In 1959, 31-year old Betty Burke gave birth to her third child. The fears she had had since a young girl were realized: Her newborn, Edward Morgan Burke had Down syndrome. Medical wisdom at the time dictated children such as Eddie be placed immediately in State of Florida institutional care:
From Betty’s journal: The next few days in the hospital were a nightmare. I cried constantly and when I walked down to look at the babies, had to return to my room to cry again. Dr. Lanier told me they would send off Eddie’s handprint to be tested in Atlanta for “tri-dent radius”, a positive sign of Down syndrome. Dr. Lanier was the one person who seemed caring and I remember one day while still at the hospital, I asked should I keep the baby at home. He told me a story of the farmer who had three fields; two were fertile and the crops were good. One was infertile and could grow nothing on it. He said the farmer could neglect the one poor field and concentrate his efforts on the two good ones or he could spend his time on the bad one and neglect the two good ones.
Thus began the separate journeys of Eddie through the State of Florida’s institutional system, Betty through the horror of giving up her child and the family, appearing from the outside as a normal post war family yet not acknowledging the existence of the third brother. Forty-six years after Eddie’s birth and after the death of Betty Burke, Andy, the oldest son discovers his mother’s journals and begins his own journey to find his brother living just 32 miles away in a home run by The ARC, establish a relationship with him, visit the State facilities where Eddie lived and get to know and develop and strong admiration of Eddie’s caretakers. The author’s father, Herbert, recalls the period prior to Eddie’s birth and the months after.
From recorded interview with Herbert: “They did the tests. Called us in and gave us the results…‘We have the confirmation of severe Down syndrome.’ The idea Eddie would be able to function at an acceptable range because of the severity would be very unlikely. Next we had to decide what would be Eddie’s best future. We decided it would be as a ward of the State.”
I asked my father if he recalled any family members or friends offering condolences or comments.
“None of that happened. I don’t remember anybody visiting with us. I don’t know why. If your mother felt that she was being neglected by the family in any way she did not express it to me. She was depressed enough over the whole situation. Nothing else could have made it any worse.
“I remember Lanier saying Eddie would have a better chance in life and happiness in life if he were in circumstances that offered him the most for survival…Could help him the most. We did not say ‘we want to keep him here and take care of him.’ I did not know what was best for him. He said ‘it would be better for your children and for Eddie and for everybody in your household in the long run to have him become a ward of the State.”
THREE FIELDS (brothers) documents not only Eddie’s life but also the affect Eddie’s absence had on the family. Until 2005, his two other brothers never mentioned Eddie’s name to each other. The narrative follows the author’s efforts to discover Eddie’s life history and his eventual appointment as Eddie’s legal guardian.
THREE FIELDS (brothers) is an American story of family and heartache and redemption.
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