Sunday, March 06, 2016

When Was the Last Time You Bit Your Fork?

The above was the first of many puzzling questions I asked across two 10 week summers working at Touch of Nature, a summer camp for physically and mentally challenged. The discoveries across those two summers were akin to a slow drip, each puzzling on its own, yet combined they created a multifaceted, profound epiphany.

Seriously, ask yourself - "how long has it been since you bit your own fork?" If you are able bodied, the answer is probably never. Truly never.

Yet on that first Sunday evening dinner of my first summer, I was sitting alongside Mike Ryan, a camper in his 50s, wheelchair bound, with pretty bad cerebral palsy. I had yet to learn how remarkable he was, easily among the biggest influences of my world view, he had a positive outlook so steely, Superman was akin to a soggy Kleenex.

He cracked jokes endlessly, perhaps one every 10 mins. I quickly learned the orders from his brain to his mouth went thru an insidious, tireless verbal Moulinex machine, rendering his speech almost unintelligible. Yet Mike was up for the challenge. Patiently, he repeated the punchline 5 or 6 times. At last, when I could make sense of his whimsical jab and chuckle, he’d mutter a retort that I would learn was something like "well the timing's gone to hell." And it had. Mike was very clear minded about his situation, making his upbeat disposition all the more remarkable.

Five minutes later, another wise crack slipped out of his mouth, with a twinkle in his eyes.

I filled a fork full of lasagna. Mike's mouth opened wide, cavernously even. My fork slid in unwittingly. With a fierce snap, his jaws came down on the utensil and gripped them like a bear trap. I was shocked at the ferocity - it was just lasagna, not a live boar. Then came the real surprise, pulling the fork out took real effort and my entire constitution shivered as I felt the steel scraping on Mike's incisors. Seriously? What was this all about?

I reloaded. No more chit chat, I was not about to fail him again. Mike eyed me, no more jokes from him. I could sense he felt he was looking at an amateur. Don't let him down, Abe, get this right. But it would be wishful thinking. Not just this time, but a third time too. I was beside myself, profusely apologizing. And Mike was cool, kept mumbling something that sounded like, "you'll get it yet" - yet the jokes were gone. His gaze upon me made one thing clear to myself: he was looking at a neophyte, a farm league feeder going against a big league jaw. Feeding was not that straightforward, eh? Was I this poor at it?

The fourth time was my first success and truly the end of my dinner time failures with Mike. But feeding was never a completely casual excursion with my CPs. Conversation was a low, low priority.

And this raised the first of many questions, a hundred times a day. "When was the last time I had bit a fork?" In all my memory, I could not remember even one. “Why me?” was yet more puzzling and to this day remains a mystery. On that Sunday, I had established a new measure of my own health and treasures.

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