Sometimes I wish I could go back in time- not to change anything. Just to feel a few things twice.
Donald was a 74 year old man that I met on the side of a road. Yes, you read that right- I met him on the side of the road. He used to sit in his wheelchair outside of the extended care facility he lived in. I drove by this facility many times each week. Any fair weather day would find Donald waving and smiling at the cars passing by. For many hundreds of days, I was one of those cars that passed him. Then one day I decided to pull over- and take a closer look. It turned out to be a decision that truly changed how I saw the world.
I spent the next 7 years visiting him faithfully in the care facility he called home. He became a trusted friend and someone that my children considered to be like family. What emerged from that split second decision to stop on the side of the road was a deep and abiding friendship with a man who was as close to an angel as anyone I have ever known.
In our very first conversation he explained to me that he was a ‘Spastic’ ; he suffered from a type of Cerebral Palsy that resulted in his body being continually wracked with muscle spasms, unwanted gyrations and facial grimaces. He had spent most of his life strapped into a wheelchair that his body bucked wildly against, the way a young colt might fight against imposing barn walls. His spasms had a language all their own and once you got to know him there was a real dialogue that he spoke with his entire being
I met him during a period of my life when my faith in men had grown quite dim. This had not gone unnoticed by Donald. He was a fiercely intelligent man who had embraced the life he was given and had few regrets. The one regret he had shared with me, was that he had never let himself fall deeply in love. The opportunity had presented when he was in his early thirties, but fear had stopped him. He did not mince words when he told me that regardless of what I had been through in the past, I should never let fear stop me from reaching for love. I wanted to embrace his words, but I had given up on ever finding my knight in shining armor. To this end, there was more than one February in a row that found Donald as my designated ‘Valentine’ – and it was a running joke between us.
Years later found me dating the man who is now my husband. A few short weeks after we met, I decided I wanted him to meet Donald. It was a litmus test I had given to a few other ‘suitors’ through the years and I found that most men who were interested in dating me, were not at all interested in meeting or spending time with Donald. I had figured out a long time ago that I could learn a lot about someone by watching their reaction to how Donald and I rolled. A visit to him could include anything from enjoying a wheelchair stroll through the facility with him to putting a bib on him and spooning his ‘thick-it’ infused food into his mouth. Whatever transpired, a visit to Donald was a great test of a man’s character.
On the day Brian and I were visiting Donald, we did so while on the way to see a basketball game my then 13 year old son was playing in. We were telling Donald about the game and he was eagerly listening to the details. Before I knew what was happening, Brian was asking Donald if he wanted to come with us. Donald nodded a giddy affirmation. I didn’t think Brian had any idea what he had just signed up for….but whether he realized it or not, he never back tracked a bit. The next half hour was spent doing the necessary paperwork to take Donald on an outing. I will never forget watching this gentle giant of a man tenderly lift Donald from his wheelchair and into the front seat of my car. When we arrived at the gym he did the same thing in reverse and then proceeded to push Donald into the gym in his wheelchair. (Today’s graphic is a pic from that outing.) When we returned to the nursing home a few hours later, as Brian picked him up and set him down once more, an exhausted Donald looked up at him and thanked him profusely. He looked back at me with a grin and a wink, and I knew that he knew, he would not need to by my surrogate Valentine anymore.
The fairytales convince us that there will be a knight in shining armor that will carry us away…. but in my life I recognized my knight by watching how he carried someone else.