Friday, September 18, 2009

We Never Know Who Is Watching

My four-year-old granddaughter, Isabella, is the only one of my eight grandchildren who has never seen me walk on my leg braces and crutches. The other day she asked me for the umpteenth time, “Grandpa, why did you get so sick?” I know it bothers her that I am now confined to a wheelchair, the result of having polio when I was just about her age. Although I’ve tried to explain many times that the medicine (vaccine) she has taken will prevent her from contracting the devastating illness, I know she periodically worries that the same thing may happen to her someday.

Izzy’s observations just go to prove that little kids see everything, even if some aren’t always as quick to verbalize their emotions as she is. Since I see Izzy almost every day, I’m not at all surprised that she pays attention to nearly everything I do when she’s in our home.

Several weeks ago I received an e-mail “out of the blue” from a former Elnora resident who has kept her thoughts of me silent for over forty years. The subject line on the message was titled, “To a Hero from Elnora” and was sent by Jan Brewer whom I remember as a cute little blond, Janice Burdsall, during my school days.

Jan was in the seventh grade when I was a senior in high school, and I had no idea she was watching my every move. You see, Jan has a condition known as achondroplasia dwarfism which restricted her height. According to Wikipedia, females affected by achondroplasia grow to an average of only four feet, one-half inch. After reading Jan’s e-mails and talking to her later on the phone, she may be short in stature, but she is a giant in spirit.

Jan said she first started observing me when she was a sixth grader in Fern Johnson’s class. I was a junior and after lunch which was served in the basement cafeteria, I had a science or math class on the second floor (top floor) of the old Elnora school building. This necessitated that I ascend several flights of stairs, pulling myself up by the handrail with my right hand while using one crutch and holding the other in my left hand. Wearing my heavy leg braces, it was an excruciatingly slow process.

At the same time, Miss Fern was also leading her sixth grade class back up to their room on the second floor. Most days, they were behind me. Miss Fern would have her students line up single file to walk up the stairs according to height, with the shortest student first. Of course, that was always Jan. I never thought about it before, but we must have been quite a sight, me lumbering slowly up the stairs holding my spare crutch and Jan right behind me climbing the steep staircase as efficiently as her short legs would allow.

Jan also mentioned the Junior Class Play in which I played “Uncle Clyde” who was “confined” to a hospital bed for the entire play. She thought it was great that Mrs. Humbaugh selected a play that fit in perfectly with my disability long before the age of government mandated accessibility. She said she and her older sister, Rosemary, discussed this one simple act of kindness many times while Rose was dying of colon cancer in 2008. As Jan said, “Little did America know that Elnora had been promoting accessibility all along without having to have laws to do it.”

A few weeks following her initial contact and several e-mails later, Jan telephoned me and we had a wonderful conversation, discussing the old days in Elnora. Then she got sentimental and told me what a great influence I had been on her life. She said, “You were with me when I graduated from high school, you were with me all through college, and you were even there when I walked down the aisle.” I was dumbfounded. I never knew she felt that way, probably never having said much more to her than, “Hi,” on the few occasions when we may have met in the hallway in school.

Jan has spent much of her career teaching and working with adults afflicted with cerebral palsy. She said I was the inspiration that gave her the “can do” attitude to accomplish anything she sets her mind to. That’s quite a totally unexpected compliment. I had no idea she was watching all those years ago.

The last time I saw Jan Burdsall was sometime during the mid-1960s following Sunday services at the Elnora Christian Church. She was climbing into the driver’s seat of her car and I noticed the pedal extensions allowing her legs to reach them and the booster seat enabling her to see over the steering wheel. Needing to use special hand controls to drive my own car, I thought to myself how neat it was that she could enjoy that freedom for herself as well. I guess we’re all watching someone.

Hopefully, we’re also conducting our lives in a manner that merits other people watching us.