Life’s Shadow by Andy Shenk
June 2, 2012, 6:03 pm
Filed under: Reflections | Tags: , , ,

Author’s note: Quotes and much of the material are taken from Skip Hollandsworth’s beautiful piece, “Still Life,” published in Texas Monthly.

The best stories fit seamlessly into the narratives of our lives. They haunt us, while revealing new depths of emotion and consciousness.

I read a story once about John McClamrock who died at the age of fifty-one in a rehabilitation center outside of Dallas. John had broken his spine in a football game when he was sixteen, suffering instant paralysis from the neck down.

The story of his tragic injury and fierce resolve to walk again captivated America in 1973. John received a letter from President Nixon and a visit from the Dallas Cowboys. Hundreds of friends visited him in the hospital and in his home, where he finally returned after months of intense rehab. Nonetheless, John still could do little more than lay in bed, watch TV, and make small talk with visitors. Gradually, the dream began to fade that he would recover. John’s mother Ann scheduled her life around caring for him and the family attempted to carry on with life as normal.

Nineteen months after the fateful kickoff return collision that left him paralyzed, Ann walked across the Hillcrest High School auditorium stage to receive her son’s high school diploma. The crowd applauded thunderously. Journalists visited again that spring to ask how he was doing. “Will you ever walk again?” they asked. John had already worked so hard for so long without any progress and tried to pass off the question nonchalantly, “Oh, I don’t know,” he answered. During the summer months John’s classmates said their goodbyes before going off to college and slowly, steadily, the young McClamrock’s tragic life slipped out of sight.

Continue Reading...A few years later John’s father, Mac, died after a short battle with acute emphysema, leaving behind his wife Ann, John, and the youngest son, Henry. For the next thirty years Ann persisted daily in providing bedside care to John, even as she aged into her late eighties. The two watched TV together, read magazines, prayed, and remembered the old days.

John briefly enjoyed renewing old acquaintances  in 1995 when many classmates visited during 20-year high school reunion festivities. One classmate, Jane Grunewald, began seeing John monthly, bringing a spark of romance to the bedroom he’d inhabited for forty years. John told his brother Henry that her visits were the closest he’d ever come to a love affair. “Not that we are going to have sex. You know, I never had sex. I’ll never make love to a woman,” he said with a sort of resigned smile.

Still, the years dragged by. Finally, in the winter of 2008, with Ann much weakened herself after a recent fall, John had to be admitted to the hospital for bedsores. He soon developed a fever and told his brother that the end was near for him. The day before he died Ann visited John in the rehabilitation center where he’d been moved a few weeks earlier to try to recuperate from his bedsores. John told his mother something that afternoon he’d never said before: “I know how hard it’s been for you.” “Hard?” Ann asked. “Johnny, it’s been an honor.”

John passed away in his sleep that night, fifty-one years old, single, and paralyzed from the neck down.

The words whispering in my ear these days are sung by Florence + The Machine. Opening lyrics, “It’s always darkest before the dawn,” from their song, “Shake It Out,” catch in my heart while I pedal to and from work, consumed with the awful specter of long life spread before me. Sixty years yet to live, I wonder, afraid of what the very next hour might bring, unsure of when the dawn might truly arrive.

Once, two weeks ago, I hopped between two train cars in a hurry to make it to my job on time. I threw my bike through the gap, clambered across the couplings myself, then hurried to drag the bike clear of the tracks on the other side. Not fifteen seconds later the monstrous machine behind me began rumbling forward. I trembled with fear, considering my life, which could have vanished in a moment, crushed beneath the steel wheels of a locomotive passing by Northfield on a cool May morning. My wife, Nikki, would have been a widow at twenty-four and my parents bereft of a son when they had decades yet to live.

Life is often lived in the dark, strung between the brilliance of glowing sunset and joyful morning light. John McClormack spent thirty-five years in one bedroom, cared for by his loving mother who couldn’t carry on with her own life, if it meant she had leave him to die, alone, looked after by strangers in a nursing home.

I know a young man, Alyosha, who spent the first fifteen years of his life in a bed, surrounded by severely mentally handicapped children in a Ukrainian orphanage. Mute, abandoned by his family at birth because of his physical deformities, and misdiagnosed by doctors who didn’t recognize his intelligence, he waited in a living hell until visitors to the orphanage recognized his abilities and helped him learn to read and write. His world has now begun to glimmer and glint under the light of new hope.

Still, the darkness relentlessly consumes life day by day. Though we run, deep night falls in time. The glints and glimmers of light ultimately fade. Then, in death, we will wait with patience for the world beyond this life’s darkness. Perhaps the fire burns in unquenching brilliance there, and our earthly shadows are but the quavering corners of the eternal light.