A sad text came across my phone Monday morning. My cousin Jerome had passed away a few hours earlier.
Jerome was one of 42 first cousins on my father’s side. He was the quietest and possibly kindest person among the rowdy and sometimes unruly bunch. And, without question, Jerome had the most profound effect on our extended family.
His presence made us better as individuals and stronger as a family.
Jerome had Down syndrome.
I was about 6 years old when Jerome was born. It wasn’t the first time we had been exposed to the condition. There was a man with Down syndrome who lived in our neighborhood, as well as more distant relatives on my mother’s side of the family.
But, it was Jerome’s presence that brought us face-to-face with the reality of Down syndrome.
I remember my mother and father sitting down and explaining that Jerome was different. We were told in no uncertain terms that as Jerome grew up we were not to make fun of him or call him names. We were told that, when possible, Jerome should be included in our activities.
There’s no way to prove it at this moment, but I’m fairly certain each of dad’s siblings had the same conversation with their children.
Through 60 years of family reunions, I never saw Jerome treated with anything but kindness and respect. Part of that was due to the fierce sense of family among my dad and his siblings. At the same time, my dad and his siblings are/were all kind, gentle human beings. Their reaction was just what you’d expect.
Unfortunately, Jerome frequently wasn’t able to participate in our activities.
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When the family got together it meant extended games of baseball, football or basketball — whatever sport was in session. And, when darkness fell, we took to the orchard, barn and machine shed to play hide-and-seek or other games.
Yet, Jerome was hardly a pariah.
He would sit near his mother or father and virtually every cousin would stop by during the day to say hello to Jerome.
The conversations were generally short, “Hey Jerome, how you doing?” But, that wasn’t the point. The point is everyone took the time to say hello. To acknowledge his presence.
Jerome’s reaction was almost always the same. His face would light up with a 500-watt grin. He’d say, “Fine,” and flash his trademark thumbs-up.
Music was an integral part of the Winkeler family gathering. My father and Jerome’s father were usually the ringleaders, but sometimes aunts, uncles and cousins would sit in with instruments ranging from the mandolin to the accordion to upright bass.
No one was a bigger fan of the music than Jerome. He’d sit in the front row. When the family band broke into one of his favorite songs, Jerome would turn around in his lawn chair to signal thumbs-up. You couldn’t help but smile.
In the vernacular of the day, Jerome was known as a “special needs” person. I’m ashamed to admit that the true meaning of special didn’t dawn on me until Monday morning, when I learned of Jerome’s passing.
In his unassuming way, he helped forge strong bonds among our disparate group. If only for a moment, he made us kinder and more respectful each time we saw him. And, he taught us all that different means just that — not inferior or superior.
It takes a special person to do that.