The Burden Is Light

by Veda Tebbs Hale

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    Merrill wanted his brother to enjoy the sights of the holiday season. But he didn’t want the kids from school to see them together.

    Merrill saw Kathy and her friends after his mother made the comment she did about Christmas. It was bad enough seeing Kathy at all. But if a different set of mind wheels hadn’t been reluctantly pushed into a slow, rusty motion, it would have been more than bad—devastating in fact. He knew this and was glad he had let his resentments out of their tight bindings. They were still there, but, like so many helium balloons, they now tugged gently from a less painful position.

    “Wipe Bobby’s mouth,” he heard his mother say, and for perhaps the millionth time in his 16 years, he automatically pulled out the big piece of flannel tucked in the back of the wheelchair and bent to soak up the drool from the grotesque, twisted face of his brother.

    “He’s too excited,” his mother rationalized. “It’s so beautiful and magic-like. I knew we had to make the effort to bring him here.”

    Bobby thrashed his useless arms. The red-knitted, thumbless mittens Sister Arnold had made hid the twisted bones that should have been workable fingers, but weren’t. A cruel accident at birth or before had ruined the control system for his muscles, and an intelligent spirit was imprisoned in a physical body that jerked spastically and made communication with the outside world a tortured affair at best. Sometimes, like tonight, the effort became too much, and he could accomplish nothing but a ridiculous flailing about, accompanied by unintelligible, animal-like sounds. Merrill knew the sight was distressing to anyone unfamiliar with the situation.

    And all this Kathy and the others saw. There had been the usual giggling comments and the quick exodus away from the ugly and unpleasant.

    Merrill shuddered and bent his arms around his brother. “Hold on there, buddy,” he whispered. This was a familiar reenactment of a familiar routine, one which was usually successful in calming the worst of the unwanted movements.

    He stood that way, quiet, between the Tabernacle and the visitors’ center and let the below-freezing air pool around him. The millions of tiny lights pricked the starry night and caused it to back up and hover just beyond the thick, gray walls. It hung there, its own distant light spectacle forgotten as human attention was trapped in the canopy of electric glow. Temple Square at Christmas was spectacular to see, no doubt about it. It was more than even Merrill expected. He could imagine Bobby’s rapture.

    Merrill felt something swell in the lonely part of him. It tangled with those feelings that had been dominant for a long time, those feelings of resentment because his life seemed destined to be circled by people, like Bobby, who could never bring opportunities his way.

    He loved his mother but knew she, too, would never introduce him to the kind of people he longed to know. His mother’s life centered around Bobby, with her job in the evenings at the library only a necessary part of her circumstance. To expect another man to be big enough to tolerate the presence of a severely handicapped son would never occur to her—not after the boys’ own father couldn’t take it, and an accident in the oil fields ended his life before he had time for a change of heart, and before she was convinced it could be possible.

    Between him and his mother the care of Bobby was divided. It held them both out of the reach of opportunities, at least that was the way Merrill saw it, and not without this awful resentment pulling his young features into a perpetual scowl. Tonight his mother had been objecting to that scowl when she said, “But Merrill, Christmas isn’t just for the whole and the beautiful.”

    Maybe it was the million lights winking all around him, but for some reason he had been touched with a corner of what she said—just nudged enough to make his resentments back off a little. It was good to get some relief from the anger.

    He thought about Jesus. How he had been subject to an imperfect world. A world where he had to deal with terrible things like leprosy and every kind of human misery.

    Then he had seen the kids from school. Had he known they would be here, the group he secretly longed to be part of, had he known that, no way would he have consented to come.

    Beautiful, blond Kathy. New at school this year, she sat by him in algebra and made his life painful. Each day he both dreaded and longed for the hour. Always he was too shy and couldn’t say anything but answer the few questions she sometimes asked. He always came to class boned up on the day’s assignment in case she did need help. She was one of the leaders in the straight crowd—the fun, respectable group. The ones who didn’t need cigarettes, drugs, or alcohol to give them confidence.

    Now that Kathy knew he didn’t have a normal kind of family, would she ever ask his help again? He looked up at the likeness of Jesus looking down from the window of the visitors’ center and reminded himself that even though the eyes seemed to be looking directly down at them, it was just made of stone.

    The Nauvoo Bell struck the hour, rolling the clear sounds through the cold air and causing a small vibration to answer back from deep inside where resignation grows. He straightened up and sighed, repositioning Bobby’s bright, red-knit hat. Oh well, it had happened. She had seen them. Might as well get this night over with.

    Bobby quickly became frantic again. “Oh, he’s going to hurt himself,” his mother cried. “Can’t you do something?”

    He tried, but it was too awkward pushing the wheelchair and keeping his arms around the struggling form at the same time.

    “He wants to go in the visitors’ center. I know that’s what he’s trying to tell us,” his mother insisted. She was usually right in guessing what Bobby wanted. Watching his brother jerk his body and bang his head around made Merrill also think Bobby would end up hurting himself and make their holiday that much more difficult.

    “Okay. I’m going to carry him,” he told his mother, after looking all around to be sure Kathy and her group had gone. “Here, help strap him on. You know, like we used to.”

    Though Bobby was ten years old, he only weighed 60 pounds. Merrill opened his coat, picked him up and waited while his mother arranged the wild arms and legs inside the coat, all the time muttering soft, silly endearments. Then she used the straps from the chair to bind the two boys tightly together. Soon the jerking subsided, and Merrill relaxed the pressure that held Bobby’s face pressed into his shoulder. It was like strength from the one went into the other and brought control. “Don’t talk,” Merrill kept saying. “We know how you feel. Relax, I’ll take you in there.”

    “You’re so wonderful when you’re like this,” his mother said. Now she was wiping something besides Bobby’s drooling. Merrill was surprised at her tears.

    “Oh, come on, Mom. I’ve carried him around a lot like this.”

    “I know, I know. But it’s been a long time.”

    Yes, it had. Merrill was glad to welcome back the love he used to feel for his brother. It made him walk taller.

    As they climbed the ramp to the second floor, music from some hidden source was playing, “We three kings of Orient are; Bearing gifts we traverse afar.” Merrill felt like asking Jesus how he would like what he was carrying. The thought held some of the old resentment. He stood angled so Bobby could see the Christus over his shoulder without raising his uncontrollable head. The view from the window, with Christmas declaring itself so dramatically, let a thought materialize. It gathered in small waves to gradually push into his mind and be recognized. He smiled as it put itself together. “Yes, Jesus would like the gift he carried. Locked up like this, Bobby was a spirit pure in heart and innocent. Oh yes, Jesus would like that.”

    The music changed to “Silent Night,” and he turned to let Bobby see the lights out of the window. Then he saw her. Kathy, standing alone in the hall to the left. It seemed she had been watching, for now she smiled and moved toward them. Merrill watched her approach, too stunned to move. His heart raced, and he increased the pressure on Bobby’s head so hard he cried out.

    “Merrill?” said the soft voice, and Merrill felt as if he were connected to a million little hot lights flashing at odd intervals. His face burned, and he wanted to run.

    She acted like she didn’t notice. “Merrill,” she repeated. “I’m so glad I saw you here. I wanted to invite you to a Christmas party tomorrow night. Just a fun, game-playing time at my house with the gang—no big deal. I promise no algebra.”

    Merrill knew his voice would crack and cleared his throat before trying to answer. Then he couldn’t put together anything sensible.

    “I … gee … sure … sounds okay.” He felt stupid for not introducing his mother, for Kathy turned and asked, “Is this your mother?”

    He tried to gather his wits and made the introductions.

    “I know this is your brother,” she said, smiling with eyes that glistened with something that reflected the tiny lights. “The kids told me.” Then she turned to leave but paused with one hand on the railing. “Hey, you know, you holding your brother like that is the most Christmasy thing I’ve ever seen.” Then she hurried down the ramp.

    Illustrated by Dick Brown