The following is a touching true story from a book entitled, “Assumptions that Affect our Lives: How Worldviews Determine Values that Influence Behavior and Shape Culture” by Christian Overman:
Oliver deVinck was born in 1947. He was one of those people who would not have met Peter Singer’s minimum standards of moral significance. His brother, Christopher, an English teacher, wrote about him in an article which appeared in The Wall Street Journal, April 10, 1985.
This is his story: I grew up in the house where my brother was on his back in his bed for thirty-two years, in the same corner of his room, under the same window, beside the same yellow walls. He was blind, mute. His legs were twisted. He didn’t have the strength to lift his head nor the intelligence to learn anything. Oliver was born with severe brain damage which left him and his body in a permanent state of helplessness.
Today I am an English teacher, and each time I introduce my class to the play about Helen Keller, The Miracle Worker, I tell my students the story about Oliver. One day, during my first year of teaching, I was trying to describe Oliver’s lack of response, how he had been spoon-fed every morsel he ever ate, how he never spoke. A boy in the last row raised his hand and said, “Oh, Mr. deVinck. You mean he was a vegetable.” I stammered for a few seconds.
My family and I fed Oliver. We changed his diapers, hung his clothes and bed linen on the basement line in the winter, and spread them out white and clean on the lawn in the summer. I always liked to watch the grasshoppers jump on the pillowcases. We bathed Oliver. We tickled his chest to make him laugh. Sometimes we left the radio on in his room. We pulled the shade down over his bed in the morning to keep the sun from burning his tender skin. We listened to him laugh as we watched television downstairs. We listened to him rock his arms up and down to make the bed squeak. We listened to him cough in the middle of the night. “Well, I guess you could call him a vegetable. I called him Oliver, my brother. You would have loved him.”
One afternoon, a few months after he was born, my mother brought Oliver to a window. She held him there in the sun, the bright good sun, and there Oliver looked and looked directly into the sunlight, which was the first moment my mother realized that Oliver was blind. My parents, the true heroes of this story, learned, with the passing of months, that Oliver could not hold up his head, could not crawl, walk, sing; he could not hold anything in his hand; he could not speak. So they brought Oliver to Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York City for tests to determine the extent of his condition. Dr. DeLang said that he wanted to make it very clear to both my mother and father that there was absolutely nothing that could be done for Oliver. He didn’t want my parents to grasp at false hope. “You could place him in an institution,” he said. “But,” my parents replied, “he is our son. We will take Oliver home, of course.” The good doctor said, “Then take him home and love him.”
Oliver grew to the size of a ten-year-old. He had a big chest, a large head. His hands and feet were those of a five year old, small and soft. We’d wrap a box of baby cereal for him at Christmas and place it under the tree, pat his head with a damp cloth in the middle of a July heat wave. His baptismal certificate hung on the wall above his head. A bishop came to the house and confirmed him. Oliver still remains the most hopeless human being I ever met, the weakest human being I ever met, and yet he was one of the most powerful human beings I ever met.
Oliver could do absolutely nothing except breathe, sleep, eat, and yet he was responsible for action, love, courage, insight. I remember my mother saying when I was small, “Isn’t it wonderful that you can see?” And once she said, “When you go to heaven, Oliver will run to you, embrace you, and the first thing he will say is ‘Thank you.’”
I remember, too, my mother explaining to me that we were blessed with Oliver in ways that were not clear to her at first. So often parents are faced with a child who is severely retarded but who is also hyperactive, demanding, or wild, who needs constant care. So many people have little choice but to place their child in an institution. Each circumstance is different. No one can judge.
When I was in my early twenties I met a girl and fell in
love. After a few months I brought her home to meet my family. After the introductions, the small talk, my mother went to the kitchen to check the meal, and I asked the girl, “Would you like to see Oliver?” for I had, of course, told her about my brother. “No,” she answered.
Soon after, I met Roe, a lovely girl. She asked me the names of my brothers and sisters. She loved children. I thought she was wonderful. I brought her home after a few months to meet my family. Then it was time for me to feed Oliver. I remember sheepishly asking Roe if she’d like to see him. “Sure,” she said, and up the stairs we went. I sat at Oliver’s bedside as Roe watched over my shoulder. I gave him his first spoonful, his second. “Can I do that?” Roe asked with ease, with freedom, with compassion, so I gave her the bowl, and she fed Oliver one spoonful at a time. The power of the powerless. Which girl would you marry? Today Roe and I have three children. [Excerpt from The Power of the Powerless, by Christopher deVinck. Copyright 1988 by Christopher deVinck. Reprinted by permission of Christopher deVinck.]
Overman, Christian (2012-06-01). Assumptions That Affect Our Lives: How Worldviews Determine Values that Influence Behavior and Shape Culture (Kindle Locations 1214-1223). Ablaze Publishing. Kindle Edition.