Monday, April 16, 2007

Wisdom from Ed

I cried because I had no shoes, 'till I met a man who had no feet. So I said, 'You got any shoes you're not using'?
-- Steven Wright.

My last summer at RPI, when I was putting some finishing touches on my Master’s Project, I had a roommate named Ed Kulis. This isn’t going to be a “funny name” essay, though I acknowledge the potential..

I had a pretty good apartment down on 10th St., close enough to campus to walk if I wanted, far enough that it wasn’t embarrassing to drive. I’d had a couple of other roommates while there, but there were also several stretches where I lived alone. One of the nice things about the place was that it was cheap enough that I could do that.

Anyway, Ed always drove. The first thing I ever noticed about him was that he walked funny. A short while into our acquaintance, when we were walking across a parking lot, having just climbed some stairs, I asked “What’s wrong with your legs?”

“What legs?” he replied, and grinned a little.

Several years earlier, Ed’s car had broken down on the Sawmill Parkway, just north of New York City. It was a VW, engine in back, and while he was checking the engine, a truck hit him. He woke up several days later in the hospital, minus much of his legs. One ended mid thigh, the other had a bit left below the knee. His “funny walk” was nigh onto a miracle of rehabilitation therapy and athletic level control of his prostheses.

The whorehouse Madame answers the door and at first doesn’t see anybody. Then she looks down a bit and sees a guy in a motorized wheelchair. He’s a quadruple amputee, no arms, no legs. ”Don’t just stand there,” he says. “Let me in.”

”But you’re a quadruple amputee!” she blurts out.

”I rang the damn bell, didn’t I?” he replies.

Ed suffered through multiple surgeries, then months of recovery, followed by grueling rehab. He once told me that the day he walked out of the rehab center, on his own power, was the happiest day of his life. And he’d vowed never to take anything in life for granted, ever again. Every day after was a gift, he’d told himself.

“But you know,” he confessed to me. “Eventually it wears off. I still remember the feeling, and the promises I made to myself, but then homework has to get done, I have a little fight with my girlfriend, I get pissed at some asshole in the supermarket, and then I find myself at the end of the day just exhausted, watching some lame TV show that’s as big a waste of time as anything I’ve ever done. And I think to myself, yeah, today was a real gift all right.”

Then he grinned and shrugged, “But it’s still better than being dead, and there’s always tomorrow, right?”

So I knew what was coming, certainly. Ed had told me about it. I had a much smaller chunk of me chopped off than Ed did, and Ed never saw it coming, whereas I had weeks to contemplate my own mortality, including various unpleasant endgames that look much less likely now. The upshot of it was that, right after they amputated my finger, last December, I got that same euphoria and uplift, the sense of being really, really connected to it all. There were people I spoke with in the days following my surgery who thought that I was looped on some major pain medication, when the most I ever took was over-the-counter naproxen and half a Vicodin, that being close to my nausea limit in the narcotics department.

High on life, yessiree Bob. That’s me.

And I knew full well that it was transitory, and that I’d soon enough be back to the day to day of work, and worrying about the state of the world, and trying to figure out how long it will take to pay off the medical bills, and how that’s going to impact other plans for the future. I even knew that the loss of the use of a digit was going to be irritating, in many minor ways. But it still surprises me sometimes with the inconvenience of it.

Then every now and then I think of Ed, and what he had to go through. He got a nice insurance settlement, so he had a tricked out car that let him control everything from the steering wheel, and if he retained any fear of automotive collisions, I think he overcompensated a bit by driving a little wild. I, on the other hand, now scrutinize every mole and blemish, then roll my eyes and tell myself to get a grip. So then I squeeze the exercise putty and do the breathing exercises as I return to full Aikido training. I go to the free practice every Tuesday and regular practice every Saturday morning. My shoulder rolls and back falls feel good again, but I haven’t yet fully committed to both classes on Thursday night, and it’s hard to tell the difference between pacing myself and fear.

I hope Ed’s doing well, because that’s actually important to me, albeit in a pretty distant way, because I haven’t heard from him since we roomed together. I bet he’s still got the grin, though.

It’s all a lot better than being dead, and there’s always tomorrow, at least until there isn’t, and that’s also part of life. One thing Ed didn’t warn me about though, was how everything I said about the matter in the first few weeks seemed really profound, but now it’s an effort to get it above trite.

I cut my finger. That's tragedy. A man walks into an open sewer and dies. That's comedy.
-- Mel Brooks

Crossposted at We Are All Giant Nuclear Fireball Now Party Blog.

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