in Columns Published in the Asheville Citizen-Times

Mending a Broken Link at Christmas

Asheville Citizen-Times 12/10/2013 –

The note was handed to me in the hallway as she passed heading in the other direction. I turned and watched her move away through the crowds of students.
I unfolded the composition paper and read the green-crayon print as I walked forward.

Der Mr. Alexnr,

I luv you. My mothr and me ar alon.


The bell rang and I walked into my classroom. I glanced at her words again before tucking the paper in my pocket.

At the time, I was a struggling substitute school teacher in my early twenties, self-involved, and with higher priorities than taking a focused interest in a Down syndrome child. I justified my reaction by being burdened with a complex life that included teaching, working an after-school second job, paying off my college loan, and figuring out how to scrape together the money for monthly rent. I decided that because Janice was part of a specialized middle school program, she had teachers and a core curriculum that would be appropriate. She didn’t need me. It didn’t matter that I had been singled out.

Years later, I was paging through some old yearbooks, places where I save memorable notes, letters, cards, and I discovered, pressed between two pages, the message that had been handed to me in the hallway: I luv you. My mothr and me ar alon.

I’d forgotten that I had kept the note. Some instinctual and better part of me had prevailed. I left the piece of paper open on my desk at home, until, gradually, I realized I was staring at an incomplete moment in my life.

What had happened to Janice?

I knew that Down syndrome children now lived longer than ever—into their fifties, and sometimes, beyond. I did some research, and with the help of some of the school teachers I had known, the school district, and the state, I managed to locate her. I gave her note to a social worker and she delivered it to Janice.

She remembered me. I received permission to visit.

Two days later, I walked into the group home, oddly nervous, then into the living room where Janice was waiting, the note resting on her lap. She looked at me from a chair next to an ancient fireplace. Her hair was gray. A brief smile crossed her face. “You got old,” she said.

I chuckled. “You’re right about that.”

She held out her hand. I took it and sat next to her. She let go.

I apologized for never responding to the note.

She stared at me. “That’s okay. I don’t really remember writing it.”

I didn’t believe her.

It was Christmastime. I had brought a small gift, a woolen scarf from a local store. I handed it to her. She opened the box and thanked me. She showed me a picture of herself at high school graduation.

I learned that Janice worked part-time as a cashier, loved movies and played the ukulele. She had a quick mind and a funny perspective on a life that had not been gentle. I’d been told in advance that she had a congenital heart defect, and after an hour, I could see she was growing weary.

“I should go.” I rose to my feet.

“You know my mother died.”

This time I recognized it—the same sadness as in the note. Only the words were different.

I sat down again and touched her shoulder. “You’re not alone, Janice. You have all your friends here.” Then I surprised myself. “And you have me.”

“And I have you?” she asked.

“Yes, you do.” I nodded. “Yes, you do.

She seemed pleased.
That was more than six years ago. Janice lives in another city and I visit with her frequently, but I’m always in touch. Sometimes she calls me and describes her day.

I realize that I’ve transitioned from a former school teacher who paid no attention to her, to a surrogate father who cares.

I don’t know why she had initially singled me out, and I’m unsure why people reconnect—luck, perhaps coincidence, or maybe someone found a note in his high school yearbook. What I do understand is that I’d been given the opportunity for a reason. I had been handed a chance to redefine myself, and in that process, fill a void in Janice’s heart, just as she has filled one in mine.

Der Mr. Alexnr,

I luv you. My mothr and me ar alon.


No, you’re not alone, Janice. And I love you too.


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