My cousin Larry died last night. This is in no way a shock; he had been in a nursing home for years. Larry was 70 years old, I think. For 63 of those years, he was in a wheelchair. Larry contracted polio when he was seven, in the early 50s, right before the first vaccine came on the scene. He lived, but he never walked again.
A few years later, he watched helplessly as his father went into a grain silo to help a neighbor who had succumbed to gas and couldn’t come out on his own. His father didn’t come out, either. His brother Michael was there, and he didn’t go in, because Larry told him not to.
Many years later, post-polio syndrome reared its hideous head, and Larry slowly lost the use of the muscles over which he’d retained control. When I was a girl in the early 80s, I remember him in a motorized wheelchair that he could control with a joystick. His good hand was awkward, but it still worked. Over time, even that went away. When my sister visited him some months ago, he could still control his breath, just a bit, and blow into a tube near his mouth to get the attention of a nurse. And he could whisper a little.
Larry went to school and became a licensed social worker. He was, by all accounts, beloved by his clients and coworkers alike. Sometimes a client in crisis called him, and his sisters held a phone to his ear for hours while he talked, and listened.
None of these things is, I think, the most remarkable thing about Larry. The most remarkable thing was his goodness. He was patient and funny and kind and compassionate. His compassion was so great that it swelled up and oozed out and covered the sorrows of people who had far, far less to complain about than he did. He was always like this, as far as I remember, and it was easy to think that he was just made differently than the rest of us. Nicer, with a better soul.
My mother believed this a little. My sister drove her out to see Larry a year or so before she died, when it was clear that she was sliding into dementia. She was frustrated and angry and frightened at the loss of control, and she told Larry she envied him his positive attitude. She just couldn’t seem to find one. Larry gathered his strength for a few sentences of audible speech and said, “Well, Lucy … it isn’t easy. You have to choose it.”
It isn’t easy. You have to choose it. Words for the ages, from a man who had to choose his words with care, because he didn’t have so many left.
You may read this and want to reply that you are sorry for my loss. Save it. I mean that in the nicest possible way, of course. This is not my loss. This is everyone’s loss. Everyone but Larry. He is released at last from a body that, at the end, prevented him from doing anything but praying, which he did all day long.
If I grieve, it is not for Larry. It is because I am not more like him.