Bear with me, I’m a little messed up tonight.
I don’t spend time with many people, but I do hang out with one guy. My downstairs neighbor is a decent person who copes with problems you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. He’s middle-aged, he’s got muscular dystrophy and he ekes out an existence on government disability, because if he tried to work full-time, the insurance premiums would kill him. I like Al. Despite the bad times, he’s usually got a smile on his face and he helps me maintain perspective on my mental and emotional garbage.
Now, why this messed me up is pretty simple. Al has a nephew, Jason. Friendly kid, maybe eleven or twelve. Reminds me a lot of me before the monsters closed in. Al asks if I can help help him take Jason to the park. Getting around on that monster motorized scooter is tough for him, especially on the moss-covered concrete of Monroe Park. I popped an extra pill and said yes. I don’t like getting out but if Al can find a way to face the universe, then so can I.
Custom van to fit the wheelchair. Windows down so that Jason doesn’t get carsick. I ride in the back, getting a crash course in what it means to be disabled in America through drips and drabs of conversation. On the flip side, Jason is happy to be outside. Uncle Al can’t get around very much. Jason asks if I’ve ever seen Los Angeles. I resist the impulse to tell him stories about growing up on the Disney lot.
Al’s wheelchair forces him to remain at the perimeter of the playground, so I play zone defense while the kid goes nuts on the monkey bars. He starts telling me about his life and just like Al, I get a crash-course in what it means to live as a sheltered kid in rural Wisconsin with a bi-polar mom. Bullied at school. Teenage brother and sister beat on him for fun. No video games and no Internet. He’s the kid that gets sheltered to death because his older siblings ran wild.
He doesn’t see it, but I do. The shy smile, grateful for every nice thing anyone does for him. I remember that moment. The bright-eyed time in your life when you still believe everything will eventually be okay. Wavering showers of hope that fade when you come to the bitter conclusion that the world hates you, and then you start hating it back. I can see the this kid’s miserable childhood laid out before him like a faded Texaco roadmap. Does this happen to anyone else? I’ve never wanted to fix someone’s life for them so bad in my life. Knowing that I have no right or place or ability to do anything is killing me inside.
I know what my therapist will say about all this. He says I shouldn’t make someone else’s life about me. It’s a throwback, he’ll explain, to me being a damaged kid, and wishing that someone saved me. Now I’m older and I don’t want anyone to go through what I experienced. I know it’s an arrogant thought, making this kid’s world about me, but that’s why I’m getting it out on virtual paper, where I can look at it. Part of my journey is about me dealing with my thoughts: good, bad, or ugly.
No, I can’t save the world. All I can do is write stories for people. Hopefully those stories will find the people like me. Looking for answers, carving meaning out of misery, distilling the pain into art. Other people are, too. Maybe if we can find the answers, maybe we can make the bad things stop. Then I could sleep. I could feel like it was worth it.
But it’s not enough.