By MARILYN SHAPIRO
He was easy to spot. In a room full of frail, elderly people, Marc and his wheelchair loomed large. His six foot four-inch thin frame rested on the chair, his head on the headrest, and his face inches away from the straw-like device that, through his breathing, powered him around the Daughters of Sarah, a nursing home in Albany.
I had come to Daughters that afternoon to visit Rose, a 99-year old friend. But she had decided to attend a lecture, and I was waiting for her in the community room. So I used my free time to strike up a conversation with the young man, an anachronism among the ancient. I found out that he had lived at Daughters for seven years, that he was 36-years old, and he powered himself around the facility chatting with young staff members, the only people in the facility close to his age, for companionship. I asked him if I could visit him every week before my time with Rose, and he said, “Sure!”
We Become Friends
Maybe because he was just two months older that my son Adam, or maybe because he is just a genuinely nice person. We just clicked. Over the next few weeks, I learned more about his situation. He had become a quadriplegic in a freak motorcycle accident was he was 16—yes, he was wearing a helmet! — and had lived in his home near Sacandaga Lake for the first 10 years after his accident until daily care became too difficult for his parents.
Marc never exhibited any bitterness about his situation, and he rarely complained even when he was uncomfortable from his kidney stones or had trouble breathing. He loved Westerns and fishing and stock car racing and his family. I picked up 101 Things You Should Know About NASCAR from the library and studied it so I could talk intelligently with him. To my husband Larry’s amusement, I even started following the results in the newspaper and caught some of the races on the television.
Marc also liked McDonalds, so I stopped at the restaurant that was about a mile from Daughters on my way there. The bag of burger and fries left tantalizing trail of “treif”(non-kosher) odors down the hallway. It took a few times for us to find a rhythm as I fed him: two bites of the Big Mac, two fries, and two sips of soda. Repeat. He loved chocolate, so I usually brought him brownies or chocolate chip cookies, which he saved for later.
Marc had a fully equipped handicap accessible van in the parking lot. It took me a while to get the get the courage to take him for outings. One beautiful fall day, however, I asked Marc if he wanted to go for a ride. He guided me through the process of opening up the back door, pushing up the ramp, pulling his chair back to compensate for his height, and locking the mechanism in place. We drove up the Northway, across the Twin Bridges, got an ice cream cone at the Country Drive-In, and then sat in a small park near the Mohawk River. The leaves were at their peak, and the sky was a brilliant blue. We had a little scare when the battery light on his van went on. But I managed to deliver him and his vehicle safely back to Daughters.
Over the next two years, I visited Marc on a regular basis, even after Rose passed away. Weather permitting; we would take a field trip—a Chinese restaurant, Five Guys, Wal-Mart’s, Colonie Center. Our excursions taught me much about what Marc endures. Adults watched us furtively as I fed him wonton soup; children often gawked and asked their parents loud questions. When we stopped in a hair salon, the beautician first directed her questions to me until I said emphatically, “Marc is perfectly capable of telling you how he wants his hair cut.”
There were many weeks I could not visit Marc—we were traveling, one of us was sick, or the weather was bad. But no matter, I treasured each of those visits with Marc.
When Larry and I decided to move to Florida, telling Marc was one of the hardest conversations I had during that transition. Visits from other friends and family were—to me—too few and far between, and Daughters’ staff could not drive Marc in his van due to liability issues.
As Larry and I packed up our house we needed to find a home for four photo collages that we had created from a trip. We brought them to Marc, and he hung them up on the wall next to his family pictures and a digital screen we had gotten him for Christmas the year before.
On the last visit before we left, Marc and I decided to continue to keep in touch through e-mails. I also promised him that I would mail him a postcard every Monday. On my last visit, I gave him a hug and cried as I made my way to my car past his big blue van.
Gone But Not Forgotten
When Larry and I came back the Albany for Thanksgiving five months later, our second stop with our rental car was Daughters. The first was a stop at Panera Bread for a brownie to bring to him. “We were in the neighborhood and thought you could use some chocolate,” I said, as we surprised him in his room. On the wall were the postcards that I had sent him from Florida and Colorado since we had left.
Marc continues to reside in Daughters of Sarah. He has had a couple of surgeries and more than a few health scares. Meanwhile, his postcard collection grows, some from our travels and some the courtesy of his friends and a local travel club.
Meanwhile, the holidays are coming, and I will be sending him a package from Florida—some chocolate, a Florida-themed tee shirt, and a long-distance hug.
Marilyn Shapiro, formerly of Clifton Park, is now a resident of Kissimmee, Fla.