Remembering Charles

Jean P. Moore

My brother Charles comes to me in a recurring dream. Adult me enters the infirmary through a window and like an avenging angel, I push the demonic doctor aside. I scoop Charles into my arms. I, the sister, who in reality is four-years-old when thirteen-year-old Charles is about to die at Willowbrook. I am on a mission to save him. I fly away, over the Verrazano Bridge, over Brooklyn, past the Statue in the harbor, carrying Charles, all fifty some pounds of him, to my home in Connecticut. There I bathe him, clothe him, feed him, and rock him in my arms. Charles who cannot speak for himself breathes, free of the swollen mass of his abdomen, free now of injury and neglect. Charles is safe.

Dreams can be sentimental fantasies.

I read in the news recently that my brother’s resting place, Hart Island, New York City’s potter’s field for over a century, is to become a park. My first thought was of Ferris wheels and cotton candy, disturbing, given how my brother came to be buried there.

Charles was slow to develop. Many years ago, at age two, he was declared “Mongoloid,” the term used then for children with Down syndrome. Parents were told to commit these babies into institutions, to forget and to get on with their lives. My parents, young and shunned by family and friends, did just that.

I was a teenager before I learned about my brother, after one difficult conversation with my parents, short on details, never to be repeated. The story haunted me. After they died, I searched for Charles in old institutional records, pried loose from a crushing bureaucracy.

I found him first at age two in Letchworth Village in the Hudson Valley. By six, he didn’t speak but had a pet rabbit. He learned to plant carrot seeds. Amiable boy, someone wrote of him in the clinical notes. When he was ten, the garden was gone. There were too many children. No one knew what to do. By twelve Charles had lost two front teeth. Belligerent boy the notes said. Charles at thirteen arrived at Willowbrook, eighty pounds, small but healthy. A few months later he was in the infirmary, where he stayed, sick and frail. A vital organ inflammation. Surely Dr. Jacobs knew not to avail himself of Charles in his Hepatitis trials, Charles, the boy, with no one to speak for him, who could not speak for himself.

Not long after, Dr. Jacobs prepared the death certificate. Peritonitis, he wrote. Charles was shipped to potter’s field in a child’s-size pine box.

Reality is not sentimental.

After reading these files, I was distraught. I had found Charles, but to find peace, I had to say good-bye.

On the day, years ago now, when I drove to City Island at the western end of the Long Island Sound, the air was crisp, the sky clear, not a day for ferrying to the island of the dead. I parked outside the gate. I saw a tall imposing man standing by the ramp, the public information officer of the DOC, my guide, on this “closure visit.” I began to gather my things, a tin-foil wrapped stem of rose buds, a small token with the image of an angel, and a prayer for the forgotten dead.

We boarded the ferry, a small vessel but large enough to carry coffins and workers. The burial detail, inmates from Rikers Island, had gone before us on a previous crossing with their cargo. Faint traces lingered still.

“The island is fairly big, about a mile long and a quarter mile wide,” the officer told me. “I’ll show you where there are a few memorials.”

Two attendants secured the ferry and lowered the ramp when we arrived.

We walked onto Hart Island.

On our right was the tree-lined road leading past old red-brick buildings, then farther down, the original power plant with its towering smokestack. Beyond lay remains of a once-thriving village, all now abandoned and crumbling, covered with branches reaching into and out of empty window panes, the road cracked and rutted.

“We’ll go this way,” the officer said, guiding me to the first of the memorials we would pass.

Engraved on a headstone commemorating the dead were the words, Potter’s Field, below which were inscribed fragments of prayers, ending:

No longer do we cast shadows

on the ground as you do.

Cry not for us.

We are with the father.

We came next to a dark grey, stone cross, at least ten feet high. He calleth his own by name, the engraving read, on this island where there were no names.

I began to feel at ease. There was an odd serenity—sadness, so many forgotten, yes—but I was here to remember. A large gull circled overhead, swooped down just ahead, and flew off.

“I think I see where I want to go,” I said.

In the middle of the field before us was a sprawling oak, spreading its branches like wings.

Under the tree, I found a soft spot of earth. There I planted the rose stem with its three buds. I buried the angel token alongside.

“For Charles,” I said, and read the prayer that had never been said for him.

O merciful God,

Take pity on those souls

(On my brother, Charles)

Who have no particular friends and intercessors

To recommend them (him) to Thee . . .

On the ferry back to City Island I thought of the prayer I carried, written long ago and recited now to ease the pain of our family’s forgetfulness.

My journey was over, but he is still there on that island, along with all the others, buried beneath the new park that was once New York City’s potter’s field.

Dear brother, as visitors come to your place of rest, know that you are not forgotten.

Jean P. Moore is a novelist who also writes essays and poetry. Her latest novel, Crossing from Shore to Shore, will be published by Running Wild Press.