Thank You, Eddie
In the early 80s, I worked for an Easter Seal Rehabilitation Center.
The work we did was mostly physical therapy, speech therapy, and vocational rehabilitation. It was in the north end of Hartford, Connecticut – one of the poorest sections of Hartford. I was glad we were there, even if it was not the best neighborhood. Because that’s where we were needed.
I had spent several years working at another nonprofit – a program that offered services to the elderly. (On Aging and Kindness). There I learned Compassion and Respect. And it carried me well throughout my career.
At Easter Seals, I learned Gratitude.
Because I saw all sorts of people managing with a whole lot less than I had. Financially, physically, mentally. People deal with what Life gives them. It’s what they do. They work with what they have. And I saw how much I had.
Not only with our clients – our employees also made the best of their lot in life. Within my own subordinates, there was a blind medical transcriptionist, a deaf accounting clerk, a bookkeeper with a prosthetic arm. I was thankful that my own physical impairment was trivial. I learned to be less self-conscious of my scoliosis. And I learned that even serious physical handicaps do not define a person. That we are all much more alike than different.
And of course the clients: Living good lives – lives that were full of love and not sorrow. Not DESPITE their handicaps but WITH them. Good lives, with what they knew and what they had. There were those born with cerebral palsy or spina bifida or perhaps a cleft palate. Some may call them abnormalities. I hate that word. These are NORMAL people. The human body comes in more than one style.
Sometimes your body style changes from the one you were born with. And you need to adjust to a new normal. And so we had many clients adjusting to life after a stroke or permanent change from a car accident. (And I try very hard not to be preachy here on my blog, but if we all could understand how fast our lives can change, we would all know the importance of good and affordable medical care for everyone. Don’t tell me that you don’t need insurance because you are healthy. You are healthy today….that’s all.)
So many people showed me in a thousand different everyday ways how lucky I am … what I had to be thankful for.
But especially Eddie.
We had a sheltered workshop that was an important part of our rehabilitation program. We concentrated on providing skills, and sometimes permanent employment, to those with broken or fragile souls. Those folks who not strong enough to manage the stress of the average work environment. Some of our clients had limited intellectual capabilities, or had not quite recovered from nervous breakdowns or other mental illness. Every one of us could benefit from a supportive work environment – these delicate and breakable individuals just needed a little more of it that the rest of us.
Some of our clients – to the outside world – were quite crazy. We helped a woman with partial catatonia train for a job – she could scoop mashed potatoes in a cafeteria line – and did it very well, by the way. We had one guy who was such a germaphobe that he not only sprayed everything with Lysol constantly – he sprayed himself constantly too. Yes, he was a weirdo. But he was OUR weirdo. And we loved him.
And in the sheltered workshop is where I met Eddie.
Eddie had a borderline IQ. He functioned quite well but was easily confused and upset. I never saw his records, but I’d guess Eddie was somewhere on the mild side of the OCD spectrum. He liked to count things and he liked to make neat stacks. One of the subcontracting tasks we regularly took on in the workshop was opening and sorting proxy votes for large companies. Eddie was great at sorting votes.
Eddie had been at the shelter for years. It was his life. He lived on the other, almost-as-poor, side of Hartford and took the bus to and from work. He packed a generous lunch in a big metal lunch box – the kind that makes you think of construction workers sitting on a girder. He was a very good eater but was a slight, skinny man. His nervous energy burned up the calories I suppose. He was probably in his thirties. So was I.
One day I had a meeting at the office of one of our board members. I did not know exactly where the street was. But our facility had a transportation department, because we had a van and picked up wheelchair-bound clients to bring them in for their therapy. So I went to the transportation office and consulted the big map that hung on the wall.
And Eddie walked by the room. He stopped.
“What are you looking at?” he asked me.
“Well, I’m going to somewhere I’ve never been before, so I am checking the map to see where the street is,” I explained.
He was silent for a second. And then he whistled a bit through his teeth. “Wow,” he said. “You must be really smart.”
“Why do you say that?” I asked.
“Because you can read a map. My father says that you have to be really smart to read a map. They’re very confusing.”
And I thought about that. About this man living his life – getting back and forth to work, and making his lunch, and cashing his paycheck. Maybe going to the movies once in a while. Paying his taxes. Just living. With what he had.
“Eddie, you take the bus every day. I can never figure out the bus routes. You must be pretty smart to do that,” I said. And I meant it.
“It’s not so hard once you get the hang of it,” Eddie answered. “I could teach you.”
I left that job soon afterwards. Eddie never taught me the bus routes. But he taught me so much more.
I am thankful that I am strong and healthy today. (I know that can change. So I am thankful for just today.)
But even more than physical strength, I am thankful that I was lucky enough to be born smart.
Eddie taught me to be thankful that everyday chores are not overwhelming for me. I can read a map. I can navigate a computer. I can manage my money. I can understand the fine print in a contract. I can follow a recipe. I can communicate with my doctor.
That shit is HARD. And I can do it.
I don’t take for granted that I can use my brain. I try to use it often.
Thank you, Eddie, for reminding me.
P.S. I also want to thank all of you who helped make Amazon’s free Kindle promotion of JUST WHAT I ALWAYS WANTED such an amazing success! I hope you enjoy the book, and if you do, I hope you also read my new novel, LUCINDA’S SOLUTION.