Born in Dallas on February 7, 1953, my sister Janie was a healthy baby, smart and fun to be around, the last of the three children in our family. She was Exhibit A in support of Carl Sandburg’s famous aphorism that a baby is God’s opinion that the world should go on.
And then, almost 17 months later, on the Fourth of July in 1954, Janie awakened with a throat infection and high fever, and soon developed convulsions. The doctors who saw her thought she had red measles. Soon it became apparent that the measles had reached her brain. She was diagnosed with measles-encephalitis. Later tests revealed brain damage.
So it was that learning became difficult for Janie. Eventually she did learn to spell and read. But she was unable to read beyond the lower grade levels, or to explain much of what she read. She also learned to memorize some. But seldom did she talk about the past—conceptual thinking stumped her. As for arithmetic, when Janie tried to add even very small numbers, her answers were often wrong.
Over the years our parents looked for doctors and educators who might be able to help Janie. In 1963 they heard about the Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential and decided to start her on a program designed by IAHP that included creeping (with the abdomen touching the floor), crawling (on all fours), and other exercises, chief among them “patterning,” which involved the rhythmic manipulation of the limbs and head by several helpers. The theory was that the program, practiced daily, would revive damaged neurological pathways.
Janie had the physical ability to do all this. She could walk—and even jog. She could ride a bike. She could push a lawnmower. In sum, she could control her movements—a necessity, if the program were to work. Still, she needed people to pattern her, and friends and neighbors regularly came to the house to do that. Janie enjoyed patterning because it brought her close to people she liked and trusted.
Janie was on the program for more than five years, two of them at IAHP campuses in Philadelphia and England. It was unclear how much the program helped her neurologically. But its daily demands did make Janie more disciplined. She paid close attention to details. She learned what it meant to spend time on task.
And there were tasks Janie liked to do. She kept a diary. She also sewed, working in cross-stitch and crewel. She stitched the Lord’s Prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance and well-known proverbs and quotations. Janie entered her handwork in the annual competition at the Texas State Fair. A time or two she placed near the top.
Janie also liked to work with food. For years she had a job at a cafeteria in Dallas where she washed fruit and vegetables in the back before they were brought out to the serving line. In 1990 the cafeteria gave her its annual award for best part-time employee—well deserved, though Janie sometimes snuck a bite or two on break. Janie also worked in a deli at a grocery store. And at a McDonald’s she cleaned tables. She liked the pay and was pleased to have a checkbook.
In 1998, Janie began showing signs of Parkinson’s disease, a development her doctor thought was a further result of the brain injury. As the years passed, Janie quit walking and talking, the movement disorder known as dyskinesia intensified, and she ate less. Suddenly, in mid-January, her condition deteriorated. Starting with an upper respiratory problem, her body was overwhelmed.
The service for Janie was held in Hillsboro, Texas, our parents’ hometown. Officiating was the pastor of the Dallas church where Janie had long been a member. Relatives and friends sang familiar hymns and listened as Scriptures of comfort and hope were read, including those of Christ from the Gospel of John: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in Me, though he die, yet shall he live.”
Janie lived a life that was hard, but perhaps not as hard as we might think. She didn’t lack for dedicated parents. She made friends wherever she lived, including the small nursing home in Itasca where she spent the last seven years of her life. And she did things she enjoyed doing. Say what you will about washing fruit and vegetables or cleaning tables, or sewing, or keeping a diary, many people would envy Janie her ability to do those things. And it helped on her more difficult days that she was by temperament cheerful and friendly, the girl with the big smile. We buried her under the spacious Texas sky, a cold wind blowing in from the north.