Harris Forbes, A Gentle Soul, Brought Others Fully Into His World

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Harris Forbes (Courtesy)
Harris Forbes (Courtesy)

In 1991, Allen and Holle Forbes flew to Romania to adopt their daughter Carly and their son Harris. They brought a Romanian-English dictionary with them, and Polaroid photos of the children they had not yet met.

"The orphanage was, what we saw of it, was a big room," Allen recalled. "It was just cribs lined up one after the other. I’ve said this in anger sometimes: You can’t treat livestock like that in Massachusetts, but that’s how they treated children. The back of Harris’ head was flat cause he was never picked up."

Harris was 15 months old, flaccid from muscular inactivity, with very few teeth — and yet a very full smile.

"We called him Joy Boy for so long when he was little," Allen said. "When he learned how to throw a ball — the act of releasing the ball and watching it, and knowing that he caused that — it would destroy him with laughter. And when that joy was on him, it was infectious."

Harris Forbes (Courtesy)
Harris Forbes (Courtesy)

Throughout his life, Harris functioned at the intellectual level of a 1- to 2-year-old. But he was keenly sensitive, and quite particular about people. If you didn’t make the cut, you weren’t in his orbit of recognition. But if you did, you felt his full light.

"When he would give you love, it was truly a gift in the highest sense, in that it wasn’t like he was expecting anything back from you ... He was just loving you."

Harris’ tastes ran strong: raw onion and stinky cheeses. He loved swigging root beer from a glass bottle.

"He was incredibly proud of that skill,” Allen said, laughing. "And he did it in a way like, you know, some bad ass biker banging down a bottle of beer — then he would slam it down and slide it across the table, 'Ahhhh.'"

He was fearless about physical experience: any activity with altitude and speed, anything in water, riding his horse at the Crotched Mountain therapeutic school, where he lived in his later years. Loud noises like fire engine sirens were magical.

"He also loved the horn on the commuter train," Allen said. "There’s four stops in our town. And I remember one Saturday we were home and the train came through the crossing and it sounds its horn, and Harris loved it. And we raced the train and got to every single crossing in town. Harris had this look on his face like, 'This is the best day ever!'"

Harris did have another side: impulsivity requiring that someone be within a few feet of him at all times, head-banging so severe he lost vision in one eye. There were seizures, GI problems, a sleep disorder.

"He required that you be with all of him at once, because that’s who he was. And once you bought that ticket, it was totally a worth while ride because you were there in Harris’ world. By staying where he was, Harris demanded that I go over there, and that was a good gift. People would do that, and they would love him for it.”

In his life as an omnivore, Harris once ate a star before his parents could stop him — the plastic kind that glows in the dark. Allen always imagined, as it made its way through the reaches of his son, that the star continued to glow.

Harris died in September of a streptococcal infection. He was 21.

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This segment aired on May 10, 2017.

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Elissa Ely Creator of WBUR's The Remembrance Project
Elissa Ely is a community psychiatrist in Massachusetts and the creator of WBUR's The Remembrance Project.



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