Early in 1971, my wife, Celia, and I received a call from our social worker asking if we would be willing to come by the hospital to look at a child no one knew what to do with. Over the years, Celia has been a caregiver to the many mentally and physically challenged foster children who have passed through our home, taking classes and earning certifications during four years of night classes in addition to running a busy family. In 1979, Canadian government authorities would award her a prestigious B.C. Family Achievement Award for her work. So the phone call in 1971 wasn’t particularly surprising. Knowing nothing more about this child, we said we would come.
Once we arrived at the hospital, we were led to a large, dark, mostly empty room, where against the wall on a small rug a little Indigenous boy sat rocking back and forth. His name was Patrick, and he was 14 months old. Patrick had small dark-rimmed glasses on his little nose, and he paid no attention to anything around him. The problem, we were told, was that he did not want to have anything to do with anyone in the hospital. Apparently he had come from somewhere up north, had a head injury, and had undergone brain surgery. Now he was here.
The social worker, a nurse, and we watched him for a little while before Celia walked up to him trying to establish some contact. He did not react to her at all and just kept rocking. I tried too, but the result was the same. Slightly bored and not knowing what to do, I looked around and noticed in a dark corner a brown, forlorn-looking piano that clearly had not been played for some time. I went to it, lifted the cover, and played a chord. The instrument was out of tune. Going to the boy, I picked him up and carried him to it; he weighed little. I pulled up a nearby chair, sat the boy on my left knee, put his small hands on mine, and slowly began to play something. As my hands moved over the keys, the double-handed duet composed harmonies that bridged our hearts. He sat, mesmerized, and his eyes dropped. I continued to play, noting the coolness of his little hands as they lay on mine, motionless, like two small animals that after a long time away had finally come home. As the minutes passed and the music flowed, he visibly relaxed, and with his little body leaning against mine it all became an otherworldly experience, and I began to feel very strange and mellow.
Following the visit, the social worker told us that government authorities had been unable to locate his parents to give adoption assent, so Patrick had to remain in institutional care. But she then expressed the hope we would “take him in.” Having just adopted two children, we were not ready for another one, but when we learned he was not adoptable and would need a home “for only a little while,” we agreed.
Patrick was in our home for 22 years.The brain surgery had left him hemiplegic, blind in one eye with only donut (peripheral) vision in the other one. Already then it was thought he was going to be severely mentally handicapped and when grown would have only limited speech.
Those 22 years were delightful years. Our teenaged son Irwin, now Dr. DeVries, was of great help in raising Pat, feeding him and then teaching him how to feed himself. Of course there were obstacles, like the pesky task of Patrick learning how to put on his pants. We’d all just howl when, after he’d put them on backwards for the umpteenth time, we would ask him to put his hands in his pockets, and he would reward us with the most incredible sheepish grin you’ve ever seen. Then we’d all whoop it up and dance around when finally he could do it properly!
We all did our best to raise Patrick. The little Indigenous boy grew well and was liked by everyone who knew him—so much so that when he “graduated” from Killarney Secondary School and this handsome young man walked up to the podium to receive his diploma, the entire student body rose to its feet and gave him an ovation!
At age 24, in small steps, he was moved into a residence for adult care, the Shekinah Homes Society in Victoria, B.C. Shekinah (meaning “God’s dwelling place”) operates homes where residents are given the opportunity to love, learn, work, and play in an all-inclusive family atmosphere rarely seen elsewhere.
Pat, now 52, is special. You say every child is special, but Patrick is especially special. We have known him from early childhood and found him to be a thoughtful, caring, and kind child. Whenever we’d take him out for lunch, it was perfectly normal for him to follow a waitress into the aisle, pat her on the back, and say, “Good coffee, good coffee!” Or he’d step up to a girl in a wheelchair and, with a light pat on her shoulder, tell her, “Nice coat!” Yet in his own way he was smart, too. Whenever we’d pick him up from home or work, he would always stand aside to gallantly open the car door for his mom—but always the rear door, so that he could sit in front and push the buttons on the car radio!
Due to distance, talking with him now only happens by phone. His speech remains limited, but he has interesting ways of coping. For instance, at the end of a talk we usually share our love for each other, and when I ask him how much he loves me, he usually will say a number under 100, such as 42 or 91. Sometimes, however, if I am lucky, he gives me the number 62. And 62, I’ll have you know, represents the utmost expression of his love for me!
Acts 12 tells us that, after the resurrection of Christ, stories about angels ranged far and wide. Already then angels often took on the appearance of actual people who could be heard and seen. Meanwhile, we read again Paul’s caution in Hebrews 13:2: “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.”
But where do you find these angels in disguise? How do you identify them? Well, that isn’t always so easy. Often, like Patrick, they are hidden between “the least of these” Jesus speaks of in Matthew 25. But somehow, in some curious, unexplainable, mysterious way, you just know when you meet them—perhaps metaphorically speaking. And when you do, and when you become personally involved with them and care for them, a wonderful surprise awaits you. For when your time on earth is up and you have faithfully walked with the Lord and done these things, you will be given the top, the best, the greatest, the most wonderful number 62 of all!
About the Author
Frank DeVries is a past principal of Christian schools in Wyoming, Ont., Houston, B.C., and Vancouver, B.C. He and his wife, Celia, attend Fleetwood Christian Reformed Church in Surrey, B.C.