“When I was a boy and would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”
He could still walk in elementary school.
To be honest, I don’t remember exactly when he went from being a boy who walked to one who came to school in a wheelchair. My friend Criss, who has the best memory, will know. She remembers such things.What I do remember with certainty is that even when he could still walk, it looked like a tremendous amount of work. There are tiny snapshots on the shelves of my mind of the sandy-haired boy with the arched back. How he took small, careful, steps. How his legs seemed to operate separate from his torso and how he swung his arms to help him keep his balance. The rest of us were careful around him, not wanting to knock him down accidentally as we ran and played on the playground at recess. He made us more gentle. More aware.
This was in the early 1970’s, decades before the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed and public spaces like schools had to be handicapped accessible. Years before elevators were the norm in public elementary and high schools. I remember the big study hall on the top floor of the old high school with the concrete spiral staircase the led from the top floor to the ground floor down the hall. How other boys in our class picked up that boy and his wheelchair daily to move him from the top of the school to the bottom down that staircase. This would never happen today. There would be numerous meetings and discussions about “liability” and “safety concerns” and “compliance” instead of discussions about who would pick the boy in the wheelchair up and help him. It usually took two or three boys to move the boy and his chair. Strong boys who spent their time outside of school on the football field and basketball court and climbing deer stands. If there was a rush between classes and they were on the spiral stairs, the rest of us waited, out of the way. He made us more patient. More tolerant.
We all graduated from high school. Said our goodbyes and went our separate ways into the world to places that had stoplights. He passed away some years later. While he was fighting for his life, the rest of us were busy learning and growing and trying to make ends meet. We were falling in and out of love and reaching milestones that lucky young adults meet. His life, and premature death, made us appreciate what we had just a little more.
I think of him now and then. How he was just one of us in a class of less than a hundred kids in a tiny town without a single stop light. A town that others passed through on their way to some place else. I wonder who he’d be today, had he lived.
I wonder who the rest of us would be today, had he not been a part of our lives.