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Can a Boy in a Wheelchair Teach Us How to Live?

A Personal Perspective: The boy who lived two lives.

Key points

  • Those who have self-imposed limitations can often learn much from others who have overcome overwhelming physical challenges.
  • Is it possible to live two lives: your own and someone else you have loved?
  • Can recovering from the death of a loved one result in a recommitment to life?

If I ever get the opportunity to address my university community on the most significant experiences in my academic career, I would avoid the usual topics. I would instead tell the stories about some of my former students who have influenced my own life. As any teacher or college professor can attest, sometimes there is a role reversal in teacher-student relationships. The students become our teachers, and we become their students. Here is one of those stories.

I first met David in the early 1970s when he was a student in one of my writing courses. I had seen him in class sitting in his wheelchair somewhat off to the side and near an open window. He didn’t speak in class, but I sensed he was listening attentively.

One day he appeared in my office doorway in his battery-powered wheelchair. He was slightly hunched forward and his hands seemed to have limited strength to push the switch that activated the wheelchair’s motor. We talked briefly about the issues we had discussed in class that day, and then he left.

It was to be the first of many such visits. Over time, as I read his written work and talked with him during my office hours, I came to know him well. One of the class assignments was to write about a personal experience that changed their lives. David wrote about a childhood friend named Shane who was also wheelchair dependent. During office visits and in the essay, David shared how they would study together, engage in harmless pranks, play games, and dream about travelling the world together. David’s most vivid memory was how they would race their wheelchairs down the hallway of their school to see whose chair was the fastest.

In the essay David also described how one day Shane did not show up for school. David became very concerned about his friend. When he arrived back home, he told his mother, “Shane was not in school today.” His mother eyed her son warily, knowing what she was about to tell him would hurt terribly. She said, “Shane’s in the hospital. He’s very sick.” A few days later, she had to tell her son, “I’m sorry, David, but Shane passed away today.”

When David stopped by my office again, I told him his essay describing his relationship with Shane was beautifully written. He replied that he had slipped into a state of depression after Shane died. He struggled to do anything productive, but often failed. I don’t remember his exact words, but he decided, with Shane gone, he would have to somehow live both of their dreams.

The next time David came into my office, he asked if I thought he had the skills to become the editor-in-chief of our campus newspaper. I encouraged him to take on that responsibility. Over the next year, I met with him every week as he organized and wrote much of the newspaper. I came to realize he was driven by some fierce determination to live his life to the fullest of his capabilities.

We became very close during that year. I eventually wrote a letter of recommendation for him, and he was accepted into a University of California graduate program. Gradually, his life and my life parted ways. I did not know what had happened to him. I just harbored the memories of a young man who had impressed me deeply with his determination to live a productive life in spite of the many challenges he had to overcome. I also never forgot the stories he told me about his friend Shane.

Four decades later, as I was paging through a university publication I saw David’s obituary. Only then did I learn more about his life after he graduated from my university. The obituary indicated he went on to earn “a master’s and doctorate from the University of California, San Diego.” He also “mastered seven languages and travelled all over the world.” He accomplished all this in spite of the fact that he was “Born with a unique muscle disease … and became wheelchair dependent at the age of 12.” A “battle with pneumonia in 1982 forced him to rely on a respirator for the rest of his life.” The obituary concluded, “Despite these seemingly overwhelming setbacks, David lived his life to the fullest.” He had not only managed to coax four more decades out of his body after he became wheelchair dependent. He had also “travelled all over the world” even when he had to rely on a respirator to breathe.

As I read the obituary, my memories of our time together came pouring out of the past. I remembered how he had described his friend Shane and how they bonded during the years they were in school together. I remembered especially David’s brief comments that he became determined to live his life not only for himself, but also for his friend. I took some consolation in knowing that he had fulfilled that promise.

I am convinced David thought about Shane as he toured the world with the aid of a respirator. I believe he felt his good friend accompanied him on those worldwide adventures. In David’s mind, I think Shane was with him as much as when they raced their wheelchairs down the hallways of their school.

These two boys were bonded by the simple fact that they were both wheelchair dependent and shared similar challenges in life. Their friendship was all that mattered. And when one of them was gone, the other lived life for both of them.

I am glad I met David. He taught me a lot about life.

Image by Dennis M Clausen
A wheelchair did not limit a young man from seeking worldwide adventure.
Source: Image by Dennis M Clausen


USD Magazine (Spring 2013)