Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Tragedy, Loss and Other Happy Thoughts

Mark mumbles.

Mark also wears a day glo orange baseball cap on his closely cropped hair, suspenders that keep his pants below his protruding belly but at least up, and a sweat stained t-shirt. He drags his right leg slightly as he walks his "route" around my hometown.

When I was in my 30s, I heard that teenaged Mark had been in an accident. The town rallied with prayers and family support as he came out of a coma. They prayed harder when the recovery started. Then, they still held out hope for the Mark they'd known to return.

He didn't. Now almost two decades later, the town that rallied often runs when they see him heading in their direction. As we say in these parts, "Mark just ain't right."

The town does support him. Odd jobs keep him busy. Everyone does chat with him or at least attempt to because, really, all you can understand are one or two words in the stream of sounds coming from him.

My stepfather is one of his benefactors. He keeps him sweating with outdoor jobs that no one else in town would want to do and especially with the demanding tone that Doc often uses when he's focused on a task. Mark does them with a mumble or he simply leaves and comes back the next day. Their relationship works in some Odd Couple kind of way. Doc can't hear. Mark can't speak. And together they survive each other's personalities.

Mark's recently gotten into some trouble with some of the other townspeople. He's said some inappropriate things, popped up at a door at the wrong time, etc. Still, the town keeps supporting. They just do it with eyes open and no longer the innocence of thinking their good deeds are going to be rewarded by Mark suddenly becoming something he's not. Mark is and will always be a grown man, emotionally and physically stunted by a tragedy.

Mark's plight made me think of Dolph. He was only a few years younger than me when I got word that he'd had an accident on the football field. A bad tackle and this outstanding quarterback, blonde teenaged hottie, and all-around great guy was paralyzed. Thirty years later he's still in a wheelchair. He's about the size he was back then. But he's also degreed and working in a management position in the rehabiliation center where he recovered what he could of his body.

What exactly makes the difference? One tragedy puts a man on the streets. Another is equally as tragic but has something of a better ending. Both have families. Mark isn't homeless. But Dolph maintained the essence of who he was. Mark left more than his physical ability at that roadside wreck.

In a workshop, I once used a Winnie the Pooh video about Tigger losing his stripes. After his friends tried to help him answer the question of who he might be if he were not a Tigger (the popular thought being that without his identifying stripes, he must no longer be a Tigger), he became frustrated with the failed attempts to make him a Rabbit, Piglet, Pooh and even a Christmas tree. Frustrated until Eeyore saw him on a dark road, "Evening Tigger" he moaned.

"That's the second time today you've called me that," the Tigger-who-thought-he-wasn't exclaimed.

"That's your name isn't it?" Eeyore offered.

"But Tigger's have stripes and I don't have my stripes!"

"Just because you don't look like a Tigger on the outside, doesn't mean you're not still Tigger on the inside. It's all in the stuffin!" and with that, Eeyore went his not-so-merry way and Tigger bounced, reclaiming his signature stripes.

After showing the video, my friend Pat made her way to the front of the room. Pat had had a stroke a few years before. She'd been in management then. At this point, she had a job at the building where we both worked but she no longer had a career. She, too, dragged her left side. As she made her way to me, the familiar rise of guilt started. The guilt came as I and other friends had been there in the beginning of her crisis with good intentions, prayers and a flurry of activity but eventually we had each fell away as we realized that our image of Pat was a memory and would never again be reality.

She spoke first and when I saw the tear forming in the corner of her eye, my tears started organizing as well.

"You know that's true, don't you?"

"Yes, I do."

"Just because I don't look like Pat on the outside, doesn't mean I'm not still Pat on the inside," and now her tears were flowing.

In that moment, I agreed. I agreed with the IDEA that she remained the same. I agreed because I wanted to support her at least one more time. But in truth, I didn't believe it. She wasn't Pat, not the one I'd known, not the wise-cracking, irreverent creative but practical manager of time, people and projects. She was a new translation, not any less than but never to be the same. And I had little in common with this Pat, the one prone to depression, anger, and quick to point out her limitations.

Eventually, she married someone from rehab, someone who knew her as she was post-stroke and would never compare her to the Pat before. We celebrated with her and sent her own her way. I've seen her once in the two decades since.

Wouldn't it be a testament to the goodness of humanity if the initial efforts around a tragedy were sustainable? Wouldn't it be worthy of note and possibly celebration if we could adjust from what was to what is now without hesitation, frustration, or failure? But we can't, can we?

Pat has the husband she'd often longed for but still limps. Dolph has a career but needs care and maneuvers with a wheelchair. Mark stays busy but still mumbles.

And me? I watch and still feel the guilt.

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