One night, when she was a teenager, Sharon Gaiptman’s grandmother divulged to her a family secret that changed the simple math she’d grown up with: that Gaiptman was the firstborn of three children, followed by a brother and sister.
That night, her grandmother told her that there had once been another sibling, born before her, a brother. Gaiptman asked her parents over dinner if it was true.
“My mother ran from the table, crying,” said Gaiptman, now 71, “and my father told me I was never allowed to bring it up again.”
But Gaiptman, who grew up in North Philly, could not forget what her grandmother told her. She spent years prodding other relatives for information, until she got some answers.
His name was Lenny, they told her. He was born in 1946.
“The family lore was that a nurse had dropped him on his head and he died. So that pretty much checked out with everyone,” Gaiptman said.
Gaiptman let it rest until she was in her early 40s, when she was pregnant and concerned about the health of her unborn child. She asked her father, had Lenny’s death truly been accidental? If not, had it been caused by something congenital? He told her that her mother had been exposed to German measles — rubella — while pregnant with Lenny. As a result, a nurse told them, Lenny had been born a “monster and was going to die within two days.”
Her parents left Lenny at the hospital, heartbroken, believing their firstborn would soon succumb. Gaiptman doesn’t know if they even got to see him; she likes to believe they didn’t.
Her mother died in 1987, her father in 2014 — and that’s when Gaiptman redoubled her efforts to learn more about Lenny.
Hours of searching the internet revealed evidence of Lenny’s birth, but not his death; a burial fund, but no burial. Then she found his name — Leonard Gaiptman, of Spring City, Pa. — mentioned in a small newspaper blurb from 1976.
“That was 30 years after he was supposed to have died,” she said.
She searched some more, until she found an address in North Philly. In April 2018, when she and her husband were back in the area, they drove to the home, but no one was there.
Gaiptman had a hunch that Lenny, if he were alive, might have disabilities. She found the Community Mental Health and Mental Retardation Center (COMHAR). The nonprofit serves 11,000 people with mental illness, developmental delays or substance addictions in the area.
Gaiptman called COMHAR, where her unusual quest stirred much interest. Over the next few months, Gaiptman sent the agency family pictures, answered all their questions, and waited.
Finally, in the fall of 2018, came the phone call that has changed her life: “Sharon, we have your brother.”
Lenny, she learned, was not the monster of family lore. When Gaiptman first met him — just after Christmas in 2018, in Philly — she recognized him at first sight, she said. “His smile lights up a room. He’s like my dad.”
Gaiptman said her brother had lived at the former Pennhurst State School and Hospital — an institution for residents with mental and physical disabilities, which closed for good in 1987 during the nationwide movement to transition residents into community living. Gaiptman believes COMHAR and its employees have taken good care of her brother all these years, becoming his family.
“My parents never could have taken care of Lenny. … We live in a different world,” she said. “I have compassion for them.”