Review Feature

Giving thanks for tiny blessings

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(Note: Staff writer Mike Burkett was recently digging through some old papers when he came across this story, which he wrote nine years ago. Because it speaks to the timelessness of Thanksgiving prayers, we chose to include it in this holiday edition of The Rim Review.)

Last Thanksgiving, as countless relatives gathered in our dining room, my 6-year-old son was elected to deliver the mealtime prayer. On such short notice, this was the best he could come up with:

"Dear God. Thank you for the for we eat, and for ... um, the food we eat. And thank you for ... ahhhh, the food we eat. Amen."

Now there's a kid who knows what Thanksgiving is all about.

This year, we've actually given the boy some time to prepare and rehearse his list. So far, he says, it includes the food we eat (still in the No. 1 spot); his family; his best friend, Brian; his six-year-old fiancee, Stephanie; his entire toy collection; and our new neighbor, Jimmie.

If that last entry doesn't rip your heart out and stomp on it, you haven't met Jimmy.

Forty-two years ago, at the age of three, Jimmy was hit in the head by a flying baseball bat. According to the story I've been told, his parents (now dead) were too poor to take him to the hospital and too optimistic to think he would not recover on his own.

The reason Jimmy stopped talking entirely, they believed, was that he was angry at them for somehow allowing the accident to happen. Not until two years ago, when his parents tried to enroll him in school, was their son diagnosed as severely brain-damaged.

Jimmy spent the next few decades in various state-funded institutions where, in the '50s and '60s, the term "health care" often meant uninterrupted physical, emotional and sexual abuse. He did begin to build a vocabulary during this period, however ... and when he joined my son and me on a recent afternoon walk, we heard a few of the words he'd picked up.

Pointing to a house, I asked, "Hey, Jimmy, what's that?" He said, "A boy."

I pointed to a car. He said, "A flower."

I pointed to a row of bushes. He said, "Switches."

Switches?

"To beat Jimmy."

That's his one and only reliable memory. Ask him to tell you his mother's name, he might answer Henry (his father), Helen (his sister), Mark (his brother), Twinkie (his cat) or, occasionally, Betty (his mother).

But he never forgets the source and purpose of those switches.

Today, Jimmy lives with loving relatives who can't tell if he'll ever be able to distinguish a boy from a house, alligators from rocks, a shoe from the color yellow, or laughter from tears.

At least, not until the other day, when Jimmy was being led home and, without prompting, called out to my son, "See ya, pal."

Now, compared to the parting of the Red Sea, the breaking of bread to feed the multitudes, or the image of the Virgin Mary appearing on a garage door in Elgin, Ill., this was not a huge miracle, I suppose.

But "pal" is a word no one had ever heard Jimmy use. A word with a very definite connection.

Yes, I know. It's possible Jimmy has no idea what "pal" means. But maybe he does.

It's possible he'll never say it again. But maybe he will.

It's possible that, tomorrow morning, Jimmy won't even recognize my son. But I hope he does.

That is what Jimmy has given me. After a lifetime of looking skyward for big miracles, winning lottery tickets, and the meaning of life, along comes this bat-battered 45-year-old man-child with something truly worthy of a six-year-old's Thanksgiving prayer: a sliver of hope that could vanish by morning, like a garage-door Virgin Mary.

But then again, maybe it won't.

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