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
While I stood there, a bit too open…my eyes, I mean…not you…but maybe that too
Yes, maybe that too.
I've shared this poem with a lot of people; I just never shared it with Michael. I couldn't bring myself to read it to him.
Being aware of the paradox felt like sacrilege. I didn't want to admit out loud what I saw. I was afraid it would make him self-conscious. I was afraid he would feel bad. It all felt too exposed. Right or wrong, I think part of me needed to protect him and myself from the vulnerability I saw in that moment. Part of me also has felt like my "trauma" in seeing his trauma was not really valid, because he handles his own so well. How could I be that weak in the face of his strength? I just needed to suck it up and deal.
I took the poem with me on Friday. With lots of stammering, stuttering, explaining, and prefacing, I told him my feelings about it as I tried to find the courage to read it to him. No sooner did I say, "The first time I saw your scar…"
"It frightened you!" Just like that.
With vast compassion and understanding, Michael gave me full permission to talk about all this pain as I have absorbed what his life is about and come to appreciate the path his injury put him on.
I read the poem to him, and he loved it. And he laughed at me in appreciation of what that moment did. He knew I only wanted to see his strength and that I was protecting myself, even more than him, from admitting I saw his vulnerability as well.
He got it and he understood it. I never realized I was frightened by what I saw, but he named my fear and let me know it was okay. Normal, even!
Can you appreciate how much work he has done on himself to get the point that he could deal with his own hard journey, and then mine as well? I hope you can, because it is absolutely humbling and one of the finest examples of true friendship I can share.
May we all be so present and so willing to help each other as we absorb the full ramifications of what it means to truly love each other; until death parts us, and perhaps after. Let's all be brave enough to travel the whole distance, with open eyes and open hearts.Powered by Sidelines