We all know how important friendship is. It adds so much to our lives that its absence creates unending loneliness and hardship. But is friendship any less important for those with developmental disabilities? Is it any less real, any less valuable or any less appreciated? The following story illustrates the need and desire to have a friend that you can trust and rely on, no matter what your circumstances in life or what your personal challenges might be.
Ross and Carlton had known each other for more than 25 years. Both were in their mid-sixties now, with Carlton being the oldest by 18 months. Their enduring friendship was the single most important thing in their lives. They enjoyed working together, and they spent all their free time with each other. Their relationship was couched in deep affection because they each understood what the other had been through in life. They cared deeply about each other because they were kindred spirits.
Ross was African American. He was born into poverty in a small town in Georgia. He had a twin brother, but they were immediately separated and put up for adoption. Their young mother was not married, and she wanted no part of trying to raise two sons alone especially when one of them had a developmental disability. Apparently, no one else wanted that responsibility either. Ross became a ward of the state, and as he got older he began to live in a long series of foster homes, so many that he could no longer remember them all. Some of the families were nice and some were anything but. Often the people who were supposed to be looking out for his welfare would take advantage of him. Others would simply lose their patience. His disability made him repeat things and left him struggling to learn at a slow pace. The brain damage that occurred during Ross’ birth also left him with a severely weakened right leg. Because he was unsteady, he tended to walk slowly, and in later years he utilized a wide based cane to support himself. Ross was often dealt with in a physical manner. He had been hit and verbally abused on more than one occasion because he did not perform a household chore fast enough or because he had a bathroom accident. Over time, he developed a fear of people that made it difficult for him to trust anyone.
Carlton was the youngest child born into a wealthy family in upstate New York. He had a brother and a sister. Although his parents tried to help their son, his intellectual challenge left them struggling to meet even his most basic needs. When Carlton turned four years old their family doctor convinced his mother and father to institutionalize their son. That decision changed the entire course of his life. Carlton never understood what he had done to deserve to be taken away from his family. He missed his brother and sister terribly. As the years went by his parents rarely visited, and finally, they stopped altogether. Life in the institution was often unbearable. Carlton would lose track of what day it was because they were all the same. There was almost no activity or stimulation for those who lived there. Carlton received very little education and could only read on a second-grade level. That, added to the fact that he had a severe tremor that affected both hands, made it extremely difficult to write. However, that did not prevent him from faithfully sending letters to his family in the vain hope they would be answered. Through the years he struggled each week to write to them using his left hand to steady his right hand as he tightly gripped a pen, but they never once wrote back.
In 1987 the institution that had been Carlton’s existence for almost 35 years was closed. He met Ross a year later when he was hired by the same janitorial service that had given Carlton a job 9 months before. At first, they didn’t hit it off. They were both stubborn and set in their ways. They had each been through so much in their lives that they felt numb around others. Their hopes of being accepted for who they were had been crushed countless times, and they had reached the point where they just showed up and went through their day trying not to be noticed. However, because of Carlton’s constant tremor, he was prone to dropping things which always attracted attention. Eventually, however, a bond began to form between them. Over the course of 6 months, they became better and better friends until finally, they were inseparable.
Most of the people that Ross and Carlton worked with simply ignored them. The turnover was so great that people rarely had time to get to know each other. Cleaning bathrooms was a job most people wanted to move on from as quickly as possible. But there was one supervisor named Martin, a large physically intimidating man, who had stayed with the company for years. Unfortunately, he did not approve of hiring individuals with disabilities because he believed it took jobs away from “normal” people who had families to support.
Martin had barely tolerated Carlton, but when Ross was also hired it was too much. He went out of his way to make sure that they knew how much he wanted them gone. One afternoon Carlton was carrying a metal bucket filled with dirty soapy water across a room that had just been waxed and buffed. His tremor made his grip on the handle less than secure, and suddenly it slipped from his hands. It hit the floor with a loud clang and the dirty water spread in every direction, ruining several hours of work. Martin was walking down the hallway when he heard the noise. He rushed in and found Carlton standing in the middle of the room with soaking wet shoes and a look of genuine fear on his face. As rage filled the supervisor, Ross moved into the room as quickly as his weakened leg would allow. Martin began to unleash a tirade of verbal abuse that seemed all too familiar. It was much of the same things that Ross had heard too often in his own life. Carlton was shaking as Martin yelled at him with disgust. “Your kind doesn’t deserve to have a job.” He glared at Carlton. “Look at yourself standing in the mess you made. Can’t you understand that they only hired you because they felt sorry for you? You’re pathetic.”
Seeing the hatred on Martin’s face was more than Ross could stand. He brushed past the supervisor and took Carlton by the arm telling him, “Come with me.”
Martin couldn’t believe it. His voice grew even louder, “Where do you think you two are going? Who’s going to clean this up?”
Suddenly all of the times he had been bullied and intimidated came rushing back to Ross. His life had been filled with people like Martin, and he knew that Carlton’s had been too. Not this time he thought. I’ve had enough. Ross turned to the man who had made their lives miserable and softly said, “I don’t know who’s going to clean up, but I know you’re never going to hurt my friend again. We quit.” They left the room with Martin still hurling insults at them.
Because they had both spent their lives without having anyone to stand up for their right to be treated with dignity and respect, Ross and Carlton now felt compelled to do that for each other. Without ever actually saying it out loud they had come to the understanding that they would no longer allow people to mistreat them. They would take care of each other, and they would support and protect each other.
Eventually, they decided to share an apartment so they could live independently. By combining their strengths they were able to overcome the challenges of living on their own. It gave them the freedom to make choices for themselves that they had never been allowed to do. Everyday things that others took for granted were very important to them. Getting to choose their clothing, what foods they wanted to eat and what forms of entertainment they wanted to spend their money on was evidence of just how dramatically their lives had changed.
Fortunately, they had similar likes and dislikes. They enjoyed the same TV shows, the same music, and the same video games. But of all the things they had in common, there was one particular passion that stood out above all the rest and that was their deep abiding love for ice cream. They couldn’t get enough. Every payday they stocked up for the next two weeks. They each had their own shelf in the freezer, and if they caught the other eating their particular favorite flavor the arguing could last for hours until the gross miscarriage of justice was finally resolved, naturally, over heaping bowls of their frozen obsession.
But like everyone else, they experienced a mixture of good times and bad. Just because they each had a developmental disability did not make them immune from the ups and downs of daily life. There were illnesses, job losses, girlfriend problems and the usual issues with money and budgeting. They agreed and disagreed just like any two people under one roof. They occasionally got on each other’s nerves, and each had habits that annoyed the other person.
One afternoon in the dead of winter they got into a heated argument, and Ross got so angry that he stormed out of the apartment. When he didn’t come home that night Carlton called 911. He was terrified that something had happened to his friend. For almost 12 hours there was no word on Ross, and Carlton became sick with worry. In the eyes of many, Ross did not matter. In their opinion, his life had little value. To some, he had been a burden, to others he had been a human punching bag, but to Carlton, he was the most important person in the world. Finally early the next morning the police found Ross sleeping beneath an overpass. While walking he had become confused and couldn’t remember his way back. Because he had great difficulty memorizing things he had their phone number written down in his billfold, but he had somehow lost his wallet which also contained his ID card with his address. Although he was cold and hungry, he was thrilled to be home. When he was reunited with Carlton neither could remember what the argument was about.
Over the next couple of years, their lives continued uneventfully. They had now settled into comfortable routines, and they took each day as it happened without the stress and despair that at one time had been their constant companions. But suddenly one evening, out of the blue, Carlton got the surprise of his life. His sister Natalie called and asked if she could come and see him. Even though the institution he had grown up in had been closed for 10 years, he had never heard from his family.
They agreed that Natalie would fly in and visit the following Saturday. Carlton was so excited he could barely stand it. Ross was happy for his friend, but it also made him think about his twin brother. He couldn’t help but worry about what had become of him, and he wondered if they would ever get to meet. After what seemed like forever, Saturday finally arrived and Natalie’s cab delivered her right on time. When Carlton opened the door and saw his sister for the first time in more than 60 years they were both overwhelmed with emotion. They hugged and cried for several moments, neither one wanting to let go. To be reunited after so many decades was a dream that Carlton never thought would come true. Finally, Ross interrupted and said, “Aren’t you going to introduce me?” Everyone laughed and the introductions were made.
They brought in her luggage and then Natalie said, “I have something for you.” She handed Carlton a large shoebox. He opened it and was stunned to see that it was filled with all of the letters he had sent his family through the years. Natalie told him, “Each week mom and dad waited for the mail, and they would eagerly open each letter and try to read what you had written.”
But it didn’t make sense to Carlton. “I waited so many years to hear something from them. Why did they never write back?”
Natalie explained as best she could. “They felt too guilty for what they’d done to you. They were ashamed. They could never forgive themselves for tearing the family apart, but your letters through the years let them know that you still loved them.”
Then, with sadness filling her voice, she broke the news to him that their parents were deceased. “Dad has been gone for 8 years, and Mom passed away 6 weeks ago.” She watched the heartache spread over his face as the news sank in. Carlton had found a way to forgive his parents many years ago, and he had always hoped to see them again one day, but now the realization that it would never happen left him feeling empty and broken.
Natalie could see the pain in his eyes. “Carlton, it’s important that you realize that mom and dad never stopped loving you.” Over the next few minutes, she did her best to assure him that their mother and father did not forget him and that they often acknowledged that they had made a tragic mistake placing him in the institution. She wanted Carlton to know that they deeply regretted that decision for the rest of their lives.
Carlton then asked about his brother. “Does he ever talk about me? Does he want to meet me?”
Natalie shook her head and gently said. “At this time he does not want to be part of your life. I’m so sorry, but chances are you will never see him again.”
Carlton did not understand. He felt confused and rejected by his brother’s lack of compassion, but it also made him stop and appreciate the fact that his sister had reached out to him. Over the next few hours, Natalie gave him family pictures and keepsakes that he would treasure for the rest of his life. Although he was deeply saddened by the deaths of his parents, and it hurt to think he might never get to see his brother, having his sister come back into his world at least brought some closure to the extreme loss he felt for his family.
Because they lived on opposite sides of the country Natalie was only able to visit each summer for two weeks, but as the years went by, they made the most of their time together. Natalie doted on Carlton, and she happily accepted Ross completely. The three of them did everything they could together. They shopped, went bowling and took walks in the park together. Several times a week they would all go out to dinner and, of course, stop for ice cream on the way home. Carlton did not realize that their renewed relationship meant just as much to Natalie as it did to him.
After a few of her visits, Ross eventually worked up the courage to ask Natalie if she would help him find his twin brother. She knew how difficult the search would be, but the look on Ross’ face each time he spoke of him touched her. She did not know where to begin, but she told Ross that she would do everything she could to help. Unfortunately, despite her best efforts over several years, her inquiries always hit a dead end. She was never able to track down his missing brother.
Aside from Natalie’s annual visits, Ross and Carlton’s lives remained the same, and that was fine with them. Change had never been kind to either one of them, and they preferred the known versus the unknown. The biggest disruption of their lives came when new management bought out their building, and they were forced to move to a new apartment. Once they had resettled, it was difficult for them to blend in.
Because Carlton was white with a visible tremor in his hands and Ross was black and walked with a halting gait, and most importantly because they were almost always together, it made them quite visible in their neighborhood. Sadly, it also made most of their neighbors keep their distance, but that was something the two men had become resigned to over the years. The fact that people often stared at them or whispered when they passed by was something they had learned to tolerate. Even though some people were intolerant, life was still better than it had been when they were growing up.
However, there was one special place where they did find acceptance. Even though they both held down jobs, Carlton and Ross decided to start volunteering together in their spare time for an organization that helped people find loved ones that had been put up for adoption. They neither one wanted anyone else to have to endure the pain that Ross felt. Carlton liked running various errands in the office and Ross enjoyed stuffing envelopes. They were quickly embraced by the other volunteers who were moved by their enthusiasm and sincere desire to make a difference. Through their volunteer work, they met many people who had also been separated from their families. Some of these individuals were now completely alone, and it made Ross and Carlton realize how important their friendship was and how lucky they were to have each other.
As the years rolled by, the two friends never wavered in their commitment to each other. Their long friendship was a source of pride for them. Although the birthdays seemed to come at a faster pace once they entered their 60’s, neither one liked to think too much about the future because the fear of losing the other was always in the back of their minds. Instead, they focused on enjoying the present together as much as possible. Growing old was not an easy thing to do, but it was much more bearable having someone to share the experience with.
But, of course, the inevitable march of time could not be slowed. All of his life Carlton’s health had been an issue, and as the years went by his health became more and more fragile. He was prone to respiratory infections and being confined for decades in a facility where illness could be transmitted freely did not help. As the years went by he had many bouts of bronchitis and pleurisy, but one weekend the coughing started and wouldn’t let up. He put off going to the doctor for several days but finally the pain that he felt with each breath was too much. After a chest x-ray and extensive lab work, the diagnosis was made. Carlton had a virulent form of pneumonia. Frightened and feeling exhausted, he was admitted to the hospital where he began an aggressive regiment of treatment, but tragically his body did not respond to the medications. Each day he continued to feel even more pain and fatigue. Ross was consumed with fear and worry. He couldn’t stand seeing his friend suffer, and the very thought of losing him was too scary to think about it.
As the illness progressed Ross spent as much time at the hospital as he possibly could, and even though Carlton was getting weaker with each passing day, he would rally during the visits. Just seeing his friend had a calming and reassuring effect. The nurses, who had seen so much in their careers, were touched by the extraordinary friendship of two people who had spent years being ignored and neglected by others. Because Ross seemed heartbreakingly vulnerable as he watched his friend’s health deteriorate, they could not help but take him under their wing and make sure he was comfortable and had everything he wanted. His dedication and commitment to Carlton was difficult to witness, and each of them secretly hoped that they would not be on duty when the final moment occurred. Fortunately for them, they got their wish.
The end came on a cold, blustery Saturday in January. It was the kind of afternoon that the two best friends enjoyed spending at the movies. Carlton had rested quietly through the morning, but around two o’clock he took a dramatic turn for the worst. Ross called Natalie and told her to come as soon as she could, and then he rushed to the hospital, but when he got to the room a nurse he had never seen before was standing by the bed. As Carlton lay gasping for breath the nurse asked Ross not to come in saying, “I’m sorry, family only.”
Struggling with all the strength he had left, Carlton hoarsely whispered, “He is my family.” They were his last words, but in their simplicity, they conveyed the depth of their relationship.
As Ross sat down next to him tears burned his eyes. He thought of the unhappiness they had separately been through and how that had all changed when they entered each other’s lives. As his breathing became erratic, Ross held his friend’s hand as tightly as he could, and for the first time in Carlton’s life, the tremor began to subside. Over the next few minutes, he gently slipped into unconsciousness. But although he was no longer aware, Ross continued to tell him how much he loved him, and he thanked him over and over again for being his friend. Then slowly the color began to leave Carlton’s face and with a few rapid shallow breaths, it was over.
Two men had been brought together through lives filled with pain and suffering, and they had finally received acceptance and respect. They had found each other and by doing so they had found themselves. They had realized that their lives did have meaning to someone else. They discovered that in a world of 7 billion human beings there was at least one other person who loved them and cared about them.
Ross and Carlton had shared their days together putting together all the bits and pieces that make up a life. They shared the ups and downs as they traveled through the years devoted to each other in the purest form of friendship possible. In a world that had beat them down in so many ways they helped each other rise above the insensitivity, neglect, and abuse that they had both experienced, and most importantly they had broken through the profound loneliness and isolation that had been forced on both of them simply because of who they were.
They had no choice in the circumstances of their births or the families they were born into. It was not their fault that they were born with intellectual challenges that others used to define them. They had no part in making the decisions that led to the difficult childhoods which left them scarred for life. They had nothing to do with the choices that ultimately made their lives far more complicated and painful than they should have been.
However, the one choice they did make on their own turned out to be the most important one in their lives. They each chose to accept the other as their friend. They saw another person with similar experiences to their own who knew what it felt like to be left behind. They realized that for the first time in their lives they didn’t have to be alone. They were forever changed by the knowledge that there was someone they could trust and believe in. They felt fulfilled by having someone who genuinely cared about them, who did not judge them and who offered total acceptance.
Carlton’s life ended, but his friendship with Ross would continue to live in the memories of those who had been fortunate enough to witness the life-changing bond that was formed by these lost men who so desperately wanted to connect with another human being. Two friends, both with developmental disabilities, had quietly found each other in a world filled with noise. They had welcomed each other into their lives and then spent their remaining decades growing old together. They had managed to discover what so many others never do; that the privilege of being alive is to be shared with someone you care about and who cares about you.
Through their love and devotion to each other, Carlton and Ross became the brothers they had each lost.