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.


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

Give A Push

December 1, 2008
My Friend James Johnson

My Friend James Johnson

From the day I first received my power chair to today, it has been my responsibility to ensure that my chair is plugged in at night. Although someone else has to actually plug the chair in, it is my job to make sure that it happens. I have to ensure that the batteries in my chair are recharged each night. There have been some nights where I have been negligent in my duties. When I have, more often than not, I “run out of gas.” One of the first times it happened was during my junior year of high school.

The next morning in school, about second period I noticed something was different. The power meter on my joystick showed my chair only half full. Usually at this time of day, my chair was still showing a full charge.  I was a little concerned but thought that half a “tank” would be enough to get me home.

Unfortunately, as the day went on the meter continued to fall. By lunchtime I barely had an eighth of a charge left.  I knew that to make it though my day, I would have to conserve every bit of energy I had in my chair.  I didn’t go outside to hang out with my friends.  I didn’t go back to the lockers.  I took the straightest and most direct routes to my classes and ate lunch near the classrooms.

By the end of my final period I was running on empty. The fastest I could manage was barely a crawl.  I felt I had conserved enough energy that, with a little luck, I could make it to my van. Knowing how long it was going to take me to get to where I parked my van, I left my last period class fifteen minutes early.

Slowly, I exited the school and began down the sidewalk that would take me to the road I needed to cross to get to the parking lot where I’d left my van.  My chair was yearning for power and the motors sounded like the moan of a sick animal.  I thought things were going slowly when I left the school, but that was fast compared to how slowly I was moving by the time I reached the road.  I could see my van; it was just across the street, and as soon as I got there, I was home free.

I started across the street. I was slow-moving, but I was moving.  It was at this time that I learned an interesting engineering concept.  When they build many streets and roads, often they build them with the smallest upgrades on each side so that when it rains, the rain will hit the middle-of-the-road. Because of this miniscule grade, that you literally have to stare to see, the water will run from middle of the road down into the gutters on each side.

Going up the grade on the road was enough that once I got to the middle of the road my chair was spent.  It was completely out of juice.  I heard a click, and all the lights on my hand control went off.  Of all the places I could have had my chair run out of juice that day, the middle of the road was the very worst.  Although I had left school before the final bell, by the time I was stuck in the middle of the road, school was not only out, but the kids were in their cars heading home.

In addition, the road my chair stopped moving in was the main route students took to get home. Just then I heard a roar that felt like it made the street rumble.

I lifted up my head and turned to see what was coming my way. Much to my dismay, I saw one of my classmates barreling down the road in his 1975 American-made something that looked every ounce of its hundreds of pounds of Detroit steel. It was obvious he hadn’t seen the “school zone” sign as his souped up motor brought the vehicle toward me at well over the prescribed 20 mph.

Fear really entered my heart when I saw that his radio was turned up as loud as it could get, with his arm and attention around his girlfriend, and he hadn’t taken either off of her since he left the parking lot.

The Jason Hall story began to flash before my eyes.

As the final chapter of my life flew through my mind, ending in a vision my chair and body flying through the air in opposite directions, I heard someone come to the back of my chair, lift up the handles underneath the motor, put it into neutral and push me out of the way.

My friend, James Johnson, got me out of the way literally in the nick of time. The car missed us by the smallest of margins. The car was so close, we could felt a rush of air as the driver unknowingly passed us by.

We stopped on the side of the road to catch our breath. Once we had, James grabbed a friend, and helped me get my chair into my car. That day I was grateful that I had a friend like James Johnson,

I had been in trouble that day, real trouble. I was stuck and had gotten myself in a situation in which, on my own, there were simply no more outs.  I didn’t have any options, but I had a friend.

A friend who was watching what I was doing.  A friend who knew me well enough to know exactly where the neutral levers were.  He was a friend who was willing to put himself in danger to give me a push and move me out of the way.

If we are to be true friends, then like James we have to be willing to watch out for those we care about. We have to invest time and energy into their lives so when we see them struggle, we know exactly how to help. We have to be willing to endure some risk that we might reduce theirs.

We have to be willing to give a push.