I had written my June column about the perks of growing older, and giving ourselves permission to do enjoyable things without being bound by the limits of “what people will think.” A short while after, I began to think of those people who, through circumstances of their lives, might not have the ability to do whatever they wanted (which, after all, is rather a broad scope). It’s quite possible that I, or anyone, might be in that position before life finishes.
So, I began to envision the possibilities for a life that was much more bound by circumstances than we might have wished.
I thought of physicist Stephen Hawkes wed to a wheelchair and who eventually, even without human voice, accomplished so much. I thought of Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, who managed to emerge from a holocaust nightmare with hope in his heart. I thought of diarist Ann Frank, a Jewish youngster whose light still shines across the years so bravely and brightly, and the inspirational Helen Keller who, in spite of deafness and blindness spread light and words of wisdom. These are well-known names, but truly, there are so many unsung heroes of life. Some we stumble across in books, on film, or in the news. Others we know personally who are in conditions or accommodations that could fell their sense of self, but who manage to not only “carry on,” but to inspire. The Special Olympics are a great example.
My own late cousin Esther (“once removed” for those with geological interest), always was and will be for me, a shining example of such a person. In a nursing home and suffering severe back pain constantly, she would always say brightly and with conviction, “I’m blessed, honey. I’m blessed.” I try to carry her mantra with me.
When I was a young child (I’m not sure of the exact age), my maternal grandmother had an operation for thyroid cancer. I had spent my very young years during the latter part of WWII living with her and my grandfather on Third Street in Newport, and then every summer during my school years. It was my favorite place to be. When she was bed-bound after the thyroid operation, I would climb onto her bed, and we would “travel” to the Lincoln Park Amusement Park to go on the rides and wander around “looking” at things. The bed would bounce as we rode the merry-go-round or other amusements, and we would describe various areas of the park as we spent time there.
I’m aware now of how valuable that experience was to me and to developing my imagination, memory and creativity. The park seemed very real. Nowadays, the park memory has faded, but not the time I spent traveling to it with my grandmother on her bed. It taught me early on that I was not limited by purely physical circumstances.
A young Maryland boy with a form of muscular dystrophy, Mattie J. T. Stepanek, kept America spellbound in the early 2000s with his television appearances as a peace advocate and motivational speaker, reciting poems from books he’d written. He began speaking poetry at the age of three. When he died in 2004 at the age of 13, more than 1,300 people crowded into the church service. I believe Mattie was truly a wonderful rarity, and the words he spoke were grounded and beautiful. I would like to share the last lines of his own description of himself written in 2001 (“About the Author” in “Journey through Heartsongs.”)
“Whoever I am, and whatever happens / I will always love my body and mind,
Even if it has different abilities / Than other peoples’ bodies and minds.
I will always be happy, because / I will always be me.”
Those last two lines are so profound, that even now I have to really work my brain to extract the wisdom of this child. “Being me” — the totality of “me” — is a lifelong pursuit. We carry within our genes the option to create ourselves.
The people I’ve mentioned, and so many more unknown to us, work with what they can: artists without arms paint with their feet; those without hearing read; those without sight listen to audiobooks; those without voice use technology to speak, and all of us at one time or another will have reason to switch our perspectives on how we view and live life to accommodate its impact on us.
All of this is to say that not only can we be a light to others; we can be a light unto ourselves, no matter who we are, or where we are, or how we are — a sometimes difficult goal, but one worth achieving. I say, “Go for it!”
Sandra Matuschka of Tiverton is a freelance writer and columnist. Send feedback and suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org or c/o The Newport Daily News, P.O. Box 420, Newport, RI 02840.
This article originally appeared on Newport Daily News: 'I’m blessed, honey': Following up on the perks of aging