You Must Be…
You Must Be…
by Noah Levinson
The resemblance was so striking that the cliche left my mouth almost automatically: “You must be Pierre’s brother.” He was. Light brown and reddish hair, a ruddy complexion, some ineffable quality in the eyes and lips—it was just short of eerie, like seeing some alternate-universe version of Pierre himself.
Pierre, who has Down syndrome, is in his late thirties, well into his second decade at Triform. He is easily one of the most popular figures in the community, winning many hearts with a combination of charm and calculated mischief, without the benefit of very much language ability. Pierre is just great. Nearly everyone who works with him falls in love.
When I ran into his brother at the Churchtown Dairy, I found myself taken aback. In a
way, it’s kind of easy to forget that Pierre even has a family. The facial features associated with
Down syndrome are so distinct that they can tend to overshadow family resemblance. It feels like
Pierre and so many others belong foremost to the greater Down syndrome family—this fraternity
of millions, who, despite not being related to one another, share some genetic character that makes them look like brothers and sisters.
And make no mistake, this is not lost on people with Down syndrome. Their bond is unique. Take Wilhem, a day student, who has a moderately severe speech impediment. Despite his strong language ability, he stutters through every sentence—unless you catch him walking down to the Day-hab vans with his best friends, Shayne and Brandon, all three of them members of the Down fraternity. Then, you’ll see Wilhem shouting and giggling in joyous cahoots with the other two. No stutter. It’s remarkable. When I watch this scene, one word comes to mind: brothers.
Down syndrome or no, this is what happens when we leave our families of origin. We begin to find new families. Triformers, both co-workers and residents, are no exception. And, because we’re no longer children when we arrive here, it may not come easy. We are not born into these new families. We cannot expect unconditional love—rather, we carve out our roles, make friends, take on responsibilities to one another. It’s work. And while much of Friends & Family Weekend involves students demonstrating their work to their parents (art projects, performances, etc.), it is ultimately this intangible work that leaves them the most impressed.
Of course, the tangible work is no trifle either. The play, a Triform original called “A Beautiful Secret,” turns out a huge success. Cheney receives big laughs when his mighty frame, made even taller by a top hat, knocks over a set piece during a difficult entrance. But he gets even bigger ones for ad-libbing his way out of it.
After the play, I talk a bit with Valeska, a long-term coworker. “Alejandro is really quite
something, isn’t he?” she says. I agree. She continues to marvel at his performance; the way he
hits all of his cues right on time, his commitment to the character, the attempt at an Irish tough-
guy accent. It’s not just post-performance small talk. She is genuinely impressed. Valeska is the
householder in Alejandro’s house, but as she continues to kvell, what she really sounds like is a
Later on I get a chance to chat with to Pierre’s brother, Martin, as we busy ourselves with apple cider preparation. Pierre is nearby, and shouting for Miles, their family cat. Apparently,
there’s a confusion. Pierre seems to think the arrival of his family means he’s about to return
home to New Jersey. “Miles”—that’s his way of asking. So, Martin explains to Pierre: no, you’re
not seeing Miles. We’re here to visit you.
“I said NO!” Pierre protests, holding a fist in the air—something he often does when arguing his point with a co-worker. Martin, the taller by quite a bit, bends over, and gets right back in his brother’s face. He puts his own fist in the air. “I say YES!”
I can’t help but laugh. “I say YES!” is something I’ve heard several of Pierre’s co-workers tell him before, but it never occurred to me that these playful terms of negotiation might very well date well back into his own family politics. What, as a co-worker, had been so hard for me to grasp, now seems painfully obvious: Pierre does not just belong to Triform, nor to the Down Syndrome fraternity. He has roots. He is a big brother, a son, an uncle.
Pierre continues to stare Martin down. They are both stubborn. Man, I think to myself.