Many of you have become familiar with my friend Mike Schwass in the course of my writing. Michael and I often talk about his shortened lifespan and the mounting challenges facing a 31-year quadriplegic (not 31-year-old, but 31 years as a quad) and about all the ways I offer him physical assistance when we spend time together, but we never directly talk about the impact of his quadriplegia on me.
I recently tried to read his book for a second time and I can't right now. I just can't. It's a beautiful book with layers and layers to it, but because I know and love him, reading about what he went through is just too difficult.
Over the sixteen years we've known each other, there have been a number of moments I'm only now admitting to myself were traumatic for me. Like the first time my eyes landed on the scar on his neck from life saving surgery he'd had a few years before, when I glanced down while we were talking. It's a hell of a scar. It caught me up short. I'm used to it now, but that first glance blindsided me.
Then there was the weekend at his cabin in Echo Lake when I saw him out of his chair. I really got what his life is like in a deeper way than I ever had before. It showed me he's the strongest, most powerful, weakest, most vulnerable man I know — a mind-boggling paradox. I wrote a poem about it, which I share with you here:
I suppose the decent thing
would have been to look away
avert my eyes (in a gesture at least)
of preserving your dignity.
But I did not.
Not that there was
some morbid sense of
anything that felt like
at all. I was simply seeing you
prone and vulnerable
We were simply perpendicular.
That was all.
You, with that peculiar flatness
wrong in a way that can’t be named but that
animals and children would sense.
of its own accord
carried on with the words
of ordinary dayness
While my eyes,
(had you been able to turn your head you would have seen it)
unblinking and steady (my eyes that is) leveled on you across the room
(and now I