observations and opinion
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Thirty Christmases ago, my girlfriend was supposed to come for dinner at my brother’s house, where she would meet my brother, his wife and – visiting from out of town – my parents. It was a big deal. Not “engagement ring big” but big enough.
I called the young lady in the morning, to confirm details. Her response on the phone was classic and unforgettable: “No sorry, I’m not coming. I’m going skiing with Michael.”
Going skiing with Michael. Michael was a nice guy, an old friend of hers from home. He was also taking her skiing. And somehow I knew that morning, staring out the window on the December streets of Toronto, Michael was taking her further than that. All the way, as it turned out: the holidays, engagement, a wedding, marriage, children, a house, the whole shebang. He was the right guy for her. And I wasn’t.
I knew all that in my mind, that morning, but still my heart was broken. Or at least bruised. Against all the odds, I had been smitten with that girl. But she went skiing with Michael and I went alone, to my family dinner. Where I dulled my senses with the largest quantity of Scotch I ever consumed in one sitting. Before or since.
And I did something else that night too: I appreciated my family. Loved them even. My hopeless mother, operating in a mental time zone slightly askew from everyone else; my father, large and imperfect and well-intentioned; my brother, sharp as a razor; his wife, warm as kittens. I loved them all that night, loved them without judgment, loved them singly and as a group.
What I did that cold December night was start to mend my broken heart the only way you can: by using it. Yes, the Scotch helped. It was medicinal.
But there are some muscles you cannot heal.
After thirty nine years of a charmed life, in July 1921 American millionaire Franklin Roosevelt became ill and was paralyzed by polio. Grinding physical rehabilitation got him nowhere and eventually, FDR fell into a drunken funk, literally floating off the coast of Florida for boozy months on a fishing boat. He was not a promising case.
Desperate to get better, Roosevelt visited a ramshackle Georgia town called Bullochville, where the warm mineral waters were reputed to cure one’s ills. And they did cure him – not by giving back Roosevelt his muscles (those were lost to him forever) but by giving him a purpose. FDR invested two-thirds of his fortune into an old resort, re-named it (and the town) “Warm Springs” and built a rehabilitation center for people crippled by polio. In the decades that followed, thousands of people built up their physical and psychological strength at Warm Springs. They got better, and they’re still getting better: 93 years after FDR opened it, Warm Springs is still in business.
Had FDR spent his remaining years running Warm Springs, he would be remembered today as a deeply generous and infectiously optimistic man who lifted the spirits and prospects of thousands of sick people. He is of course, remembered for that, but for other things too – he became the President of the United States, rescued capitalism and America from the Great Depression and then led the fight to save the world from fascism in World War II. As victory loomed, FDR died at Warm Springs, while editing his planned speech for the opening of the United Nations. Franklin Roosevelt was arguably the most accomplished and important man who ever lived.
That could not have happened, if he had not first been crippled.
Prior to 1921, Roosevelt was derided by many as a “feather duster” – a lightweight, whose amiable persona spread thinly over a shallow soul and lazy mind. The single child of rich patricians, coddled and shielded from life’s realities, FDR was self-absorbed, selfish and for all his charm, not much liked. He had many people but few true friends. Then came polio. Like a lightning bolt or being hit by a car, this was a cruel, unfair and crippling blow.
How must it have felt for a most favoured and promising young man, not yet forty years old, to wake up frozen in his body? With no hopes for a cure, trapped in a bed and a wheelchair – did his mind whirl with rage at the injustice of it? How could it not? The upset mind is a seesaw on a carousel, whirling and casting about madly – regrets and recriminations colliding with ideas and thoughts, in a chaotic traffic jam of sparking neurons in the brain.
It takes time – perhaps only time – to slow the spinning wheel down, to air out the burning fires, to finally have a sleep that is not a horror show of dreams and disjointed feelings. Franklin Roosevelt was paralyzed for the rest of his life, and not a day went by when he didn’t know it, but at some point the open wound – the palpating rage at the unfairness of his loss – closed.
At that point, Franklin Roosevelt took the thing that crippled him – the thing that had robbed him of his life – and found purpose in it. He built up his own physical and psychological strength in the process. He became useful to people, important again and in so doing, regained his self-confidence. That process began with teaching crippled kids to swim in buoyant pools of hot spring water. Ultimately FDR carried on to help lift a whole nation – indeed a world – up off the floor and back onto its feet.
FDR never recovered from his paralytic illness. He trained himself to stand up in steel braces – even to “walk” by swinging one dead leg forward at a time, leaning on crutches or the arm of an aide – but he was never cured. All he could do to get better, was to be different. What got better was the man himself.
The year 2017 was a remarkably sour one, and for some people it is winding-up in acutely painful ways. People we love have endured hardship, illness, heartache. We are parted from ones care for; we have seen friends we once respected, behave appallingly; we feel cut by cruel disappointments. We witness shocking behaviour.
Most of us were glad to leave 2016 behind, hoping for better in 2017. One year later on this latest New Year’s Eve we glimpse the coming of 2018 with trepidation – rarely has a new year been greeted with so little joy and so much wariness. Things got worse in 2016, then they got worse again in 2017. Who’s to say what 2018 might bring?
None of us knows and there is very little any individual can do to change it. But we can remember the old lesson: things may get worse, but we don’t have to; things may not get better, but WE can. If our hearts are broken, there is only one way to mend them – by using them again.
That’s all I’ve got for you this New Year’s Eve 2017, my friends, but maybe it’s enough.