high school

The lost and found wheelchair

IMG_0889As published in The Providence Journal, October 15, 2017.

We needed a wheelchair; otherwise, my mother would miss the show.

My daughter, Juliana, was performing in her last high school theater production, cast as Golde in “Fiddler On The Roof.” Mom, a longtime fan of Broadway musicals, knew the role better than anyone and said, with a grandmother’s certainty, that Julie was perfect for the part.

My mother had been less sure about whether she’d be able to attend. Two weeks earlier, a virus had slowed her down – an unwelcome add-on to the macular degeneration and breathing issues that she normally dealt with. But when I walked into her Warwick apartment on the Wednesday before Julie’s Saturday matinee, her voice was strong and her spirits high. She was coming to the show.

So we needed a wheelchair. There was no way Mom could make the trek from the parking lot to the auditorium at East Greenwich High School. And forget about any stairs.

My brother Rob mentioned there was a wheelchair in the coat alcove at St. Luke’s, our church, and when I called the office, the rector said we could borrow it. Julie was thrilled. Not only were her grandparents from Connecticut coming in for the show; now Nonnie would be there, too.

On Saturday, I went to St. Luke’s to get the chair. But when I looked in the coat alcove, it wasn’t there. I looked in another closet. Nothing. I looked in the office, the entrance foyer, the back of the church – no luck.

I looked at my phone. “Fiddler” was scheduled to start in less than an hour.

And then an angel appeared. My friend Ken was working with the youth group, making pizzas for a mission-trip fundraiser. It turns out he had a wheelchair at home, one his father-in-law had used for years. Ken said he’d be right back with it. Thank God! Thank Ken! He returned with the chair, and I slid it awkwardly into the trunk of my car.

The show was endearing in the way most high school productions are, with seasoned theater kids mixing with first-time performers. And thanks to the wheelchair, Mom was right in the front row to take it all in. When Julie sang Golde’s bittersweet duet with Tevye in the second act – “Do You Love Me?” – my mother fished a tissue out of her bag. I felt my eyes sting, too.

“You were marvelous,” Mom told her youngest grandchild after the show, giving Julie a kiss.

In deference to the cold, late-winter air, the two of them waited inside the glass-doored entrance of the high school as I retrieved my car. With the Elantra’s tailpipe puffing at the curb, I wheeled Mom out, helped her into the passenger seat, hustled around to the driver’s side, and jumped in to take her home.

That evening, when I returned to the high school to see the musical’s final performance, I noticed an unattended wheelchair on the sidewalk outside. Funny, I thought – it looks just like the one I borrowed from Ken, blue seat and all. What a coincidence.

It wasn’t until the following afternoon, as I loaded groceries into my empty trunk, that it hit me: There was nothing coincidental about the wheelchair the night before. In my haste to get Mom home, I had driven away without it. And now my mother’s voice came to me, straight from childhood: “You’d lose your head if it weren’t attached.”

I raced over to the high school and, to my relief, discovered the wheelchair orphaned in a wooded area by the parking lot. I wished the chair was equipped with a GPS tracker so I could review its adventures. I imagined hooting teenagers careening down darkened streets deep into the night.

As I hefted the wheelchair back into my trunk, I was thankful – for the generosity of friends, for the love and presence of grandparents, for the sweetness of young voices, and for the wheelchair itself, found and lost and found again.

It was a weekend I’ll always remember.

Always voyaging, never arriving: How La Salle helped me become a writer

Pages from lsa alumni magazine 2015 Final-rw1_HR

As published in the La Salle Alumni Magazine, Winter 2015.

Brother Eugene raised his arm like a basketball referee calling a foul. He was clutching a stack of papers – our first book reports in freshman English. And then Eugene let our stapled, loose-leaf musings drop to the floor – SLAP! – and all pre-class chatter ceased.

“Garbage!” he shouted.

It was not an auspicious start for an aspiring writer like me. But it was instructive. Turns out many of us had misspelled “separate” in our analysis of the John Knowles classic, A Separate Peace. From that day forward, I paged through my American Heritage Dictionary more often.

Brother Eugene’s class was just one of many experiences at La Salle that helped set me on the path to becoming a copywriter and Op-Ed columnist. Three months after graduating from college with an English degree, I landed my first ad agency job and have been writing for a living ever since.

At La Salle, I glimpsed the importance of editing from my AP U.S. history teacher, John Carpenter. He dissected my essay on Reconstruction as if it were a frog in biology class. With a red pen as his scalpel, Mr. Carpenter cut my first three paragraphs. “Here’s where you should start,” he said, pointing to the bottom of the page. “Everything above is fluff.”

I tested my hand at journalism through the Maroon & White, our school newspaper. My first assignment? A report on improvements made to the school building over the summer of 1976. I think I wrote about fresh paint, refurbished desks, and fluorescent lighting. I told myself Woodward and Bernstein had similar beginnings.

Classmate and friend Jim Phelan demonstrated the power of message repetition, a technique I have employed for clients many times. A huge fan of the band Black Sabbath, Jim graffitied the school with the lead singer’s name – OZZY in lavatory stalls, OZZY on cafeteria trays, OZZY beneath the bleachers, OZZY inside my locker, somehow. I’m surprised I didn’t find OZZY scrawled on my diploma at graduation.

English teacher A.J. Ramsey was especially supportive, overseeing my independent study in creative writing junior year. Mr. Ramsey introduced me to Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Virginia Woolf. He read my essays, short stories, and poems with patience and gentle criticism. And he revealed to me the fundamental truth about getting good at this craft: write every day.

In May of my senior year, I was among ten or so students who wrote and read speeches to be considered for our class’s valedictory address. Three weeks later, I delivered my speech during our graduation ceremony at Veterans Memorial Auditorium. It was my biggest writing milestone to date.

Earlier that day, I had received a gift from Mr. Ramsey: a leather-bound edition of Mrs. Dalloway. The first page was inscribed:

John: To teach and to have you learn – to share and to have you accept beauty – it has been a pleasure, and a life. We (you, and I, and the rest of us) are the university, once described “like a sailing ship always voyaging, never arriving.” Bon voyage, dear shipmate! – Ramsey

 

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