Thanks to my oldest brother Lee, all I’ve ever known is that each and every one of us are uniquely different, and at the same time, we also have a lot of things in common. Like our beautiful ability to love, share in laughter, and to brighten someone’s day with a smile.
My oldest brother Lee is severely disabled, his abilities are quite different from me and most likely you. But as different as he is, he also is very much the same as any other human being. He can light up the room with his smile, and he loves unconditionally. Over ten years ago I wrote about this important lesson my brother taught me from the moment I was born, and 34 years later this lesson couldn’t be more important. No matter your gender, physical or mental ability, skin color, religious beliefs, political party, who you love, or in other words no matter our differences from one another, we all have beautiful beating hearts. We all can love and we can be better when we come together.
Here is an essay that I wrote while I was in college about the impact my brother, Lee, has had on my life:
Twenty-four years ago my parents inadvertently decided to completely ruin my life, despite the fact that I was not even born yet. Nine months later my oldest brother Ryan Lee was born. Soon after, he was classified as severely handicapped. Lee cannot verbally communicate with anyone, has limited mobility, and has the mental capacity of a two-year-old. Grabbing someone, utilizing facial expressions, crying or laughing, and using two hand signals from sign language are his only ways of communication.
My parents knew that my brother’s disabilities were going to significantly alter their lives by choosing to raise him and not putting him in a home, but my parents decided to risk two more lives; my brother, Lawrence, was born three years later, and I arrived three years after that. Undeniably, my life was going to be ruined from the get-go because of my oldest brother, or that is what I thought.
However, over the course of seventeen years of life, I have realized that my life was not and is not screwed up as a result of Lee, but rather enriched by him. I will not deny that there have been challenges. Yes, when I was younger I was restricted in having “play dates” at my house because some of my friends and their parents were afraid of Lee and his disabilities; however, these challenges helped me learn what “true friendship” meant and how to overcome obstacles.
Lee has helped me to discover that true friends do not judge. In the second grade I met and became friendly with a girl named Janis. In school we had a lot of fun together, but I did not know how she would react to Lee when she met him and was concerned that she, like others, would fear my brother. I finally asked her over to my house and was surprised and elated when she arrived to find that she was not scared at all of Lee. With a simple “hello,” she acknowledged his presence. Ten years later, Janis has remained one of my best friends in part because of the goodness she first demonstrated by acknowledging Lee as a person and not as an invalid.
I also attribute to Lee my willingness to take risks to overcome obstacles. When I entered school and began to play sports, Lee taught me another important lesson. Lee’s doctors never thought he would be able to walk, but he proved them wrong. Now he is 6’8” and his skinny legs have trouble supporting his body when he walks, but he keeps on walking. Through these actions, Lee inspired me to “walk” everywhere I could, to try new and different activities, and to get back up and try again even if my legs have trouble supporting me. Because I learned tenacity from my brother, I have explored a wider variety of subjects that I might otherwise not have taken from AP Statistics to Art Studio, played soccer, tennis, golf, volleyball, and basketball, and have enjoyed swimming and sailing. With Lee on my mind, I nervously and excitedly decided to pursue my dream of playing collegiate basketball, something that he probably would have dreamed of pursuing also. I have lost many matches, races, and games, and been disappointed by several test scores, but I am never discouraged. Lee is not afraid to defy people’s expectations and as a result I have followed his lead. I am not afraid to fall. My big brother Lee keeps on walking and therefore I keep on walking.
Although Lee has recently moved away to a group home, I still am reminded of him every day. I can tell myself “life is beautiful” as I pass his room when I am home, sit in his chair or see one of his toys. Lee’s unceasing “million-dollar” smile influences me to smile. For Lee, the most valuable things are hugs, “high fives,” and family. As a result of Lee’s influence, I understand that these simple things count the most in life. Even in his willingness to risk moving out of my parents’ house, I can appreciate the importance of my new independence of living away from home in college.
So, twenty-four years ago my parents made a decision that did not completely ruin my life, but enriched it. Nine months after their decision to start a family, the biggest influence in my life was born, Ryan Lee Brown.
Written by Kristen Brown, daughter of EmployAbility donors and volunteers Larry and Carol Brown