Several months ago, my life changed.
And I began to learn lessons I had not set out to learn. But throughout my life, the best things were the things I didn’t plan on.
No one plans a tragedy in their own life. I never could have predicted this one.
It has changed the way I look at the world.
It taught me that if one tragedy rips a family apart, another can bring them back together. It taught me that the key to bringing people together is giving them a common enemy – tangible or intangible.
It taught me that rehab centers are more than just a place to store the broken bodies of people that someone forgot about. They can also be places of incredible hope. While pacing down the long corridor pocked at regular intervals by tiny rooms containing slack-mouthed, glazed-over elderly men I saw a boy. He wasn’t much older than me. And he was learning – perhaps for the first time – how to maneuver his wheelchair. It simultaneously broke my heart and gave me courage. He was too young to be in that chair. He had his whole life ahead of him, but it was changed forever by an accident he hadn’t asked for. But he wasn’t lying in the bed, watching the world through listless eyes. I don’t know how long it took him to come to terms with his new body, but watching him learn how to use it… that was a privilege. That boy represents courage, he represents hope, he represents the power to get back up.
It taught me that we have done a grave injustice to our children when we distance them from the elderly and from death. Death is a part of life whether we like it or not. But we’ve turned death into something to be afraid of, and we’ve done that by putting the old and dying in dreary, quiet homes where the only people who will ever see them are the nurses who bring in the mashed potatoes and change the soiled bedsheets. We’ve done wrong. Do you know how much these people would love to see a child? Do you know how big a smile would cross their wrinkled faces if a group of kids came in one day to play games in the lounge or break the heavy silence with their vivacious laughter? Because I do.
It taught me that it isn’t about me. I’m introverted and that means that talking a random stranger is terrifying, even if it’s something as simple as “Hello!” or “Good morning!” But if you could see the way they brighten when you walk by… you would push past the fear of sounding stupid because it doesn’t matter. If you could see the surprise that comes over their faces when you remember their name from the last time you visited or lingered a moment to ask how they are doing… you would risk sounding like a frightened mouse because sometimes it’s not about you. It’s about them.
It taught me that the person who is the most afraid is the one who will be the most demanded. That would be me, by the way. Let me tell you an embarrassing truth – I am afraid of handicapped people. More than a little scared of old people. Their frailty – and let’s be honest – their ugliness… it repulses me. They are not lovable people. They are different and demanding and desperate because so many people have rejected them before. I don’t know if they can sense my fear or not. But somehow I, the one who shrinks away in fear, become their favorite. The one they want to talk to, to hug goodbye. I’m still scared, though.
It taught me that when you learn someone’s name, they become a real person. A human being worthy of love. Virginia was just another little old lady. She was wobbly and used and a walker to get around. I was scared of her. But once she ceased to be a little old lady with a walker and Virginia, I wasn’t scared anymore. She wasn’t ugly and wrinkled and covered with agespots. She was Virginia and she was beautiful.
It taught me that nurses are some of the most heroic people I can think of and that they come in every size and shape imaginable.
It taught me that words are fragile and minds are even more so.
It taught me not to take what I have for granted and what I have is a body that can do anything I set out to do.
It taught me that a person can look exactly the same on the outside, but who they were on the inside is gone forever.
All these lessons were taught to me by a handicapped man named Bobby.