Archive for April, 2015


Eric Goes to the Movies

I have two best friends, one is an African-American woman who teaches at Harold Washington College, and the other is my friend Eric who has cerebral palsy and lives in a group living facility called TLF, for Temporary Living Facility through an organization called the Association for Individual Development. In Eric’s case, his placement at the group home is more of a permanent housing solution rather than something temporary.

Eric and I love the movies, and we try and catch a film at least once a week. Most recently, we saw the Disney Nature film Monkey Kingdom, and before that, we went to Woman In Gold, the story of how the Nazis coopted much of the fine art that belonged to Jews in Germany and Austria. Generally, Eric is a very gracious critic, and likes most anything we watch together. When asked what he thinks about a particular film, his two standard responses are, “It’s good,” or “It was okay.” I’ve never really heard him pan a film although I have on one or two occasions caught him checking his watch. His favorite film from last year was the critically acclaimed Whiplash, about a jazz drummer and his dysfunctional and abusive relationship with a teacher who pushes him beyond the bounds of what is acceptable in order to make him one of the “greats.”

The hard part about hanging out with Eric is that I never really know how much to help him. Cerebral palsy is a movement disorder and in Eric’s case he has stiff muscles and somewhat useless legs. For someone with cerebral palsy, he’s pretty independent and gets around with the assistance of two silver arm crutches with black handles that go around the back side of his forearms. When climbing stairs, he will put one crutch in front for balance and scissor-steps to the door. When he’s just walking down the street, however, he pushes both crutches ahead of him, and propels himself forward at a pretty good pace.

Still, I’m tall and have a long stride, and I never really know if he wants to me walk ahead and get the door, or slow my pace and keep him company. For some reason, it seems more awkward to ask him what he would prefer rather than guess. Half the time I walk ahead. The rest of the time, I slow my pace.

The really awkward moment, however, used to be when we would to the movies and Eric wanted to order nachos or onion rings and two hot dogs or something equally difficult to carry when I myself wanted popcorn and a Coke Zero as well. I found myself in line sending up a secret prayer that he would get Peanut M & M’s or something else that I could easily tuck into my back pocket. A guy named Alex who works at the Regal Cantera theater we usually go to made all the difference one time when he simply asked, “Do you need help carrying your food to your theater?”

Ever since then, I simply ask for help if we need it, and I no longer have to send skyward those foxhole prayers of desperation when I worry whether I’m inconveniencing someone else. The lesson I’ve learned is to ask for help when I need it, and not to be embarrassed about someone else’s disability when he’s the one living with cerebral palsy, not me.

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My Irish Grandmother

I called my Irish grandmother, Ahme, perhaps an infant’s way of saying Mommy, but the appellation stuck, and everyone around me referred to her as my Ahme. When she died, I gave the eulogy, and although it’s impossible to summarize what another person’s life has truly meant to you, I did convey a few things: one, that there was no one quite like her, and two, that she had lived life on her terms. I quoted “The Little Prince,” by Antoine de Saint-Exupery when the author writes, “What you see here is but a shell. What is most important is invisible.”

If I remember correctly, my grandmother died on January 27, 1999, and after giving the eulogy, I went back to work grief-stricken, and had my first nervous breakdown on February 28th of that same year. I simply couldn’t extricate myself from my depression, and in sadness plunged myself back into work with a sort of manic frenzy that came to a head about a month after her death.

The Irish mourn their dead at wakes, and though I didn’t raise a glass of Jamison in her honor because I didn’t and still don’t drink, I nevertheless felt a cultural loss, a loss of my connection with my Irish heritage that has been difficult to replace. My grandmother, Julia Kelley Donoghue, was Irish to her core, and there’s something about the scrappy Irish personality and the twinkle in our eyes that can’t be translated to other ethnicities. Ahme took up painting in her later years, and became quite accomplished at drawing landscapes of the Wisconsin wilderness, the forest and lakes of my childhood vacations. She was left-handed originally, but, in accordance with the times, was forced to write right-handed, something she seemed to resent. I think she associated left-handedness with creativity, and my mother and I are both left-handed while my sister, though right-handed and far more logical than either of us, is also an artist. My sister majored in art, and minored in business, what has worked out to be a great combination for her.

I associate my Irish heritage with a kind of superstitious Catholicism, and I joke that being Catholic, in my household, is almost like being Jewish. It’s more than a religion; it’s a veritable ethnicity. Until I visited Ireland this past year, I had not experienced that deep-rooted connection to my heritage since my grandmother died. I cannot tell you how many uniquely Irish phrases and ways of looking at the world are lost to me since both my Ahme and Boppie died, but I know that I’m a better person for having known both my grandparents, and I love the Irish for the way they have fought against and overcome stigma as they emigrated in large numbers to America during the Potato Famine and afterwords. The Irish stick together, and I’m proud of all the adversity I’ve overcome in becoming the man that I am today.