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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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Neither mom nor son can let go
A mother and her son, who has Down's syndrome, know they need each other.
By ERIN SULLIVAN, Times Staff Writer
Published December 27, 2007
Chris Gargiulo talks with his mother, Elizabeth Bridwell, before she takes him to his job at McDonald's.
[David Degner | Times]
[David Degner | Times]
Chris Gargiulo, 47, mops the floor, one of the many tasks he performs at McDonald's. Gargiulo has worked at McDonald's for 19 years. On Thursday and Saturdays, his mother, Elizabeth Bridwell, 73, takes him to his job a few miles from their home in Hudson.
HUDSON - Last year, Elizabeth Bridwell began planning her death.
She wants to be cremated and doesn't want a memorial service. She talked with lawyers about her estate and how guardianship for her son, Chris Gargiulo, will be transferred to her daughter, Lisa, in Ohio. Elizabeth is 73. Chris is 47 and has Down's syndrome. They live together in a house in Hudson. Since his birth, Chris has spent only a month or so apart from his mother; a few days here and there to visit friends or solo trips to see Lisa, who has a bustling house with kids and grandkids. Chris wants him and his mom to move to Ohio now. He likes being in a full house. He will live in a large basement room that one of Lisa's sons had before he moved out. Chris will have his own bathroom. And Florida is too hot.
"I don't like to sweat," he says.
But Elizabeth doesn't like the cold. She and Chris moved from New York to Florida in 1978. She built this house for them. It has a fireplace because Chris loves Christmas and needed a place to hang stockings. Elizabeth doesn't care much for decorations.
But there is a tree, just for Chris, and snowman towels in the bathroom. They live in a quiet subdivision where Chris can take walks on his own, which he does often for his health, he says. He is trim with salt and pepper hair that his mother cuts. They go to parties at the clubhouse and jitterbug and waltz. They go on cruises together. Chris takes photos of the workers, waiters and janitors, his new friends, and makes albums of them. He and his mother go to church every Sunday. Chris is an usher.
He wakes at 5 each morning and makes coffee a mix of Folgers and Eight O'Clock French Vanilla which he drinks black with a little Splenda and then goes to his office, which is in the garage, and reads his Bible and the newspaper. He spends a lot of time there. Any person who is his friend, meaning any person who has shown him kindness, has a space in his filing system. He knows their birthdays, their anniversaries. He sends them cards for these days, as well as ones for when they are sick. For the Christmas cards, Chris signs his name and his mother's. He says he sent 37 this year. He has decorated his office with Christmas lights, a nativity scene and a small tree with handmade ornaments of photos of family members glued to cardboard. He prods his mother along during the holidays. When she doesn't feel like making Christmas cookies, he'll chastise her:
"You have no spirit."
Elizabeth is high strung and Chris balances her out. When she gets upset about something a person did or didn't do, Chris tells her, "Be kind. Be kind."
When his mother wakes, Chris swoops into action.
"Would you like raisin toast?"
"Would you like an English muffin?"
"How is your coffee?"
He puts a towel down on the kitchen table, so it won't be stained with ink as she reads the newspaper. If he is going to stay the night at a friend's house, he makes sure the coffee is ready for his mom. "You just have to push the button," he tells her. He takes such pride in helping his mother. She can't bear to tell him that, after all these years, she doesn't even like coffee. She drinks it for him and says it's perfect.
The house is small but roomy enough for the two of them to have their own space. He watches his I Love Lucy and Dark Shadows videotapes in his room. Elizabeth watches her Lifetime shows in the den. She doesn't watch TV in the daytime, but Chris likes his soap operas. The mother of Elizabeth's ex-husband (not Chris' dad, who died in 1988) picks Chris up and takes him shopping.
Elizabeth doesn't like shopping; she's an in-and-out fast type of person. But Chris can spend hours looking at clothes. He likes to find bargains and fancies Goodwill. Chris is a sharp dresser. He likes trousers and crisp button downs and sweaters. On a recent afternoon, he wore a lush, scarlet shirt and black slacks with a belt and shined black shoes. The way he sits, leaning one arm nonchalantly on a sofa arm, his legs crossed, his other hand gesticulating, he looks like he could be in a magazine. He doesn't have the sharp features of many people with Down's syndrome. If the volume button was muted, you could imagine Chris on that sofa talking about politics, his day at the office, a world not his own.
Twice a week, Elizabeth takes Chris to his job at McDonald's a few miles away. He has worked there for 19 years. He mops floors, refills straws and napkins and other busy work. They love him there. Chris has saved and filed every single pay stub he's gotten. At a ceremony in the lobby to celebrate his 19 years there, his manager cried.
Chris was 6 months old before Elizabeth knew he had Down's syndrome. She was in a doctor's office with Chris and 2-year-old Lisa. The doctor told her to focus all her attention on Lisa. He pointed to Chris.
"He'll make a good pet," the doctor said. "He will never do much."
Elizabeth was stunned. The years have not abated her anger.
"This is not a very Christian thing to say," she says of the doctor. "But I hope he rots in hell."
So Elizabeth pushed her son to be independent. He went to school. He can ride on a plane by himself. He folds laundry and empties the dishwasher. But she can't let him go to live in Ohio with Lisa. "I'm too selfish," Elizabeth says. "I need him more than he needs me."
She's talked with Chris about her death. It didn't seem like he understood. And then one day he showed her something he made. It was an album of photos of them together. He said he would show it to people after she died. He wrote in careful pencil print on the purple construction paper front cover:
"I love you mom. I will miss you so much. You are BEST mom to me. THANK God. I want my mom here with me."
She still doesn't think that he truly understands death. But when asked if he is scared of losing his mom, Chris says quietly: