He was the first to be kissed, to take a step, to say a word. The first to eat a hot dog, though because he had earlier been served corn-on-the-cob, he held the bun from side to side. He was the first to ride a bicycle, to empty a Christmas stocking, find an Easter egg, and hold a Fourth of July sparkler.
I was the first to go to school.
Chris was my older brother, the first-born of Ed and Terry, and the bright hope of that young couple when he arrived in April of 1951. Months later they learned that their son was intellectually disabled, and my mother told me years later that when they received the news, she saw my father cry for the first time. And so it was that they learned how to care for a child who would never fulfill some of the dreams that they had for him, learned that love has nothing to do with what we plan for someone else. They got more love than they could have imagined in return.
My brother did eventually go to school, participated in Special Olympics, where his favorite event was bowling. He learned to write his name and read a few words, to cook for himself and keep his bedroom tidy. After living with our parents well into adulthood, he surprised them when he asked to have his own apartment. It took some soul-searching and a quite a bit of courage on their part, but in the end, our folks helped him move into a group home where he lived with a wonderful caretaker and six other men with developmental challenges. He landed a job as a bagger at a Kroger down the street where he was the darling of his fellow employees and local shoppers. He loved to talk with anyone around, and he was the most complimentary soul I’ve ever known. His innocence and his affection were gifts to us all.
We lost Chris to cancer in July of 2009. Teresa and the kids and I were a week away from returning to Michigan for our annual visit, and we knew that he had been in the hospital for a short time. We prayed that we would get back to see him before he passed, but as we sat down to dinner one evening, the phone rang. My dad was on the other end, telling me with a faltering voice that Chris had died. It was the first and only time I would hear my father cry.
My parents dreamed of a child who would be special, one who would grow and mature into someone who would make a difference. They just never envisioned that all happening in the way it did. They could never have understood seventy years ago that Christopher Dean Stemle would inspire so many people with his gentle manner. I know that he made me a more compassionate person, a more patient one. I know that my teaching reflected the lessons that he taught me without ever knowing his own impact.
Each morning before I rise, I say a few prayers of gratitude, and I send out light and love to people who are special in my life. Then I feel the embrace of those loved ones who have moved on. Chris is part of that group that includes our father and our younger brother, Drew. Each day they glow for me, and they send me love as I continue on my path in this world. That’s why I wanted to share a little bit about Chris’ influence on me. That’s why I so wanted to write this story, why I wanted to share the photograph above of Chris, standing behind me, arms around my shoulders, a smile beaming and eyes shining.
He was embracing me even then.