Editor’s note: This column was written two years ago by Pat McElroy to celebrate his brother Matthew’s 50th birthday in January 2012. The family wishes to honor Matthew in recognition of National Down Syndrome Day on Friday.
I am not as good as some in my family at remembering birthdays. But I will always remember the day my brother Matthew was born. I was in third grade and I had a playground accident at St. Lawrence Martyr that resulted in a severe concussion.
I was taken to our family doctor’s office, where I was very sick. My dad visited me at different times throughout the day, but he was occupied with my mom and new brother, who had been born that morning.
It wasn’t until years later that I understood on that morning my father had been told his newborn son was “mentally retarded,” his oldest son (me) had a possible brain injury, and he and my mother should not bring their new son home because it would ruin our family.
How’s that for a day? All families have to make tough decisions and my parents decided Matthew was to come home to our family.
After Matthew was home, my mom and dad took me aside and told me I now had a special brother. I needed to know our family had a new challenge, but Matthew was our brother and we loved him. I came to realize who I was and who our family was and it changed from that point
on. It was a blessing for all of us.
My mom and dad taught me about compassion, resilience, loyalty and the importance of standing by your family. These lessons carried over to handling the darkest times and standing up to the ignorance and prejudice that accompany having a family member with special needs.
At the time when we were growing up, the term for Matthew’s condition was mentally retarded and that in itself was a death sentence.
My parents taught me certain slurs were never to be ignored. Woe to anyone who crossed the McElroy brothers and sister over Matthew.
My mom, who was among the most shy of people, soon started writing letters to the editor every time she felt the “retarded” were portrayed in a less that favorable light. During one memorable exchange with Leon Uris, author of “Exodus,” she extracted a written apology and correction from Random House during a reprint of his book “A Terrible Beauty” because he had casually used the term Mongoloid. She still has his handwritten apology. Plus an autographed copy of the book for Matthew.
My dad was a heroic shield who absorbed all the pressures of the daily world and let us live in a safe, warm place where we were confident and could all flourish. But Dad did not suffer fools gladly, especially where Matthew was concerned.
We were tribal in our protection and love for our brother. Our tribe grew beyond our family and included our friends and their families. Empathy was our watchword. We found our friends and their families welcomed Matthew as part of their community. There is no way to thank all of our childhood friends and their families for embracing our family and Matthew.
As I look at my children and nephews and nieces, I am struck by their sensitivity and kindness toward anyone who is the underdog. I cannot help but think about my dad and mom and their decision to ignore medical advice, bring Matthew home and help him meld completely into our family.
Their sense of responsibility and community influenced their children. Their grandchildren have become guardians who are alert to prejudice, harassment, and injustice toward the most vulnerable amongst us.
When Matthew was born, I learned about the terms Mongoloid, Mongolian idiot, MR, retard.
My parents taught me none of that mattered. Love and family would overcome all the ignorance and set an example of how to live.
When I look at a picture of my mom, dad and Matthew at his graduation from Columbia School in Torrance, I remember all those things. Dad has been gone for awhile and Mom and Matthew have been diminished by time. But in that photo, at that moment, there is an undeniable sense of pride, joy, accomplishment and love that leaps out at me. I love them all so much and am so proud to be a part of their family.
Pat McElroy is a graduate of Bishop Montgomery High School in Torrance who now lives in Santa Barbara, where he is chief of the Santa Barbara City Fire Department. Matthew is a former Special Olympics participant who was inducted into the South Bay Special Olympics Hall of Fame a few years ago. He still lives in the family home with his mom in south Torrance.