Learning to Walk in J.C.’s Shoes
By Bernard Levy
I love my golden retriever. Cheddar is my 24/7 writing and research companion, and I cherish my nature walks with him.
On September 10th we set off on our daily trek to the Willamette River for swimming – Cheddar, and throwing sticks in the water – me. I had negotiated this particular steep decline to the water more than two dozen times but, on this day, I fell on “the last step” to the river. I lost my footing on the slick river bottom and broke my ankle so cleanly and badly that my foot positioned itself perpendicular to my leg. Luckily, my good friend, Terry, and his German short-hair pointer, Gunner, were just ahead of me. His cell phone worked. Several emergency rescue crews arrived with due dispatch, and they had to carve a path up the incline to carry me out.
I hadn’t broken a bone in 70 years, and the pain and related stuff that followed opened my eyes to the hidden heroes in our lives.
I picked a great surgeon, and his expertise is evident; the insertion of a steel plate and six screws has been without incident. However, the medications and their consequences have been a different story, but all of that pales in comparison to what I have learned.
Although one of my uncles, Ben Kaufman, was awarded a Medal of Honor in the First World War and nationally recognized as a war hero, the message of who the daily heroes are in our society hit me: They include my departed best friend J.C. – John Conery – and my Aunt Dorothy. John was one of those important persons in my life and the only person along with his wife, Kathi, who knew all my wives. He and I worked for four years as accountants and auditors in the San Diego office of Peat Marwick Mitchell, now KPMG. We were steadfast friends for more than 40 years, and our friendship only ended with his untimely death after a courageous bout with cancer.
Now, for the hero stuff. John contracted polio when he was a young man and wore a steel brace from his shoe to his thigh on his right leg. His polio leg was mere skin and bones, but that didn’t stop him from leading an active and full life; he and Kathi raised four children. One of his favorite pastimes was swimming in his backyard pool.
However, until I broke my ankle, I never appreciated – heck , I didn’t even comprehend – what John must have endured to prepare for a day’s activities. I never heard him complain about the many difficulties he must have faced daily, including walking with a decidedly awkward gait. He never spoke about his continuing pain, and all the people with whom he worked just viewed him as an ordinary Joe, without any awareness of his disability.
It’s clear to me now that the unsung heroes in our society are those who have disabilities that materially affect their daily lives, although many of them don’t view it that way.
On a par with these heroes are the caregivers who should qualify as heroes in their own rights.
I “threw away” my crutches after three weeks, but continue to walk in my steel-braced boot, at the insistence of my surgeon. Just this limited time of walking with a six-pound boot has detrimentally affected my back; I continually experience pain which I now realize J.C. experienced daily, yet without complaint.
This brings me to my Aunt Dorothy, who was stricken with polio back in one of polio’s first waves of terror. In those days, it was called infantile paralysis, and aptly named since my Aunt Dorothy and thousands of others were stricken as children. She was 10 or 11 when polio reared its horrendous head, and her rehabilitation or, more correctly, her courageous fight
to lead a normal life was a living testament to her spirit. Her story is one of many that needs to be told.
Her mom and dad, my grandparents, gave up their lives for many years to solely care for her in the 1920’s when very little was known about the affliction. Her stricken legs were the exact opposite of J.C.’s skin-and-bone configuration. Aunt Dorothy’s were bloated, probably filled with fluid. She wore heavy leg braces and walked with canes. As an aside, she was the only one of my grandparents’ other four daughters who could swim; and did she swim! In fact when my dad, for a brief period in the 40’s, owned a 26 foot cruiser on the Delaware River, she had no hesitation to sun herself on the foredeck, never fearing that she may be called upon to swim in the event of a heavy wake.
She attended and received her degree from Rider College, now University, in the old, four-story Trenton, New Jersey, classroom building that served Rider until the college moved in 1960 to its beautiful campus in Lawrenceville, New Jersey. I know all about that old building because my class was the last to use that facility. My aunt, with her braces and canes, had to negotiate at least two, if not three, flights of stairs to attend classes.
But now comes the heavy hero stuff. She was employed for many years by the State of New Jersey as an Employment Specialist. Her specialty was working with disabled veterans returning from WWII and the Korea War. Since she was my godmother, I often visited her at work and witnessed her compassion for these returning disabled veterans.
When she sensed that a veteran, or any job applicant, was feeling unduly sorry for himself or herself, she would excuse herself from her desk under the pretext of having to retrieve a file. She arduously righted herself with her canes and laboriously crossed a lengthy hallway – in full view of the applicant – and retrieved the file she didn’t need. Her nonverbal message was clear and convincing to the person sitting at her desk: Get a grip on yourself; if I can do it, you can do it; I know you’re in pain and hurting, but that’s no reason to give up on life.
My Uncle Ben, the war hero, and she fell in love in their middle years, and their marriage was a lifelong love affair to behold. He was the Executive Commander of the Jewish War Veterans for many years and, in their worldwide travels, met kings, queens, heads of state and dignitaries of all magnitudes and description.
With life’s traumas come perspective. It’s unfortunate that we have to learn by trauma, but that’s the way it is. We can learn otherwise, but trauma increases the illumination of the lesson. My broken ankle is just a mere blip in my life; something I hadn’t planned to experience, but experience it I did. My pain and discomfort, such as the inability to shower and then shower with difficulty, is thankfully temporary.
I challenge you to consider the heroic struggles of persons with continuing disabilities who rise above their pain and hardships to live with strength, courage and meaning, performing those everyday tasks we take for granted.
For those who read this column, consider my message very carefully. There are many unrecognized heroes throughout our society who deserve our daily respect and admiration. Hopefully, you won’t need to experience this revelation through some physical mishap of your own, such as tumbling down an embankment and breaking <I>your</I> ankle.