Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Bye Dana

I just found out last night that, while I've been out cavorting in the snow with stuffed animals for the past few days, a good friend has died. I got the news in the most blunt fashion imaginable: chatting online. I got dumped that way once; hearing about Dana's death by reading words on a screen felt just as cold and impersonal.

I called my friend Jon, who also loved Dana, hoping that the person who told me was mistaken or misinformed, but no. He'd suffered a fatal heart attack on Sunday, the day after Christmas. Thing is, Dana was one of the least likely people I worked with to be a candidate for a coronary. He didn't drink or smoke, wasn't morbidly obese, nor, that I knew of, had a history of heart problems. He was African-American, which I understand has a higher percentage of high blood pressure among its males than other populations, but I'd never heard anything along those lines concerning Dana. Sometimes fate just takes a big, messy crap and people die.

Dana used a wheelchair and one of his arms was pretty much immobile. He was also
a man of very few words. Though capable of speech and expressing his thoughts verbally, more often than not he chose to make his opinions known through humming and grunting. "MMM-MMM" could mean he was happy, "MMM-MMM" could mean he was pissed off, or "MMM-MMM" could mean "I've just stolen your calculator and you're not getting it back."

It was all a matter of context. If you didn't get the context, oh well, that was your problem. Dana didn't give a shit if anyone understood him or not. Because of this, many people underestimated his cognitive abilities and couldn't be bothered trying to puzzle him out. Those of us who did found an amazing individual full of life, humor and above all an astounding sense of personal independence. What I loved about him was that you always knew where you stood. If you were talking to him and he got bored he would turn his head and coolly stare at his fingernails until you shut up or went away. Likewise, if he was enjoying your company he would sneak his arm around your waist and hug you--an act reserved for only a scant few.

When he did use speech, much of it was repeating the same stock phrases over and over. A lot of these were running jokes, his version of comedy catch-phrases and, for me, they never got old. Many people in the developmentally disabled population tend to do this, and most of the time I would think "Goddamnit, if you say that one more time I'm going to jab my eardrums open with a pair of knitting needles." With Dana, somehow, it was different. "You ain't gonna catch me, I'm gonna pull your ears," was hilarious every time. I know. Written down, it's hardly a knee-slapper. You had to be there for the delivery. "I'm going home on the bus. Gonna take my shoes off and go to bed." was another daily ritual that always provided high amusement.

But every now and then, Dana would pull something out of nowhere that slipped and let on that he was far more cerebral than for which a lot of people gave him credit. We worked in a sheltered work environment; a program which provided job opportunities for people with physical and/or mental barriers to standard community employment. Occasionally, the higher-ups in the company would suddenly arrive, unannounced, leading a tour group through the workplace to show off their wonderful, altruistic facility that enabled people with disabilities to work as hard as they could in exchange for wages comparable to a twelve-year-old in a third world shoe factory. The tour leaders and strangers would stand and stare at the people working, clearly moved by this heartwarming state of affairs. I leaned over and whispered to Dana, "Ever feel like a monkey in a zoo?"

Dana: "I don't know WHAT the hell they're looking at."

So he got it. More than the tour leaders, more than the visitors, more than I. Because he had to live it.

He was a serious klepto. If it wasn't nailed down and he wanted it, he would steal it. Pens and calculators were his favorites; those of us who knew him imagined his bedroom at home probably looked like Staples. Sometimes he would go for big-ticket items like cell phones. One woman found her phone missing and called the number. "MMM-MMM! MMM-MMM!" and the line went dead. She drove across town to Dana's place and when the door was opened and he saw it was her, he ran for his bedroom and shut the door. More often, though, at work the missing item would be discovered before he left. The robbed person would approach him, "Dana, did you steal my notebook?" and thus would begin a mad chase, Dana taking off, propelling his wheelchair with one hand down the hall, "MMM-MMM! MMM-MMM!" as fast as he could go. He was smart enough to embrace the one rule if you're going to embark on a life of crime: Deny, deny, deny. "I didn't take it! I didn't take it!" Invariably, the stolen notebook would be discovered as he usually was sitting on it. The owner would retrieve their property out from under him, and of course, Dana only had one thing to say about it. "I didn't take it."

Dana and I spent a lot of time playing catch with a toy stuffed mouse. It is perhaps a telling description of my own athletic ability that the only person with whom I felt comfortable tossing ball was a guy in a wheelchair with one bad arm. We'd sling the mouse back and forth at one another, and over time it developed into a routine where I'd tell him that he wasn't going home on the bus but rather had to work another shift with me.

"I say N-N-NO!" he'd snap, and fling the mouse. On a good day, I'd catch it.
"But I say Y-S-YES!" I'd shout, and fire it back.

And back and forth it went. When Dana was tired of playing, instead of tossing
the mouse to me or telling me he didn't want to do it anymore, he would fire the toy down the hallway, into another office, where I would have to go and fetch it. By the time I got back, he'd be gone.

Now he's pulled a fast one. He's gone for good.

I'm no stranger to disappearing acts of late. As explained in my post Mr. Puddlewinks Talks About His New Life, I walked away from a lot of people I cared about and who cared about me
in order to fix the parts of me that are damaged. I had to do it before I became broken beyond repair, and while I'm not sure I've explained myself well enough to anyone's satisfaction, there is at least a chance we'll meet up again someday. But Dana, you gimp bastard, you took a permanent hike and screwed it so I'll never have the chance to say goodbye or sorry for walking out on you. The cosmic version of turning your head and staring at your fingernails.

My situation, desperate and ugly as it is, at least spared me the experience of having to look at Jon or Kendra or Cathy and bursting into tears. Because there's nothing more pathetic than watching a bald man weep.

So long, buddy. My only solace is that, if there's anything to Christian mythology, God will have a hard time sorting out the saved from the damned with a missing calculator.

No comments:

Post a Comment