Until I met Cerebral Palsy Man I secretly believed that my happiness was determined by circumstance. I’d never admit that of course, because I know I’m supposed to believe that I determine my own happiness. But I didn’t believe that. Not really. How could I? I’d never seen it before. I had no role models.
That was before I met Cerebral Palsy Man.
I discovered him while doing my clinical hours in a local nursing home which…may I be frank here?…repelled me. It’s not that it was filthy or filled with evil staff or anything. It wasn’t. While there was a faint aroma of urine that pervaded the place, and the quality of work smelled of a corresponding by-the-hour ethic, no one I met there seemed to harbor any ill intent towards the residents. The place itself just seemed to drain them. Physically, emotionally, and spiritually. It was like a black hole for positive energy–no matter how much you started out with when you first arrived, by the end of the day the run down furnishings and endless, linoleum hallways littered with sagging people in wheelchairs sucked it right out of you.
I’m not alone in thinking that institutionalizing illness and aging isn’t working. Pretty much everyone dreads these places. I’ve never met a single human being that’s told me Boy howdy! I just can’t wait to get old so I can go live in a nursing home. While there’s an excellent movement afoot to try and change this sorry state of affairs, to date (as we all know but still deny whenever we have to we drop off one of our own elders) nursing homes are by and large depressing places.
Yet strangely enough it was here, in this horrible environment, that I discovered the surprising existence of Cerebral Palsy Man. He was a gentleman in his seventies who’d been living with the disease all his life–had in fact resided in a string of nursing home-type environments since he’d first been institutionalized in his twenties. To my mind, after what must have been a long and miserable existence (right?) he should have been reduced to little more than a lump–a morose, dejected huddle of a human being just waiting and wishing to die.
But au contraire!
How wrong and riddled with stereotypical thinking I was. Instead of some sad and depressing lump of a man I found a total radical. In spite of the fact that he couldn’t bathe, dress, toilet, shave, transfer, turn, or feed himself, he was outrageously happy. Contagiously so. Everyone loved him. The only time I didn’t see him smiling was when he had to stop and open his mouth for a spoonful of the pureed, mystery meat they served for lunch that day. Otherwise, he sailed up and down the hallways in his electric wheelchair, singing out a warm and (to my inexperienced ear) totally unintelligible greeting to everyone he passed including his new roommate and blushing bride–a plump and cheerful, equally helpless woman who shared his name, bathroom, and cerebral palsy diagnosis.
So what was wrong with this man you ask? Why didn’t he just knuckle under and curl up in defeat as required? Everyone else living in that awful place seemed to get it. The majority of them were actually far more independent than he was but still obediently complaining and morose. Why didn’t he conform? What made him think he could be different?
Aha! But our Cerebral Palsy Man was no novice. He had a gift that few of the others there shared–an entire lifetime of dependency and debilitation. He’d had over seventy years to adjust and adapt to not only the strict boundaries his body dictated, but the grim institutional settings they’d landed him in. And–here’s the real kicker–he’d used that time to nose around and discover a secret that most of us never do:
Limits don’t in any way restrict our ability to make miracles. Because they can’t. How could they? Limits and miracles don’t even exist in the same dimension.
It’s like the difference between the world of time and space that exists within the speed of light and then the mystery that exists out beyond it. His body (and the dreary hallways and overworked staff and pee odor and bad food) all belonged to the slower, visible, measurable world. But Cerebral Palsy Man had managed to launch out somewhere beyond into a radiant realm brimming with unreasonable joy and enthusiasm. Trapped for life in a nursing home for godsakes, and this man (my role model, my idol, my superhero) was totally and irrationally happy anyway. That was his miracle.
Well, let me tell you it didn’t take much time spent in his company for the sleeping radical in me to sit up and take note, too. She studied him for a little while, then looked back at the gray people, then looked back at him again, and finally whistled low and long. Whewee, she said. Fuck following the herd then. I want whatever he’s having.
And really I ask you–if he can do it, then why can’t I? So what if I’m a depressive? So what if I’m a multi-phobic person with a dissociative disorder? So what if I spend more time curled up in the fetal position than your average Joe? Evidently, if I want to go ahead and be irrationally happy anyway, I can. All I need is a cape, a grin, and somebody to show me the way.
Bingo! And now I want to be just like Cerebral Palsy Man.
copyright 2010 Dia Osborn
Awesome! What an incredible mentor Dia 🙂
He was. It was a real lesson for me that the environment can contribute to, but not determine, how we feel. It was also the first time I encountered the strange twist that early debilitation offers a gift. I still live with a deep fear of becoming disabled or chronically debilitated because deep down I think it would ruin my life. People like Cerebral Palsy Man have already passed through that gate and lived with the disability long enough to discover it’s not true. I could be wrong but it sure seems like the freedom coming from that would be mind blowing! My big question is, is it possible to lose the fear before one becomes debilitated?