with fear and the same "what if" questions I had as a kid in northern Wisconsin. "What if I can't do this?" "What if I fall and break my leg?" And every year, the reply is the same, "C'mon, fat butt, let's go."


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