I live across the street from a forty-year-old man with Down syndrome. Every morning, a bus takes him to—well, until this winter, I didn’t know where the bus took him. I knew only that his name was David (same as my dad’s), that he lived with his parents (as I did), and that the insignia on his hats and jackets marked him as a sports fan. We regularly said hello from our respective curbs, but that was about it.
As usual, one morning in December, when my mom and I were leaving for work, David stood across the street, waiting for his bus, his construction worker-style lunchbox at his feet. He smiled and waved at every car that passed—his routine. “Hi, Dave!” he called when he saw us. Dad was out of sight, waiting in the car. But my mother and I brightened to realize our neighbor had expanded “Dave” into an all-purpose name for our family.
“Hi, David!” we called back.
“I love you!” he shouted, still waving.
There is nothing like a spontaneous declaration of love to start your day. I want to say “I love you” all the time—to the security guard who tells me stories about her son, to the waiter who accommodates my food allergies, to the homeless girl and her kitten on the corner near my office in Center City. People would think me odd, though, so I don’t. Here was a man uninhibited by the conventions that limit the rest of us. Tears came into my mom’s eyes, and mine.
Growing up in South Jersey, my best friend’s sister Alexa had Downs, but she couldn’t be left alone or feed herself, and the sounds that came out of her mouth weren’t so much words as repeated syllables. I used to look into her eyes and wonder what she was trying to tell us. When I was five and Alexa three, I said to her mother, “When Alexa learns to talk—” and she corrected me: “If Alexa learns to talk.” Alexa didn’t learn, though as a teenager she used to sneak away to listen to Power 99 FM. Emotions would play over Alexa’s face, but she couldn’t articulate them, and I limited my words to her even though, at the time, I practically lived at her house. That morning when David declared his love felt like the breakthrough that Alexa and I had never had.
A few weeks later, in January, Mom was taking a sick day from work when David appeared at the front door with a piece of paper in hand. He had written “DAVID” in block caps on the top line—denoting himself or my dad, we weren’t sure—with his phone number in the middle line, and on the bottom, “7:30 PM.” He was inviting us for dinner, he said, to see their Christmas tree.
“What day?” Mom asked.
“Oh. Um, tomorrow.”
Mom grabbed an amaryllis plant and a holiday card and scrawled our phone number on it, asking him to bring the gift to his mother, Dorothy, whom we’d never formally met. Not long after he left, Dorothy called to say thank you. Mom asked if she knew her son had invited us over for dinner.
“No! Oh, I’m so embarrassed,” Dorothy said. “This happens all the time at our Shore house. Every summer on his birthday, David invites the lifeguards over without telling us.”
But that Saturday, David got his wish. His parents called back and officially invited us, along with our next-door neighbors. Ambling downstairs in athletic shorts, David gave handshakes all around, introducing himself as “the manager.” We saw the Christmas tree that was still up and followed him to his “office,” a den with an entertainment center in the corner and a calendar on the coffee table. “SmackDown, SmackDown, SmackDown,” he said as he ran his finger down each Friday on the calendar, talking me through his hand-written schedule of wrestling TV shows. We looked at his Special Olympics medals on the wall. That’s when we learned that the bus takes him to his job at an abilities center, where he lifts boxes like a pro. As we left, David’s father told us to look in The Philadelphia Inquirer on Tuesday for an article about David’s athletic accomplishments.
At work the next week, we looked up David online. There on the screen was a picture of our neighbor gripping a barbell. We beamed at the video of him power-lifting at the gym. I appreciated the quote from his mother: “He’s such a good-natured fellow.” But in the next paragraph, the writer claimed, “Although he is unable to read or write…”
Not so, I thought, and I had proof in the form of an invitation David wrote without his parents knowing. Had the article come out just a few weeks earlier, I wouldn’t have known the truth; it would have been like reading about a stranger. But as it happened, our neighbor had invited us into his life. Once he did, his early morning waves and smiles became my wake-up call. These days, when I get to work, I may not say “I love you” to the security guards who greet me with smiles–I’m not up to David’s level yet–but he convinced me that it makes a difference to grin back and at least think those three little words.
Not long ago, I saw David trudging through a snowstorm to his bus. While wind pelted flakes at his face, he carried two large recycling bins, his lunchbox, and a tall water bottle—all at once. His weightlifting had paid off. David was also engaged in another form of strength training: Every day, he exercises his bravery by operating in a world that doesn’t often celebrate differences. Articulating our love may be something the rest of us wrestle with, but this guy says what he means.
Elizabeth A. Larsson grew up in New Jersey, now works in Philadelphia, and spent most of the interim living up and down the East Coast. Her writing has appeared in New Moon Girls magazine’s series of advice books and Cicada, among other places. She keeps David’s hand-written invitation on her bulletin board.