My Beautiful Brother

Using social media, my surviving sibling, Travis, and I acknowledged “Happy Siblings Day” this week by posting the usual  photos of ourselves and three older siblings who are no longer with us. We express our love for each other and how much we miss those who are gone. Every word is heartfelt, yet the posts feel incomplete. Our oldest sibling, Max, is never pictured. To my knowledge, there was never a family photograph that included Max.

In my family’s defense, during and soon after The Great Depression, it was a luxury to have photographs made. Even when cameras and film were more accessible, getting photographs processed took time and money. Even then, we didn’t know what our photographs would look like until days or weeks after they were taken. If, by chance, there was a family photograph including Max, it would have been destroyed when the family home burned in the 1940’s.

Our oldest brother, Max, was born on June 1, 1934, nine months and three days after the marriage of our parents, Claude and Kathleen (Kat) Shockley Grider, sharecroppers living and working in Lincoln County. After my mother suffered many hours of difficult labor, a doctor finally arrived at her mother’s home to assist with the birth. Using forceps, the doctor finally pulled Max into breathable space. As far as my parents knew, they had a healthy baby boy.

Having had no experience with a newborn, my mother didn’t know that Max’s struggle to nurse and swallow was anything unusual. For the first few months, the new parents were in denial that anything was wrong with their beautiful baby boy with fierce blue eyes and long dark eyelashes. Finally, my grandmother convinced them that something was not right about Max’s physical development and that he should be seen by a doctor. The doctor confirmed that Max had cerebral palsy, a brain injury that possibly occurred at birth.

Neither parent knew anything about cerebral palsy. Doctors told Claude and Kat that, because of the severity of Max’s condition, he should be institutionalized. Immediately rejecting that option, they took him back to their sharecroppers’ home. Because Max could not chew (he could not fully close his mouth), my mother, like a moma bird, would chew his food for him and did so for many years until their life circumstances improved and they were able to purchase a food blender.

Although his abilities were severely limited, Max had the determination and grit to learn to walk. He learned to balance himself on his one good leg and drag the other behind him. He wanted to help pick cotton, so mother made him a cotton picking sack by sewing a strap to a large burlap bag. Under the blazing hot Southeast Arkansas Delta sun, Max would spend hours with my mother and siblings picking cotton with his one good hand and dragging his cumbersome tow sack behind him. There were times that he could pick almost as much cotton as his reluctant cotton-picking siblings.

Because he could not close his mouth, Max could not talk, but he had a contagious laugh and could occasionally get the giggles when something amused him. Being almost sixteen years his junior, I could both amuse him and annoy him. When I was a noisy toddler, I would annoy him by running past him, screaming irritating babbles as toddlers do. Sometimes, at the urging of two of my older brothers, he would stick out his good foot to trip me and use his good hand to pull my hair; other times he would be in the floor and start kicking his good foot at me as I toddled by, causing my older brothers to burst out laughing. Their laughter would ignite an explosion of laughter from Max.

When the weather was warm and sunny, Max’s favorite way to pass time was to sit on a tree stump next to the dusty gravel road running past our house on Tamo Road. By that time, my father had become the farm manager for Frank Fletcher, Sr., and our lives had vastly improved. Max would sit on that old low stump for hours watching cars and farm tractors pass by. To his delight, everyone who knew him would wave. Often, it’s the small things that can bring great joy to a simple life.

Max was incredibly intelligent; otherwise, he would never have been able to accomplish what he did with his extreme physical limitations. Also, we could look into those piercing blue eyes and know that complex activity was trapped inside his head. In those days, inclusion was not understood or considered in public schools.  One possible option to maximize Max’s development would have been to send him to the Sunshine School in Pine Bluff, but having time, money, and transportation to and from the school were insurmountable obstacles for my parents. To take Max anywhere would involve physically lifting him from his chair or bed and carrying him to the car. Claude and Kat would sometimes take him on a trip to the store or to visit relatives; then they would park in the shade and roll down the windows.

One day at my brother’s store, a classmate from Gould or Wells Bayou Elementary saw me playing outside. He excitedly ran toward me shouting, “Did you see that man in that car? He has no legs!” I angrily responded, “He does, too, have legs! He’s my brother!” Almost disbelieving, he said, “Well, you don’t love him, do you?”  That was the first time, perhaps, that it occurred to me that people didn’t see Max the way that his family did. My heart was broken.

Until my teen years, my parents were not regular church goers. They said that they could not take Max to church, and I must admit, it would have been difficult. Almost daily, Max would have grand mal seizures. They were often triggered by increased stress. We would first hear the groan of lost breath, followed by a thump on the floor as he fell. There he would lie as spasms shook his small, defenseless body for eternal seconds. Then we would hear the gasp for breath as his body relaxed and froth and endless drool poured from his permanently open mouth. My mother would have a cold wash cloth ready to wipe the sweat from his forehead and gently lift him to his chair or bed.

Around the age of 30, Max had a severe bout with the flu. After that, his body was so weak, he never attempted to stand or walk again. Around the same time, my parents (both heavy smokers) began to suffer from declining health. Taking care of Max in their home became increasingly more challenging. He had to be bathed, fed, and diapered every day. Within the next few years, they had to make the most difficult decision of their lives – to put Max into a nursing home. Taking Max away from the only environment he had ever known was gut wrenching for them and Max. They visited him in Gardner Convalescent Center in Star City regularly – my mother almost daily. It took a long time to adjust to Max’s questioning expression and the piercing blue-eyed stare that he greeted them with at each visit.

 Gardner’s took excellent care of Max until his death at age 50. The staff truly loved him. Late one night, Max was crying, suffering from his badly decayed teeth. The staff felt an urgent need to beckon my parents to Gardner’s, hoping my parents could comfort him. When they arrived they found a nurse cradling Max in her arms and rocking him back and forth. That image still brings tears of appreciation to my eyes. We will always be grateful to the caring staff and to Dr. Basil Gibbs, who took the life-threatening chance to remove Max’s teeth – the only way to alleviate his excruciating pain.

Mother prayed that she would outlive Max. Her wish was granted when Max passed away on December 14, 1984. Although grieving, she said that she felt a huge weight lifted from her shoulders. She outlived Max by six years; Dad outlived him by two months.

Having spent a lifetime in education, I’ve seen unfathomable advancements in education, especially education and services for the disabled. If Max had been born in the 21st Century, he could have attended classes with other children his age. I can visualize him maneuvering himself down the school hall in an electric scooter that he could control with his good hand. I can almost hear his voice as he communicates through software on his iPad.

Hebrews 13:2 says, “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” I may be wrong, but I’ve believed most of my life that Max was one of those angels. There is no doubt that since December 14, 1984, he has been free to run, sing, and sit on his Heavenly tree stump by a dusty gravel road waving back to other angels.