Sometimes parents are lucky enough to have a child that is born perfectly healthy; other times, parents don’t have that luck, but do at least know what is wrong with their child. Mr. and Mrs. Snider didn’t have a healthy child, nor did they have the comfort of knowing what exactly was wrong with their son, Martin. They had brought him to doctor after doctor, and there was still no real diagnosis. The doctors agreed on certain things though – Martin had profound mental retardation, his ears were big, his eyes were widely spaced apart, and he had an enlarged heart that would likely cut his life short. For fourteen years, Martin’s condition was a mystery, until he and his mother were approached by a woman in the supermarket.
“She came right up to us,” Mrs. Snider told me. “She wanted to say hello to Martin. We got to talking, and I told her we weren’t sure what his condition was. She said, ‘He has Coffin Lowry Syndrome. Trust me.'”
That night Mrs. Snider went on the Internet and typed “Coffin Lowry” into a Google search. All she had to see was one picture, and in that second, the mystery was solved.
“I looked at the picture,” she said, “and my heart stopped. The boy looked exactly like my son.”
After Mrs. Snider told me this story, I too did a Google search of “Coffin Lowry.” Like she said, it only took looking through some pictures to know what was wrong with Martin. In image after image, I saw him. The thick lips and eyebrows. The sleepy look in the eyes. The open-mouth smile. There was my friend, obvious and apparent in each and every photo. In reading about Coffin Lowry, I learned that the syndrome is rare, untreatable, and comes out of nowhere. The disorder is caused by a mutation of a gene that isn’t passed down by either parent; in other words, it just happens, like raindrops without clouds or a fire without a spark.
Martin was the most needy student in the middle school classroom where I worked. At lunch, I cut up his sandwich into small squares that he would eat with a fork. I took Martin to the bathroom several times a day, sometimes to change him when he had an accident. I held his hand when we walked down the hall. Everyone in the school loved him. Miss Tee, the classroom teacher, adored Martin. The other students talked to him even though Martin couldn’t say anything other than “okay” or “bye bye.” When Martin laughed, you laughed too. He made people happy without trying. It was something about his spirit, his energy, and the way he was with people. He liked them. There wasn’t a person – an adult or a student – that Martin Snider wasn’t happy to see.
Then one afternoon near the end of the school year, I brought Martin to the bathroom and he collapsed. His hands started shaking and his lips turned white. His eyes rolled back in his head. It was one of the scariest moments of my life. I ran out of the bathroom and called for help. Martin ended up in the hospital, and I didn’t see much of him after that. His mother came by the school to let us know he was all right, but didn’t go much into detail. When he came back, he collapsed again. Even through all that, he kept his big smile and his loud laugh. He wasn’t there in June, on the last day of school, but Mrs. Snider brought him in to say goodbye for the summer.
“We really miss him,” Miss Tee said with a broad smile. I missed him too. He turned to his mother looking as happy as he had ever looked, and her eyes got misty. She turned to him and said, “You hear that Martin? Everybody loves you. We’re not ready for you to go yet.”
Genetics is a strange thing. It can produce perfect cheekbones, wonderful eyes, and an entire range of physical beauty. Or it can somehow produce something else. But perhaps it also can produce kindess and love, or at least I believe so, especially when I think about Mrs. Snider and her son Martin, holding hands and walking together out into the hot June day.
(In Self-Containment: Memories of a Teacher’s Assistant is my ongoing serial about the year I spent as a TA in a self-contained special ed middle school classroom. The names of the students and teachers I talk about have been changed. “Martin” is Part Five.)