Often I feel myself being instantly drawn to another person – my soul senses something special there. With some, it is that “kindred spirit” sort of connection, that split-second bonding that immediately wraps itself around your heart. It’s an inexplicable recognition of a like-minded life. This is, perhaps, a bit of a reflective experience – we recognize something of ourselves in this person that we’ve met. Maybe it’s a wacky sense of fun and humor, or a love of adventure, or a deep faith, and we know right away that we will like each other. This kind of encounter often leads to a life-long friend, or maybe just the best bus ride (or comparable experience) of your life. Whether the connection has an opportunity to grow and blossom for years, or is one of those “ships passing in the night” encounters, these are friendships that can transform our lives, because each time it happens, it is the drawing near of two souls who will forever be changed. Other encounters are more like a magnetic pull. I can meet someone and sense the peace and beauty and unselfish love, and I am irresistibly gathered in, like a moth to a flame. However, unlike the danger that is posed to the moth, I often find hope, inspiration, and a better understanding of life.
One such life collided with mine a few years back. He was my son-in-law’s grandfather, and I knew right away that he would be a source of illumination to me. He was in his late 70’s when I met him, and he was confined to a wheelchair, suffering the effects of post-polio syndrome, but his eyes shone with happiness, gratitude, and just the right hint of mischievousness. Those eyes seemed to offer an invitation to enter in, and, since I’m not the shy type, I started chatting with him and asking questions the first chance I got. He was more than willing to open up to me. As a matter of fact, he turned out to be one of the best story-tellers I have ever met. He and his wife told the greatest (albeit quietly lived) adventure and love stories there could ever be!
Chuck was stricken with polio when he was young. He was in his teens at the time, living in a very small town in western Minnesota, and the disease affected him severely. He had to be taken from his family to the closest big city hospital, and stay there with all the other suffering patients, enclosed in an iron lung. His life was spared, but the polio had taken its toll upon his body. He was able to walk again, for a while, but eventually, his muscles began to deteriorate. By the time I met him, some sixty years later, he was a professional driver of a motorized wheelchair. He could maneuver that thing through the tightest of spaces, without running over toes or bumping into things. He even had a cute little lap-desk sort of thing that he had built for himself (or at least, that’s what I thought it was when I first saw it). As it turns out, Chuck had quite the engineering mind, and he was a talented problem solver and craftsman. His homemade contraption was more like a mini, padded bench, and he had designed and built it to fit tightly over his legs, to keep them from flopping off to the side and getting whacked by door frames, church pews, and other such obstacles. The padded, lap-desk feature was just a little extra he added on, to make it more comfortable for resting his arms on (and, possibly for grandkids climbing up, too!). He was, without a doubt, an optimistic, cheerful problem-solver, and his wife was right there beside him, supporting and encouraging him.
Pat took care of him daily, with a track installed in the ceiling of their modest home to aid with Chuck’s transport from their bedroom to the bathroom. She served him with selfless vigor and love, helping him with his daily activities and feeding him home-cooked meals, complete with the best desserts ever! When I would venture north (on one of my Megabus mama adventures), I would not let the visit slip by without a trip to their house. I needed to feast upon their gifts as often as possible – the gifts of their stories, their beautiful example, their shining lights that set my heart aglow, and (how could I leave out) Pat’s sumptuous sweets, baked with artistry and affection.
The winter of ’13 -’14 proved to be a rough one for Chuck, with several infections and hospitalizations. He followed his daily lung therapy routine religiously, but it was no longer enough to clear out all the fluid and mucous that would build up. His muscles were getting weaker, and his loved ones watched with concern, while Chuck just kept on smiling…a weaker smile than usual, perhaps, but always an ever joyful heart. But, when my family went for our annual Fourth of July trip to Minny that summer, Pat was the one who was in the hospital. She had some health issues, too, and her body had finally said, “Enough!” When I visited her in the hospital, I was saddened to see how weak and worn out she appeared – nothing like the energetic, vibrant lady I knew. Their family kicked into high gear, helping to care for Chuck until Pat was well enough to come home, and then arranging daily care-giving help for them once she was home. As Pat regained her strength, things returned to nearly normal for the two of them. However, Chuck’s health was still extremely precarious.
My most recent visit to Minnesota was in the fall of 2014, and I ended up catching a cold from my granddaughter, and felt I should not take the chance of making my usual visit to see Chuck and Pat. I wrestled with that choice, because I knew, at this point, it might be too late the next time, but I could not take a chance of compromising his health. Sure enough, Chuck ended up back in the hospital, in January, and this time, it was bad. He had been courageously battling the effects of polio for over 65 years, and it looked as though the polio would finally win. This time, there was a breathing tube inserted, and Chuck was kept sedated for several days, as they waited to see if things would clear up on their own. They didn’t. On January 23rd, the family made the choice to take “Papa” off of the respirator. It was a sound, moral option at this point, and it was what Chuck wanted. Before long, he perked up and was very alert and interacting with the family. He knew what was happening, and he was ready to leave this earth. From what I heard, he was even joking and laughing, and cheering up the family. The mood had been very somber in the days prior, when he had been sedated and unresponsive, then suddenly, the shining light of Chuck was reignited, just long enough to share his joy and love just one more time before saying good-bye.
My daughter had been keeping me updated on his condition, and my heart was in turmoil. I wanted so badly to be there with the family, but it was just not possible. At work that morning, I had to keep “hiding” from my client, so that I could wipe my tears. I was shaking and upset – not so much because I knew that Chuck was dying, but I was worried about him suffering, and I was, quite selfishly, heart-broken that I was so far away. I was the moth, too far from the flame, but longing to take wing. I stayed in touch with my daughter, and she told me about how the atmosphere of the hospital room had radiated with Chuck’s unending joy, faith, and peace. Before too long, he began to grow quiet, and his breathing became labored, and he passed from this life that very day, surrounded by his loving family. When I received the text from my daughter, telling me that it was over, I closed my eyes, and envisioned a bright light shooting across the dark sky, a light that reached right down to me, and radiated in my soul…because, truly, that’s what Chuck was. He’s no longer here with us, but his light shines on in every life he touched, and especially in the lives of his beautiful family. Rest in peace, Chuck, and thank you for the brightness of your life, that illuminates our paths and warms our hearts, until we meet again.