GROWING UP WITH ROY AND DALE #2
Robin Elizabeth was special. She came into our lives like a little shining star, and she changed us all. Not only did she change us; she changed the lives of thousands of people because of her specialness.
That this new baby was to be the only natural child between my parents was plenty of reason to say she was special. But there was more to it than that. Mom was 37 when Robin was born, and I could tell that everyone was concerned about her and hoping everything would be all right.
Mom did have some trouble with her pregnancy. Not long after she realized she was pregnant, she came down with a mild case of German measles. Medical science had not yet realized the threat that German measles poses for unborn children, and since Mom didn't feel very sick, she had no idea what her illness could mean for our baby. As the months went on, Mom spent a lot of time in bed to avoid a miscarriage.
"We have to keep Mommy safe and well," Daddy explained, "so our baby will be healthy."
Finally, after what had seemed like forever to my five-year-old mind, Mommy went to the hospital, and on August 26, 1950, Robin was born. I don't even remember being disappointed that she wasn't a brother.
Virginia Peck was still our nanny, although we never called her that. A real stickler for clean clothes, shiny faces and freshly combed hair, she made us all scrub up special the day Mom and Robin came home.
Cheryl and Linda and I went out to the carport to wait. They didn't come and they didn't come, and I felt antsy. I got to squirming and teasing, and finally Virginia pulled us back into the house. We had to sit in the house and wait, since we didn't know what time Dad would be bringing them. I kept going to the window to look out.
Finally they came. It seemed like Mom had been gone a long time, and I was glad she was home, but I couldn't take my eyes off the tiny bundle she was holding. Cheryl and Linda thought of Robin as just another baby doll. They oohed and aahed and made funny noises, and they begged to hold her.
I just stood there, staring. I'd never seen a real baby before. She was pale—so white, so small. She did look like a little doll, a little Kewpie doll with blue almond-shaped eyes and little pixie ears. Then she moved! I touched her little hands. They were so tiny! Then they let me hold her, and although I hated dolls, I knew Robin was real. She belonged to us, and as far as I was concerned, we had it made.
I didn't know Robin was a Down's Syndrome baby. Not a lot was known about Down's Syndrome in those days.
Although recognized for centuries, there seemed to be no explanation of its cause. At that time it was called "mongolism, "and it was given that name because of the slanted eyes that are characteristic of a Down's baby. There were other problems, too. A thicker tongue than most people have. A weak cry. Poor muscle tone. A heart murmur. Developmental disabilities. Mental retardation.
But the day Mom brought her home, I knew none of this. I only knew she was our little baby. After Mom laid Robin in her little rattan bassinet, she told us she wanted to talk to us. She wanted to explain that Robin was different from other babies, and that she had some problems that kept her from being strong.
"Come here, Dusty and Cheryl. Linda Lou, sit here next to me," she said as she patted the sofa cushion. "I want to talk to you about our little Robin Elizabeth."
We cuddled up against Mom. It was good to have her home again, and though I wanted to go over and peek in at the new baby, I sat there and listened.
"Robin is a very special baby," Mom began. "She's not very strong, and she's going to be slower than other babies are. It will take her longer to drink her bottles, and she might not smile or talk as soon as other babies do. It may be a long time before she walks, and she'll never be able to do many of the things that you children can do. We have to take care of Robin just as though she were a delicate little flower, and you must help your daddy and me always to protect her. Do you understand?"
We couldn't fully understand, of course. I don't think anyone ever really understands immediately what it means to have a fragile baby, highly susceptible to illness, unable to develop in healthy, normal ways. What it means to watch the baby struggle to do things most babies do easily. What it means to know that, although the natural order of things is for children to outlive their parents, this child may never reach adulthood. What it means to make a commitment to love and cherish and care for that child in the face of such odds. What it means to find value and purpose in pain. What it means to be enriched by the compassion and the understanding that can be gained by such an experience.
No, we didn't understand. Even the doctors didn't understand. In those days there was little tolerance for the mentally retarded and for people with special needs. Franklin D. Roosevelt's courage in the face of his challenge with polio and Helen Keller's triumph over blindness and deafness had broken down some of the walls fear and ignorance had built. But for the most part, even the doctors failed to see the human worth and value in a person who did not appear to be "normal."
Although some doctors encouraged Mom and Dad to take Robin home and love her, most of them advised my parents to place her in an institution and get on with their lives.
But my parents' lives had always included concern for sick and injured children. They were convinced God had sent Robin to us for a special reason, and that they had no right to cast her away. For whatever reason, the sovereign Lord of life had chosen us to be Robin's family, and her family we would be.
When Robin was eight months old we moved. Southern California winters are not especially rainy, but Los Angeles is a major seaport, and the ocean dampness settles in after about four in the afternoon. As you get closer to the sea, overcast days become more common. Further inland the days are sunnier and warmer, and Mom wanted Robin to have more sunshine. We moved to Encino, situated in the San Fernando Valley.
Like the Hollywood Hills house, the Encino house was an older, 10-room stucco Spanish-style ranch home built on four acres. Dad called it the Double R Bar Ranch.
The main house was huge. There was a big living room and a large kitchen with a table large enough for all of us. The master bedroom was at the right end of the house, and off to the left of the kitchen was the children's wing with a bedroom for each of us. In back, Dad's big den ran the length of the house.
Giant oak trees grew right up through the middle of the patio, and one of them was so old the Encino Chamber of Commerce saw fit to declare it a monument. Near the swimming pool was a little snack bar and two cabanas for dressing. At the end of the drive you could see the barn.
Having grown up on a farm in Duck Run, Ohio, Dad never lost his love for growing things and for animals. He made sure we had horses and dogs, ducks, chickens and geese, peacocks and guinea hens. We also had a large vegetable garden and a fruit orchard.
Robin seemed to thrive on the ranch. She learned to stand, and she enjoyed the animals. She liked to pet them, and our dog Lana became her favorite. Lana loved Robin, too, and was protective of her, following her around whenever we took her outside. But though Robin seemed to be happy on the ranch, she was highly sensitive to any kind of stimulation. She reacted nervously to any distraction, jerking and crying when she was startled.
Mom and Dad agreed with Cau-Cau, Robin's special round-the-clock nurse, that our baby needed a place of peace and quiet where distractions could be controlled, but they could not agree to sending Robin away from our family setting. They wanted her to remain part of our family as much as possible, to join us in her high chair at the table for meals and round-table prayers and to sit with us during our family devotions.
Dad decided the answer was separate quarters, so he and Grampy Slye built a special little two-room house for Robin and Cau-Cau. Robin's room and bathroom was blue, and Mom put up white organdy curtains. The little house was a godsend, because it enabled us to keep Robin with us without disrupting normal family life and without sacrificing her special needs.
When Robin was a year old, she had a slight case of polio, but the rest of us were in no danger because she was always isolated from us when she was ill. She came through her illness with further physical damage: she could no longer stand, and she was considerably weaker.
We played with her when she was feeling okay, but my folks were concerned about our upsetting her. Because of her weak heart, we had to be careful not to overstimulate her. We were never allowed to be around her when she was sick or fretful.
When we did play together, I'd crawl under her bed and we would play peek-a-boo. She would smile and grin, and Mom was thrilled when she laughed. Robin had a sweet smile. Cheryl used to hold her and let her pound on the piano. Robin loved music and responded to it, and for Christmas Dad bought her a little toy piano of her own. Again, she responded with laughter—an indication that her mental retardation was not as severe as the doctors had originally expected.
One day we discovered something new; something that made Robin laugh and gave all of us hours of delight. Some people from the Encino Chamber of Commerce had come out to look at our old oak tree. It was covered with ivy that had been there for years, and they wanted us to take the ivy off because they were afraid it would eventually damage the tree. We cut the ivy down, and behind it, we found a nest of squirrels, we hadn't known were there.
"Oh, look at the babies!" Linda cried. Shorter than Cheryl, eight-year-old Linda had a little turned-up nose and fair skin. Her blond-brown hair was usually in braids, although sometimes she wore Shirley Temple curls. Tenderhearted, she worried about the baby squirrels, and when their mother didn't return for them, she asked Daddy how to take care of them.
Daddy fixed us a spot in the little cupboard just inside our back door. Then he found an eyedropper and showed us how to give the babies milk. A couple of them died, and Linda was heartbroken. She cried and cried. Finally, she stopped, found a shoe box and carefully lined it with soft cloth.
"Come on, Dusty," she said. "It's time for the funeral." We went out to the yard and dug a little hole in the flower bed, and Linda gently set the box inside. She covered it with dirt and put a little bouquet of geraniums on top. We stood there for a few minutes, and we prayed over the grave.
We didn't understand why these little creatures had died. Why they were too weak to survive. Why the mother hadn't returned to care for them. Why they had to suffer. All we knew was, they had mattered to us.
Two of the squirrels did survive. They graduated from the eye dropper to a toy baby bottle, and soon they were able to bite holes in the nipples. They were roly-poly little fur balls, and Robin laughed with delight whenever we showed them to her. She'd reach out to pet them, giggling when her hand touched the softness of their fur.
Mom and Dad were working themselves into exhaustion by this time. Robin's medical bills were astronomical, and Mom had lost nearly a year's income during her pregnancy and recovery from Robin's birth. Even if she had been well enough to work, pregnant movie stars were taboo in Hollywood.
Now, she had no choice. She and Dad were up at 4:30 or 5:00 every morning, and often they didn't return home until after 8:00 at night. Looking back, I don't know how Mom kept up the pace. She managed to spend lots of time with Cheryl and Linda and me on the weekends, and she visited little Robin every night when she came home from the set.
It must have meant a lot to her that our three sets of grandparents were always available to us. It gave me a sense of security and continuity, too, because when I wasn't playing with Robin, I could visit them for a day or two while the girls were at school.
One day Grampy and I surprised my dad by showing up on the set. Grampy kicked the dirt around a bit with the toe of his boot and acted kind of uncomfortable.
"Pop, what's wrong?" Dad asked.
"Aw, son," Grampy finally said, "to put it bluntly, I'm tired of shovelin' chicken doo. I've about had it with that chicken ranch."
Dad was surprised. "Why, Pop! I thought you liked the chickens. That's why we bought the ranch." Grampy just toed the ground, and Dad shook his head. "Okay, Pop!" Dad grinned. "We'll sell it. What do you want to do?"
"Well, Leonard, I'd like to keep the place and sell all the chickens. I can still have a garden."
So Dad and Grampy sold the chicken ranch. Grampy and Mammy moved to the smaller place in Van Nuys, and the girls and I often went over. There was a little cottage in back of the main house, where we liked to sleep overnight.
When I was in high school Grampy suffered a stroke that left him helpless. Mammy died of a heart attack not long after that, so Grampy spent his final years in a convalescent hospital. Except when Dad was on the road, he visited Grampy every day for the last 10 years of his life.
But all of this lay ahead, and in the meantime, I felt lucky to have three sets of grandparents I enjoyed so much. Mom and Dad made sure we kept in touch with all of them.
After my natural mother died, we remained close to her parents. Like us, they lived in the San Fernando Valley. Grandpa Wilkins was tall—nearly 6'4"—with slightly rounded shoulders and bushy hair. I guess I got my height from him, because I'm about the same height, and like him, I walk like an old bear. He owned his own nursery; he could grow anything.
Grandma Wilkins was the typical grandmother—kind of pudgy and soft and easy to cuddle against. She fed us all the things we weren't supposed to eat—root beer floats, tapioca pudding, ice cream and apple pie. In fact, my first sentence was, "Apple pie all gone!"
One time she made a big batch of tapioca pudding and some pancake batter because she knew I was coming. Both bowls were sitting on the counter, and when she left the room, I snatched what I thought was the pudding and ate it. I figured I'd have dessert first because there was always room for pancakes. When Grandma came back into the kitchen to make the pancakes, I'd eaten all the batter! Dale's parents lived in Texas, where she was born. Her real name was Frances Octavia Smith, and her mom's name was Betty Sue. She was short with strong facial features and a personality to match. She loved boys, and of course, she'd raised my stepbrother, Tom. I thought she was terrific.
My grandfather Smith looked like a southern plantation owner. He had a stern, strong nose and beautiful white wavy hair. Although he had kind of a poker face because he liked to gamble a bit, you always knew where you stood with him.
Even though we didn't see them as often as we saw our other grandparents, they always seemed close. It was reassuring to know they loved us and would be there for us, especially when times were tough.
Times must have been tough for Mom and Dad. Robin was weakening. Although they had accepted Robin's condition and realized she would probably not live very many years, they never gave up hope. They continued to look for new ways to make her comfortable and to give her as normal a life as possible.
Mom had heard about a specialist in San Francisco who worked with Down's Syndrome babies. She decided to have him look at our baby. Linda and Cheryl were in school, so Mom and Dad left Virginia in charge of them while they took Robin and me to San Francisco.
We went on the train. I had the berth above Robin, and Dad had the berth above Mom. In San Francisco we stayed at the Fairmont Hotel, and Dad's friend, Mel Williams took charge of me while Mom and Dad and Robin visited the doctor. We went for a ride on the cable cars, then we took the harbor cruise out to Alcatraz. I got seasick.
Robin didn't handle the trip very well. The city noises frightened her and by nightfall she was overstimulated. She cried most of the night. The trip home was hard because the baby was sick, and Mom and Dad were sad. The doctor had told them there was nothing he could do for Robin, except to give her some extra vitamins.
Summer came and went, and before I knew it Mommy said it was time for me to start kindergarten. I didn't want to go. It was more fun to stay home and play peek-a-boo with Robin. The school was only a few blocks away, and most of the time we walked. On the days Mom left late for the set, she drove the girls and me to school.
We didn't have regular classrooms; they were more like bungalows or trailers. There was an airspace underneath them, and we had to climb up steps to go in. My room was big. It had a big chalkboard and long tables with little chairs. The floor was masonite, and I remember one of the other boys sliding on it.
I didn't like school. I wanted to be outside, or home with our baby. The other kids didn't want to play with me. I didn't understand why. One day we were building something out of blocks and the other kids were teasing me. I don't recall what they were teasing me about, but I remember feeling badly about it. I moved away from them and began building a castle of my own. One of the boys got up and threw a block at my castle and knocked it down. I jumped up and went after him with a block, and the teacher sent me to the office. Virignia had to come to the school and take me home. I was glad.
In April Mom made a trip to Texas to visit her parents. While she was there, she stopped off in Dallas to visit Hope Cottage, where Dad had found Cheryl. Cheryl had been feeling anxious about being adopted, and she wanted to know about her real mother.
Mom talked to the advisors at the Cottage, and they urged her to delay the search until Cheryl was old enough to handle possible rejection. Mom followed their advice, but eventually she was able to help Cheryl locate her natural mother. Cheryl had graduated from high school by the time that happened, and it turned out to be a positive experience.
Meanwhile, at Hope Cottage, Mom was mesmerized by the big dark eyes of a beautiful little Indian baby, who was part Choctaw like Dad. She cuddled the baby and left the Cottage praying that God would send just the right family for the child who reminded her of a happy little fawn.
I was glad when summer came. I could swim like a fish, and I enjoyed the pool. Robin loved the water. Dad said she looked like an angel and swam like a frog! She kicked and splashed and laughed. I loved the way she laughed.
But one day Cheryl said she didn't feel good. My throat hurt and I had a headache, too. It was hard to swallow, impossible to chew, and soon we began to resemble our nest full of greedy chipmunks. The doctor confirmed Mom's suspicions: it was mumps. He suggested ice packs to ease the pain. Sometimes I put mine on my swollen neck, and sometimes I plopped it on my head.
But worse than being sick was the concern we had for Robin, and though we kept her isolated in her little house, she, too, came down with the mumps on a Wednesday, about a week before her second birthday. Linda and Cheryl and I recovered with no problem, but our baby was dangerously sick.
The infection went to Robin's brain, and by Saturday night she had been screaming in pain for nearly a week. Her temperature was over 108°. The doctor told Mom Robin had mumps encephalitis. If she recovered, she would suffer severe brain damage.
Mom fixed us our breakfast on Sunday morning, but we weren't very hungry. Suddenly everything was quiet. Robin had stopped screaming and lapsed into unconciousness. By late afternoon it was as though a cannon had exploded, shocking the world into silence. Even the birds were mute.
Time seemed to stand still, and everything ground to a halt. The lights in the house seemed dimmer, darker, somehow, and nobody spoke. I kept going to the window and looking out the blinds.
I tried to ask what was happening, but nobody would answer. The only sound I could hear was an occasional howl from Lana, who had placed herself outside the door of Robin's little house. I went over to the window again and looked out. Mom and Dad were in the carport crying. They just stood there holding each other and cried for what seemed like hours to me.
Viriginia was crying too when she came to me. She hugged me gently and told me that my baby sister had "passed away." I tried to go outside, but the entry was closed and the lights were out. Cheryl and Linda were crying, Virginia was crying and Mom and Dad were crying. Everywhere I went, I got no answers. There were only tears.
Mom and Dad sent the girls and me to stay with Mammy and Grampy for several days, and we didn't go to the funeral. Robin was buried on her second birthday, but for weeks I kept going to the nursery door and peeking in. I kept thinking she would come back. Mom told me that Robin had gone to heaven to be with Jesus, and that she was happy there and would never have any more pain. I was glad about that, but I missed our baby.
Mom and Dad were devastated. Mom looked tired and different, somehow. I don't know when I realized the reason she looked so different. That summer, her hair had turned completely white.
Sometimes when a great grief enters your life, there seems to be no way of redeeming the pain. But my mom is an amazing woman, and she somehow sensed that God would sanctify her sadness in the sharing of it. She sat down and wrote a little book about Robin and called it Angel Unaware.
As a way of helping others, she designated all of the royalties to go to the National Association for Retarded Children. Today that book is in its twenty-eighth printing. It has comforted thousands of families with children like Robin, and it has challenged the world to be compassionate.
Dad, too, had changed. After Robin's death he began to use Christian music in his shows, and he told the children in his audiences that it isn't sissy stuff to trust God and go to Sunday School. Even today we hear testimonies about young boys who gave their lives to Christ because Roy Rogers said it was important.
So Robin did touch our lives. She showed us the value of human life, revealed to us that pain can be redeemed, and taught us the meaning of grace.
TO BE CONTINUED
TODAY I DOUBT THE WORD "RETARDED" WOULD BE USED; IT IS A WORD THAT TODAY HAS A RATHER NASTY CONNOTATION, MUCH LIKE "NIGGER" WOULD NOT BE USED IN REGARD TO BLACK PEOPLE - Keith Hunt