Standing Up By Falling Down

March 11, 2009
Jonah In My Room

Jonah In My Room

Lying in the emergency room at the St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction Colorado, I was frightened and afraid. For reasons I still do not understand today the staff there wouldn’t let my dad (who sat in the waiting room) come and be with me. I was 15 years old, unable to feel or move anything below my arms, and totally alone.

This lasted for two hours. The doctors did test after test until finally they felt their diagnosis confirmed. It was then that they pull back the curtain, looked me in the eye and said, “Jason, you’ve broken your neck and will never walk again.”

I went into shock. Working to process the information I had been given, the next thing I knew I was laying in a CAT scan. As I laid in the machine, in what felt like a big white tube, I remember as I began to understand that my life had drastically changed. In the CAT scan of flood of worry and concern rushed over me. But, I will never forget the first worry I had .

From that day to this I have had a thousand concerns with reference to my disability. From that day to this I have had a thousand worries about being in a wheelchair. But, the first fear that flashed through my mind was, “Who will be my friend?”

I wondered who would want to go to the ball games with a guy in a wheelchair. I wondered who would want to go on a date or to dance with a guy in a wheelchair. I wondered who would want to just hang out with a guy in a wheelchair.

For, there were other kids at my school who were in wheelchairs and they didn’t have very many friends. I knew I myself had never made an effort to get to know them and wondered how people would react to me.

I was blessed as the countless group of my peers made the decision to bless my life as they answered my question saying, “I will. I will be your friend”

The next day I received a package filled with posters and cards with words of kindness and encouragement. My parents placed the posters all over the room so wherever I looked I was reminded of my friends support. With the posters and cards they also sent a cassette tape. When I was laying in surgery my friends all got together and recorded on both sides of a 60 minute cassette. I listened to that cassette all the time. I listened to it until it broke. When it broke I had my parents tape it back together, and then I listened to it until it broke again.

This continued for about a month until the doctors finally felt that I was healthy enough to have visitors. As soon as they were given the green light, a group of my friends hopped in their car and drove the six hours from our home in Boise to my hospital room in Salt Lake City. I couldn’t wait. I was excited to see every person in that car. They were my friends; friends like Jonah.

Jonah was one of my best friends.  We were as different as night and day. I was completely conservative; he was completely liberal.  I came from a devout Mormon family; his family often spoke and wondered about the existence of God.  My Dad was an entrepreneur with a business where he worked from early in the morning until late at night.  His parents loved their time off in the summer to work in their garden and in their woodshop building boats.  But somehow, somewhere in a place before this time, Jonah and I had made an agreement that on the face of this earth, we would be friends, and we were.   We were as close as two young men could possibly be.

Knowing that my friends were on their way, I watched the clock counting the minutes until their arrival. Finally, they were in the hospital and on their way up to my room.

The group entered the room one by one. Just seeing their faces lifted my heart. It’d been too long since I had interacted with my friends face-to-face and I was so excited I could hardly contain myself. Jonah was the last to enter, and I’ll never forget what happened next.

Jonah took no more than a few steps into my room, looked me in the eye, turned a pale white I hadn’t seen before or since and said, “Hi Jason, how are ya…” and passed out before he could finish his sentence.

To be fair, one has to understand what Jonah saw when he entered the room. The last time he’d seen me I was standing up 6 feet tall, 175 pounds and in the best shape of my young life. Now, I was lying down, and although still 6 feet tall, I now weighed 118 pounds. You could literally see every bone and joint in my body. In addition, I had tubes in my body and the markings of a halo brace which had recently been removed. This, accompanied with the smell that every hospital/care center/long term care facility seems to have was enough to put anyone over the edge.

Flustered and concerned at Jonah’s response, I quickly hit the button to call for the nurses assistance. My nurse came in and because of my poor health was so concerned about me she nearly missed Jonah altogether. She asked me what I needed and I told her I needed help getting my friend off the floor.

They helped Jonah up, took him out of the room, cracked the smelling salts and gave him some time to get ready to come back into the room. He had to lay down on the bed for a while, then stand up for a while and then finally was cleared for reentry.

Jonah passed through the door to my room is the rest of my friends and I were laughing, talking and catching up. He took a few steps toward my bed, again looked me in the eye and said, “Hi Jason, how are ya…” as he passed out.

Again, flustered I buzzed the nurses. They came in, looked at my friend and said something to the effect of, “Oh, him again.” Like before, they helped him out of the room, cracked the smelling salts and gave him some time to “right” himself before he came in again.

After nearly a half-hour Jonah was ready to again make the attempt. As he walked in my room the conversation between my friends and I stopped. We watched Jonah, wondering if he could make it this time. The nurses followed him in. It seemed like their hands were outstretched just waiting to catch him. Again he looked at me, and again he said, “Hi Jason, how are ya…” and again he passed out.

Three times he came in my room, and three times he passed out. He never even finished the sentence. I remember thinking, “How am I what?” The afternoon passed and in the end Jonah was able to spend some of the time in my room without being on the floor.

In my life, I’ve been in a number of hospitals. I have spent literally years of my life in a bed in some sort of a healthcare facility. In that time I have had hundreds and hundreds of visitors. But none has ever meant more to me than Jonah.

Some wonder how that can be. He spent more time outside my room than he did in it, and even in the room he had difficulty finishing even one sentence. But Jonah’s actions proved his friendship in a way words never could.

First, he was willing to endure some discomfort to prove his friendship. When a person passes out it can be an embarrassing experience. Just go to a local junior high choir concert and you’ll see exactly what I mean. Sometime during the concert a little seventh grader will lock their knees and fall right off the top riser. I’ll bet dollars to donuts that when they take their place again their face will be filled with embarrassment–nobody wants to pass out in public. Also, this passing out meant some pain for Jonah. His head wasn’t falling on plush carpeted floors. Each time he fell over his head smacked squarely on hard “hospital smelling” tile floors.

But my friendship meant enough to him that he was willing to go through some embarrassment and some pain to see it through–to show me that I was important to him.

Second, he kept coming back. No one would’ve faulted Jonah if passing out the first time was difficult enough to cause him not to want to come back again. But he did come back. And even though each trip meant more discomfort, embarrassment, and pain his desire to prove his friendship outweighed every negative consequence.

I learned a lot of things that day from the trip my friends made. Not the least of which was that Jonah Shue was my friend.

Every time Jonah fell down his spirit stood up reaffirming to me his friendship. If we want to have friends like Jonah, we have to be willing to be friends like Jonah. We have to be willing to go through some discomfort and pain to prove our friendship is real. We can say all the right things, but if our actions don’t follow suit in the end it really means nothing. That day, Jonah confirmed his friendship with his actions better than he ever could with his voice.

Lasting, confirmed friendships like Jonah’s helped me keep positive in negative times. They helped me remember to have the strength and fortitude that they saw in me. When the people who call themselves our friends act this way they will build us up when others would tear us down.  When we will find ourselves surrounded with people willing to endure the difficult with us, we will begin to enjoy more of the sublime.

I am who I am today because of people like Jonah who chose to stand up by falling down.

Jh-

You can check out what Jonah’s doing today by looking at his video here. (He’s on guitar)


Mona Germs vs. Navy

January 13, 2009

mona-germs

I had been in the first grade only days when I found out about health hazard that surrounded not only my elementary school but every other elementary school in the country and across the world. It went by different names in different places but the outbreak was total and complete. In many places the plague was called “cooties” but at my school it was called “Mona Germs.”

There was little girl who attended my school named Mona and for some reason it’d been decided that she had germs. This meant every day when you went to school you had to be careful where you stood. The first person Mona touched in the morning was the one who started the day with “Mona Germs.” They would have those germs until they were able to touch someone else and pass off the dreaded disease to someone else.

As bad as it was to have “Mona Germs” during the day, what nobody wanted was to be the one that had to go home “diseased” because they were last touched. Mona reacted the way most would. She became angry and frustrated.

After a year or so Mona moved away and as I grew older I began to realize how I must’ve made this little girl feel. Now I wasn’t the one who came up with the game, but I didn’t stand up to end it either. I simply went along with the rest, spreading “Mona Germs,” never thinking of the ramifications; never thinking of how it would make Mona feel. Disappointed at how I had acted I tried hard to remember to treat people better.

When I was about 11 years old I met a man who is a great example to me of treating people better. His name was Charlie. Charlie and his wife were a younger couple that lived nearby.

I loved Charlie. I used to ride my bike over to his house and laugh and joke with him as he would always have some story to entertain me with. Sometimes he would pick me up and take me to get an ice cream at the local drive-thru. Charlie took a special interest in me and there wasn’t much I wasn’t willing to do in return.

A few months into building this relationship with Charlie he asked me if I would do them a favor. I answered yes before I even knew what he needed. I couldn’t think of something he would ask of me that I wouldn’t be willing to do.

He told me that his daughter from a previous marriage was coming into town and wondered if I’d be willing to show her around. When you’re 11 years old showing someone around town means taking them to the arcade and for a Slurpee at the local 7-Eleven. But this was Charlie and if his daughter was coming to town I would do my best to show her a good time–even if it meant fronting her some quarters to play Asteroids.

He told me when she would be in town and mentioned how grateful he was for my help. Things had been little difficult for his daughter when she was little because of the family dynamic and a great experience in Boise could make a big impact.

I was excited for this opportunity to help and over the next couple of weeks thought of any way I could make Charlies daughter’s experience in my hometown a memorable one. I wanted to see if I could make his daughter feel is good as Charlie had made me feel.

A day or so before she came to town Charlie stopped by to make sure I was still on to help out. I told him I was and that in fact I had been thinking about it since he first brought it up. He turned to me and said, “Great! I know you and Mona will have a great time.”

My heart stopped. As my brain worked to put two and two together I realized that Mona from the first grade and my friend Charlie had the same last name. Mona of “Mona Germs” was Charlie’s daughter. My face flushed beet read. I was so embarrassed of the way I had treated my friend’s daughter.

Luckily, when Mona arrived she had no memory of me. I worked the entire weekend to pay off the horrible things I had said as a first grader. I learned that day of the cost of treating someone poorly. I learned that day that everyone is somebody’s someone.

Conversely, I spent the week directly before I broke my neck at football camp at BYU. In that July of 1986 I had preceded my family to Utah by a week. I was to spend that week at Camp and at its end my family would drive down from Boise, pick me up and we would head to Lake Powell for week of waterskiing.

In the first hours of my football camp I met Roger French. Coach French was over the offensive linemen at BYU and so as an offensive lineman I fell under his direction at Camp. That summer my friends and I had decided to get real live Naval “high and tight” flat top haircuts. I suppose it was a natural extension for him to nickname me “Navy.”

From the first day it was as if he saw something special in me. Although I was only just finished with the ninth grade he regularly placed me against young men much older than I, saying they could prove their toughness by going against “Navy.” He told the group of players there to hustle like “Navy,” and on the second to last day of camp had me go head-to-head with a senior who had already committed to play center at BYU. I went up against him three times. The first two, I found myself placed squarely on my back end. But with Coach French cheering me on, the third try I found a way to bend but not break and push the larger boy back.

On Friday, the last day of camp, Coach French awarded me the Most Improved Player of the entire group. On Saturday, my parents picked me up and took me to Lake Powell. On Sunday, I became paralyzed from the waist down. I would never play football again.

Coach French didn’t know that this was to be my last experience playing football. He had no way of knowing that my week at BYU would be the final memory I ever had of playing the sport I loved so much. But, because of the way he chose to treat me he made that week on the gridiron extra special. Even  just seeing the word Navy reminds me of the feeling I had pushing the larger center out of the way that week in 1986.

As we interact with those around us we get to choose what kind of feeling or lasting impression we will make. Will we spread “Mona Germs” and make others to feel small, angry and frustrated? Or, will we give people that “Navy” experience causing them to believe that they can overcome any obstacle no matter how big.

It is critical that we remember that everyone is somebody’s daughter, someone’s son ,or someone’s friend. We must be careful with our words, for contrary to popular belief they are sticks and stones–sticks and stones that can be used to tear down and destroy or reinforce and shore up.

Jh-

PS I hope to be able to post on Wednesday but am going in for minor surgery on my hand, and so it may be Thursday or Friday before I’m able to post again. Thanks for your continued support.


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