Written by Paul Penner Monday, 26 February 2007 18:00Leland Ray's body was laid to rest this past Saturday on a grassy knoll in a windblown cemetery near Perryton, Texas. In graves nearby lay the bodies of his mother and father.
Born about 61 years and eight months ago, he began life much like any normal child. His parents and older sibling celebrated his arrival and shared the news of their good fortune with relatives and friends. Life was good and full of promise.
Three weeks later, in a small rural church, a bizarre incident turned the young boy's life up-side down. As the young mother prepared to leave, she placed her child on a nearby bench and turned away for a minute. In that time, a rather large woman sat down to rest, unaware of the child's presence.
The young mother turned around to pick up her child. For a second or two, she looked around the room for any sign of the baby wrapped up in a blanket. Then she realized the child was still on the small bench where the woman was.
"Get up!" she gasped. "You're sitting on my child!"
"I am not," retorted the other woman.
Again, the mother pleaded, "I laid my baby on this bench. Get up!"
The annoyed woman reluctantly complied. Leland Ray lay motionless as his mother frantically tried to restore his breathing. On the way to a distant hospital, the miles seemed to last for an eternity through an unimaginable nightmare.
At the hospital, Leland slowly revived, though the full impact of the damage to his brain was unknown. The the lack of oxygen and crushing weight on his skull seemed too much an obstacle to overcome. Doctors offered little hope for Leland's full recovery.
As weeks turned into months and months into years, the young family began a journey on a path that they had not chosen to take.
My life began five years later. As I grew older, Leland was a play partner whenever our families met. From my perspective, Lee was not intellectually challenged. He was only different.
As years went by, the differences between us were obvious. A young man in his teens with a mind that will not let him progress beyond adolescence is another experience not easily forgotten.
Lee was aware of the differences, even up to the time of his death. I remember a conversation where he expressed a desire to go to heaven, so he could finally become "normal."
While an adult, he eagerly pitched in around the house. He assisted with mowing the lawn and doing other yard chores. His only limitation was the ability to comprehend complex ideas. If it was a simple chore, Lee did his best to do the job well.
His assignment at their church was to greet people and to hand out bulletins. Young, old, able to walk or disabled, it mattered little to Lee. A handshake and a smile with a nod of recognition was his way of saying, "Hello. Welcome to this church."
One may question whether such a life is worth living. Perhaps if he could think like you and I, the future would certainly seem depressing. Perhaps his limited intellect protected his soul from such destructive thoughts. Yet, if his surviving brothers would speak to us today, without a doubt they would say their brother enjoyed life and had a passion for living.
He was a loyal Dallas Cowboys fan. He collected all kinds of Cowboys memorabilia. Lee loved to listen to music, especially country gospel songs from another of his collections. He loved to talk about the book of Revelation and the Rapture when he could once again become normal.
I am convinced he was closer to the ideal of normalcy than most human beings are or ever hope to become. I cannot recall any incident where he mistreated anyone for any reason. He loved other people unconditionally. He was always ready to greet people with a smile. He loved to talk about God.
His life's journey inspired others to do good work. After Lee's death, a woman approached his brothers and said, "Leland is the reason why I am a special education teacher today."
Not only did his life inspire others to do great things, while living, his parents were faithful guardians of the child they brought into the world. The way they cared for another human being that could not care for himself was also the model for his siblings who later took him into their homes and made permanent accommodations so Lee would never have to worry about his future.
Together, they carried the burden and lightened the load for each other. In return, they were blessed by his loving presence.
I will never forget this story as long as my mind allows. My hope is this: We who have able minds would understand the meaning of this amazing example and desire to accomplish as much as Leland Ray did.