Before going away to university I spent several weeks in a rehabilitation center for people with wheelchairs called the Marlborough Lodge, part of the Nuffield Orthopedic Hospital in Oxford. Here I was measured for a new (manual) wheelchair and provided with a tiny, single-passenger, three-wheeled fiberglass car that was thought to be just the thing for disabled drivers (and that nearly got me killed later on when I drove it on a busy motorway). I would need ramps so that I could get around the campus at Birmingham, it was decided, so the dimensions and angles were calculated for those, too.

The Lodge was ahead of its time, with a staff of well-trained, dynamic and forward-thinking physical and occupational therapists. They had a model kitchen with sinks, refrigerators and stoves that could be adjusted to the height you needed. The accommodations were quite un-hospital-like, with just two of us in each room. The nurses wore regular clothes instead of the starched white caps and aprons standard for nurses then, and they treated us like equals, never talking down to or patronizing us. They were mostly stunning Scandinavian girls with blonde hair, blue eyes and freckled, tanned skin. I remember thinking that if I hadn't been "different," I would have fallen in love with one of them. Instead I fell for my roommate Roger.

Roger was a quadriplegic from a tiny hamlet outside Norwich. He was a big burly guy with twinkly gray eyes and a devastating smile. We got onto the habit of talking late at night. The nurses spoiled us by bringing us late night snacks. These kept us awake till the early morning hours. One night I asked Roger how he became a quad. He was a birdwatcher, he told me, and one day on a birdwatching expedition with a friend, he'd spotted two Cardinals, a rare find in those parts, apparently. He became so excited that he climbed a five-barred gate to get a better look at the birds with his binoculars. The wood of the gate must have been rotten. It gave way beneath him, throwing him onto his back in the grass.

When he didn't get up right away his friend ran over and yelled at him "Stop fooling around, you idiot! Get up! Get up!" But Roger had broken his neck. He never walked again. Though paralyzed from the neck down, he could move his hands and arms heavily and with great effort, enough to push a wheelchair with large rubber knobs on the wheel-runs.

It was painful to watch this formerly athletic boy inching his way forward even across the smooth, level hospital floor. In those days I had full use of both arms and legs and could propel my manual chair at fast walking speed. It made me feel strangely manly. In this way I felt myself Roger's equal physically. I was able to balance his much larger size and potential strength with my speed and agility. I picked things up for him that he dropped; I sometimes cut his food for him before he ate. I remember he had a special knife with a bow-shaped blade enabling him to rock it to-and-fro through a piece of food to cut it up, but sometimes it was so painful for me to watch him struggle that I would offer to help.

Roger was not angry or bitter about his disability. Perhaps if he had been, things might have been better for him. He was the least macho straight man I've ever met, with the dreamy gentleness of an artist.

for Roger Webster 1940-1970

Roger was the first man I ever touched—deliberately I mean. I plotted my act; I even rehearsed a tiny script in my head. One afternoon I saw him reading a magazine in the dayroom. It was a hot, sunny day and he wore a short-sleeved shirt. I was attracted by his strong brown arms, covered with long, blond hairs. I took a deep breath (if I had been religious I would have prayed) and ran my finger up and down the length of his left forearm, which was relaxed on the armrest of his chair.

"Can you feel me do that?" I asked him, according to the script I'd prepared. "Not really," he replied, giving me a sad half-smile and staring off into the distance. So you could touch a man, a straight man even, and the world didn't collapse about your ears! He didn't seem to mind at all, nor did he seem surprised.

I knew my question had probably prompted him to think about the accident. When he smiled at me of course I wanted to put my head on his shoulder, hug him, tell him I loved him. Instead I decided to face the truth. I asked him if he had a girlfriend. He told me he had been engaged at the time of the accident but his fiancée never came to visit him in the hospital and he never heard from her again. "May she rot in hell," I thought but did not say. I never heard Roger say anything critical about anyone.

I asked him if he'd had a girlfriend since the accident. One of the nurses at the Rehab he had been in had proposed to him but he had turned her down, he said, because he didn't want to be "a burden" to her." "But if she loved you—" I offered. "No," he sighed, "it's better this way." "But Roger, you'd never be a burden to anyone," I said. He shook his head and changed the subject. "Do you like classical music?" "Yes," I answered meekly. I was stunned by his tales of rejection. "How about a little Beethoven?" He pushed over to the record player and dexterously but very slowly and laboriously put the album on the turntable.

"Rubinstein!" he said, smiling at me; now I was totally in love. It was the Moonlight Sonata. We sat in silence while the music played—the whole side of the album, in fact. Tears welled up in Roger's eyes. Was it the music or the accident, I wondered. I felt so helpless and angrya whole flood of emotion overtook me. Now I know the feeling I had was one of compassion, of empathy; perhaps he knew I felt this even though I couldn't express it. Somehow, Beethoven did it for us. The music had begun to bond us together in a friendship that was to last for three years. The slow movement at the beginning heightened the sadness I felt over Roger's fate, the rapid movement heightened the anger I felt at Fate, which had dealt him such a blow, the terrible irony that because of his pursuit of the beauty of birds, life had lost its joy for him.

Later that day I felt immense gratitude for having grown up with a disability rather than having had to suffer one imposed traumatically on me. To me, being tiny, in a wheelchair, with a brittle bone condition was, and still is, normal. I've never known, like Roger, the exhilaration of running across fields in the spring in search of rare birds. I've been lucky; the "birds" have come to me, alighted on my chair, fed from my hand.

The next day they sent Roger back to his village in a truck with his brand-new wheelchair and his own fiberglass car (he was never to use) in the back. I had a feeling as I waved him goodbye that I would never see him again.

We corresponded faithfully for three years. Gradually I was consumed by my studies and social life at the university. I had not written to him for three months when the news came. Roger's mother wrote to my mother so that my mother could break the news to me. My mother tearfully read the letter to me. Roger had had, like a lot of quads, severe bladder infections. His doctor had decided to perform a kidney bypass operation and catheterize him permanently to try to avoid future infections. Roger had died on the operating table. One sentence in his mother's letter haunts me to this day: "I can't help feeling he just gave up on life." She may have been over-psychologizing her son, but it felt true to me.

I of course felt horribly guilty for having stopped writing to Roger. If only I had told him that I loved him, told him not to give up. Now I see my guilt as a natural part of my grieving, but also the height of arrogance. Possibly the surgeon made an error, or the infection had poisoned him, but the whole thing taught me a lesson: for God's sake hold on to your friends, keep in touch. It's a cruel world, cruel enough to kill dear Roger, who, in his dense blue-ink handwriting, signed himself in every letter, "Yours, always, Roger."

There have been times in the years since my last stroke when I've felt like giving up. Roger is one reason I don't. I feel him hovering about me sometimes, his hand on my shoulder, whispering, "How about a little Beethoven?"

© 2004 Chris Hewitt
Illustration © 2004 Mark McBeth, IDEA | MONGER

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"Moonlight Sonata" is part of Chris Hewitt's memoir-in-progress, "Brittle Bones."

Search BENT's Contents and Archive to find more of Chris Hewitt's poetry and prose.

Chris's work is featured in "Queer Crips: Disabled Gay Men and Their Stories (Haworth Press), a 2004 Lambda Literary Award winner

Photo: Barbara Loudis


 

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BENT: A Journal of CripGay Voices/July 2004