Part Two: To Chanda
No one was surprised to learn in early 2022 that our friend, John Morris, a person with quadriplegia, was going to become a father. It was a bit of a shock, however, to discover that he had accomplished the feat the old-fashioned way. So it goes with JMo… Papa John, now…*
Months later, with her hands already full as John’s primary caregiver and partner-in-life, Arianna (Air) was only weeks away from giving birth. Any complaints, and there were a few, she delivered with the contagious hilarity of a great soul.
So challenging is the full-time care she provides to JMO every single day that hiring someone to help was almost impossible. One potential aide quit shortly after discovering the demands and intimacy involved in getting JMo through his days.
“Let me know if there is anything I can do,” I said, as people often do under these circumstances, half-expecting Arianna to say, “No, we can handle it.” Because, that’s just what she does, handles it; handles it all with the patience and humor and courage and loving kindness and desire to serve others that defines her spirit.
But she didn’t say that. With her hands resting on a basketball-sized-belly tucked into stretchy clothes that have become so popular, she said, “Well, we do have our Wednesdays.”
On the following Wednesday, I arrived at their home in order to be trained up. There is no place in his home that JMo cannot go. A ramp connects the house to the garage. Another provides access to the sidewalk from the large deck that graces the sunny south side; built courtesy of the kind folks at Colorado State University. Through his chin-drive, JMo can roll his chair up to square metal buttons around the house where his feet open and close doors.
He was watching ESPN as I set my bag down on the large kitchen island in the center of their open and primary living space. “I picked a good time to break my neck,” JMo says, after he asks Alexa to mute the television. Laughter fills the house.
After a few minutes of banter over the previous day’s baseball action, JMo announces that it’s 10:15, time to head out. He uses his chin-drive to roll out the door and down the ramp into the garage. He clears the passenger-side doors while Arianna hits a button on the dashboard of the modified Honda van. The doors pop open and a heavy metal ramp unfolds onto the garage floor. JMo toggles his chin-drive and backs up the ramp while he tilts his chair back just enough for his head to squeeze by, a few wisps of dark blond hair brushing against the door frame. He negotiates a 90-degree turn to face the front as if he’s bringing a jetliner in from the tarmac to link up with the passenger tube. I turn off the chair to conserve battery power, fold up the ramp and close the two doors. I climb into the back and buckle up next to a brand new car seat. Arianna wiggles her form into the van and slides back the driver’s seat.
Our destination is Chanda Center for Health in Denver which is dedicated “to reduce health disparities and costs” to people like my buddy JMo.**
Arianna backs us out of the driveway while explaining to me the need to navigate the bumps as smoothly as possible in order to minimize the discomfort experienced by JMo’s broken body.
Most of the drive is on I-25 South, the Front Range artery that spans the entire north-south expanse of the state. The snow-capped, sun-drenched peaks of the Rockies are visible to the west for the entire journey while, to the east begins the long expanse of the Great Plains; the eastern half of the Rocky Mountain State sharing more the topography of Kansas and Nebraska in stark contrast to the majestic mountains that divide the continent to our right. As sleepy northern Colorado gives way to the big city, the pace escalates, the freeway lanes multiply, and the harried nature of urban living exerts itself as we roll toward Denver.
Since this is my training run, much of the conversation centers on what will be needed once we reach Chanda. In this, Arianna does most of the explaining regarding tasks she has performed thousands of times; getting John in and out of his chair, bathing him, tending to his catheter, and more. As to the growing list of my responsibilities, Arianna adds that I don’t need to remember everything because, second only to Air herself, JMo is the expert in helping others help him.
About an hour later, we exited the freeway. Chanda is several miles to the west on Denver’s infamous Colfax Avenue. Serving people in need means setting up shop where people in need live; in this case, Colfax has often been referred to as the “longest, wickedest street in America.”
Despite the gritty slogan’s sketchy origins, the residents and businesses along Colfax seem to embrace the naughty moniker. As we drive to Chanda on Wednesdays, we cruise through the dark underbelly of American life populated by quite a few people who don’t really seem to give a damn.
Like so much of our modern world that often goes unseen, homeless characters gather in groups, friendly with one another, laughing, dancing, and just gettin’ by. Sex workers with bleached-blonde hair, spiked heels, piercings galore, and tattoos visible on expansive parts of exposed skin ply their trade. Many of the businesses are boarded up; others cater to the baser instincts of boozing and sexing while pawn shops operate as a kind of bank. But we’re not here as tourists, we came so JMo can get the physical therapy he needs for a body that doesn’t work very well.
As we pull into the parking lot filled with the extra-wide spaces to accommodate all sorts of vehicles for those who have a little trouble getting around, Arianna parks the van over the ubiquitous blue and white symbol of disability. She holds down the button on the dashboard, the passenger-side doors swing open and the heavy metal ramp unfolds onto the pavement.
She powers up his chair. JMo toggles the chin-drive. The chair spins around and rolls down the ramp. He rolls onto the sidewalk and positions his feet over the edge of the concrete. After climbing out of the back seat, and while Arianna is pulling up the ramp and closing the doors.
As we head into the center, JMo is greeted by a collection of Chanda staff and others who, like JMo, are here to improve the quality of their lives. In this world, JMo holds near celebrity status; and not only because he is about to become a father. His demeanor is upbeat, and his practiced and ever-present humor is always tempered in regard to his audience… mainly.
It is clear that he and Arianna have developed meaningful relationships within this community of caregivers. Brought together through a variety of circumstances, Chanda is alive with energy and positivity. The walls advertise the opportunity to engage in all sorts of activities. Most revealingly, Yoga and mindfulness sessions are offered reminding everyone here that surviving and thriving through adversity requires the development of a positive attitude.
And it is JMo’s positive attitude that has me here, now. I met him only briefly before the accident and I was not witness to the most challenging year of his life. I can only imagine the despair that must have engulfed the young man on the precipice of adulthood. When I did meet him again, and every time since, I have yet to see despair or even a hint of bitterness at the cruel twist of fate that left him at the mercy of others. He is constantly in need of assistance with the simplest of things but never emotionally needy. In short, my buddy JMo is a rock, an inspirational rock of perseverance, good-humor, and a rolling reminder that most of the troubles of our own days are, in the larger scheme of things, really no trouble at all.***
This is why we drive to Denver on Wednesdays.
*Political Correctness or Courtesy and Respect:
To call a person a “quadriplegic” is to let the condition define the person so it is now proper and just to refer to a man like JMo as a person who happens to have quadriplegia.
**From Chanda’s website:
The Chanda Center for Health’s mission is to deliver, advocate & educate for integrative therapy and other complementary services to reduce health disparities and costs by improving health equity and outcomes for individuals with physical disabilities through the support of Chanda Plan Foundation donors, grants, and special events.
*** I’m John and this is #MyChandaJourney: