He was easy to spot. In a room full of frail, elderly people, Marc and his motorized wheelchair loomed large. His six foot four-inch thin frame rested on the chair, his head on the headrest, and his face inches away from the straw-like device that, through his breathing, powered him around the Daughters of Sarah, a nursing home in Albany, New York.
I had come to Daughters that afternoon to visit Rose, a 99-year old friend. But she had decided to attend a lecture, and I was waiting for her in the community room. So I used my free time to strike up a conversation with the young man, a rarity among the ancient. I found out that he had lived at Daughters for eight years, he was thirty-four years old, and he maneuvered his chair around the building chatting with young staff members for companionship—the only people in the facility close to his age. I asked him if I could visit him every week before my time with Rose, and he said, “Sure!”
Maybe because he was just two months older than my son Adam. Maybe because he is just a genuinely nice person. No matter, we just clicked. Over the next few weeks, I learned more about his situation. He had become a quadriplegic in a freak motorcycle accident when he was 16—yes, he was wearing a helmet! “Since the accident,” Marc told me later, “I really feel I haven’t had much choice in anything in life other than give up or carry on.”
His parents have been there for him since they got the life-changing phone call that their son had been in a terrible accident. “It was my strong-willed father who especially pushed me to improve my situation,” Marc said. “He posted a sign on my computer that read, ‘What can I do today to make myself more independent?’
For the first ten years, Marc had lived with his parents in their home near Sacadaga Lake. Finding good home health care to meet his needs became more problematic, and he and the family decided that Daughters was a better option for him.
Marc never exhibited any bitterness about his situation, and he rarely complained even when he was uncomfortable from his kidney stones or he struggled with breathing. He loved his family and Westerns and fishing and stock car racing. I picked up 101 Things You Should Know About NASCAR from the library and studied the book so I could talk intelligently with him about the sport. To my husband Larry’s amusement, I even started following the results in the newspaper and caught some of the races on the television.
Marc also liked McDonalds, so I often stopped on my way to the nursing home in one the franchise’s restaurant a mile from Daughters. The bag of burger and fries left a tantalizing trail of non-kosher, or what Jews know as ‘treif’—aromas down the hallway. It took a few times for us to find a rhythm as I fed him: two bites of the Big Mac, two fries, and two sips of soda. Repeat. He loved chocolate, so I usually brought him brownies or chocolate chip cookies, which he saved for later.
Marc owned a fully equipped handicap accessible van, which was kept in the nursing home parking lot. It took me a while to get the courage to take him for outings. One beautiful fall day, however, I asked Marc if he wanted to go for a ride. “Sure!” he said with a huge smile. He guided me through the process of opening up the back door, pushing him up the ramp, pulling his chair back to compensate for his height, and locking the mechanism in place.
We drove up the Northway and across the Twin Bridges. We got an ice cream cone at the Country Drive-In and then sat in a small park near the Mohawk River. The autumn foliage was at its peak, and the sky was a brilliant blue. We had a little scare when the battery light on his van went on. But I managed to deliver him and his vehicle safely back to Daughters.
Over the next three years, I visited Marc on a regular basis, even after Rose passed away. Weather permitting, we would take a field trip—a Chinese restaurant, Five Guys, Wal-Mart, a local mall. Our excursions taught me much about what Marc endures. Adults watched us furtively as I fed him wonton soup; children gawked and asked their parents loud questions as the two of us browsed an aisle in the Christmas Tree Shop. When we stopped in a hair salon, the beautician first directed her questions to me until I said emphatically, “Marc is perfectly capable of telling you how he wants his hair cut.”
There were many weeks I could not visit Marc—Larry and I were traveling, either Marc or I was sick, or bad weather prevented me from driving the sixteen miles down the Northway. But no matter, I treasured each of those visits with him.
When Larry and I decided to relocate to Florida, telling Marc about our impending move was one of the hardest conversations I had during that transition. Visits from other friends and family were—to me—too few and far between, and Daughters’ staff could not drive Marc in his van due to liability issues.
As Larry and I packed up our house, we needed to find a home for four photo collages that we had created from our trips. We brought them to Marc, and he had them hung up on the wall next to his family pictures and a digital photo album we had gotten him the previous Christmas.
On the last visit before we left, Marc and I decided to keep in touch through e-mails. I also promised him that I would mail him a postcard every Monday. On my last visit, I gave him a hug and cried as I made my way across the parking lot past his big blue van to my car.
When Larry and I came back the Albany for Thanksgiving five months later, our second stop with our rental car was Daughters. The first was a stop at Panera Bread for a brownie to bring to Marc. “We were in the neighborhood and thought you could use some chocolate,” I said, as we surprised him in his room. On the wall were the photo collages and all the the postcards that I had sent him from Florida and Colorado and California.
Marc continues to reside in Daughters of Sarah. He has had a couple of surgeries and more than a few health scares. His postcard collection grows, some I purchased during our travels and some given to me by friends and members of our community’s travel club.
In February, Marc celebrated his thirty-ninth birthday. He continues to carry on, to remain positive.
“I have some bad days when I am in pain or can’t breathe,” Marc told me. “But every day I get up and put a smile on my face. I try to make the best out of each day because I believe that someone always has it worse than I do.”
And every day, I am grateful that Marc is my friend.