Monday, January 25, 2016

The Hunt for GopherZilla

James, my quadriplegic neighbor, passed away.  Saturday morning, there were police cars and emergency vehicles parked outside his house, and now the house seems empty.

I don't think I ever told his family this, but he was one of the people I admired most in the world. Thanks to a terrible accident in a MotoCross competition, he was paralyzed from neck down, and had to have a machine breathe for him, and yet he fought to stay alive, and not just to exist, but also to be spunky and to express strong opinions.

On nice days, James would stretch out in the sun like a happy gecko.  He leaned back in his motorized wheelchair equipped with an oxygen tank. His three-car garage opened toward my small walled front garden.

His pristine and neatly organized garage could have been the subject of a minimalist painter assembling a collection for "Rage for Order."  It was a team effort.  His wife, Holley, made sure their manicured lawn was beautiful and the Christmas lights that festooned their bushes were arranged with geometrical precision.

On nice days, I'd stop by and chat with him. It did not take long before I completely forgot that he was paralyzed. His voice was strong, as were his opinions.  He also had a great sense of humor, and I often left smiling and feeling better all day.

James did not back down from a little bit of controversy. In fact, I sometimes thought he like to stir it up a bit, especially if it meant the neighborhood association would make changes for the better.

Using assistive technology that translated his speech to text, he'd express his thoughts in emails. He was quite eloquent, and expressed himself quite well, always advocating for the overall wellbeing of the small gated community where we lived.

James, Holley, and his three children lived in a 4-bedroom, 4-bathroom red brick house with a library, two living areas, a patio, and a three-car garage.  The house had been completed mere months before the tragic accident which almost cost him his life.

I'm sure there is much more to the story, but what I heard was that James was a champion MotoCross athlete, and was competing in Denver when he had a terrible accident which causes severe trauma to his cervical spine, probably near that base of his skull, near C2 or C3. He almost died, but somehow lived, but completely paralyzed.

Many people would have given up, or simply chosen not to live under such conditions. In fact, when I mentioned James to my 89-year-old father, he said he'd never accept living like that. I could see it: he would, like many, refuse to eat and drink and would try to wriggle free from this mortal coil as quickly as possible. At the same time, I sympathize with my father. He has started to have mobility problems, and I know he feels trapped in a body that will not cooperate in the slightest.

It's easy to demand much of the gods, and to insist that if we can't have the best, we don't want anything at all.

But, that's not the way it works. We don't get to choose the "skin and bone bag" we're born into, or the one it becomes after years & unexpected occurrences.

That's one of the reasons I admire James so much. Even without mobility he was able to make a difference in the world. For one, he was there for his children; he could talk to them, listen to them, and share his mindset and his guidance.

You may be reading this and thinking, "Wow, what a great neighbor you were, Susan."

You would be wrong.  I was a terrible neighbor. The only good thing about me was the fact that I was not in town all the time.

Yes, it's true I was nice enough when I talked to James, but all it took to turn me into a whiny, impatient grumbler was for my access from my garage to be blocked. You see, my garage opened in the back to the alley, and to get to the street I had to go cross a part of James's driveway. Occasionally, visitors, workers, or helpers would block it, and I'd have to back up and try to go out the other side. It was complicated, and sometimes the other side was blocked as well.

I was not nice about it. I would jump out of my car and ask the drivers to please move their cars.

The Saturday morning of the annual neighborhood garage sale was particularly annoying.  One particular Saturday, bargain hunters had blocked the James's driveway. The other outlet was blocked by a clothes rack. I was late for a tennis lesson, which made me feel a bit panicky. As I was expressing my dismay at being "trapped like a rat" I looked at the faces of those who observed me and realized I was overdoing it a bit.

Later, after playing tennis (and de-stressing), I was overcome by a sense of shame. I was utterly wrong. What would James have done?  I doubt he would have thrown the hissy fit I did. He'd probably figure out a way to set Spuds and Axel, their two rat terriers on the problem.

It never occurred to me to backpedal a bit because it was the home of a quadriplegic.  Either I was a completely insensitive monster (well, yes, a possibility), or that James was living and interacting in such a way that his physical condition was not first. I responded to his personhood, to the force of the ideas and concepts that flowed out from him, and from his family members.

I'm not proud of that fact that I was a very irritating neighbor. But, my irritating behavior was a kind of respect.

I did come to my senses (finally) and apologized.  Later, I think perhaps we mended things a bit -- or, at least, they were gracious enough to smile at me.

It was embarrassing.

I was not a completely terrible neighbor. I did, at least, help keep the teenage son's secrets.

One glorious fall afternoon, I found a cache of beer cans behind a bush next to the fence behind my house. I thought of my own experiences as a mother, and I could have wagered a bag of dogbones it belonged to James and Holley's teenage son.

Another time, I found a ziploc bag of what appeared to be some sort of herb. I did not investigate. I wasn't sure what to do ... a friend who was with me said he'd take it off my hands. Problem solved.

But, back to James. I could always tell he loved encouraging his sons. For example, he told me about GopherZilla that they were able to capture in the backyard after he coached his sons. Together with Spuds and Axel, they captured the lawn terror, bagged it, and deposited it in their freezer for later taxidermy for posterity.

I first met James around eight years ago. I'm not sure how long he was paralyzed before that time. But, eight years is a long time to live under those conditions, even if you do have the support of people and technology.

Further, it must have been very difficult for his family. My sister and I often discuss how difficult it can be to care for an aging parent.  He's grumpy. We're grumpy. No one wants to face the fact that it's not possible to control everything. I can't even imagine how emotionally wrenching it must have been to care for one struck down in the prime of his life.

And yet, no one in James's family gave up. His son played basketball and James would sit in his wheelchair and watch him practice in the small basketball goal they set up next to the curb in the cul-de-sac next to their driveway and the shared alley drive on the side of my house.

Okay, it's true I complained to the neighborhood association about the fact they put the goal in the street, and that a child could be run over by a car while playing basketball in the cul-de-sac.  But, in general terms, I am always in favor of a dad encouraging his son in sports.

In James's family, no one said that a life that is not perfect is not a life worth living. No one muzzled himself. Instead, James and Holley stood up and said what they believed in, and they also worked together to make sure that the technologies were available for James so that he could write emails and encourage the neighborhood association members to work together for the overall good.

To me, James continues to be an inspiration and a true leader.

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