I thought about Larry the other day. It was during a promo for Sean Penn’s newest movie, "I Am Sam," in which Penn portrays a sympathetic, mentally challenged father faced with the prospect of losing custody of his daughter. The reviews have been mixed, but most seem to agree that it’s a sentimental, overwrought, predictable mix of treacle and showboat acting. I haven’t seen it, nor do I plan to.
I suppose actors are drawn to the retarded character for a number of reasons. For one thing, it’s a chance for a virtuoso performance. Technical mastery of both physical and mental handicaps can be impressive — witness Edward Norton’s scene-stealing as a con artist hiding behind a cerebral palsied front in last summer’s "The Score." His presence bested both DeNiro and Brando in that serviceable heist flick. Corollary to the aforementioned point is the fact that "handicapped" might as well be a synonym for Oscar. See Dustin Hoffman in "Rain Man." Or Geoffrey Rush in "Shine." The portrayal of a simpleton can be complex, and the Academy doesn’t hesitate to reward a thoughtful, nuanced effort.
Still, the results can vary. On one hand you have "Slingblade." On the other, you have Adam Sandler.
But back to Larry. If any person I knew in real life could have stepped out of a movie, particularly a movie like "I Am Sam," it was Larry. Larry had the intellectual capacity of a 6 year old, and walked with an unstable limp. He had a large nose and crossed eyes and a little boy’s buzzed haircut. He was prone to shouting my name when he saw me, whether from down the hall, across the parking lot or the front row of his special education class at our church. Didn’t matter. It was the summer before my senior yet of high school when I was first asked to lead music in his Sunday School class.
Larry knew nothing of music, key signatures or rhythm. But he had a harmonica, which he carried with him at all times. He would play it constantly, blowing in and out, in and out during our Sunday morning sing-a-longs. And during our church services. And sometimes during the first few beats of prayer, when he hadn’t yet realized the hymn was over.
I met Larry on my first day in the class. He sat on the front row, next to his friend Len-Don. There were a dozen or so others, each of whom exhibited various stages of attentiveness. We opened with the first stanza of "I’ll Fly Away," and Larry pulled out his harmonica. We moved on to "Jesus Loves Me," and Larry played throughout. After we had warbled through several choruses of "Do, Lord," Larry shouted out a request: "Amazing Grace"!
"That’s Larry’s favorite song," Len-Don informed me in a loud whisper.
As soon as our pianist began to play the introductory notes of the hymn, Larry joined in with his harmonica. By the time we reached "how sweet the sound," Larry was weeping. His comic face twisted with sobbing. Tears dripped down his nose and splashed onto his harmonica, but he kept on playing. In and out, in and out, over and over and over.
This became a ritual occurrence every Sunday morning. After a couple of songs, Larry would blurt out his request to sing "Amazing Grace," Len-Don would inform me it was his friend’s favorite, and Larry would cry his way through the verses. Sometimes other songs evoked a similar reaction, but never as consistently as "Amazing Grace."
The late Henri Nouwen, former director of Daybreak, a L’Arche community in Toronto for the mentally handicapped, described life among "special adults" as being full of surprises: "When people have little intellectual capacity, they let their hearts — their loving hearts, their angry hearts, their longing hearts — speak directly and often unadorned." While we are able to hold our feelings in check by masking our true emotions for the sake of propriety, they do not. Like Adam and Eve in the garden, they are emotionally naked and unashamed.
It occurs to me that "Amazing Grace" was Larry’s Eden. But why? Why could he not hear this song without bursting into tears? Did Larry understand the theological implications of grace?
I’m not so sure. He might not have known the theology of redemption, of the cross and the necessity of sacrifice, but he did know the emotion behind it. Like a recipe for happiness, the graceful melody of his favorite song combined with the unconditional acceptance of his "special" class. Add in the physical satisfaction he felt when he blew in and out, in and out. And the result? Pure emotion. Joy and sorrow and pain and thanksgiving wrapped into one, set to the stop/start soundtrack of an off-key Hohner.
I saw the trailer for "I Am Sam" and condemned it immediately for being a manipulative, tug-at-the-heartstrings, Lifetime channel weeper. But you know what? That might as well be the life of Larry, minus the manipulation and Michelle Pfeiffer. I still don’t know if it’s worth seeing, but at least for a moment, it took me back to Larry and his harmonica. I thought about grace. I saw Larry’s twisted, sobbing face of joy. And that’s not so bad.