TONY AND MRS. TURPIN
BY: CHARLES SLAGLE
My brother, Tony, a year older than myself, is mentally retarded. Tony’s condition, because of the brain damage he suffered during his birth, rendered speech impossible, his motor skills clumsy, and permanently restricted his mental capacity to that of an eighteen month old child.
Only with a loud grunt, “Ungh!” and with the pointing of his finger could Tony express himself and make his desires and needs known. Sometimes he could say “Ma-ma!” or “Da-da!” but apart from that, my brother said little that the rest of us in the family could recognize for certain as real speech.
What was worse, even at seven years of age, Tony could not feed, bathe, or dress himself or know the difference between the bathroom or the living room.
And here is the real heartache my dear parents suffered in those days…
For Tony’s own safety and that of my younger sister and myself, he had to be tied with a light-weight rope, like a dog on a leash for hours at a time. Otherwise, he would pick up hard objects and strike either Dowleen or myself or wander off. Until Dowleen was about five, she had a little bald spot on the crown of her head because Tony kept holding her in a vice-grip and pulling out her golden hair, handful after handful, as she screamed “Mama, Mama, Mama!!” He very often pulled my hair too, but being a little boy with shorter hair, I was able to avoid his grasp or at least extract myself from his clutches more easily.
I’ll never forget one day when Tony had managed to untie himself and wander away. During those years we lived in a rented farmhouse a few miles outside of Ft. Worth. On that day, I was standing and looking from our back door. For no reason, I was gazing at our pasture with it’s deep ponds, dried grass, briars, copperhead snakes – all blistering under the heat of a Texas summer sun.
“Look Mama!” I shouted. “Tony’s going to drown!”
Standing at the kitchen sink, my mother screamed, “Oh, God!” and rushed to my side. In horror we saw Tony – clothes, shoes and all – stepping into a large pond and continuing to toddle with determination straight toward its center!
“T-O-O-O-N-Y!” Mama screamed as she ran after him like a gazelle in her calf-length cotton dress. “No, please, no, oh God, T-o-o-o-n-y!” In a few split seconds she met with the barbed wire fence that stretched between our house and the pond. Tony was already chest deep in the water and still walking.
“Tony!” she wailed again and again as she tore her legs terribly, while with dress-tail in hand, she scrambled over the barbed wire and ran into the water splashing and screaming. She reached him, just in the nick of time, as he was chin deep in the muddy pond.
Mama instantly hauled him up into her arms while he flailed and kicked, yelling “Ungh!” as he squalled and bawled. But she kept him in HER vice-grip and like “Wonder Woman,” carried him back to the bank and somehow got him over the barbed-wire fence and into the house. Her legs were riddled with bleeding gashes, her dress ruined, and both her shoes and Tony’s now lay buried in the six-inch-deep mud at the bottom of the pond.
My family could ill afford losing shoes in those days. But my parents didn’t complain about it because having Tony back, safe and alive, was all that mattered to them.
However, my brother kept growing physically stronger with each passing year and caring for him became increasingly difficult. In 1954, when my mother became expectant of yet another child (Tish, our youngest sister), she realized, to her agonizing heartbreak, that keeping Tony at home was impossible.
So my parents finally found themselves forced to commit him to a State hospital for the mentally handicapped. They did so with the deepest sorrow and many lingering questions about why their prayers for their afflicted son and even the prayers of Oral Roberts (a renowned healing evangelist) had seemingly availed nothing of lasting effect…
One of our family visits to see Tony a couple of years later still lingers vividly in my mind.
Dad nosed our car up and parked right in front of a huge, white Victorian style house. Several retarded children, ranging from age eight to twelve or so, were playing on the spacious and beautiful lawn, and my brother Tony was among them. A large-framed older woman stood in their midst. Mrs. Turpin looked up in our direction and smiled and strode toward us as we stepped out onto the lawn. In her steady, quiet voice she gave us a warm welcome. She looked exactly like one of those stereotypical school head mistresses you would see in an old 1940’s movie. Yep! Iron-gray hair, wide shoulders, square jaw and all.
As my parents and Mrs. Turpin exchanged “grown-up talk” I stood watching as the severely handicapped children played. I was only an eight year old boy, yet a strange rush of compassion, revulsion and sadness swept over me. I noticed that often one or two of the children would scamper up to Mrs. Turpin and plant a drooly kiss on her cheek. She would give them a quick hug, a broad smile, a kiss on the forehead, and then with a gentle pat on the bottom say, “Off to play now!” It was obvious that all the children loved her dearly.
I remember our joining Mrs. Turpin and the children for lunch. It was then that my mom spoke up. “Mrs. Turpin, I’m amazed! Tony is here eating his lunch with the other children and feeding himself as if he had done that for years. Does he also know how to dress and bathe himself and use the commode too? Does he go to bed on his own now and get up on a regular schedule?”
“Oh, yes, Mrs. Slagle. All the children here do all of these things.”
“How wonderful!” remarked my mother, clearly astonished. “In all the years Tony lived with us, he never did any of that. How did you ever manage to teach him? I never was able to, no matter how hard I tried. Of course, I almost never punished Tony for not minding me, as I did the other kids. With him being retarded, the very thought of it made me feel SO guilty…”
I’ll never forget the twinkle in Mrs. Turpin’s eye as she responded with quiet compassion.
“My dear, the way I teach all of these children is exactly how I taught my own normal kids when they were growing up. If you want a child to BE as normal as possible, you must treat him as normally as possible. So when these children abide by the house-rules, I crow and brag on them a lot. When they disobey the rules, I simply discipline them. Of course I always explain to them why I’m doing it and that I love them. Mrs. Slagle, you can tell from being with us even this short while that all these children love me, can’t you?”
Tears of joy flooded my mom’s eyes. “Oh yes, Mrs. Turpin. Anyone can see that all of them love you. I would never doubt that for a moment!”
As we drove home that day from our visit with Tony and Mrs. Turpin, I still remember how my mom and dad kept rejoicing and remarking about how wonderful it was that God had brought Tony under the care of such a wise and loving woman as Mrs. Turpin.
But isn’t our Heavenly Father very much like Mrs. Turpin? Not only does He remember our frail frame and that we are composed of mere dust. He also knows we are badly broken and shattered by the sin-and-death syndrome which all of us have inherited from our “first parents,” Adam and Eve. Our Good Father remembers that it was BECAUSE we were “without strength” that Christ came and died and rose again to indwell us by His Spirit and heal us. He knows we are not at all “normal” human beings. That is, we are not normal as He envisions us to become in the “fullness of the ages.” For it is then that, in Christ, all of us WILL bear His perfect image and likeness. (Ephesians 1:9-11)
Nevertheless, our Good Father even now lovingly nurtures – and – disciplines us. Sometimes He even disciplines us severely, which, in our current broken condition, brings us much bewilderment But it is by “calling out” and making appeals to our sin-shattered wills that He gradually raises our wills from sin and death to HIS idea of normalcy and life. It is as we, little by little, learn to respond, follow and obey Him that we begin to experience the God-kind of life. We begin to know the enduring life that causes us to embrace His love in childlike trust, and then in turn, we lavish it upon others – flooding their cynical and despairing hearts with hope. For only when this pain-wracked world begins to see (more nearly) “normal” human beings, radiant with Heaven’s light, wisdom and love will they aspire to become normal human beings as well. Heaven’s glory revealed in us will cause the remaining world-weary to yearn to become ALL their Creator has made them to be.
Perhaps you are experiencing the blazing heat of fiery trials – trials for which you can see NO purpose. Paula and I pray that in some small way, this story we have shared will encourage you. God loves you – far more – than you think!
“I tell you the truth, a time is coming – and has NOW come – when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear Him will live!” (John 5:25 NIV)
TONY AND MRS. TURPIN [Charles Slagle] 1