Matthew's long journey

Dan Rodrick

December 14, 1990|By Dan Rodricks

Years ago, before the war, they threw rocks at him. The kids at school thought he was a fool. They taunted him with that special brand of cruelty children inflict on each other to astounding effect. One time, when Matthew was just a grade-schooler, other boys locked him in a closet.

This was, as I say, years ago, in another country, and within that country some place very far from even a provincial capital. Matthew grew up on a farm surrounded by other farms, a long walk to the nearest town, isolated and, through most of the year, chilly and wet.

As to why the boys treated him so hideously, I must describe his mannerisms for they are probably similar today to what they were when Matthew was a child. He is thin and weak. His entire body seems to be in a perpetual cower. He keeps his arms folded across his chest, except when his slender, arthritic hands are required for eating or some other physical gesture. His shoulders are hunched. He frequently keeps his head bowed. His response to statements or questions is usually, "Oh, yes. Oh, yes. Oh, yes. Yes, yes."

It is an informed assumption to say Matthew was always odd in appearance and manner. This is why the other children taunted him. He seldom said a word and seemed, most of the time, to be lost in some distant forest of thought. It is hard to believe, in fact, that without special tutoring he could have retained anything taught in a grade school at all.

As to why Matthew had this condition, that, too, is open to conjecture. It is believed, however, that he was afflicted with meningitis at the age of 3 months, and that has long been considered the reason for Matthew's handicapped condition. There were no doctors in the village, and probably none for miles. I am told it is safe to assume that he received little, if any, medical attention as an infant and none as a growing boy.

Somewhere along the line -- apparently, after the incidents at school -- it was decided that the best place, the safest place, for Matthew was on his father's farm. He slept in the attic of a stone farmhouse with no running water. He lived with his older brother -- until he died in a accident -- and with his sister -- until she left for America with a husband from the next village -- and he lived with his parents -- until, of course, they died, first Matthew's mother, then his father.

He grew up in his own lonely, simple world, hardly ever speaking, sitting for hours at the wooden table in the kitchen of the farmhouse, listening to a radio, looking at pictures in magazines, then taking walks around the farm. Because of the long, wet winters, he wore heavy wool clothes and, having nothing else, wore them even into the spring and summer. The family was bitterly poor. When Christmas came, there would be little acknowledgment by Matthew's parents, for fear it would make their children feel doubly sad about the family's condition. Perhaps Matthew would get an orange for Christmas. Or maybe candy.

The years went by. Matthew's sister went off and made a family in America, came back for visits, sent clothes and money. And the odd little man remained on the farm with his aging father. A woman from the village would come with groceries and check on them. Even as his father aged and tottered, Matthew remained the one who needed the most attention. When the old man died, arrangements were made for Matthew's transfer to a government-funded retirement community. Matthew moved without argument. "Oh, yes. Oh, yes. Oh, yes, yes, yes."

Days, weeks, turning into months, turning into years, and Matthew lived his life: a hunched little man seated at a table carefully moistening his fingers and turning the pages of magazines while a wall clock chimed each quarter-hour. His family was gone. If there would be Christmas celebrations, it would be the contrived kind of community event that takes place a day ahead of time, so that the staff can have the holiday off. Not that Matthew complained. Since childhood, he had known Christmas as just another day.

This year, Christmas will be much more. It already is. Last fall, men came and knocked on Matthew's door. They told him he was wanted in the United States, a surprise for his sister at Christmas. Would Matthew take the plane? "Oh, yes. Oh, yes. Oh, yes, yes, yes."

And so, by bus, then plane, then car, then plane, then another plane, Matthew made his way to America. He arrived last Thursday, dressed in wool and new orthopedic shoes. He embraced his sister, now 40 years fully into her American life, long gone and forever gone from the little farmhouse in the wet, cold distance of another country. She wept and she wept, and Matthew smiled and patted her head. "Oh, yes," he said. "Oh, yes. Oh, yes."

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