The above question was the first of many I asked across two summers working at Touch of Nature, a summer camp for physically and mentally challenged. Each question resulted in a breakthrough. Each breakthrough was puzzling on its own, yet combined, they created a multifaceted, profound epiphany.
Seriously, ask yourself – “how long has it been since you bit your own fork?” If you are able bodied, the answer is probably never. Truly never.
Yet this question glared at me like a neon billboard on that first Sunday evening dinner of my first summer at Touch. I was sitting alongside Mike Ryan, a camper in his 50s, wheelchair bound, with pretty bad cerebral palsy. What good luck to feed him. And have him in my cabin. Think of having an unassuming Zen master in your presence for 2 weeks. What would you pay for that experience and related lessons? As of that evening, I had yet to learn what made Mike remarkable. Or that he would be one of the biggest influences of my world view. What did I find so inspiring? It was his positive outlook – – so steely, so unwavering – – Superman was akin to a soggy Kleenex.
I had just met Mike about 3 hours earlier. Already one thing was clear – – he is one of those guys who cracks a clever joke every 10 mins. All day, every day. His unblinking gaze sees the whimsy and the precious nature of each moment. Something I had a poor appreciation of at that point in my life.
But I also quickly learned that words going from his brain to his mouth went thru an insidious, tireless verbal Moulinex machine. The upshot: his speech almost unintelligible. Yet Mike was up for the challenge. Patiently, he repeated the punchline 5 or 6 times. At last, when I could make sense of his whimsical jab I would chuckle as the jokes were that good. But he’d mutter, “well the timing’s gone to hell.” And it had. Mike was very clear minded about his situation, making his upbeat disposition all the more remarkable.
Ten minutes later, another wise crack slipped out of his mouth, with a twinkle in his eyes.
I still recall we had lasagna for dinner at that first dinner. Mike’s mouth opened wide, cavernously even. “How odd,” I thought to myself. I filled a fork and pointed it at him. My fork slid in unwittingly. With a fierce snap, his jaws chomped down on the utensil and gripped it like a bear trap. I was shocked at the ferocity – we’re eating overcooked lasagna, not killing a live boar. Then came the real surprise – – pulling the fork out took real effort. Further, my entire constitution shivered as I felt the steel scraping on Mike’s teeth. Seriously? What was this all about? I had yet to learn that during meals, Mike’s mouth had two positions – open and shut.
I reloaded and scrutinized his mouth. I was not about to fail him again. Mike eyed me. I could not help but notice – – no more jokes from him. His face seemed to say, “oh no, this guy’s an amateur. It’s going to be a very, very long two weeks.”
I muttered, “Don’t let him down, Abe, get this right.”
But it would be wishful thinking. Not just this time, but a third time too. I was beside myself, profusely apologizing.
Mike was cool, kept mumbling something that sounded like, “you’ll get it yet” – yet the jokes were gone. Shit – no jokes? I’m that bad, eh? Fix this, Abe, puh-lease fix this. Feeding was not that straightforward, eh? Was I this poor at it? His gaze made one thing clear: he was looking at a neophyte. I was a feeder from the farm leagues, assigned to Mike’s big league jaw.
The fourth time was my first success and truly the end of my dinner time failures with Mike. But feeding was never a completely casual excursion with my CPs. Conversation was a low, low priority.
|Saying Farewell to Mike, July, 1983
Copyright 1983 Abe Pachikara (click for larger image)
More important, this moment raised the first of many questions, a hundred times a day. “When was the last time I had bit a fork?” In all my memory, I could not remember even one. “Why me?” and also, “Why Mike?” were yet more puzzling and to this day remains a mystery. Why didn’t Mike complain all day long about his station in life? If Mike – – a wheel chair bound guy with cerebral palsy that people keep mistaking for retardation can see the good in each moment – – well he’s a superlative point of reference. If he’s a “North Star,” at what point could I bellyache about my situation? And yes, Mike Ryan is one of my North Stars.
On that Sunday, at that dinner, I had begun to re-orient myself, and establish a new measure of my own health and treasures.
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