I met Leon when I first moved here from Colorado because some friends of mine asked me if I would join a group of people who were forming what they called a "Covenant of Support" for him. Leon was 62 years old at that time. He had severe intellectual and developmental disabilities, and he'd lived almost all of his life in state institutions and nursing homes. I was told that he was "non-verbal." A Covenant of Support was, simply, a group of people who gathered together to act as friends for someone like Leon. It didn't seem like something difficult to do, so I agreed to give it a try.
Over the years, I came to value the friendship that Leon and I shared. He loved to laugh and he loved music and he loved having his back rubbed. He also loved people and he really liked to get out and have fun.
On the morning that he died, I felt very sad. He'd been ill for months, and his death was not unexpected, but I knew I was going to miss his presence in my life. As the morning went on, I decided to ask my students if they would like to hear the story of my friend, and they said, "yes." So, I told them the story of Leon, and how he had been sent away to a state institution at the age of 12. I told them how we had met and the things that he and I had shared as friends. I shared with them the story of a Friday afternoon in October, just after I met Leon, when I knew I was going to visit him the next day. I had finished my lesson plans with my 6th grade class that day with about 25 minutes left at the end of the afternoon. So, I told my students a little bit about Leon and I asked them if they would like to make some pictures and cards that I could take to him the next day. They got out markers and construction paper and went to work. Some of them asked if they could make paper airplanes, and I told them that would be great.
I took those pictures and those paper airplanes to Leon the next day, and I decorated his room at the nursing home with all those goodies from my students. I took some photos and I shared them with my students. They became so intrigued by him that they began a campaign to get to meet him, and that finally happened at Valentine's Day when we brought Leon to school for a class party -- the first time in his entire life that he had ever been to school. He and the kids fell in love that day, and formed a friendship that lasted until they all graduated in the 8th grade. They even went that spring to the State Legislature to testify about cuts to the state budget in funding for people with developmental disabilities, and Leon went with us.
Well... my class listened very sweetly to all of that, and were kind and sympathetic about my sense of loss. We went on with our morning, and the time came around for recess and lunch. It was a cold and snowy January day -- much too nasty for outside recess, so I got out the games; made sure that everything was calm; and headed off to eat my lunch. When I returned, a half hour or so later, I was greeted by a delegation of 6th graders (Lindsay, Maria, Judy, Alexis, Laura, Morgan) with arms full of paper airplanes! They had spent their recess time making paper airplanes for Leon (or for me -- I'm not sure which). They had written lovely messages on them like, "Leon changed our lives," and "Sorry for your loss," and "SS Leon." I couldn't do anything but hug the whole bunch of them. What a lovely, kind, perfect tribute to my friend!
I told my students that I would get helium balloons and launch their airplanes at the cemetery for Leon. Unfortunately, on the day of Leon's funeral, the temperature was well below freezing, and I was almost certain that helium balloons would simply not fly. So, I kept those wonderful paper airplanes.
Last Friday, August 3, some friends gathered with Leon's brother, Marvin, to unveil the engraving of Leon's name on the family headstone. It was, in contrast to the day of Leon's funeral, not the coldest day of the year, but perhaps one of the hottest. But, it was a perfect day for a balloon launch. So, on a lovely, bright, sunny summer day, another set of paper airplanes (yet another gift from some kind and delightful 6th graders) found their way to my friend Leon.