Rain Man and The Mattress King

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25 May 2006

My family had the recent pleasure of attending Yachad’s annual Shabbaton in Waterbury, CT. As first timers, the weekend was an eye-opening experience for all of us and something of a revelation to gather with 600+ others, each with a special needs family member. Following Saturday night’s Melava Malka, our son participated in a videotaped interview, and by the next morning several Yachad staffers were asking about Josh’s mattress-mania story.

I always start off by mentioning a favorite flick, Rain Man, starring Tom Cruise as a self-centered fellow suddenly discovering he has an institutionalized adult sibling. Dustin Hoffman, as the older brother, fabulously portrays an autistic-savant whose idiosyncrasies are simultaneously heartbreaking and hilarious. As the parent of a special needs child, I can identify with the obsessive/compulsive behaviors of Hoffman’s character, since this seems to be a common phenomenon among individuals diagnosed with a broad range of disabilities. So when our son Josh, who has cerebral palsy, began making certain pronouncements at a very young age, such as, “On Tuesdays I eat Chinese,” I could only look at him in astonishment and think of Dustin Hoffman’s Raymond Babbitt.

Josh is about to graduate high school, but over the years he has done numerous behavioral versions of Rain Man. And while it’s often been a subject of deep concern and frustration for us, it also acts as a source of real amusement and comedic relief. My best piece of advice to families who are new to the process of raising a special needs child is simply this: You don’t have to look for reasons to cry. In order to survive, you must look for reasons to laugh.

I could write memoirs in the style of Bombeck, Cosby or Barry about some of Josh’s obsessions, but his most enduring, endearing (and expensive) compulsion grew out of an unusual friendship with a man named Phil. Phil is a real tzadik of a guy, affectionately known in our community as the “Mattress King” since he was in the business of selling them years before specialty bedding stores started to proliferate. Josh would visit Phil’s house, get together with him for a bowl of Chana’s goulash or catch weekday rides home with him from shul, and the Mattress King would patiently listen to, and then answer, all of Josh’s detailed questions about beds and box springs. Finally, Josh became something of an expert himself, a real connoisseur of high-quality sleep ware.

The day Josh turned 13, two burly delivery guys showed up at our front door with a little gift from Phil. Oh, those cultural rites of passage into male adulthood! The Native Americans give their brave young warriors a headdress-worthy eagle feather, while members of the Jewish tribe buy Waterman or Montblanc for their future lawyers and accountants. But only our kid ended up with a bar mitzvah mattress from the Mattress King himself.

And this is when our problems truly began. Most top of the line bedding comes with a 90-day trial warranty and you can return the merchandise if you’re not fully satisfied. So every three months, our independent special needs son scheduled a mattress pick-up and then arranged for an upgraded model to take its place. I kid you not, this boy has slept on 24 different mattresses since his bar mitzvah, but hey…do the math.

The real height of all this lunacy occurred a few summers ago, shortly after we shipped Josh off to an overnight camp in Michigan. Within three days we received the following message on our answering machine from one of the program’s administrators: “Please call us at your earliest convenience. We don’t want to alarm you and Josh is just fine, but are you aware that a custom mattress was ordered and delivered to the campgrounds this morning because Josh didn’t like the quality of our beds?” And last summer I understand a Mattress King truck pulled up to the Wisconsin camp on the very first day. Out jumped one of Phil’s assistants with a measuring tape in hand to make sure Josh’s order would fit the bunk’s dimensions.

Eventually, Phil retired and Josh started hanging around some of those big name bedding stores that have been multiplying like Starbucks in recent years. Suddenly the word “Tempur-Pedic®” entered our son’s vocabulary and this was all he could talk about until finally he raided his own private stash of cash. He was actually ready to lay out a cool grand based on fairly sound logic: what’s good enough for NASA’s space program was definitely good enough for his bedroom. Phil got wind of what was happening and graciously came out of retirement long enough to place a friendly call to a well-connected distributor. The distributor then arranged a generic substitute at less than half the cost, but that mattress only lasted for a single night. The next morning Josh deemed it a second-rate piece of junk and in his own unique vernacular, he began calling it the great “Phil-O-Pedic Rip-Off.”

Eventually the “Phil-O-Pedic” was gifted to me. I currently sleep on it and think it’s just grand. Josh went ahead and paid full price for the real deal. Sometimes you get what you pay for in life, because my son has been happily snoring away on the Space Foundation’s certified mattress ever since. Which leaves us with only one minor dilemma. Lately we’ve been talking about making aliyah. So Josh called Phil the other day to find out about international mattress delivery rates and yes, it is actually possible to ship bedding to Israel!

In Psalm 121 we read, “Behold the Guardian of Israel neither sleeps nor slumbers.” But who knows? With Josh in Jerusalem and Phil-O-Pedics available in the holy city, perhaps even the Master of the Universe will finally get a good night’s rest…after all.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.