By Mark E. Smith
The way John drove his power chair still amazes me. It was as if he was merely an occupant as the power chair raced around by itself. Maybe it was the way his body jostled as a result of a lack of muscle strength due to quadriplegia? Or, maybe it was the way his curled hand didn’t appear to fully grasp the joystick. Whatever the case, John, in his power chair, flew down Portland’s sidewalks at 6 MPH with a careless whimsy I’ve never seen elsewhere, where one would think, Man, that power chair is going to kill that guy! And, it did toss him out a time or two – no harm done.
I’ve stopped believing in the finality of death, not in the sense of the departed, but for the living. This has come up for me most recently due to being reminded of John’s life and death, as a bio-pic of his life has made headlines. Another part of it is my own age and disability, having to face my own mortality. It’s all causing me to deeply ponder what death really means for the surviving loved ones? What remains of us when we pass?
The answer I’ve realized is, most of us remains, especially in the lives of those we impacted the most. My mother, father, and stepfather remain in my thoughts and dreams years after their deaths – some fond, some difficult. I’ve been inclined lately toward the fond. My wife and I were grocery shopping and she showed me the most perfect nectarine. I don’t recall seeing one since I was a child, my mother often feeding them to me. For a moment, my mother was there. My father and I didn’t speak much over my life, but we did for a span in my 20s, and he’d say the same words whenever I answered his calls: “Hey, what are ya doing?” I inexplicably find myself saying that to my oldest daughter when I call, and catch myself, for a moment flashing back to my father calling me. Every once in a while, I enter our empty kitchen in the morning and imagine my stepfather happily making coffee as among the reasons that I was onboard with buying our farmhouse is that he would have loved it. And, as for my disability contemporaries who’ve passed, I occasionally pull up YouTube or Facebook, and there they are, the same. John is alive, eight years after his passing, singing, playing the harmonica.
When we were children, we were most likely taught the finality of death. When someone died, we were told that they were gone forever, never coming back. Sometimes we were told that bluntly; other times, more softly, that they went to Heaven, watching over us. Yet, as one who’s experienced loss, I now know that what we were taught was wrong. There’s little finality to death for the living. Those passed remain with us, alive in so many ways. This realization, based on my experience, has brought me tremendous comfort, both toward those I’ve had pass and toward those who will one day experience my passing.
If you’ve had others pass in your life, I’m sure that you can relate to this paradox: They’re physically not present, but remain in our lives in so many ways, appearing often, as simply as via a nectarine.
This isn’t to say that grief, loss, and sadness – all debilitating at times – don’t exist. Of course they do. The loss of anyone close in our lives is devastating. Yet, again, so much still exists, not just via memories and remembrances, but in the seemingly tangible – a nectarine. In this way, the physicality of body is gone, but the person always remains with us.
My wife and I saw the trailer for the John Callahan bio-pic. There’s a clip of Joaquin Phoenix, who plays John, driving down the sidewalk in a power chair. My wife noted that every movement appeared exactly as john. And, I thought, It is John.