I first learned the term “Ignorance is bliss” from my mom. She told me about how her brother Vincent was hyper, constantly fidgeting. And he was always smiling. Their grandpa would come over and sit on their couch, put Vincent on his knee, and play the accordion for him. For this, Vincent sat mostly still, softly chanting the only word he ever spoke, “Da, da, da,” and his grandpa would reply “Da, da, da.”
According to my mom, this was Vincent’s definition of bliss. And perhaps, it was one of my definitions too.
Vincent, born in 1960, had fragile X syndrome, which causes developmental problems and cognitive impairment. It affects speech, sometimes comes with Attention Deficit Disorder and hyperactive tendencies, and, after puberty, a long face with a wide forehead and large jaw.
For Vincent, this meant he had the intelligence of a six-month-old, roughly, was almost completely mute, and was constantly moving, due, in part, to ADD. He loved photos, and handled them so much that he would ruin them.
I never knew Vincent, but I still think of him whenever I see or hear an accordion. I think of the one picture we have of him, a baby, on Halloween, smiling at my mom, who was in a skeleton costume, looking concerned—too concerned to be five years old. Vincent is smiling with his whole face. There is no other emotion but joy for him at this moment. It sits above our piano at home.
One morning I was lying in bed and heard a familiar bird call. One I had heard nearly every day. I realized I didn’t know what kind of bird it was. I needed to know.
I spent hours on YouTube, still in bed, listening to backyard bird calls in the Northeastern United States. There isn’t an easy way to search by the sound of a bird call. All I knew was my mom, long ago, called them “Sammy” birds, because they sounded like they were calling our dog’s name. You can’t search Sammy birds on Google and expect to get a result.
Eventually, I found the correct bird. A black-capped chickadee. I was satisfied. I went back to sleep.
As a kid, I would spend hours in a little wooded area behind my parents’ house. Brown oak leaves scattered everywhere, sometimes my dog accompanying me, looking for fossils (shells and interesting-looking rocks) and lining them up on a caramel-colored dirt slope. I would arrange them by size and color, consider their origins, consider whether or not dinosaurs walked the earth in this very spot.
Vincent was kept in his room all day and all night. My grandparents didn’t know how to care for a child with special needs, especially one who was so prone to knocking things over, destroying photos, running around. My Granny was a young mother—just 23 when Vincent was born. In the 60s, for poor working families, the choices were clear: Keep your child with special needs at home without any support, or send them away to an institution.
Driving home one day, I asked my mom about Vincent. My mom remembers taking Vincent out of his room, once, to take him on a ride in their red radio flyer. He was laughing, joyous, in the driveway of their Levittown home.
“I remember thinking, ‘I should do this more often,’” she said. “But I never did.”
Found entry in an old journal: On the subway this morning, D train conductor saying, “Have a wonderful morning” at each stop.
I’ve read about people who live with aphasia—Broca’s aphasia—who, due to a stroke or another brain injury, cannot speak a single word. I’ve read that some people, with some intense music therapy, are able to sing and not speak. By activating their right brain with music, they are able to access speech functions they weren’t able to before.
The songs are simple, like Row, Row, Row Your Boat or phrases like “thank you.” But If they sing, they have words again. If they sing, they can reach out.
My grandfather used to keep canaries. Cages went along the staircase in their home, and when he came home from work, he would take time to adore them. He had names for each of them, fed them paprika so they would become a vibrant red.
He would dote on each canary, all the way up the stairs. He would not, once he got to the top step, visit his son, Vincent, who sat in his room, alone.
Vincent died in an institution at eighteen. My mom insists that it was a “good” institution, that he was well loved, but not well cleaned. He died of hepatitis. This was 1978. My parents were on their honeymoon.
At his funeral, my Granny wept and wept, and tried to pull him from the casket. People tried to console her. “It’s for the best,” they said. “No, that’s my son!” she said through tears. She was carried out of the funeral home, limp, a person under each of her arms.
Mary Kinney is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn. She regularly cries in planetariums, reads about plant life, and makes her own soap. Her current passion project is a memoir about her aunt, who died in the infamous Willowbrook School in 1960.
Photo credit: courtesy of author