During my sophomore year in high school, I had a friend with whom I would regularly compete to see who could lift the most weights. (For the purpose of this article, I’m going to call him “Frank.”) Anytime one of us challenged the other, we would meet in the locker room to see who could bench press the most weight. Frank had an advantage over me because he was a year older, two inches taller, and weighed about thirty pounds more than I did.
For the first four months of the school year, Frank beat me every time we competed. Then it happened. On a Wednesday, we met in the locker room after lunch and I was able to bench press ten pounds more than Frank did. He became animated and told me that it was the last time I was ever going to beat him. Being the good sport that I always was, I rubbed my victory in his face by telling him that he was slipping and that his days of dominance were over.
When I saw Frank again the following day, I teased him about his loss and told him I was ready to take him on “anytime, anywhere.” He reminded me that he had “crushed” me every other time we competed and told me that I should enjoy my victory while I could because it wasn’t going to last.
Frank and I never had the chance to compete again. At around midnight on the Saturday after we last talked, he was involved in a serious automobile accident. While he was driving home, he hit a large patch of black ice, lost control of his car, and crashed head-on into a concrete wall. He suffered massive head injuries and several broken bones. I remember seeing the picture of his car in the local newspaper the day after the accident. The entire front end was smashed in, all the way to the dashboard.
At first, the reports were that Frank wasn’t going to make it, but he somehow survived. At the high school, we were told that he would never be normal again but that with extensive therapy, he would be able to function in a limited capacity.
During my senior year, I heard that Frank was coming back to the school for speech therapy. The first time I saw him, he was standing in the hallway near a classroom. I was about twenty feet away from him, and I yelled, “Hey Frank!” He turned around, and as I approached, I said, “It’s been a long time, man. How have you been?” His left arm was shaking uncontrollably, and he was not able to stand up straight. He struggled to respond to my question. Every word that came out of his mouth was unrecognizable. I asked him a couple of other questions, but I couldn’t understand anything he said. He knew I couldn’t understand him, and it was clear to me that he was getting frustrated with himself.
I needed to get to my next class, so I said, “Frank, you need to get better so we can meet up in the locker room and have a bench press contest.” His face lit up with a big smile, and he raised a clenched fist in the air and responded in an excited voice, “OKAY!” That was the only word he said that I understood. As I turned to walk away, I said, “I’ll see you around.” Then I ducked into the nearby men’s room and broke down and cried.
At that time, there were several thoughts racing through my mind. Why did this have to happen to him? Prior to the accident, he had a bright future ahead of him. He had not been drinking the night of the accident. He was simply driving home after visiting with some friends. He didn’t deserve to be sentenced to a life of hardship and pain. It could have happened to anyone, including me. Why him?
Of course, there were no answers to any of my “Why?” questions.
I saw Frank periodically throughout the rest of the school year and each time I saw him, I stopped and tried to have a conversation with him. He was 19 years old then. His body was twisted and crippled. He used a cane to walk, and it always looked like he was on the verge of toppling over. It was as though his body had been broken into a hundred pieces and the doctors didn’t have the right instructions on how to put him back together. His mind was still sharp, and although his speech improved a little as a result of the therapy he was getting, it was still difficult to understand what he was saying. Everything he did and said was an epic struggle.
After graduating from high school, I didn’t see Frank for 13 years. One day in 1988 he walked into the reception area of my office. When the receptionist greeted him, he asked if he could see me. When she asked him why he needed to see me, she was not able to understand what he was saying. She asked him to sit down and wait while she checked to see if I was available. She then came to my office and told me what was going on.
When I walked out, I immediately recognized him and said, “Frank, how are you doing? I haven’t seen you in years. What have you been up to?” He started talking, but I couldn’t understand what he was saying. I grabbed a legal pad, handed it to him, and told him that if he sat down and hand-wrote what he wanted to tell me, I would try to help him. Then I asked the receptionist to come and get me when he was finished writing.
An hour and fifteen minutes later, she brought the legal pad to me with Frank’s two-page handwritten summary of why he came to see me. Although his handwriting was hard to read, I was able to understand enough of it to figure out what was going on. He wanted me to help him get his girlfriend out of Zeller Mental Health Center.
At first, I told Frank that I wasn’t going to be able to help him. But he kept coming back. He would show up about once a month with additional reasons as to why I should help obtain “freedom” for his girlfriend. He had met her before her family committed her to Zeller and claimed that they were just “trying to get rid of her.”
We went through the same routine every month. He would show up, and I would ask him to write down what he wanted to tell me on a legal pad. Before long, he started showing up with his notes already written in a spiral-bound notebook.
At one point, I asked Frank how he knew I was a lawyer and how he found me. He told me that a former girlfriend who had also been in Zeller referred him to me after I helped her recover a settlement for injuries she received from an automobile accident. I was eventually able to convince Zeller to release Frank’s girlfriend; however, two weeks after her release, she tried to start a fire in Frank’s apartment and was later found wandering on a street in downtown Peoria. The police picked her up and returned her to Zeller.
I thought about Frank’s girlfriend last week when I read that the young man who murdered the twenty kindergarten children in Newtown, Connecticut, was mentally unstable and probably should have been in a mental institution.
As far as I could tell, Frank was not mentally ill. His problem was that his body was not capable of doing what his brain signaled it to do. I think he ended up dating mentally ill women because his severe physical limitations precluded him from attracting women who didn’t have similar problems.
It’s been more than fifteen years since I last saw Frank. Shortly after his girlfriend was returned to Zeller, he was notified by the state of Illinois that he would no longer be receiving ongoing physical and speech therapy. He continued to stop by my office periodically for about a year after that, but during that time I noticed that his physical condition was getting progressively worse. He put on weight and was struggling more than ever to walk and get around.
There are millions of people in the world who are much less fortunate than you and I are. Their problems may not be as obvious as Frank’s, but they still suffer from significant physical or mental defects. Most are completely invisible to us. No one notices their suffering and pain. Our problems are nothing compared to theirs. But for the grace of God, we would be walking in their shoes.
We need to keep these people in mind this Christmas season when we’re in our warm homes and enjoying time with people who love us. We have the ability and the obligation as Catholics to extend our love beyond our family and friends to those who are in need. This is what the true spirit of Christmas is all about – reaching out and helping those who are less fortunate than we are.
I encourage you to keep this in mind as you celebrate the birth of the child who later died on a cross so you and I could someday enter into His Kingdom.