William Edward Harris died on September 7, 2011, in Freehold, New Jersey. He was 85 years old. Harris is survived by the hundreds of cousins – blood-related and not – he loved in his life. At age 5, he was dismissed from the Englishtown elementary school because the other children laughed at his learning differences. He never learned to read, write, or do math. Harris worked alongside his mother, Arianna, in the potato fields of central New Jersey through his thirties because his father, Duke, had left the family when he was an infant. Harris often told stories of the baseball games he heard on the family radio, created elaborate mythologies about American Indians based on the westerns people read him, and sang improvised gospel songs to pass the time.
I met him when I was first born. My first memory of him is when I was four years old, and we raced across my front yard. He let me win, and for the rest of my childhood, I believed I was a fast runner. I spent more time with him than I did with my mother or father. Even though he was “Cousin William” to everyone, he was actually my older brother – an older brother with special needs. He taught me how to accept differences and be a careful, respectful listener. As I grew older, I could not imagine how other people so frequently disrespected and injured each other with their words and actions. Cousin William lived a life of compassion and acceptance that shaped my sense of an ideal world.
Although you may have never met him, he was your cousin, too. He loved you, sight unseen. My sons are blessed to have met him for the few moments they shared with him. My family will struggle for some time to tolerate the void his transition leaves in us. He had virtually no formal education, lived a hard life of labor, and became a loving member of a family and community that embodied the values of patience, understanding, and wisdom.
Please help me find a way forward until I can see him again.