When I first came to know Jonah and Robert, I was very eager to please. They were my first real wheelchair friends. When I was with them my personality took on a quality not unlike that of the Crocodile Hunter on TV. Every request was met with a boisterous “Absolutely.” I hovered over them with manic energy. I was Johnny-on-the-spot. I was here, there, everywhere, pushing in chairs and getting extra napkins. I wasn’t so much their friend as their manservant. I think people in wheelchairs learn to live through this phase with new friends. What happens is you get so tired of being a servant that you either drop the relationship or start treating them like real people.
One day when I was visiting, their paid assistant left to take a few hours off. Robert dropped a bombshell.
“Gordon, I need you to help me go to the bathroom.”
My bold, Crocodile Hunter “Absolutely” withered into “mkay” with the end of the word lilted up like a desperate question.
Robert’s hands are permanently clenched in palsied fists. You can insert a spoon in his hand so he can bravely push food toward his mouth, but he has no fine motor skills. My mind was racing as I considered just what “help me go to the bathroom” might entail. Robert, however, was very calm and absolutely not embarrassed. “Don’t worry”, he said. “I’ll tell you exactly what you need to do.” I wheeled him into their bathroom, and he walked me through the process. I followed every step with nervous obedience, like I do when I cook.
“Okay, put your arms under my armpits like you’re giving me a hug, and help me stand up.”
He held his arms up and I slid mine under his. We were cheek to cheek. He was heavy, but I got him standing.
“Good. Now pull my pants down. They’ve got to be down near my ankles.”
It was hard to pull down Robert’s pants – hard to get started. Everything was backwards and this was his belt and his zipper and his belly I pushed against. I knelt in front of him and undid everything. I worked his corduroys and underpants down close to his ankles. He was naked and not ashamed. I was back in The Garden with him and surprised to find that I was not ashamed either.
“Now put your arms around me again, just as before, and help me sit on the toilet.” We slow danced with little baby steps until I got him in front of the toilet, then I sat him down.
At this point I stopped needing instructions. I saw what to do. I understood why his pants had to be so far down. I pried his knees wide apart so he could use his clenched fist to tuck his genitals between his thighs, and then my work was done.
I walked out profoundly moved. This kind of intimacy was something out of my experience. It was on beyond zebra and outward into the high country. I’d never walked this road before. I thought I was through, but there was more. Soon I heard Robert calling me from the bathroom.
“I need you to help me clean up.”
Of course he did. How could I not anticipate this? Denial? I don’t know, but I froze when I heard him. I had small children at the time, and wiping bottoms was something I did every day. This was different. This was wiping a full-grown man’s bottom, which disgusted me, and recognizing that I felt this way made me ashamed. Robert was matter-of-fact and quite dignified. “Okay, lean me forward until my head is almost to my knees. Then you’ll be able to clean me.” I pushed him forward and then I saw that the assistant had not been doing a good job of cleaning Robert. He was a mess and not just from this bowel movement.
And just like that he became my child.
Occasionally parents come home to find the baby sitter has not been as thorough as she might have been when changing a diaper. It’s not hot anger you feel, but you are put out. Children need you to do a good job cleaning them. Not to do so is to be unkind to the helpless. At that time my wife and I kept a box of diaper wipes in the car at all times. I sat Robert back up and said, “Hang on a moment. I’ve got something you’re going to like.” I ran to my car and got a handful of wipes, which had been nicely warmed by the sun.
I cleaned him and did it right. It wasn’t disgusting at all. It was just like cleaning my own children.
When I pushed him back to a sitting position, he said, “Ah, that’s nice.”
I was never their manservant after that, never the Crocodile Hunter again. When someone allows you to bear his burdens, you have found deep friendship. Such friendships are rare because most of us will fight tooth and nail to bear our own burdens all of our days. We do not want to be dependent on anyone else. We understand that in our dotage someone may have to clean our bottoms, but we look to that day with fear and loathing. For Robert and Jonah, bearing such burdens is an everyday part of friendship.
There is wisdom here, but it is the kind that cannot be given. It can only happen to you. Watch for it and wait.