Those of you kind enough to follow my writing may remember a couple of pieces I have written talking about my brother Kevin. I am sad to report that he died last night in a hospital in Lincoln.
My story and Kevin’s are closely linked, of course, being brothers, but in ways that were also unique. When I was about 4 months old, I got a toy in my crib caught in my throat which cut off the air flow for a couple of minutes before my mom realized what had happened. She gave me CPR (which she had just learned a little bit about a couple of weeks before), and rushed me to the hospital. It was touch and go as to whether I would make it, and if I did, what kind of brain damage I might have. In those hours, my mom made a pledge to herself and her God that if I made it, she would figure out another child in need beyond her birth children to take in and give love to.
As things turned out, I did have some brain damage, a mild form of Cerebral Palsy that meant I had to walk in braces for my first few years and made me about as un-athletic as a kid could be. But it could have been far worse, the rest of my brain seemed to work relatively well (though perhaps some of my political opponents would dispute that), and I was doing pretty well. So my mom and dad started talking about taking in a foster child, and talked to administrators in the system about who might make sense to take in. Kevin came to live with us when both he and I were both about 11 years old.
Kevin had had a very rough start in life. His father was horribly abusive, and Kevin was taken away from his birth parents when his father broke a chair over his head, causing severe enough brain damage that Kevin could never talk clearly again, or learn to read and write much at all. His body was weak and slow-moving his whole life. He lived for a while on a farm with his grandparents, but they were too elderly to take care of a little boy with a lot of special needs, and so he got put into the foster system. He got placed in a facility for troubled boys, where Kevin was burned with cigarettes and treated very badly. That was where my parents found him.
In spite of this awful start, Kevin’s spirit had been strong enough to survive. He really was remarkable in so many different ways. He was gentle, loving little kids and dogs and cats. He was playful as could be, loving games and sports and just kidding around. He loved telling stories and jokes, and pulling people’s legs. Perhaps most amazing of all was his courage. In spite of the abuse he had taken, I saw him several times over the years get in between people who were having heated exchanges with each other and tell them to calm down, that there was no need to be so mad.
He never lost his playfulness or good spirits either, even as his body broke down from Muscular Dystrophy and other ailments as he got older. From the time we were kids, we always had this game we played where we got down into a football stance and banged into each other (I don’t think either one of us was ever sure who was blocking and who was rushing), but even after he lost his ability to do that, he’d still want me to get down into the stance and we’d push against each other with him in his wheelchair. When he was in the hospital earlier this year with all kinds of tubes attached to him, he still wanted to play catch with a plastic ball that was in the room. And the last time I talked to him on the phone, a few days ago, he was telling me how much all his nurses liked him, and reminding me how strong he still was. When my other brother was visiting him in the hospital just a couple of days ago, he acknowledged that his legs were feeling a little weak, but then lifted his arms into a flex and said “but my arms are still strong”.
I have many times had friends of the family say to me how wonderful it was that my parents took Kevin in, and it was. But our family’s payoff from having Kevin as our brother and son and loving Uncle to all our nieces and nephews was far, far greater than what we gave. When I think of how lucky that I am to have Kevin in my life as an inspiration, a teacher, a companion, a buddy through thick and thin, I feel like I gave a dollar and got a billion back in return. And my family and I were not alone: every time I went to see him at his workshop for people with developmental disabilities, or would go to watch him bowl with his friends, or would see how he gently helped the people with worst developmental disabilities he lived with in group homes, or saw how much fun the nurses and therapists had with him in the hospitals he occasionally landed in, I was always struck by how much he gave to everyone around him.
Kevin was one of the reasons I was inspired to take up the career I did, fighting for the people in our society who are in need. The personal is political in my case. And when I hear about politicians who want to cut Social Security disability programs because of all those frauds getting help, I think of Kevin and how tough his life would have been without those benefits. When I hear politicians saying we can just block grant Medicaid because the state governments can take care of people better than the federal government, I think of Kevin living in Nebraska where the Governor has slashed programs for people with disabilities. Whenever I hear of politicians talking about cutting government programs so as to not encourage dependency, or hear Romney talking about the 47%, or hear Paul Ryan talk about “takers and makers”, I think of Kevin, who I feel quite confident has contributed far more to the people in his life than the aforementioned politicians. And when I think about how future generations, about how history itself will judge our nation, how people like Kevin who contribute so much in so many ways are treated will be one of the biggest things we will be judged on.
Kevin’s life did not start out on a lucky path. His body and his mind had some disabilities that held him back in some ways. But somehow he came out of all that an amazing person, a gift to the world around him. He gave as much back to the people lucky enough to be in his life as anyone I ever met. His body was bound but his spirit soared, and made all of us who knew him better people.