Weeds: Dean Krzmarzick: Filling in the outlines of a life
In my summer job inspecting fields, I stop by cemeteries often. A lot of times it is a good place to park. Some are on the edges of towns, others are next to rural churches, a few are in the middle of nowhere. If I have a moment, I walk around. It is quiet, save for the wind and the birds.
Sometimes I recognize family names. Most often I don’t know these people laid to rest here. So little information: dates of birth and death, sometimes their spouse and children, maybe an etching indicating a career or hobby. I find myself wishing I knew more.
It is especially true for those who died young. You know there was sadness in the story. I want to tell about one such person. My brother Dean died in 1974. He was 16. Here I will write about his living, about a boy filling a life as well as he could in the years he had. In two weeks I will write about his death.
There are people in Sleepy Eye who remember Dean. People older than me might recall Sylvester and Alyce’s little blind boy. My age, they might remember my brother who died. But like etchings on a gravestone, those are only outlines of a life.
To the beginning. My parents had five children. Fifteen years later, I was born, and fifteen months later Dean was born. My older siblings were gone by the time I remember our home. Dean and I were close in age and most every other way.
Dean was healthy at birth. Black and white photos show a hearty full-faced baby. Around the age of a year and a half my sister JoAnn was out to the farm playing with him. She looked in one of his eyes and noticed a grayish color where the pupil should be dark.
Within the day, my mother took Dean to see Dr. Fritsche in New Ulm. I don’t know whether the doctor said that day Dean had retinoblastoma or whether a diagnosis took some time. Retinoblastoma is a rare cancer of the retina. In 2017, there are a host of treatments depending on the stage of detection. In 1958, there were certainly less options.
My mother Alyce ended up travelling with Dean to New York City seeking an experimental treatment to save his sight. They went out there twice over the next year. She had never been on a plane before; really she’d not been out of Brown County many times. I wish I could tell you more about that. She and Dean stayed with families from across America. She made friends who exchanged Christmas cards for years.
Whatever those treatments were, they didn’t work. And came a time my parents knew Dean would go blind. There followed an effort to let Dean see as much as he could so as to have that in his mind. A visit to Como Park was on that list, as were other sights such as a farm family could get to with chores needing to be done.
Dean’s vision gradually faded over the next year. Being a small child, he made do with whatever sight he had. Till a spring morning in 1960 that Dean woke up. Making his way to the steps in the familiar house, he asked our mother why all the lights were turned off.
My mom told me about this much later. How does a mother answer that? She said something and that day went on and the next one. For a couple of days my brother and I didn’t know what to do with this new reality. My playmate and best friend couldn’t even see light. We were both quiet and moped around, according to my mom.
Then one morning, she went to find Dean and couldn’t locate him. She looked outside and saw that I had Dean by the arm and we were walking through her flower garden heading down to the barn. That was the end of moping. We were brothers, off to explore our world. I would be his eyes from here on out.
There, right then, was the most heroic thing I have ever done. I was four, and I don’t remember it. But I know I have never done anything nobler than that. It was courageous in the way that little children can be because they don’t know any better.
After that we invented all manner of ways for a sighted kid and a blind kid to do things. We played kickball, baseball, football, etc. We just figured it out. For baseball, Dean hit a ball held in his hand swinging the bat with his other hand while I played shortstop. When I batted, I tapped the plate/sidewalk to direct him and he pitched to me. Fielders and runners were imaginary, but Dean and I could see them. We broke a lot of windows, but our parents cut us some slack.
Dean attended the Faribault Braille School. My mom drove him there every Monday morning and picked him up every Friday afternoon during the school year. I remember feeling melancholy on Sunday nights knowing I would lose my playmate for five days.
But he brought things back from Faribault from his life there. He turned me on to Twins baseball. We spent hours listening on the transistor radio. He told me that if we cheered loudly at the radio they could hear us at the ballpark. I think he was making that up. I remember waking up at 4:00 in the morning of the first game of the 1965 World Series to begin our own pregame analysis, too excited to sleep.
He found the music of the sixties before me. I grew up with old-time music on the barn radio. Dean was cooler than his brother. He introduced me to the Beatles and Jefferson Airplane. Music came to be important to Dean. He was gifted musically and learned to play piano, guitar, and trumpet.
Besides finding ways to play, Dean had chores to do in the barn. We were in 4-H together. We completed the sacraments at St. Mary’s. Those were ways Dean could be in the sighted world. I also spent time in his world. I learned to read Braille. We listened to reel-to-reel “talking books” Dean got from the Library of Congress. He taught me how to use echoes and sound to make my way around a room with my eyes closed.
Didn’t everybody have a family member who took out his artificial eyes at night and put them back in the next morning? At the time, none of it seemed unusual, just a couple of kids on a farm growing up.
Dean was an A student. As he grew into his teens he began to talk about what he would do as an adult. It would have been fascinating to find that out. He would be sixty this year, and I still wonder about the things he would have accomplished if given the chance.