Wednesday, May 6, 2009

There but for the grace ....

There was a family in my home town, the P family. As with all small towns, there were many branches to families, and the P family was no exception. Some of the folks were upright citizens, handsome, football-playing guys, and some ....

Charlie was one of the 'some' ... He used to ride around town on a bicycle, clapping his hands and calling out unintelligible gibberish. Charlie was a WWII vet, and had 'shell shock'. He was totally harmless but a bit scary to a child, who would watch him make his 'loop' around the corner outside the house, riding his bike, clapping his hands, and yelling at the top of his lungs. He'd go down 6th street, yelling, past the post office, the library, around the school, up to the East Building, then back down 5th street to complete the loop. Whenever we have parades in town, we made sure they didn't interfere with Charlie's route because he never deviated, day-in, day-out, April through November. In the winter, he walked, shoulders hunched in his shabby coat, muttering, clapping, and yelling in small bursts.

His sister, unfortunate woman, was one of those dowdy women who are destined to be spinsters. She clerked at the library, a mouse-like woman who would walk by our house in her sensible shoes & brown dress, her vinyl purse bouncing on one plump arm. She supported Charlie on his disability and what she could scrape by from her library job.

I remember feeling a vague pity for the P family as I grew up, as well as for Miss B, who was my piano teacher. She had her elderly father living with her, and I remember going to their house for my lessons and thinking, 'oh, lordy, this must be awful, to be trapped in this musty Victorian crypt all day with that old man, blithering away out in the kitchen.'

I grew up in a town that housed the state school for the blind, & many of the children housed there were also mentally disabled. I would watch as they shuffled past our house, some with guide dogs and some with canes. I learned to help them at the corner when their dogs got confused (we were a training center for guide dogs because our town was modestly large, enough so to give the dogs a challenge but not frighten them). We would watch from our kitchen window as the dog hesitated at the somewhat busy corner. My father would wait then say, 'Go give 'em a hand' and one of us kids would go outside and call out, 'Can I give you a pointer on which way to go?' then we'd put a hand on the harness of the guide dog and stare down traffic so the dog could cross. Often a trainer was a block or so back, watching, and they'd give us a high-five to show it was okay.

I think because of this and some other things that happened in youth (a boy being injured in a football game and paralyzed for the rest of his life -- I saw it happen when I was 10 years old, he was the son of a close family friend), I've treasured my abilities and guarded them carefully. I never take physical or mental health for granted because I know, there but for the grace of God, go I.

Charlie P was once a handsome young man who went away to war and came back a grizzled, frightened old man. His sister had dreams and aspirations -- I saw her reading Western novels -- Zane Grey -- as she sat the library desk to check out our books. Did she dream of a cowboy to carry her away? My piano teacher played operatic arias when waiting for us kids to come for our lessons, jaunty, Gilbert & Sullivans tunes that made us laugh. We went swimming with blind kids in the indoor pool at the school and we learned to read Braille in 3rd grade, walking around an entire week at school with our eyes blindfolded so we'd know what it was like.

Yep. Life is a gift. Enjoy it while you can, no matter what is handed to you. Because it can change in an instant with frightening consequences. Every day I think, "A day like this is a gift" and I mean it, because it's a day I'm working, being productive, or just breathing and laughing. I don't care if it's sunny, snowy, or I'm harassed beyond belief.

It's a gift. Treasure it.

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