How does one measure whether a life was a success, or a failure?
Some would measure it by recognition, that is, how many knew the person’s name. For others, the measure of a successful life would be the amount of wealth accumulated, or possessions held. Still others would say a life was successful if the person made a major contribution to society — in medicine, sports, politics, or the arts.
By that standard my brother, Marshall Stephen Thomas, who died January 5, was a failure. If, however, your standard for a successful life is how that life positively touched others, then my brother’s life was a resounding success.
Shortly after he was born in 1950, Marshall was diagnosed with Down syndrome. Some in the medical community referred to the intellectually disabled as “retarded” back then, long before the word became a common schoolyard epithet. His doctors told our parents he would never amount to anything and advised them to place him in an institution. Back then, this was advice too often taken by parents who were so embarrassed about having a disabled child that they often refused to take them out in public.
Our parents wanted none of that. In the ’50s, many institutions were snake pits where inhumanities were often tolerated and people were warehoused until they died, often in deplorable conditions.
While they weren’t wealthy, they were committed to seeing that Marshall had the best possible care, no matter how long he lived. Because of their dedication and thanks to the Kennedy family and their commitment to the rights, causes and issues related to the mentally and physically challenged, Marshall had a longer and better quality of life than might have been expected.
He outlived his life expectancy by nearly 40 years. He lived his life dancing and singing and listening to music he loved.
Yes, it cost our parents a lot of money to give him the care they believed he deserved. They might have taken more vacations, owned a fancier house and driven a luxurious car, but before we valued things more than people, they valued Marshall more than any tangible thing. And that care rubbed off on me and other family members.
The stereotype about people who call themselves conservatives is that we don’t care for the less fortunate. Even if that were true (which it isn’t), Marshall deepened my sensitivity and understanding for the mentally and physically challenged and for those who, like our parents, committed themselves to caring for others who were touched by a malady that could easily have been ours.
I was seven years old when Marshall was born. A year or two later when the diagnosis was made, I bought a popular book written by Dale Evans and gave it to our parents. It was called “Angel Unaware.” The title was taken from a verse in the New Testament which says, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” (Hebrews 13:2) Evans’ book was about the Down syndrome child she had with her husband, Roy Rogers.
Roy and Dale named their daughter Robin Elizabeth and their commitment to her (she died at the age of 2) strongly influenced our parents’ decision to take care of Marshall, rather than institutionalize him. While it was sometimes difficult for them and later after their death, for me, we never regretted that decision because of the joy Marshall brought to our lives.
In an age when we discard the inconvenient and unwanted in order to pursue pleasure and a life free of burdens, this may seem strange to some. I recall a line from the long-running Broadway musical, “The Fantasticks”: “Deep in December, it’s nice to remember, without a hurt the heart is hollow.”
Marshall Thomas’ “hurts” filled a number of hollow hearts.
At the end of the Christmas classic “It’s a Wonderful Life,” George Bailey reads an inscription in a book given to him by Clarence, his guardian angel: “Remember, no man is a failure who has friends.”
No life is a failure when it causes so many to care for others. At that my brother succeeded magnificently.