But Jesus called them to him, saying, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God.” Luke 18:16
A Different Child of God
Derek was different. We called him retarded. It was before the term “developmentally disabled” even existed.
Derek and I played together in my backyard as youngsters—little boy things like digging holes and pushing little trucks and cars and tractors around in the dirt. It was the early 1950s and we were about five or six.
I remember calling him “stupid” when I had to show him how to make the dump work on the little dump truck. He laughed. He had a strange laugh—I called his laugh “stupid,” and that made him laugh more. We were inseparable for a few years. I don’t even remember his last name.
He told me he was jealous because I had five brothers and sisters. I was jealous of him because he had no brothers or sisters. All things are relative.
A Time without Security
His mother told him he had a little sister that died at childbirth. Her name was Maggie. He used to talk all the time about Maggie—the sister he never knew. Derek’s dad was a sheet metal worker who worked at the University of California Medical School in San Francisco. His mom worked there too—I remember she wore a white coat—she could have been a doctor, a nurse or a lab technician. I was too young to ask or care.
We used to walk up to the Medical School from time to time to visit his mom and dad. You could do things like that then—it was before everyone became so security-conscious or installed those keypads and eyeball sensors to enter. Nobody really cared when a couple of youngsters walked around the school facilities and hospital wards. In those days doctors, nurses and patients smoked in elevators, in the hallways and even in the hospital rooms. Nobody knew cigarettes caused cancer or heart disease. We were the generation just before things like seatbelts, baby seats, airbags, bicycle helmets and the like became law.
Maggie, the Jar Baby
Walking around the medical school was fun. There were labs with monkeys and apes and rats and the technicians and researchers were nice to us when we walked through their departments. There was one research lab that had skeletons and on one shelf there were jars full of formaldehyde with babies inside. Abortion was illegal at the time. The jars contained unborn babies in different stages of development that came from stillbirths and miscarriages. These specimens were the visual educational tools for medical students before the time of in utero camera and sonogram technology.
One day Derek pointed to one of the jars and said, “Mommy said that’s Maggie.”
“Who,” I said.
“Maggie, my baby sister,” he responded.
He looked so sad. I remember looking at the baby curled in a fetal position in the liquid with closed eyes and little clenched fists with dainty fingernails on protruding thumbs. I was too young to understand death but I remember feeling sad for the baby Maggie, and for Derek.
Getting Maggie to Heaven
Derek said that whenever he asked his mom about “Maggie” she got sad and said his sister was in heaven. He couldn’t understand how heaven could be a jar. Neither could I. His mom also told him about the Baby Jesus and that you couldn’t get into heaven unless you were baptized. We didn’t understand what baptism was but Derek said it was important.
A couple of weeks later, Derek told me he wanted to take his sister and get her baptized so she could get out of the jar and go to heaven. Somehow we managed to pull the jar off the shelf, put it in a bag, then a red wagon and walked it the nine or ten blocks to St. Anne’s church—it was all downhill. We knocked on the door of the priest’s rectory and waited. A kindly old white haired priest opened the door. He was holding a half-eaten sandwich, still chewing the last bite. He looked down at us with a quizzical look.
Derek handed the priest the bag. As he opened it and pulled out the jar his eyes widened in disbelief. It took a moment because the sediment in the jar had been churned up by the walk—like one of those Christmas glass balls that make snow when you shake it. He dropped the sandwich on the floor and glanced down at us with a look of horror. He was speechless for what seemed like an eternity before finally muttering, “Jesus, Mary and Joseph,” under his breath while making the sign of the cross. He beckoned us inside. Somehow we managed to explain our simple quest to get Maggie to heaven and asked him to baptize the little girl curled up in the jar.
The kind old priest sized us up. He saw the sadness in Derek’s eyes. He grabbed a bottle of holy water, sprinkled some over the jar and said a prayer. He walked us gently to the door, telling us that he would open the jar and help Maggie get to heaven. Derek was happy. So was I.
The Aftermath—Derek and Maggie in Heaven?
The next day Derek’s mom and dad took us to the medical school. They took us into the lab and showed us that there was an empty jar in the place where Maggie used to be. They told us what a fine thing we had done and thanked us. Derek’s mom hugged him. I noticed she was crying. After that the door to the lab was always locked.
That was the summer that Derek and I drifted apart. I started kindergarten and Derek went to a special school somewhere else in the city. We lost touch, although I’d see him from time to time at the bus station. They didn’t have special buses then for the developmentally disabled. They took the public buses like everyone else.
As I got older, my friends made fun of Derek when they saw him. They menacingly called him “Loid”—a derogatory acronym for Mongoloid. I never defended him during those confrontations. It’s the unfortunate human condition that kids are mean. Now I regret that I didn’t defend my friend Derek during those confrontations.
A friend recently told me that Derek had died some twenty some years ago. I miss those simpler days with my old friend. I so wish I could see him now and tell him I’m sorry. I hope he and Maggie are finally together and happy.