From Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul IV

Uncle Jerry

Everyone has their own special gift. In some it is speech, in some, silence. The world has need of small perfection as well as great achievements.


I was probably twelve or thirteen when I first heard the word “retarded” applied to my Uncle Jerry—and it was Jerry who used it. He had always been a part of my life. He stayed with us during the summer, and we saw him frequently during the rest of the year. He was my mother’s youngest brother, and he talked “funny,” with the nasal honk of someone with a malformed palate. He sounded fine to me. We had recently moved, and our new house was farther from my grandmother’s, with complicated bus transfers. In my innocence, I asked Jerry when he was going to get his driver’s license so he could see us more often. He was in his early twenties and worked as a dishwasher. His hands were cracked and red from the harsh detergents, but he was a good worker, my mother said. A responsible and reliable worker.

“I can’t get a license.” He looked down and rubbed those red hands together.

“What do you mean? You just take this test and then you get it.”

“I can’t because I’m, you know, retarded.”

Well, I had heard this word before, and it certainly applied to some people I had seen. My mother was a scout leader for a troop of boys with Down’s syndrome, and I had been on a bowling outing with them. But Jerry was like a regular person to me. Sure, he was hard to understand, but so was my grandmother with her French accent. He could read, he could tell very funny jokes, he could carry the heaviest furniture, and he loved to hike and ride his bicycle. He wasn’t very good with money, that was for sure. But I wasn’t good at math, either. Jerry could never figure out how much the bus fare was, even though he took the same route every day. He compensated, though. He got on a bus, held out his hand with lots of change, and the bus drivers, who knew him well, would just take what was needed.

Did this make him retarded? Retarded was drooling and limping, wagging tongues and strange behavior. It wasn’t Jerry. I wondered on that day, when I was barely a teenager, who had told him he was retarded. Who had fooled him into thinking he couldn’t do anything he wanted to do? So I went to my mother and asked her why Jerry couldn’t get a driver’s license.

“Jerry can do lots of things, but getting a driver’s license is beyond his abilities. He reads, you know that, but mostly comics and Mad Magazine. Passing the written test for the DMV is more than he could handle. He knows that. He’s okay with it.”

This made me mad, somehow. How could he be okay with it? My mother had always said that I could do anything I wanted, if I just set my mind to it. But here she was, limiting my beloved uncle, the uncle who could lift me like I was a feather and swing me around, who could make me laugh like nobody I knew, and who had many, many friends. Everyone loved Jerry. He was smart in so many ways. Why didn’t other people see that? Why should that keep him from doing anything he wanted?

When I was about fifteen and studying for my own driver’s exam, and Jerry was still washing dishes, I realized that I had passed him by. I was now smarter than he was. According to the definition in some psychology book somewhere, I suppose he was retarded. But I refused, even then, to acknowledge that label. Jerry made a full life for himself. He went backpacking, took train trips to the Grand Canyon and made even more friends.

Jerry died when I was in college. When he was an infant, the doctors had told my grandmother that he would probably not live to be a teenager. My mother always said that Jerry’s body wasn’t quite put together all the way. He had an invisible line that started in his head—where the gaps in intelligence struggled to understand math and the world—and went down through his eyes—which never focused well and needed thick lenses—to the roof of his mouth that never quite came together—and finally through his heart—which struggled for thirty-six years and finally gave up trying to coalesce. But that heart was as full and rich and strong as anyone’s I have ever known. If friendship and the capacity to love and laugh are the marks of intelligence, my Uncle Jerry was a genius.

Mary Shannon

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