You had me at catheter.
I think I’ve already written a bit about my first lonesome years at Berkeley. Maybe I can say a bit more—how every night I’d hitch my bike below my apartment, mount the quiet stairwell to where my adopted Siamese cat Katruchka waited, and open the door to silence, anxiously checking the answering machine on the wall for a blinking red number, hoping it was someone other than my parents or grandmother in Florida checking in on me. Is it crazy that the memory of this barren apartment is harder for me to face than all the violence and trauma I confront in my line of work?
There was just one exception those first two years: Ben.
I first met Ben on <quote-01>move-in day<quote-01> at the dorms. Like most people, I had trouble understanding him when he spoke. In his massive, motorized wheelchair, his whole body strained and flexed to sputter out his oddly-cadenced sentences, just to make the most basic connections—small talk, a hello—with a stranger. Though he couldn’t control his arms, he reached me so quickly. Ironically, it was easier to talk with him than anyone else around me in the months to come.
Unlike Riley, Ben managed to survive his umbilical noose; the doctors freed him just in time. But it cut off oxygen long enough to impair the delicate development of those brain-muscle tissues. I learned about cerebral palsy bit by bit, word by muscle-crafted word, every Monday and Friday morning for the next two years. See, Ben hired a small team of fellow students in the dorm as his morning and evening assistants. These are the mornings I want to tell you about.
<quote-02>Imagine everything you do<quote-02> with and to your own body from the moment your eyes open in the morning to when you sit at your desk or wherever your public life begins. My job was to perform each one of those small, bodily tasks for and with another dude my age.
Before dawn, I’d let myself in, open his blackout curtains, and hit play on his 12-disc changer: usually Phish’s happy-go-lucky jam rock from the tame green hills of Vermont where he grew up. I’d pull back his sheets from where he slept nude (just one less thing to take on and off), sit beside his fully grown form coiled up in the fetal position, and hoist his substantial weight into a sitting position. Then I’d get a small orange juice out of his mini fridge, slide a fresh straw into it, and set it to his reaching lips. He’d drain that thing in two slugs every time. His eyes moved with a natural precision his body did not have; they’d find me before his slow smile could catch up: “He--eey.”
“Ready to dance?”
“Damn skip”—a neck spasm shook his floppy, blond curls—“skippy.”
Next, I’d rotate his stiff legs to the edge and, keeping him from falling back against the wall with my other arm, stand this guy up like a 180-pound mannequin threatening to go limp-leg on me any second. Then I’d pivot-twirl him a few feet across the industrial dorm carpet and land his bony ass into the target of his bathroom wheelchair: a lean, manual model like airport courtesy offers, but with a huge hole in the seat. I’d drape a towel over his princely nakedness, grab his toilet kit, hold the door open with my foot, and—with one much-practiced movement through the door—we’d be cruising down the coed hallway to the communal bathroom. I’d park him in the disability stall, line him up perfectly over the toilet, and give him some privacy while he took a shit, taking my seat on the long sink counter, where our morning conversation would finally begin in earnest, there in the echoey bathroom.
Fellow students shuffled in and out between our long conversations, their shy morning eyes to the floor. I remember a debate about the whimsical French film, Ámelie; I’d been listening to the soundtrack that week, all those sepia sounds from accordions and carnival-carousel pump-organ melodies. Ben said he really hated the protagonist, Ámelie. Ben was the most chill, kindest guy I knew, so this made me laugh. Between labored, slurred, uneven words—through which I eventually came to understand him perfectly, as with any accent—Ben said she was a whiner. He took long breaths I assumed were needed to gather his vocal muscles, but they sometimes read as extreme gestures of either kindness or exasperation. He said people like Ámelie, who just wait for life to give them signs, bug the shit out of <quote-03>him<quote-03>. It was the antithesis of his life’s theme and philosophy—a Bob Dylan lyric he pushed out anytime someone asked him how he was doing: “I jjj-just . . . keep on . . . keepin’ on . . . “
After I wiped his ass, rolled him out to the flat accessible shower, and sudsed up every inch of his flexed, asymmetrical posture, we’d continue our conversations. That’s where I learned of his lack of appreciation for Christopher Reeve, my childhood Superman idol. “Another whiner,” he said, staring me in the eyes through the shower spray. He said nobody has done more damage to the dignity and progress of the disabled community than this celebrity motherfucker who frames his wheelchair status as a terrible tragedy to overcome, a physical scourge he is heroically enduring with spirit, technology, donations, and pity. “I’m no-no-not t-trying to get cured,” Ben said through my towelling off of his hair and face. “S-some of us have worked to accept ourselves, and we are happy being how we were b-b-born.” Ben never sounded righteous or preachy. Whenever he offered an opinion, every word felt like understatement.
I close my eyes now and try to conjure him: the physical event of his speaking, unlike any person I’ve ever met: his chin up, neck thrusting and battling every word to the surface, almost like a man drowning at sea, the water line to his ears. Yes, that’s it. Listening to him, I was always transfixed, on the edge of my seat for the next word. Then there was the contrast of stillness when he listened to me, like a storm had just passed and a rosy glow swirls on the calming waters. His muscles grew completely still, his mouth open, eyes focused. My own ears and muscles relaxed, and with it, suddenly, my defenses.
From there our routine continued: I’d carefully insert his <quote-04>contact lenses<quote-04> and scissor-clip his finger and toenails before steering us back to his room. Then, I’d peel some khaki cargo pants out of his closet along with the rumpled plaid shirt of his selection (“No . . . no . . . yeah”), roll his socks onto his stiff and trimmed toes, and slide his boxers and pants over his ankles, all while he remained seated. Then came the daring moment I’d come to master: I’d hold and balance his naked body against my hip with one hand while finding his boxer-pant combo with the other and carefully slide them up around his Jenga-tower form. Once we got the belt secured, the rest was downhill: Birkenstocks, backpack, the elevator down the hall to breakfast on Telegraph. I’d step up on the motor mount above the large rear tires of his chair, and—with a small-motor focus he’d been refining for years, his bent wrist hooked around the joystick—he’d race us down Bancroft, both of our shaggy undergrad heads of hair blowing backwards in the cool Bay Area morning air. I laughed in delight every time. He indulged me.
Most mornings, I’d extract a bottle of real maple syrup from his backpack and anoint his pancakes in true Vermont fashion. As I cut them up and forked bites into his mouth with a rhythm as natural as feeding myself, he would listen to me riff on whatever—the paper I was writing for Art History or <quote-05>the new Wilco album<quote-05> maybe. We often debated Bob Dylan (Ben was a folk hippe of the truest breed) versus Leonard Cohen (I adored the gravel-voiced psalmist of the darkening modern landscape). He’d also listen most kindly when I talked about this rising panic inside me, an internal drowning, a shadow, a depression. A loneliness. Every time I risked this, I found mercy: he never called me a whiner. It never even entered his eyes. Then I’d wipe his mouth, we’d say our goodbyes, and head to our separate classes. In this way, he got me ready for the day.
Instead of hitting a bong or playing video games, we had his morning routine to fill our hangout time every week. It’s just what we did. So it always surprised me when he’d remind me to open his backpack and grab my check. “Oh yeah,” I’d think.
One morning sophomore year, we faced something new together. “Ssssss-so I got something k-kinda new, you could say.” His eyes were pure apology. He told me that his standard bathroom routine—scheduled rendezvous between classes where assistants like me helped him back into disability-wide stalls to take care of business—wasn’t really working anymore. He’d been having accidents. He couldn’t always hold it. I imagined him sitting in a lecture hall unable to do anything with that searing bladder, resigning himself to surrender, to letting go, flooding his pants and wheelchair beneath his desk with warm, sopping piss. “Oh, shit. I’m so sorry, man,” I must have said. “So what do we do?”
He explained the common solution of the leg bag Velcroed around the calf, under the pants.
“Cool,” I nodded. He’d said the word catheter somewhere in there. “So we gotta hook up the tube to a—something inserted into your, uh, gut, or bladder? Is that gonna hurt?”
I’d never seen Ben wear an inch of embarrassment. But his eyes looked down now.
The first time was the most terrible. As a <quote-06>purity-ring<quote-06> kid still saving himself for marriage, I’d never used a condom, so this was new for both of us. It came in a clear, medical sleeve and had a mild adhesive on the inside. You only got one shot to roll that thing on just right. And it wouldn’t work on a limp dick. Understandably, he’d waited for one of my mornings to try for the first time.
Ben tried to sound normal as he gave me some pointers, leaning backwards. “It dd-doesn’t have to ggg-get all the wwwwwwaaay . . . . up? Maybe jusssst . . .”
“Half mast, buddy?” I kept it light. “We got this shit.”
He laughed. I got set up, then paused. We faced a threshold here.
“I wa-was gonnna sssaaaay, maybe jussst wwiggle . . . it?”
So that’s what I did. Like when you’re done taking a piss. As I’m teaching Abram to do with his absolute favorite body part now. It worked most of the time, thank God, the wiggle-shake. I had to laugh at myself when getting Ben’s member awake and, uh, cooperative felt like success: the sense of a job well done at my brother’s boner was just too absurd. Sometimes his pubes got all caught in the roll-up adhesive, so I’d have to start over. The stakes were high! But I thought of the alternative: him sitting in class, unable to hold it in any longer.
So I learned with Ben, in this unorthodox paid internship in up-close assistance, to endure the uncomfortable, often precarious terrains of shame between us men. We often hide our own <quote-07>bodies<quote-07>, our own selves from our consciousness. Tending to Ben’s body forced me to reckon with my own. Why is wiping his poopy anus any weirder than wiping my own? Not turning away from my brother forced me to return to myself with a similar care. What mindless artistry have I developed in my own thousands of tiny self-care operations before I present myself dressed and ready for the world?
It makes sense to me now, as I write this, that such a completely incarnate form of communion probably saved me during those years in a disconnected world: a life lived in the head, in books, through a new and growing culture of screens, a university ecology of untethered bodies swirling as career-seeking units. It also makes sense to me that after graduation, I gravitated towards an opportunity to help out in a small county jail, to work with guys my age who were facing a different kind of severe limitation. Being locked in isolation from their former communities forced, focused, and amplified their inner lives; we made laser-like connections that shaped my vocation.
Two years into college, I met the only other good friend I’d make there: Doug, whom you guys know from my wedding. He was in my Dostoevsky class, then my American Novel class, and eventually started lending me cigarettes and Wilco B-sides as we walked across campus, one afternoon admitting that he was looking for a room to rent near campus.
My apartment got less lonely.
Doug leveled with me the first night: he drank too much, he knew it, he wasn’t proud of it, he was working on it, and he hoped I wouldn’t judge the sixpacks he’d regularly stock in our fridge. “I just don’t want it to be an issue between us because I value our friendship,” he said so nakedly that first night after he put away his things. I probably said something overly affirmative. He took a drag on his cigarette, shrugged, became shy, and did his half-drunk, neck-crack thing. “Yeah, well, you’re a pretty cool guy—and—whatever. Like, I don’t want to fuck up what could be a lasting friendship, you know?” I smiled then as I do now, writing this. “Ok, cool,” he said. “Fuckin a, I’m gonna check my Fantasy Baseball. I do that in the evenings. Probably till bed.”
With Doug—once a linebacker in high school—I could finally have have Ben over. Two became three.
Doug could easily get his arms under Ben’s shoulders from behind (“What’s up, dude.” “Y . . . yo.”), I’d grab Ben’s Birkenstock feet, and we’d carry him backwards, together, up those three flights of stairs. “Oh my god, your fucking cat, Chris,” Doug would exclaim, exhausted at the top landing as she yowled out from under his hightop Converse. We’d set Ben down in my old wingback chair, get him a beer and a straw, and hang out into the <quote-08>evening<quote-08>.
Man, that was a long-ass story, but one I needed to write. I’ve never told it to anyone, I'm realizing now.
Even so, will the two of you allow me a coda?
Men are infamous for their poverty of friendships in adulthood. Am I wrong? <quote-09>Wuck, does your dad have real friends with other men?<quote-09> My dad has many colleagues in ministry around the world, but I don’t know if they ever call each other up or write emails as friends. Only if a project comes up. An online article to send along, at the most. I didn’t grow up having “dad’s friend’s” come over. Rachel has told me the same about her dad. Sure, he and her mom have other couples over for dinner sometimes, but it’s mainly driven by the wives.
Murph, I remember it struck me as peculiar when you and your mom would talk about <quote-10>your dad’s lifelong group of friends<quote-10>, about their legendary antics and annual gatherings before his death. That struck me as rare, like learning your friend’s dad has a garage full of vintage cars or an annual tradition of hot-air balloon flying. It makes sense that you—in that very home you saw your dad fill with his friends—had a form for gathering us guys. These habits are learned, I realize.
This document we’re figuring out here, it’s a labor. I’m late for my morning schedule: a grant I’m writing, then prison letters, then two Zoom calls with volunteers. But this feels more real than any of it, during this season of my life, at least—that you both won’t turn away from parts of my life no one else would really care to learn about, that there’s space to say what normally wouldn’t work as a phone call or text or even over dinner.
Gosh. Remember that? Dinner with friends?
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