That's life: What Mike can do

Tony Bender

Sometimes we have to be reminded of the wonder and miracles around us. We're an unappreciative bunch, ain't we?

I was about to go to bed Friday night, it was nearly midnight, when my phone pinged. A former Frederick resident shared a Facebook post from Aspire, the Aberdeen organization my brother Mike has been affiliated with for decades now. It's a non-profit agency that provides services to people like Mike, those with intellectual and developmental challenges.

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The post was a brief feature on Mike and his art, featuring and subtly advertising his paintings, which sell at remarkably sensible prices—that's a hint, cheapskates.

Our mutual friend gushed about Mike's talent, and of course, his sweet personality. I describe him as the purest soul I've ever known. It's no accident that Mike has more friends than his five siblings put together. Friends will pick him up at his house in Aberdeen and go to the Brown County Speedway or to see the Northern University Wolves play, not because they pity Mike but because they love being around him. If you're single, spend a day with Mike and he'll introduce you to any number of attractive opposites. He's better than a cute puppy.

After 30 minutes of messages bragging up Mike, with me agreeing to every one, I crawled into the sack, but weary as I was, I couldn't stop thinking that I had inexplicably taken Mike's inspirational gift for granted, I'd had failed to fully recognize how much beauty there is in all of this.

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Mike's gift became evident some years ago. I have one Mike Bender original, a polar bear in a dark, yet sparkling, snowy, starry night, and another brilliant abstract entitled “Prairie Sunset” that was part of an Aspire art show several years ago. I missed the show but when I saw a picture online, I demanded to buy it, but it had been snatched up by an intuitive art lover and spirited away to Hawaii. (Folks, they're going fast!) I got a print from Mike as a gift and I never get tired of looking at it, marveling at the colors. It does what great art should, makes me feel something, everything.

There's a juxtaposition between those artworks. One is dark and sweet, the other brimming with joy. Sunrises are supposed to be the optimistic ones, the promise of a new day fulfilled, but sunsets remind us, “What a day it's been!”

Mike, a blue baby, was eventually diagnosed with Williams Syndrome, a rare genetic disorder. People like Mike are often described as having “cocktail party syndrome,” effusive personalities with an extraordinary ability to remember faces, which all rings true. But as Mike, now 52, has matured, we see a more contemplative side, too.

Along with Williams Syndrome, came all sorts of serious issues. I can't remember them all, but he had major heart surgery in the late '80s, club feet, crossed eyes, and in general, he was a very sick boy who made many visits to Mayo. You think you've had it tough? Not even close, mister. He grinned through it all, and when it hurt too much to grin, he endured. And every one one of us adored him from birth—the whole town of Frederick did, and I'm pretty sure he could run for mayor in Aberdeen and win. Except he's not good with numbers.

We all wondered what Mike could do after he was mainstreamed through a caring school system. Aspire nurtured him through several jobs and played a big part, in conjunction with my mom and sisters, in his current state of independence. Today, he drives his scooter to Kessler's Grocery where he works in the liquor department. I've been meaning to ask him about family discounts. God bless every employer who gives the disabled an opportunity. You're going to heaven, for sure, or at least to the better part of purgatory.

Mike's proven that he can do most of the things we all can, even if it takes some bossing around from his sister Sherry to get his weeds pulled and the grass mowed. But the revelation here is that he's capable of so much that most of us aren't. No one is more empathetic than Mike. No one loves more than Mike. No one is loved more. And no one can paint like Mike. He's an artist. At life.