“IF I KNEW WHY…”

The first time we visited was in his living room.  He was 27 years old and a paraplegic.  Shelves on the wall behind his wheelchair were filled with trophies and pictures marking the progress of a young athlete from Little League to college sports.  You could also trace the development of his grin, beginning on the face of a shy 10-year-old and blossoming into the confident, tooth-filled smile of an able-bodied collegian.

We talked about faith in God and faith in Jesus.  He said sometimes he had difficulties with faith and had to fight against doubt especially when he felt himself sinking into depression as he fought against succumbing to the temptation to feel sorry for himself.  He told me that so many things were coming his way before the accident.  People who should know had told him he would have a career in professional sports and someday would be a wealthy man able to have at his disposal all the luxuries money can buy.

As someone who has never been accused of being an athlete, such possibilities fascinated me.  He showed me different trophies and autographed pictures of himself with nationally known sports figures.  Each item had a story.  I’ve noticed that athletes can recall significant moments in their games with great precision and vivid detail.  He could do that as if the games in question had been played just hours ago.  He had pictures of himself with priests and sisters.  He said when he was growing up being a Catholic was important to him.  He never missed Mass on Sunday and prayed every night before going to bed.

Then one night during his senior year in university his life changed forever.  He was walking along the street toward his apartment.  Rain fell and it was later than he liked to be out.  It never occurred to him to be frightened.  He liked people a lot and to this day still can never resist the urge to greet passersby, strangers though they be.  Someone walked up behind him, swung a club and hit him in the small of his back and, as he was falling, in the head.  No words.  No warning.  Days later he woke in a hospital bed in an intensive care unit, paralyzed from the waist down.

Those were terrible days, those first weeks following what he called the accident.  He was humbled to suddenly be completely dependent and terribly vulnerable.  In the beginning he had hoped his condition was temporal and someone would be able to do something to help him get his strength and motion back.  He began to experience phantom pains that he thought meant life was coming back to his limbs.  The phantoms passed.  Sometimes well-meaning people told him not to give up hope because they were sure a cure was not far away.

Time passed and hope faded.  One cold night he lay awake in his bed and wept.  He knew he would never walk again.  He would never be an athlete again.  Through his tears he cried out to God, “Where are you?  Why did you let this happen to me?”

We sipped coffee and nibbled cookies as his emotions cooled.  He had a way of laughing to ease tensions.

“Imagine,” he said, “I actually blamed God for this just before the thought occurred to me that all this must be my fault and a punishment for having committed some sin that I could no longer remember.  Or maybe I was being punished for sins my ancestors committed.  You know, the sins of our fathers.  But all that passed.  Even though I doubted, I never lost my faith.  Or maybe I should say that after the dark days of depression that preceded my crying jag, I got my faith back.

“I remember the morning.  I had finished my shower and was shaving.  I stopped and stared at my lathered face, my razor poised to square my sideburn.  As clear as I can hear your voice, I heard a voice within me say, ‘Suffering is part of the journey.’”

He rolled his chair to the window and looked out at his children playing in the yard.  His wife, their mother, sat on the porch and watched the youngsters, giving us privacy for our conversation.

“You know,” he said, “sometimes I wonder about the person who did this to me.  I never saw him.  I never heard the sound of his voice.  The police never caught him to punish him for the crime.

“I have fantasized about meeting him someday.  When the phone rings and the caller says he dialed the wrong number, I wonder if it is the culprit suddenly afraid to admit to what he did.  I’ve thought about how I would react were he one day to ring the doorbell and introduce himself as the one who changed my life and spoiled the chance for me to achieve any of my dreams.  It isn’t that I long for revenge.  What would punishing him accomplish?  But I would like to ask him why he did this to me.  Because if I knew why, maybe I could forgive him and I would be free.”

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