By Mark E. Smith
I’ve been around so many with disabilities, and heard so many stories about how disability unexpectedly enters people’s lives – from a birth accident to a never-before-seen disease – that I’m rarely surprised by what I hear. After all, I understand that any of our lives can change in an instant.
Still, when such a life change occur to someone who I personally know, it always thought provoking.
My acquaintance, Lou, is the type of person who a wife never wants her husband to hangout with. Lou’s the frat boy who never grew up, who if you meet up with him at a bar after work, it’s going to be a long night of carousing. To make matters worse, Lou’s part-time job has been as a one-man act, singing and playing guitar at bars a few nights per week. All of this adds up to the fact that if you are around Lou, booze and chicks aren’t far – which explains why he’s the type that our wives warn us of!
But, even my wife and sister love Lou. We’d go see him playing on a Wednesday night, and he’d give into my wife’s request, and play a Bon Jovi tune, her favorite, sounding every bit like Jon Bon Jovi, even though he hated every minute of it. And, Lou’s notorious for getting my brother-in-law in ridiculous amounts of trouble, bar hoping late into the night, but my sister could never stay mad at Lou due to his jovial, kid-like zest.
In my own hanging out with Lou, I learned that he was big into mountain bike racing, so through my roles in the wheelchair industry, I know wheel manufacturers in the bike industry, too, and I was able to hook him up with a wheel sponsor, for which he was appreciative. And, I’ve even taken my daughter to see Lou play his music, where he joked around with her like a big clown with a guitar.
So, eight weeks ago, we were all shocked when we got the news: Lou was in the hospital – at a trauma center out of town, no less.
From my career, I know that one only goes to an out-of-town trauma center when something is really wrong. But, what could have possibly happened to Lou that was so serious that he was rushed to a trauma center?
Was Lou an idiot, and got in a drunk-driving accident? After all, Lou’s been known to drink more than a bit when a good time is to be had.
Or, did Lou go over the handlebars of his mountain bike, maybe resulting in a head or spinal cord injury?
These were my first two thoughts; however, neither was the case.
Lou was simply at home one evening, watching his two small children alone, when he collapsed to the floor. At 33 years old, the eternal frat boy, Lou, had a major stroke, effecting both sides of his brain – his entire life screeching to a halt in an instant.
Fortunately, swift medical care saved Lou’s life. Yet, as you can imagine, the effects of his stroke are profound, affecting the right side of his body and his speech, requiring that he uses a wheelchair. Still, Lou’s cognitive skills thankfully remain, where he wishes to return to 90% capacity, namely because he states that he was only 80% before. That’s Lou!
My sister and brother-in-law went to visit Lou in rehab several weeks ago. My sister, of course, has grown up around me and others with disabilities, and has been fighting cancer, herself, during the past year, so she certainly went to visit Lou with greater empathy than others might posses, understanding how life changes in an instant.
Interestingly, my sister shared with me that Lou asked how I was. I couldn’t help but wonder if, now in his own wheelchair, Lou thought about me and my disability in a different light? I mean, was he asking about me as just another friend, or was there some understanding that, as the only guy in a wheelchair who he knew, I might somehow understand what he was going through?
On the other hand, what was I to say to Lou? I knew realities that others around him might not, that the obvious symptoms from the stroke were just a small piece of the puzzle, that he likely has a long road ahead of him, probably filled with frustrations, financial hardships, and stress that he’s never known. Yet, with perseverance and strength – that is, an understanding that life doesn’t knock us down without presenting us the opportunity to rise even higher than before – he could also not only get through these toughest of times, but even find a clarity within his life that would inspire him toward new directions of growth, empowering him to greater roles of success as a father, husband, friend, and colleague. Was this the talk to have, sharing with Lou that the fundamental key to succeeding in his situation – in any of our situations – is not to dwell on what we’ve lost, but to value where we are and focus on where we’re going?
Yet, I also understood that Lou was still Lou, and who was I to presume that he needed anything from me other than what had always been our relationship – that is, as just another guy hanging out, regardless of disability?
I opted to play it by ear, and had the privilege of attending a benefit for Lou this past week. Of course, Lou is Lou, so while there was a refreshing number of others with disabilities in attendance from his rehab center, it was an overall crazy rock-n-roll bash at a nightclub, with a bunch of bands, and more hot babes and booze than I’ve seen in quite awhile – all raising funds for Lou and his children.
And, when I ran into Lou in the lobby, I couldn’t help but be myself, treating him as the guy I know, pulling my wheelchair beside his, placing my hand on his shoulder, and razzing him a bit, stating, “Welcome to the gang, brother – may you not be a life-long member.”
Even he had to laugh at my warped – but well-intended – sentiments. Indeed, sometimes the best words of support and encouragement come in the form of the sickest of humor.