A Big Life: Greg’s Story

Greg Silvernail turned 43 September 1, 2011 and celebrated with a party at his home on Brandywine Road. As guests arrived, Bo was turning cartwheels in the front yard. Bobby sat in the living room watching television. Debbie fussed around the kitchen, keeping up with the comings and goings and commenting on her housemates. Mitzi came in with her assistant, hugged Debbie, and then pinched her on the arm. She was having a bad day. “She’s the one who’s deaf,” Debbie explained.

Renee Andrews was there too. She works in the library as a literacy expert, taking stories and books to pre-schools around the city. That’s her “day job.” She is also Greg’s “CAP worker,” a fancy way of saying that she is his constant companion. They go to the library and choir practice and downtown concerts together. They shop together, and on the day of his party they went to pick out a birthday cake and buy pens and a new sheaf of paper because Greg likes to make notes about his daily life.

“Where’s Greg?” Renee asked.

“Hiding,” Debbie explained.

Greg didn’t appear until his mother, Marge Silvernail, showed up with the party fixings – pizza, salad and sodas. “Hiding?” Marge asked. “What do you mean he’s hiding?”

“Greg,” she called. “Greg. It’s time for your party.”

Greg appeared, flashing a big smile. His brother Joe and sister-in-law, Annmarie, were there too and his brother Henry. Greg lives with five other adults in this one-story brick home in a subdivision on the outskirts of town. A house manager from Group Homes of Forsyth is always on duty. The housemates take turns with chores, cleaning, setting the table for dinner and doing laundry. Greg has lived here since 1996, when he was 27.

He was born in Queens, NY, the youngest of five children. Soon after his birth, the nurses in the maternity ward asked Marge if she noticed anything about his eyes. She had no idea what they were talking about. There would be genetic tests, they told her, but they were pretty sure that he had Down syndrome. The doctor who discharged her suggested that Marge surrender Greg to the state and forget about him. Life with a Down syndrome child would be hard, he said. Marge and her husband, Ralph, never considered that option, and she refused to speak to that doctor ever again. They took Greg home with them, and they ignored much of what people told them about the limits on his future.

Today, Marge has only one regret about her youngest child. She wishes she had done more to correct a speech impediment. When he was a baby, surgery may have helped. Greg’s speech is hard for anyone who doesn’t know him intimately to understand. His mother understands him, and his brothers and sisters and Renee. But to the uninitiated, his words sound garbled.

When Greg was young, he and his father made up a private, sing-song way of talking with each other. “Ooo La Bee. Ooo La Ba. Ooo La Boo. I love you.” When Ralph died in 2004, Henry and Greg carried on with the banter and added a secret handshake. “Ooo la Bee. Ooo La Ba. Ooo La Boo.”

As much as they could, Marge and Ralph raised Greg as they did the others. The older boys took Greg around the neighborhood with them. With that smile, he turned out to be quite the “babe magnet.” Once, he ran away from home and crossed a four-lane road to the supermarket. The store manager found him on the floor in the frozen food aisle, surrounded by open containers of ice cream. His hands and face were covered with melted ice cream. He had eaten a handful from each container.

The family moved to Long Island when Greg was 2 years old because Marge heard about a school there for developmentally disabled children. When he was 18, Marge reluctantly moved Greg to a group home. He would lead a fuller, more independent life on his own, people said. By then, her other children were grown and Joe and Annmarie soon moved to North Carolina. She and her husband were also taking care of her mother, and it made sense to move too, to be closer to their grown children. The Silvernails settled in Wallburg, next door to their son Joe, and Greg moved into the group home on Bradywine Road.

North Carolina provides for companionship for people with disabilities through a program called CAP. In March 1996, Renee Andrews was looking for a second job, to supplement her work at the Forsyth County Public Library. The state assigned her to be Greg’s worker. Her own daughter had just left home for college, which left her with evenings and weekends free. Greg spends his weekdays at a day program for disabled adults and most of his evenings with Renee. She takes him to horseback riding lessons, soccer practice and bowling, all organized for disabled adults. Monday nights he sings with the Winston-Salem Inner Rhythm Choir, a group for disabled adults. “Music is the universal language,” says Jacki Rullman, the choir director. Still, it can take years for a choir member to earn the privilege of performing in a red blazer.

Greg often spends weekends with his mother and brother Henry, the days filled with banter and private handshakes: “Ooo La Bee. Ooo La Baa. Ooo La Boo. I love you.” On Sundays, he and Renee go to church together. Afterwards they stop at Barnes and Noble; Renee reads and Greg works on his notebook, making notes about life.

“He’s truly been my greatest teacher,” Renee says. “He teaches me simply to enjoy life and live in the moment.”

Phoebe Zerwick, October 2013