A few days ago, a family friend passed away. We had known him for about sixteen years, ever since Paul started picking him up from Ridgewood Lodge to bring to church every Sunday morning. He was an unassuming man who had been in poor health most of his life and had dealt with many challenges.
Over the years, his condition had deteriorated from being unsteady on his feet to eventually being wheelchair bound. His struggle to communicate became overwhelming over the years and, toward the end of his life, he could not speak more than one or two words at a time. Diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in his sixties, he began to display occasional symptoms of dementia. In truth, it was difficult for casual acquaintances to know how to relate to him and so avoidance became a pattern.
As Paul had grown close to him over the years, he was asked to notify out of town family and to help out with some of the tasks of winding up the life of his friend. While sorting papers, he had come across a photo of Nick as a young man which he showed to me. I was stunned. Even though there was a fifty-seven year gap between the suffering old man I knew and the big boned handsome teenager in the photo, I recognized him. I also saw the ominous symptoms of his future in the slight paralysis on the right side of his face. It made me want to weep for him.
I began to recall a few of the stories about Nick’s adventurous spirit over the years of residence in Ridgewood Lodge. It regularly manifested itself in silent, determined efforts to escape for a few hours. We all worried about what would happen should he succeed.
Thereafter, Paul made a special effort to spring him for a drive or a lunch out in a restaurant.
The biggest getaway of all was a one week visit to Disneyland five years ago. Everyone who knew Nick could see that his health was approaching a point where bucket lists were soon to be a thing of the past. He had expressed his desire for the big adventure in a rare moment of clarity. He also made it clear that his chosen traveling companion would be Paul. It was a wild time for him if you judge by the photo record of a maniacally grinning man in a wheelchair and an exhausted accomplice. He did it all, including the California Screamin’ roller coaster.
Somewhere we have a photo of Nick at church tenderly holding a four day old baby, the newest member of the congregation. Then, there is also the one of Nick at the Gamestown 2010 Olympic celebrations, proudly carrying a symbolic torch in the relay ceremony.
So why am I telling you this? I suppose it’s because I want you to know that Nick and others who suffer and who are often hard for us to be with because of their suffering, need the rest of us to recognize their dignity and their humanity. Underneath the stumbling, stuttering and yes, even things like drooling and being incontinent, there is a human soul who feels joy, frustration, humiliation and excitement.
Nick was a Christian and a faithful church member. His favorite hymn of all, which he sang with gusto and a miraculous lack of stuttering was I’ll Fly Away.
I believe he has flown away to glory and that finally his suffering has been relieved. He’s having his greatest adventure of all and that’s a very, very good thing!