A Man Who Counted On Me
By Paul Schweer
A tall athletic kid with his fair share of smarts, Frank had never had any trouble keeping up. There was no reason why he wouldn't take a dive off a high spot, follow his friends into the water, and break back up through the surface like they did. Up from the deep, after a moment, tossing their hair; blowing their held breath; treading water while calling out to one another.
It felt like a sort of electric shock.
I'd always thought a quadriplegic had no use of legs or arms, but Frank could move his arms some. He couldn't grip anything with his hands, but he could hold or move things on a tabletop by pressing his hands together. Took me a while to learn what he needed, and what he didn't. Took a while longer to be comfortable with his struggling with a fork, to enjoy my meal while he fumbled with his.
I would drive him to work, pick him up in the evenings. His chair didn't have a motorized drive.
He told me, "Pushing this damn thing is the only exercise I get." But it was a long way from his desk to the parking lot, so I would push him there and back through the crowded corridors. We'd often be rolling and I'd hear him say a quiet profanity, then ask me to slow down. Some person or another would stop and smile at him. He would reach his hand out for something like a shake, smile back and talk with them, listen until they let him go.
He was in a chair, and that was it. He ended up at home doing nothing all day. His friends stopped coming by after a while. His girlfriend sent him a couple notes. She was just eighteen, like him, but she was on her feet.
Frank's folks didn't know what to do with him. Eventually they found a place and sent him there. He didn't want to go, didn't want anything.
It was a hard place: A lot of hard work, if you were up to it, hard lessons if you weren't. He spent the first sessions lying on the floor. Everyone started there, lifted from their chairs and lain out on the mats. One worked up to other things from there. Those who weren't up to it stayed on the floor.
"You want to be a cripple? You want to act like a cripple? It's up to you."
Frank could, years later, quote word for word; remember the names of those who pushed him; explain why he was better off for it; express his gratitude for being sent there. But that was later, some time later.
He eventually earned a degree and went to work as an accountant for a small hospital that was just starting up. A few years later that hospital sold out to a much larger one. Frank was always proud that he'd been on the books from the beginning to the very end. He was kept on by the big hospital, given a spot in the accounting department. By the time I met him they had him on the phones taking incoming calls, sitting behind a low counter by the entrance. He wasn't happy about it and went back to school to learn what he could about computers; had to be better than riding the phones.
When he completed the program he got a new boss, in some other part of accounting. The new boss was a good guy, a smart guy when it came to finances and computers, but he didn't know what to do with Frank. Frank started out answering the guy's phone.
But, after a while he was given stuff to do. Frank couldn't control his fingers, let alone type, so he would wedge an unsharpened pencil between the fingers of his right hand, hunt the keyboard, and peck out a letter with the eraser—little stuff at first. Then bigger stuff. Stuff he would get done.
He would start the day with a big stack of pencils lying by his keyboard. He would pick one up and get at it, lose his grip and drop it after a time, pick up another and keep going. By the time I picked him up in the evening pencils would be scattered all over. He would smile big and say, pointing at all the pencils on the floor, "Give me a hand with these, will yah?"
His legs, over which he had no control, would take control of him at times. Sitting in his chair one or the other leg would jump and twitch violently until lifted and stretched. Nearly every morning as he woke, his legs would spasm. His knees would fly to his chest, and throw him onto his side.
It was something that had to be dealt with. One of his legs, if it got going, could slide him right out of his wheelchair. Frank would, typically, take hold of the leg and pull it, moving it until it settled down. Sometimes he would ask for a little help. Sometimes he would turn his knuckles down, make two fists as best he could, and beat the offending limb with his limp hands. Curse a part of himself. Flail at it while it danced.
I had a little apartment off the side of his house, and I pretty much stayed there when he didn't need me. But we got into a habit for a season. On Mondays I would walk over and join him for beer and a little football. We'd order a pizza and eat it during half time. I usually fell asleep before the fourth quarter.
Frank couldn't get out of bed without help. He couldn't take a shower without help. He couldn't get dressed, he couldn't drink a beer, he couldn't move his bowels without help.
But he insisted on brushing his own teeth. Never mind that about once a week the toothpaste or toothbrush or both would end up on the floor—he'd call for a little help, after a little cussing. He would comb his own hair. He would cut his own meatloaf.
He did what he could. And he made it no big deal.
Frank died in his sleep. It had been years since I'd seen him. I went to his memorial. I sat in his kitchen with his mother. I helped go through his things. I sorted the contents of his dresser drawers, and put the family pictures I found there on the empty wheelchair left sitting by his bed. I didn't do much; he needed only just that little bit more help.
He was a man who counted on me, but not too much.
Paul is a frequent contributor to VerbSap. His last work published in the magazine was Turning What Remained.
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