Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Gerard's song

On the way into work, while listening to the slow version of "Hey Hey, My My" by Neil Young, I was taken with emotion about Gerry, my old buddy. The line in the song is "And once you're gone, you can't come back, when you're out of the blue and into the black."
Here's the column from 2005:

Gerry Gammons sang a touching tune, from the heart

It was a summer day around 1980 when a skinny fellow from Hamden stood at the microphone on a New Haven Green stage and, softly at first, began a hymn that made strollers pause:
"Let there be peace on Earth, and let it begin with me. Let there be peace on Earth, the peace that was meant to be."
"With God as our Father, brothers all are we..."
The words weren't so clear at first; the soloist was Gerry Gammons, a handsome young man who had been left retarded at birth by an errant umbilical cord.
Could Gerry rise to the occasion of a public solo? He loved music and his records, for sure. He also enjoyed raking leaves, watching the snow fall and - as one of nine children of a Hamden clan - visiting family.
The two sisters closest in age, Sue and Mary, eventually became his guardians. But everyone loved this gentle guy, who never seemed to forget a face or name. (Once he innocently asked about a relative's ex-wife, after being introduced to the guy's new wife. Oops!)
In the late '80s, Gerry found himself amid a state news story as his father, John Gammons, started Families for Group Home Placements. In years past, even high-functioning retarded people would be institutionalized in stark state facilities.
John and wife, Celia Gammons, were among the advocates for state support of group homes. There was a long waiting list. Gerry and his parents were featured in a photo and story on the front page of this newspaper in 1988.
They and others like them had some success. Gerry soon began life as a semi-independent adult in a New Haven apartment. More recently, he lived in a condo in Branford run by SARAH, the Shoreline Association for the Retarded and Handicapped, and he turned up in a color photo in a newspaper holding a flat of flowers as an employee of Easter Seals' Greenbrier greenhouse in New Haven.
You could call Gerry playful names like Ace or Buddy and he would tilt his head, smile, and send a playful remark or question right back at you. Like anyone else, he had his blue and quiet moods, like when his mom died. But there was this quiet dignity and - I don't know - intelligence. Let's just say that "Rain Man" is one of our favorite films.
Sometimes his sisters would urge him to have better posture and not look down while greeting people (as he did when he met his hero, conductor Arthur Fiedler, at Woolsey Hall as a teen). He owned a conductor's wand, which he used while listening to his classical records. With his father, he would cut and split firewood. He loved chain saws and snowblowers for their sheer power. And yet he also liked sweeping a floor or just shaking a stick.
But health issues increasingly sent him to the hospital for short stints and in November - after a weekend visit to his sister's house to watch tree pros cut down a huge maple - he was hospitalized with pneumonia.
Doctors talked about a respirator as his breathing became labored. He spent Turkey Day in a hospital bed, returning his sister's kidding that morning through an oxygen mask. It looked grim, but somehow he slowly rallied and went home in December.
We're tempted to say that Gerry kept death away with a stiff arm, so he could enjoy one more Christmastime and New Year's Eve with family and friends. But in fact, he needed help for that. Divine help, maybe.
A little weak but in good spirits, he visited scores of friends and relatives at an annual North Haven house party on Christmas Eve, sang hymns at Mass (sometimes changing an octave mid-phrase). He saw much of his family on the long Christmas weekend at his sister's house, sang carols and roared with laughter at the silliness of the movie "Elf."
After his share of tough times and a grueling hospitalization, Gerry was laughing with sheer joy to be alive.
And then last week, two days after going to a movie with his roommate Jimmy and SARAH staff (and enjoying the heavy snowfall), one day after a diagnosis of strep throat, he collapsed. Death arrived, payment due, in the middle of the night.
Why write about Gerry when the obits are full of area loved ones, great and small? I don't know; maybe his success says something about a society that cared enough to support his dignity. Maybe all of that is in danger in these days of "tight budgets."
It was 1980, I think. My wife, Sue, and I were riveted to the stage on that day in the sun of the Green as Gerry's voice grew louder; the words and message becoming clear and sharp. Like his final weeks, he had rallied this day and his voice boomed, bouncing off the walls of Yale nearby:
"To take each moment and live each moment in peace eternally. Let there be peace on Earth, and let it begin with me!"
My brother-in-law Gerry made me smile many times, but he made my jaw drop that day. Last week, a top SARAH official called Gerry an "ambassador" for the mentally retarded. Good job, Ace.

After that column ran, I slowly had the feeling that maybe my memory had played tricks on me. I had heard Gerry sing "Let There Be Peace on Earth" several times for sure, in church. But the song in 1980 on the Green may just have been "Climb Every Mountain." So, to give you an alternate ending to that scene, I think now that Gerry's big booming finish echoing off the walls of Yale was probably this one: "Follow every rainbow... til you find... your dream!"
Either way, there's a big connection today somehow; I don't know why.

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