Joanne Palmer: Cell phone and jeans are signs of progress |

Joanne Palmer: Cell phone and jeans are signs of progress

Joanne Palmer

In 1989, Joanne Palmer left a publishing career in Manhattan and has missed her paycheck ever since. She is a mom, weekly columnist for the Steamboat Pilot & Today, and the owner of a property management company, The House Nanny. Her new book "Life in the 'Boat: How I fell on Warren Miller's skis, cheated on my hairdresser and fought off the Fat Fairy" is now available in local bookstores and online at or

— The caller ID reads Niblet.

"What are you having for dinner?"

This routine question comes from my brother, Mark. What isn't routine is he is calling me on his new cell phone. Mark, 58, is developmentally disabled. I am No. 3 on his speed dial. He is listed in my phone under his nickname, Niblet. His nickname comes from an old Jolly Green Giant Niblets corn commercial. He calls me his "little sister." When he calls, he likes to call three times in a row. Each conversation lasts less than two minutes. He doesn't like to make idle chitchat. He gets right to the point and then he's finished.

The phone allows him to express his concern, "Did you make it home OK?" and his dreams, "I want to come to Steamboat and run the gondola."

I answer his questions, and then he is ready to hang up. Most of the time, he has ended the call before he hears me say, "I love you."

Since my mother passed away in December, my sister, Laura, and I have been overseeing Mark's care. This was my mother's expressed wish, and we anticipated the reins would pass to us for years.

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This transfer of care caused my mother extreme anxiety. Death was not nearly as terrifying to my mother as relinquishing the care of her son to someone else. The bond between a mother and child is strong. The bond between a mother and handicapped child is often forged from cast iron. For more than 35 years, Mark and my mother spent every weekend together. They went fishing, went to Cubs games and laughed at each other's jokes whether they were funny or not. They adhered to a predictable routine. On Friday nights, they ate fish — either tilapia or salmon. On Sundays, they went to church. At 6 p.m., they watched "Wheel of Fortune" and at 8 p.m., they took their meds. As her ability to do the day-to-day routine tasks declined, Mark's increased. He started making his own breakfast, three frozen waffles topped with bananas, learned how to brew the decaf coffee he liked and unloaded the dishwasher.

"It's harder than you think," she'd state repeatedly. "He can't do buttons and zippers, you have to buy shoes with Velcro because he can't tie shoelaces, and pants have to have elasticized waists. … And he's not good at shaving. You have to help him."

She was right about the shaving. His shaving is pretty haphazard, and without a little coaching, he misses quite a few spots. But she was wrong about the zippers. Laura and I took him shopping for a pair of jeans, and he was able to zip and button the fly without any problem.

Jeans and a cell phone — standard issue for most of us — had until now been out of reach for my brother. Thanks to the cell phone, he can go to a sporting event or a movie by himself and call when he's ready to come home. He's managed to get himself a job as the water boy for local football teams, and he's been blowing the whistle at the start of the Fourth of July penny scramble at the local playground for years. So would it surprise me to see him at the gondola? Not really.

My brother now is connected to the wired world his sisters live in. Soon, we'll teach him how to check his voice mail, and hopefully some day he'll learn not to hang up before he hears me say, "I love you."

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