A Lesson on Family

By Monica A. Andermann

A Lesson on Family

I hauled the boxes and suitcases into the bedroom at the top of the stairs. The day had finally arrived: my brother Louis, an adult with Down syndrome, was moving into a community residence to be shared with five other special needs adults. Louis was taking the move in stride, familiarizing himself with his new surroundings while with each step I took up the staircase, my heart sank lower and lower.

Intellectually, I knew this move was a good situation for all involved. Louis could test his freedom as could I, his guardian for these past few years, now that the bulk of his care was no longer placed on me. He would be in an environment with his peers, able to participate in activities of interest to him, no longer merely tagging along with his big sister. The residence was magnificent, a stately old Colonial, and his room was well beyond adequate. Why, then, did I feel mounting trepidation with each piece of my brother’s clothing I unpacked?

Our family had been a tight-knit unit. We always took care of our own, especially Louis. It would never be possible, I thought, that a group of people we barely knew, no matter how skillfully trained in their field, could care for my brother as well as my parents and I had. I placed the last pair of socks in my brother’s new bureau and closed the drawer. In the mirror, I could see the reflection of one of the caregivers, a middle-aged woman with a warm, round face.

“Come on downstairs to the den,” she chimed, “We just want to sit down and talk with you before you go.”

I followed her down the steps into the den. There sat my brother with several staff members, some with pad and pen in hand. The house manager, smiling kindly, spoke first. At the residence, he assured, Louis would be receiving individualized attention. It would be seen to that all his needs would be met on a consistent basis. We reviewed some of the daily details of the house, and I answered several questions about my brother as best I could. Did I have any questions, the manager then asked. My head spinning, I could only nod, “no.” The other staff then spoke in polite turns: residents are cared for like family; staff and residents eat meals together, family style; holidays and birthdays are celebrated together as one big family.

Family, family, family. If I heard that word one more time, I thought, I was going to scream! How could strangers take care of my brother like family? No one could care about him as much as my parents and I had. No one could nurse him through illness the way Mom and Dad had with skill, compassion and love. No one could possibly be as in tune with his likes and dislikes, his finicky eating habits or be able to calm his fears the way we had. I felt my face flush red as I forced a smile and nodded my head in agreement.

Week by week, though, it became apparent that my brother was adjusting well to his new home and my concerns eventually subsided. Months passed, then a year. Louis telephoned me daily and during those conversations, he spoke with affection for both his peers and the caregivers at the residence. I had frequent contact with his housemates and staff as well, and to be quite honest, I felt a genuine affection toward them also. Whenever I went to visit Louis several residents would greet me at the door, some of them offering hugs and kisses, while staff, though always professional, consistently exuded warmth with each welcome.

Holiday time approached, and that December residents had voted to throw a party in the house to be attended by their loved ones. I arrived a few minutes late that evening and was a bit surprised to find the holiday party already in full swing. The house had been carefully and colorfully decorated, gifts placed around the menorah and under the Christmas tree. Music was playing on the stereo and chafing dishes of fragrant foods, representing staff and residents’ favorite choices, were lined along the dining room table. Together we ate, talked and laughed. Then someone suggested dancing. Quickly, two armchairs and a coffee table were moved to create a makeshift dance floor. Strains of music sailed through the room, and the dance floor filled. We swayed and smiled, held hands and shimmied, clapped and sang. I looked around at each of those joy-filled faces, and a year’s worth of memories flooded back to me. Like the time Louis phoned to tell me that he and the other residents had gone to his favorite pizza restaurant for his birthday, followed by birthday cake and gifts back at the residence. Or the time we both said a heartfelt prayer together for another resident who had suddenly taken ill. Or how honored I felt when a staff member asked me to critique an essay she had written for a college course. And especially the time after surgery, when Louis was too weak to care for the even the smallest of his needs, I witnessed how staff members gently assisted him.

I scanned each of those special individuals in the room once more. Together, they created family: Louis’ new family. And that festive December evening with gratitude overflowing in my heart I finally realized, also mine.

About this writer

  • Monica A. Andermann Monica A. Andermann his both an avid gardener and a writer. More of her personal essays can be found in several Chicken Soup for the Soul and A Cup of Comfort collections with additional credits widely published both online and in a variety of print media.

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3 Responses to “A Lesson on Family”

  1. Monica, this is a most heart warming essay. It is so hard to give wings to someone we have held close to our hearts. So happy your brother found his place among those who truly cared.

  2. What a touching essay, Monica. Transitions are never easy. What a blessing when they work out as beautifully as things have for you all.

  3. Rose Ann says:

    So glad your brother (and you) discovered this special, extended family. Great essay!

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