My friend Charlie Croteau was a tall, blond 20-year-old at university when his life went into reverse. The fateful moment came when he was in a gymnastics class trying to master a backward summersault on the trampoline.
When he overextended, the teacher asked him to try again. Charlie was trying not to jump as high, but started to arch his back too soon, and came down backwards on the hard metal rim. His broken neck left him a quadriplegic with some very limited use of his hands.
Something occurred to Charlie as he lay bed-bound in the months following the accident. He had a choice. Specifically, he had a choice in regards to the way he handled his misfortune. He could allow the tragedy to crush him, becoming a cesspool of self-pity and regret, or he could live joyfully in spite of the wheelchair. In Charlie’s words, he elected to “play at it.” “Play at it” means to simply enjoy whatever good things you have and then share them. It means forming a scuba-diving club comprised of other wheelchair-bound folks and calling it the “Moray Wheels.” It means building a fire in your backyard, inviting your friends over, and telling “Rawhide Raulens” stories, which you make up as you go along, sucking solemnly on a piece of wild straw. It means wheelchair drag-racing in the car park with friends. It means making quad-friendly bicycles from scrap metal, and buying a sound system for one of your favourite folk singers.
As a young family, we bought land with another family and split it into three sublots. We sold the third piece to Charlie, who never built a house on it, but would take entire days just to landscape the lot and plant vegetables. This land was the site of many an outdoor local musician’s concert and barbecues, drawing many people. Children would run through the paddocks in packs, and Charlie would cruise around on his moveable throne like a king in glory, utterly content to see old and young enjoying the pleasures of his kingdom.
One of the events culminated in roasting corn over an open fire. Afterwards, we sang rowdy songs accompanied by guitars until we worried about disturbing the peace in our sleepy neighborhood.
I don’t remember seeing Charlie any happier than that evening as he pontificated over marshmallow toasting with the brightness of fire and the glow of love on his face.
He came through for us once when tragedy struck our own lives. My husband’s roofing business was our young family’s sole source of income. Michael fell from a ladder, which he had placed on a roof in order to get to a higher tier of the building. Spread-eagled when he hit the ground, his left wrist was shattered almost beyond salvage. We had just moved into the house of our dreams, which had the mortgage payment of our nightmares. Since Mike was self-employed, we faced months of recovery time with no unemployment benefits, and we didn’t even have health insurance or workman’s compensation.
Thankfully, a housewarming party cheered our spirits as friends brought bags of food and small monetary gifts.
Then came Charlie’s card. “I asked God what to give you,” he wrote in his wobbly handwriting, “and He said this was the amount.” Inside was a cheque for $4000, exactly what we needed to get through the next few months while Michael healed.
He inspired us again while my father lay dying of cancer. Dad had met and instantly liked Charlie, largely because he was a poor boy who became a selfmade success, and had a profound respect for those who rose above difficulty.
Now Dad’s illness gave him a chance to do the same, but death was staring him in the face, and it proved too much for even his bravery. It was Dad’s time to weep, but that’s never easy for a grown man to do. Charlie helped him.
Dad had received hundreds of cards from the accumulated friends of 68 years. Buried in one of the card baskets was Charlie’s. One afternoon, Dad called me into the living room. “I have to read you this card,” he said earnestly.
Rifling through the stacks, he finally pulled it out. “Dear Richard,” Dad read, “I wish I could take this for you. I will meet up with you again in a better place.”
By the last line, my brave father was sobbing openly in a way I had never seen him do before. There was some way in which Charlie could console him better than his own family.
Not only because of what he said, but because of where he said it from, those words filtered through my dad’s defences and warmed the loneliest room of his heart.
Last autumn we sold our house and moved to a city in another state. After filling a large dumpster three times, we packed the rest of our accumulated possessions of 15 years and said goodbye to our many local friends. Even though the former was gruelling, the latter was harder. And the hardest of all was saying goodbye to my kind quadriplegic friend. I stayed cheerful during the parting formalities, but as his truck pulled out of our driveway, my heart stung and water came into my eyes.
The autumn leaves swirled around his accelerating truck wheels, and the best neighbour I will ever have drove away.
The next day we headed down our road for the last time. I took one final look at Charlie’s paradise and thanked God for his friendship. Through his wordless teaching I learned that curses can be blessings in disguise. In the hand of grace, rust turns to diamonds, ashes to silk, and a wheelchair becomes a victor’s throne.