In My Own Words: Remembering Larry by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

July 2020 marks the 10th yahrzeit (anniversary of death) of my little brother Larry. He was six-and-a-half years younger than me and a very important part of my life from the time he was born until the day he died.

Larry was born with a hole in his heart and developmental disabilities, in his case Down Syndrome. My parents took Larry to a heart doctor in Syracuse soon after he was born. The doctor gave them some medicine and told them to make an appointment for six months, but noted they wouldn’t be keeping it. That was one wrong diagnosis: Larry lived to his 40s. 

For the first four years of his life, he remained at home and was my favorite playmate. I remember my mom, Larry and I all crawling on our hands and knees to the back bathroom to give him a bath. When he was able to walk, I used to tie a towel around his neck and pretend he was a king with a cape. Then my parents made the most difficult decision of their lives: they put Larry in a state school in Rome, NY. I heard different stories from each of them about who made the decision and why, but one thing was clear: doing so broke my mother’s heart.

For about a decade, my parents and I drove to Rome every other week to see Larry. We ate breakfast at the same restaurant each time and then went to Grand Way with him to buy him a present. (He was fond of sponges then.) On the way home, my parents and I stopped at the same diner for a meal. I remember that time fondly, although my mother claims that even the thought of Rome makes her feel sick. When I was in college, Broome Developmental Center opened and Larry moved closer to home. His final move was to a newly built group home less than a mile from our house. Sometimes when the staff took individuals out for a ride in the van, they would swing by so we could go out and say hi.

In many ways, Larry was the center of our lives. Saturdays belonged to Larry and he came home every week once he moved back to Broome County. He was a sweet, loving individual who judged people by their hearts, not their looks or their financial achievements. He would hug me and say, “I love my Ahil, love my Ahil!” (He was the only one who got away using any name for me but my given one. That’s because he couldn’t pronounce the “r” and “ch” properly.) My mother was upset that he wanted to marry me, not her. His answer to that question of “why not me” was, “You daddy.” He loved King Kong movies, birthdays, bath brushes (which he carried like Linus carried a blanket in Peanuts), vacuum cleaners and Santa Claus. (Yes, he knew he was Jewish, but Santa brought presents.) He also loved birthdays because he got birthday presents on everyone’s birthday. At the end of each celebration, he had one important thing to say, “Who’s next?” 

I still meet people who knew and remember Larry, and I cherish every warm memory and sweet words they have to say. It was hard after he died to remember to celebrate birthdays and holidays because he was the one who pushed us to have fun. He was the one who hugged you when you were feeling down – and he knew when you were without you saying anything. If you didn’t feel well, he would cover you with a blanket (sometimes jokingly covering your head and laughing) and put a warm wash cloth on your head. 

I’ve heard of a Jewish tradition that says when those with physical or mental disabilities get to heaven, those disabilities disappear. It’s a lovely thought, but, to me, Larry was perfect exactly as he was. He enjoyed his life in a way that could be a lesson to all of us: he didn’t fuss over things he didn’t have. Instead, he relished the ones he did. He loved with a whole heart that encompassed more people than I can count. We were grateful for all the extra years he was with us and cherish – and still talk about – the things he said and did. May his memory be for a blessing.