He couldn’t speak. He couldn’t walk. His arms often flailed uncontrollably.
He needed round-the-clock, expensive attention from caregivers who fed, clothed and kept him clean.
Some may think that Jason Way would have been better off had he drowned in that unsecured swimming pool two decades ago.
But this could only be asked by someone who had never gazed into Jason’s bright blue eyes. Or fell under the hypnotic spell of his sweet magic smile.
Jason’s worn out body gave out on him last Monday. He was 24 and had spent 22 of those years in a state of profound retardation.
Those who knew and loved Jason don’t describe this young man in terms of a lost life, but rather as a life lived with meaning. Despite overwhelming limitations, Jason managed to touch deeply everyone who came into contact with him.
“He was incredible,” says a choked up Harold Reid, who had helped with Jason’s care since 1980.
“He was limited in his body movement. He had no way of communicating verbally.
“His communication came all through his eyes. He’d look right into you.”
About 125 people attended Jason’s memorial service Friday. It was a moving experience to see so much love and so many tears for a person so lacking by society’s standards of normalcy.
Americans are obsessed with winners. We judge success by a cold balance sheet: wealth and power, beauty and intellect. We idolize athletes like Michael Jordan or handsome movie stars like Tom Cruise.
Jason proves that a life far from perfection can still have deep value.
He loved to laugh. On Sundays he rooted for the Seahawks, watching the games on TV with his best friend - his mom, Rhonda Burr.
Nobody will ever know how much information registered inside Jason’s childlike mind. Caregivers such as Skip Grammer believe he was aware of what was going on around him and used what he had - his expressive eyes and radiant smile - to communicate in the only way he could.
“He had a wonderful sense of humor,” says Grammer, who worked seven years with Jason. “He loved people. He loved being around people. He’s left a big vacuum in a lot of hearts.”
It took a few unattended minutes to forever change a little boy’s life.
Disaster struck on Oct. 17, 1975. Separated from her husband, Mike Way, Rhonda was living at a Spokane Valley apartment complex with her two sons: 9-month-old Tracey and 2-1/2-year-old Jason.
Jason was playing with a neighbor girl. They disappeared while Rhonda was tending Tracey. After a frantic search, Jason was found floating face down in the apartment pool.
Deputy sheriffs rushed to the scene and revived the toddler, but the brain damage was done. “I never got over it,” Rhonda says. “I always blame myself, of course. I spent the next several years beating myself up. I fell into bad relationships. Alcohol was a problem for awhile.”
Jason, she says, drew her out of her funk.
“His laughter and smile would cheer me up,” she adds. “I’d think, ‘Gee, what problems do I have?”’ There was a $300,000 court settlement with the pool’s owners. Jason grew up at Eastern State Hospital’s Interlake School for mentally retarded youngsters. When the movement to mainstream people like Jason took hold, he moved into a stateoperated duplex in Spokane.
He even spent a year attending high school. It was a happy time until the last few months, when Jason began suffering frequent seizures and his body began to fail. Doctors eventually ran out of tricks to stop Jason’s downward slide.
“I was glad I could keep him in my life as long as I did,” Rhonda says. “He became such a part of me. He touched so many lives. Jason was truly special.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo