My new favorite, must-read, book is The Power of the Powerless, by Christopher de Vinck. Perhaps you’ve heard of this book already–published in 1988. I just stumbled upon it recently. In his book, Christopher recounts the powerful impact his blind, mute, brain-damaged older brother had on his life, his brother, Oliver, who could do absolutely nothing for himself except to teach Christopher how to love. You can dip into the book yourself here. It’s one of those books that permanently brands your life upon reading. A very important book for our-lack-of-respect-for-life times.
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. de Vinck. 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 linens on the basement line in the winter, and spread them out white and clean to dry on the lawn in the summer. I always liked to watch the grasshoppers jump on the pillowcases.
We bathed Oliver, tickled his chest to make him laugh. Sometimes we left the radio on in his room. We pulled the shade down on the window 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.”