Friday, October 05, 2007


Maybe sometimes we can't control the way we look to others. But we can control the way we respond.

I got onto the MT 25 to downtown and rode quietly down Pacific Ave. When we stopped at the front of the University of Washington Medical Center a man got on the bus and was definitely disabled by something that resembled cerebral palsy or MS. He seemed unable to voluntarily move his legs such that walking was extremely difficult for him. His face was slightly contorted while he spoke. He was black, walked (obviously based on my description) with a cane, carried a neck brace and wore the typical hospital bracelet. He had strange ticks and involuntary spasms.

The bus was mostly full and the front seats were completely full. When this man walked on no one moved. The lady seated next to me got up, and in a clear voice told the people at the front of the bus that they were supposed to vacate those seats for disabled riders. They didn't move when put on the spot, but instead looked uncomfortable and nervous.

The lady next to me insisted he sit there, next to me. He resisted saying he would stand but she fairly ordered him to sit. He did, right next to me.

I had the thought; I felt uncomfortable and felt that pang of "why do the weirdos have to sit next to me?"

He started talking to me. I felt bad for him that no one let him sit up front, and I had a feeling everyone on the bus besides that woman who gave up her seat for him thought he was "weird" and would not want to talk to him, so I listened and smiled at him. I felt bad for him and I felt bad that at the same instant I felt somewhat annoyed that he was talking to me.

And I have to write about it now because of the impact it made on me.

I didn't get his name. I wish I had. He was at the hospital because he had surgery on his back about 5 weeks ago and was in for a follow up. His speech was slurred and forced and took effort to decipher. This was, I found out, because he had nerve damage. I asked him what happened to make him have back surgery, and he told me a remarkable story that I wasn't prepared for.

He was working at Fred Meyer and fell, cracking the ball part of the femur in his right hip joint. He went for surgery to have the fragments of bone that were floating in the joint removed. Somehow the surgery left metal fragments in the joint that calcified over time and started pointing and pushing into the sciatic nerve. As a result he had what he referred to as a "permanent stroke" symptom: the slurred speech and even less control of many functions that already was terrible. I should have recognized it before he told me. Anyway, he said his surgery 5 weeks ago which was to remove those fragments. It turned out during that surgery, however, the surgeons saw that removing some of the fragments would potentially injure the nerve permanently because of how much they had grown into the cavity. Therefore they removed a few fragments at that time and would re-evaluate and decide later on what to do.

I could sense his intelligence from the way he spoke, but it was obviously masked because of the disability. I imagine most people never got to see this, and never gave him a chance at all.

I asked him where he was going. He said he was going downtown to catch a bus to take him to Everett, but that no one would help him figure out where to catch that bus. He said he would ask the bus driver again but she wasn't nice. I imagined the bus driver's response was probably annoyed and judgmental, as they are to EVERYONE. Granted, they deal with a lot of people who aren't disabled but annoying and manipulative, such that the people who really need help suffer the wrath of the driver who had been through the whole day. I told him I didn't know anything about buses to Everett but I did tell him a couple of streets that had large bus stops and might be of help.

He said he had been there since 9 AM and was hungry and hadn't eaten. He did not look like he had much, if any money. This was confirmed when he said he just wanted to get back to the mission in Everett and have some food. My heart really sank to think I was going downtown to eat expensive food at a nice restaurant downtown in excessive amounts. He was going home to a mission and maybe a sandwich.

He was very uncomfortable and I could tell he was frustrated.

He said he didn't care what it took, he was sick of the pain and sick of feeling the metallic cold through his body that the pressure on the nerve caused, and the doctors didn't listen to him. Instead they just gave him Oxycodone, a pain killer with opiates. He reached into his pocket and took out a prescription of pills they had just filled for him to show me. He said he sometimes had to sell a few of them to get money for food.


I asked him if anything had happened to hold the surgeons accountable for leaving metal in his hip and putting him in a more disabled state than he needed to be and he said he couldn't afford a lawyer and as a result how would he do that? I didn't have an answer. He said he trusted in God to take care of him and that some people had it much worse than he did. I couldn't imagine that I could have that kind of perspective in his situation. He had a legitimate beef with life, but he still saw that other people had it worse. When it comes to religion, I don't think the same way, but I can understand the way people turn to God when they have nothing else. At least its something to hold on to.

He put the pills back in his pocket and we didn't talk much more for a while. He struggled up toward the front of the bus, nearly falling because of his difficulty walking, and asked the bus driver where to catch the certain bus. The bus driver angrily told him she didn't know, that she had already told him that. The bus stopped where I was getting off in downtown, and she yelled at him--YELLED--to get out of the way for people. I shot her a seriously dirty look and patted the guy on the arm and told him I hope he could figure it out. He said thanks and waved. I thought that was the last I would see of him. However, he got off the bus and started walking, if you can call it that, through the crowds asking people where he could catch the 510.

Everyone--EVERY one--ignored him. He started approaching specifically black people and asking them, but they ignored him too. I thought he was going to cry, to be honest, as I watched him stand there in the crowd. I ran over to him, and, being down here early, told him to walk with me and I would try to help him figure it out. He smiled and I felt like I had done, finally, something worth my breath for the first time in my life. People actually gave me the weirdest looks as I walked next to him and tried to talk to him.

I can't say I know a single thing about how it must be for him, but in that moment I grew a brand new hatred for human beings. I already hated them quite a bit.

I told him to look at the big bus signs where the stops are located and see if he sees the 510. I realized, though, that the 510 is a different bus line, through a different organization, and was going to be difficult to find. He said he just wanted to get "home."

Finally I had to head in a different direction but I knew he had to keep heading in the same direction we had been walking. I tried to get him to listen and HEAR what I was telling him about where to look, but I don't know if he heard. I shook his hand and told him I was sorry people were so mean, but not to let it get him down. I told him he was better than most of us. He thanked me profusely and struggled away.

As he walked away I saw him approach three women at another bus stop. They turned hastily away, avoiding him. They must have thought he was a homeless beggar or drunk or something. He walked toward them again and I heard him asking where could he find the 510 bus, and again they moved uncomfortably away. And then a police officer on a horse, of all things, came over and, leaning down from the horse's back, said something I couldn't hear to the man, who held up his arms in question and I heard him say "I just wanted some help finding my bus, man! Maybe you will help me? Where do I catch the 510?" I think it was the saddest part of the whole thing when I next heard the officer say, leaning up straight and firming his voice; "I best think you ought to just head away from here as fast as you can."

The disabled man I had gotten to know just a little bit to be a genuine, hungry, tired, intelligent man could have gotten angry, or cried, or made a scene, or anything. You know what he did? He stood there, put his arms down, and said "God bless you." Then limped away.

Maybe sometimes we can't control the way we look to others. But we can control the way we respond.

1 comment:

Jan said...

I am the girl who turns uncomfortably away; I am the one who pretends not to hear.

How do you ever know, by looking at someone? And that's the point, isn't it? We shouldn't judge each other by how we look, we should look inside.

But in a world that is so scary, where the nice looking man sitting next to me on the bus might be a serial killer, or the downtrodden woman up front might just be trying to make things work for her ill parent, how do you know how to treat every person?

We are forced to make assumptions, right or wrong, in an effort to protect ourselves, and no matter what, it always hurts someone.

What is interesting also is the conversation you had outsid Fado later that evening with somone "not all there" who was "just trying to get to rehab" and needed a dollar.

I don't know. So many things to think about. I hope that I can be the kind of person to just wish kindness on the very world that crushes me. I aspire to being that big of a person.