He’s a quadriplegic, born with cerebral palsy, unable to steady his eyes enough to read, his arms and chest strapped into an electric wheelchair to help him sit up.
Did I mention he’s smarter than a Harvard grad, more intuitive than a psychic, as loyal as your best friend, and wears a smile brighter than a 100-watt bulb?
On a recent visit, I sit on his porch, feeling a fall breeze lightly surround us along with the Beatles music playing in the background.
“Yesterday,” C says in a fond tone, and I burst out laughing.
C and I discovered each other when I was hired to be his special ed tutor at the local high school. I was scared to death of teaching such a physically disabled teenager: his speech was affected by his cerebral palsy, so he sounded like a deep Southerner with a dozen marbles in his mouth; he tended to jostle his wheelchair joystick like a teenager’s foot on a snappy roadster (watch out for your ankles, I was warned when I signed on); and his body moved spasmodically if he got too excited or aggravated.
But I had not been told that he could retain information faster than a lightning bolt, and that his hearing put a dog’s to shame.
We’d roll down the high school hallway, passing Room 15 on our way to Room 17 for math. Suddenly C would state: “What a shame that Mrs. Johnson’s husband is in the hospital. At least her daughter is flying home from Ohio to visit.”
I’d stop mid-stride in the empty hallway (watching out for my ankles) and ask, “How do you know that?”
“Oh, back in Room 15 just now, Mrs. Johnson is talking about her troubles to Ms.Wanda.”
Perhaps C was nosy, but he also felt great empathy for those secrets he heard on his hallway forays.
During our three years of working together as tutor/student, we shared a love of Beatles music. So over lunchtime, when I fed him his turkey sandwich and lemonade (did I mention that C is unable to feed himself?) we’d listen to Twist & Shout and Here Comes the Sun while talking about the Red Sox and the weather, Lord of the Flies and why algebra was (not) important.
But then during one lunch, C asked me to sing to him. “You know all the words,” he said. “Please please sing Yesterday (our favorite Beatles tune).”
If a 17-year-old brown-haired, brown-eyed earnest teenager pleaded with you to sing a Beatles tune, could you refuse?
I began as C chewed on his turkey and cheese.
Um, did I mention I can’t carry a tune?
In C’s blessed, blasted teenage fashion, he began to chuckle as I sang. I ignored him and continued, “All my troubles seem so far away…”
C’s chuckles turned to guffaws.
“Now I need a place to hide away, oh I believe, in…”
I learned that day that one should never make a wheel-chaired, disabled young man laugh while he’s eating. His giggles became burps which became hiccups which became acute stomach distress.
As I raced for the nurse, I could hear C still laughing uproariously in the distance.
He was rushed to the nurse’s station.
His mother was called.
His doctor, too.
But you know what?
He never told anyone that his stomach distress was caused by the horrendous singing of his high school tutor.
We’ve been fast friends ever since.
C is now 28 years old, still “mildly disabled,” and yes, he still asks me to sing Yesterday every time I come to visit.
I won’t even hum the song.