A letter to my brother

When my brother Jim was an infant, his brain was damaged when his doctor treated him for whooping cough and encephalitis. When Jim turned five and I was on the way, Mom would no longer be able to provide Jim the intense care he needed and take care of Tom, Sue, and me. Dad and Mom made what Mom always called the hardest decision of her life: so that Jim could receive the care he needed, they signed him over to be a ward of the state of Michigan.

Initially, Jim lived in Coldwater. By the time I remember visiting him, he’d been moved to Fort Custer, in Battle Creek, two hours from us in Montague. In 1974, a place was built in Muskegon—thirty minutes away—and Jim was moved there. A few years later, he went into the best setting of all: a group home in North Muskegon. He’s been there ever since.

A few years ago, I began receiving birthday and Christmas cards from Jim. Tom—who, along with Mark, took over caretaker duties when Dad died—told me the man asked for the addresses of all of us siblings. Jim cannot read or write, but every card has his scribble of a signature.

I took to sending him birthday cards. This year, I included a letter. I assume one of the staff will read it to him. I have no idea whether Jim will understand a word of it. No matter. I had to write it. I needed to tell my brother how he impacted my life. My letter follows the photo, which was taken at Dad’s funeral in 2010—the only photo of all us us kids that I’ve ever seen.

John & Floye Eilers’ six kids. From left: Mark, me, Sue, Jim, Dave, Tom.

Dear Jim~

I hope this finds you doing well as you turn 69 years old!

Though I see you rarely, please know that I think of you often. It helps that I have the photo (printed on the back of this letter) of you and mom next to my computer. The photo is from August 1970, so you were 18. It was taken in the yard at Fort Custer, where, when the weather was nice, we ate a picnic lunch.

Those visits to you formed an important part of the person I became. Since you’re five years older than me, and Dad and Mom had to have the state take over your care when I was coming into the world, my earliest memories are populated by our visits.

When I was young, Fort Custer could be a scary place. When we arrived and Dad went to get you, we kids sometimes walked across the way to the building in which you lived. We couldn’t go in past the lobby, so we waited. Residents—either on their own or escorted by staff or family—would come through. Often, their reason for being at Fort Custer was obvious in their physical appearance. And some were so unusual to us, it scared us.

We must have told Mom. Being kids, we might have made comments or jokes that were inappropriate. Mom wasted no time teaching us.

First, she made sure we knew we didn’t need to be afraid. That physical appearance didn’t mean anything about a person. That every resident was safe to be around.

She then told us that all of you were no different than us. That you were human beings. Sons and daughters and brothers and sisters, and beloved by families just as we loved you. She encouraged us to say hi to you all, even to talk to folks. Just treat everyone as we would anyone else.

And she made sure we knew that you all were like us in being precious to the Lord, and that just because we were healthy so that we could live at home didn’t mean we were better than anyone. Those two things really stuck with me. I learned to respect all people, to treat them as I want them to treat me.

When I became a Lutheran minister, I went into a lot of hospitals and nursing homes. Because of my experiences as a kid, and knowing you, and Mom’s lessons, I was able to have a compassionate heart and friendly face for everyone. I was very thankful for being formed as that kind of a person.

Back to Fort Custer. When Dad wheeled you to where Mom was, I watched how you lit up with joy when you could see her. Your smile! It was huge! It was electric! Mom called your name as she met you. She kissed you and hugged you, and you soaked it in. You talked as best you could. Though we couldn’t make out your words, we knew what they were: “Hi, Mom! I love you!”

We kids gathered around. We told you everything a kid has to say—what we got for our birthday, or how our baseball team was doing, or about school. You looked at us intently. We were sure you understood. You smiled and laughed in all the right places.

In the mid ‘70s, when you were able to live in the new facility in Muskegon, we brought you home for special occasions. We loved watching you rip into Christmas presents—paper flying everywhere! And when you got to the gift, you looked at it wondering what it was, and then you looked at us. You smiled widely. We smiled with you. And laughed. And it was grand.

Tom and I walked you to the bathroom. You were a handful! Jim, you grabbed onto everything you were not supposed to grab—the door, the sink, the shelf. Ugh! What a challenge to get you onto the toilet. When we were done and had you back in your chair, Tom and I wiped the sweat off our brows and fell into our own seats!

Those were the days. Oh so long ago. I often long for those years. I miss Mom and Dad so much, as I am sure you do. I look forward to us all being reunited in heaven with our Lord Jesus. Be prepared, Jim, because I’m going to talk your ear off. I can’t wait for you to give it right back to me!

I love you, dear brother.

There you are with Mom in the photo from 1970. The little boy on the left is your nephew, my first child, Johnathan. Sadly, Johnathan got sick with a strep infection the day he was born and died the next day. His mom’s heart and mine were broken, but we didn’t waste time having another child. First, Erin. Then we had Jackie. Then, Addison. Finally, Alex. Two daughters and two sons to enjoy on earth, and they have so far given us seven grandchildren!

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