THIRD SUNDAY AFTER THE EPIPHANY
I didn't know Maurice, but I've seen Rocky, his horse.
Horses are (or were) a dime a dozen where I grew up, but -- unless you go looking for them -- you don't expect to see one in somebody's yard in the busy, densely-packed suburbs where I live now. Thus Rocky caught my eye on a couple of occasions when making my way through the back streets of Montclair, but I never learned the circumstances of how he came to be there until this week.
Besides the prize-fighter portrayed so prolifically by Sly Stallone, Rocky was also the nickname of another odds-beating dude: a young California man named Rocky Dennis who led a short but rich life despite the effects of a rare disease that eventually disfigured his face, affected his hearing and vision, and gave him crippling headaches. His life is loosely portrayed in the film Mask, directed by Peter Bogdanovich. As deftly depicted by a young Eric Stoltz, Rocky maintains a sense of humor and grace that wins him the respect of not only his biker/addict mom (whose portrayal by Cher won her Best Actress at Cannes in 1985) but his formerly-cruel classmates and misguided principal. Without necessarily trying to do so, Rocky taught those around him quite a bit about life, and about themselves.
Rocky the horse belonged to another young man, the aforementioned Maurice. Maurice was born a year to the day before 9/11 in Washington D.C. His mother was also addicted to drugs, and was HIV-positive. Both Maurice and his twin sister Michelle were born with a host of physical and developmental problems, and she died before her second birthday.
Maurice's prognosis was not much better. When he was three, two men named Tim came into his life. They were intent on giving Maurice a home, despite being told by doctors that he was unlikely to live much longer. It took another three years to negotiate the red tape, during which time the Tims continued to care for Maurice, and he responded by growing stronger and healthier. A year after they adopted Maurice, big brother Kindoo joined the family and they moved to Montclair shortly thereafter.
Maurice loved horses, and -- although it was certainly not the norm -- the family's new house had enough property, so they surprised him one Christmas with a horse of his own. Thus Rocky came to town.
I didn't know Maurice, but I know how kids act around somebody who is different. We've all seen it, and we know that no amount of us telling them not to prevents prying questions, cruel comments, taunts. In fact, if kids get the idea that the adults treat you "special" it can just make things worse. Sadly, adults who should know better do it, too, and there's a whole element of our entertainment culture that encourages this survival-of-the-meanest mentality.
Ultimately it is up to the individual to claim his place, assert his right to participate, and earn the respect of the group. What kind of support the child gets at home is key here, because a kid who has been taught to believe he has worth is far better equipped to handle this kind of flack.
I didn't know Maurice, but I can tell from reading about him that he had that kind of home. Two people who could have spent their disposable income on circuit parties and mid-century tchotchke instead reached out to a baby the world had already decided wouldn't make it, and gave him the best life they could, and -- in their care -- he thrived despite his shaky health and accomplished quite a bit: earning a black belt, graduating from high school and volunteering to serve the poor at St. Luke's Episcopal Church. When their own relationship didn't survive, they did the best they could to make sure Maurice and Kindoo still had a stable home with two parents who loved them. He had goals for himself, including living independently and teaching kids with special needs.
Maurice died this week after a sudden illness. He was 20. The New York Times describes him here and includes a photo of a handsome and confident young guy astride his horse. To read about and look at him, this would not be a kid that you would pity. This was a kid that you could (and should) learn from. I can't say more about the man he grew to be, because I didn't know him.
That is my loss.