July 20, 2009

Getting life right for ten minutes, tops

Nothing puts things into perspective like a handicapped kid.

I would have guessed this boy was about 14. He wore a blue parka and was talking to his mother. Well, actually, he didn’t really talk as much as he groaned his words, the way deaf people do who try to speak. He held his arms close to his body with his elbows and wrists bent at acute angles, as if they were broken. With black-rimmed glasses, white tennis shoes and jeans from someplace like Sears or Montgomery Ward, he stood with his weight on one leg.

I was drinking a hot chocolate and stopped at a rain-splattered park bench and watched this mother and son. They were beautiful, facing each other under the battleship gray sky.

The boy mumbled loudly.

His mom nodded.

He mumbled some more.

His mom said something—I don’t know what—but whatever it was, it was said lovingly, protectively.

They both turned and walked by me.

Why was this boy born this way and not me?

Suddenly, things I took for granted in life glittered with value and roared into my thoughts like surf. I forgot about those monthly bills I can barely keep up with and remembered that I haven’t called my sisters in a while. I forgot about the dog food I had to buy on my way home that night and remembered that I hadn’t told someone how wonderful she is.

Life is never so pure and simple as it is after encountering someone who, by chance, inherited a mutated gene. The boy in the parka must have drawn the short straw when they were handing out DNA sequences.

The boy in the parka will never have the chance to talk back to a teacher and whimper in detention, score 12 points in a row in a basketball game, work a summer job climbing ladders, buy his first car and accuse his mechanic of ripping him off.

If he could step out of his handicapped body and brain for just a moment, what would he tell us normal folks about how we should live our lives in the brief time we have left?

I drank down my hot chocolate and resumed my walk back to work. By the time I got there, the rain was falling and I was wet. I had my phone out to call someone and tell her how wonderful she is. But I had to get to work, and figured I’d call later, which I didn’t do.

So quickly I had forgotten about the boy in the parka, and I guess life wasn’t so clear anymore.

July 6, 2009

True Love . . . or something like it

This story is about finding meaning, and maybe even love.

My friend Jerry was driving his paneled minivan to a local pub when his cell phone rang. He studied the caller ID before answering.

“Heeeey,” he said into the phone. “We’re on our way. We’ll be right there. We’re like, two minutes away.”

Actually, Jerry was more like ten minutes away, and he kept talking into the cell phone and driving.

Jerry went to college and got a communications degree, and at the time, was dating a gal studying to be a pediatrician. Then Jerry dropped out of law school after two months and not too long after that, the gal studying to be a pediatrician dropped him.

“Just wasn’t for me, being a lawyer,” Jerry explained at the time.

Since dropping out of law school, Jerry has kicked around some, working different jobs—nothing he especially liked and nothing he figured on doing for very long. But he has been working those in-between jobs for almost eight years now: video store clerk, temp worker, sales, temp worker again.

Lately, he was thinking about getting his teaching certificate and said he’ll make a decision about that this summer. He believed strongly that there was something out there in this world he was born to do, and he hoped to figure it out sooner rather than later.

At the time Jerry was working at a downtown Chicago insurance firm, emailing contracts and claim forms out to clients. And he filed the manila folders that other workers who wear suits piled on his desk.

When things were slow at the insurance firm, Jerry often surfed the Web, looking at different job listings online. And he compiled his league’s fantasy baseball statistics. He sent out updates every week, but he was in last place, so he was on his way to losing interest and stopping the compilation of stats near the All-Star Break, like he did last year.

He was a temp worker for almost a year at that insurance company.

While he was a temp, Jerry had turned down plenty of opportunities to get on permanent at the insurance company because, well, he knew that if he did that, he might have ended up at that insurance company for good.

And Jerry didn’t want to end up there.

“It might be different if I was married and had kids,” Jerry said.

No sir, Jerry doesn’t have any kids. No yet. But he did have Ansel Adams posters and every CD John Melloncamp ever put out, including the ones when his name was John Cougar Melloncamp.

Since college, Jerry had dated a handful of women. They all made more money than him, and those relationships never lasted long.

“It’s just a fact,” Jerry said, “that when you’re not totally happy about where you’re at professionally, it affects you personally, I think.”

So Jerry clicked off his cell phone and pulled in the pub’s parking lot, and she was waiting for him at the front door. They high-fived.

Inside, they took their coats off, and she ordered a draft of light beer and he ordered a vodka cranberry.

She was tall, taller than Jerry, and wearing a black tank top with a thicket of roses tattooed along the small of her back. Jerry was wearing a light blue plaid shirt with a white undershirt.

When they talked, she twirled her long, brown hair around her pointer finger, and he nodded a lot and raised his eyebrows when she spoke.

A couple of times, they tried to include Jerry’s friend in the conversation, But it was hopeless.

Jerry’s friend asked her what she did for a living.

“Nothing really,” she said, and smiled.

“I’m just ‘temping’ downtown. That’s how I met Jerry. I work in the same building he does.”