I signed up for Occupational Therapy classes because I wanted a job that was secure. I wanted a job that would provide benefits for Tim and I. I wanted a job that offered continuing education credits. I'd been looking at the various degrees available at JCC. It was actually 'new' Mary who commented that 'if she were going back to school, she'd take up occupational therapy.' I looked in the paper, just like she told me to, and I saw that she was right. There were lots of jobs for Certified Occupational Therapists Assistants. I took a deep breath, trusted that there'd be one or two of those jobs around two years from now when I graduated, and I dove in. Well. 'Dove in' might not be completely accurate. It's more like I stepped off into the water, discovering almost immediately that it was a lot deeper than I thought. In fact there were spots where I was in over my head. Oh, let's be perfectly honest here. There have been those bright and shining moments when I was drowning.
If you were to ask me, though, if I am where I am supposed to be, I'd tell you with no hesitation 'yes.' You see, I went into this class with a vague sort of idea about what it is to be an Occupational Therapist. I am a practical person. The secure job was priority number one. The benefits, priority number two. Job satisfaction? That was way the heck down the list somewhere. It didn't matter whether I loved my job. It was enough to me that I be good at it, and I knew that I would be, because I don't do anything half way. I would give it my all. I listened that first week as the teachers explained what OT was. It wasn't physical therapy, although physical therapy was part of it. It was about working with your client, helping them to resume as normal a life as possible, regardless of their handicap. It's about thinking on your feet. It's about seeing a client's needs, and figuring out how to help. As she spoke on, I sat at the back of the classroom, stunned.
You see, twenty years ago, I was a home health aide, and on a spring day, I walked into a well-to-do home in Michigan. There was a quiet man, pale and thin, sitting in a wheelchair. In one fell swoop, Mike had lost the ability to walk. The ability to talk. He wore Depends. He couldn't control the saliva trickling from the corner of his mouth. His society wife was ashamed of him, and spent most of her time away from home. Mike spent the day at home, gazing out the window at his beloved birds, reading the paper, isolated. Before his stroke, Mike had been a chemist by profession, a local naturalist of some repute by hobby, a founding father of a local wildlife sanctuary. He sailed. He had an active social life and belonged to the local country club. He was a husband and a father. A golfer. A swimmer. He was a skier, and belonged to the local Ski Patrol, rescuing skiers not so skilled as himself. He was, in fact, surrounded by pictures of himself in the great outdoors, tanned and strong and healthy. The contrast of those pictures to the thin pale man in the wheelchair was heartbreaking.
My first order of business was to get to know him, and I did. His speech was garbled, and he was ashamed. His tendency was to avoid talking. I was surprised at how quickly I developed an ear for understanding him. Once understood, he began to talk readily. I discovered that he had an amazing sense of humor. He loved the outdoors. Where other aides had walked him inside for exercise, we went outside, and we walked and talked as we walked around the pool or down the drive way, or on the sidewalk in front of the house.
He regaled me with stories about his life as a six year old boy sent away to boarding school, and how he cried himself to sleep every night. The other boys called him 'The Ghost' because he was so silent and pale. He spoke fondly of his friend, Johnny Walker, whose father had been shocked to find that Mike spent vacations alone at the school with a teacher for company. In fact, Mr. Johnny Walker Sr. was so shocked that he simply swept the lonely boy up with his own son, bringing him home on school breaks. Mike began to spend summers out west on horseback, an idyllic cowboy life that still made him smile with a faraway look. I laughed. He paused in the pushing of his walker to stare. "What's so funny about that?" he asked. I said, "Well, jees, Mike. There's a liquor called Johnny Walker" and he said, "We never made fun of a boy for how his father made his living." Stunned speechless, I said, "You know, Mike, you and me? Two different worlds." But he was also just as interested in hearing stories about my own childhood, shocked, for instance, to discover that my father had not owned a boat. He, himself, had three: a houseboat, a sailboat, and a motorboat for waterskiing.
As the weeks went by, Mike did become stronger. His back straightened, and his head lifted. Once he was able to look about him, he discovered that his yard was full of dandelions, and he was an enemy of the dandelion. We spent many an afternoon, he in his wheelchair, popping out dandelions that I would gather in a bag. I'd push him to the next yellow patch, and he'd get to work on that. Once he was doing his yard work again, the neighbors would come out to socialize with him as he sat in his chair.
Soon I had permission to use the family car, and Mike and I began to go places. We went to the Nature Center where he was greeted so warmly that he cried. I once spent a day pushing his wheel chair through the sugar bush during maple syrup making time. I took him to see the Glenn Miller Band, reincarnated to be sure, but still playing the same music he loved as a young man. He loved fireflies but did not get to see them in the city. The Nature Center gave us special permission to come on the grounds at night when the place was closed, so that Mike could watch the fireflies. We ate ice cream cones in the dark, two friends comfortable in our silence, lost in the perfection of those summer moments. I took him to social events that he'd been unable to attend for many months.
He taught me how to cook fresh trout. I pushed him up to the kitchen table in his wheelchair, and he scaled it, breaded it, and I cooked the first fish to ever look back at me as I pan fried it. I remember that at one point, escaping steam made me think that the trout's mouth had opened, and it startled me so badly that I screamed, and leapt back, dropping the spatula. We both laughed ourselves stupid that night.
Surprisingly, Mike outlived his wife. Although she did not much care for me when she was well, when her cancer returned, it was me that she asked for. I always went. At the end, when the pain was so bad, she was unable to lie down, and would sit in her hospital bed, waiting for the morphine to come take her away once more. She began to pat the bed beside her, and ask me to hold her, and I did, because by then, I loved her as well as I did my Mike. I'd put my arm around her frail shoulders and we'd sit together, whispering until the morphine allowed her to fall back asleep. I cried when she died. I cried again when Mike died just a few months later.
What I had done for Mike all those years ago was, plainly, simply, Occupational Therapy. Unwittingly, I headed off to college not realizing that I already had two years of OT experience under my belt. I'd returned to college to train for a job that I thought would provide security and benefits. I knew that I'd be good at it. Like I said, I don't do anything halfway. Finding out that I'd done the job before, and that it had been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life? Twenty years later, at the back of a classroom, I cried yet again.
Debby lives in Scandia and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her blog is lifesfunnylikethat.blogspot.com