REMEMBERING CHRIS

by Michael Perreault

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Read tributes to Chris Hewitt by Raymond J. Aguilera, Angie McLachlan, and Mark Moody.

 

I can't say I knew Chris well. We had a relationship that fell somewhere between passing acquaintances and casual friends. He had a way of popping into and out of my life. His van service ran the show, dropping him at appointed places, picking him up at appointed times, so Chris would be here one minute, gone the next. The limits of our disabilities helped make our interactions fragmented and compartmentalized.

I last saw Chris at a conference eleven days before he died. I was behind him in my wheelchair, one I use part-time. He turned around to leave and in passing he whispered something I could not hear because of deafness in one ear and the softness of his voice. I wish now that I had made him repeat what he said.

I knew Chris first through our mutual connection with the Twelve Step program and later because we had writing in common. I was learning to write with the Intergenerational Writing Workshop in San Francisco when Chris attended a reading of our work. Afterwards he called to praise my piece, a short essay about being a queer crip man, something he thought was good enough to be published here in BENT.

That was the first time I experienced a personal disability/queer connection with Chris. We discussed our disabilities only a few times. I was never sure he wanted to and often felt inhibited at asking him; I've learned that disability can sometimes be too difficult and too personal for some men to share with each other, but I am gratified he spoke so eloquently of it in his poetry.

I felt a deep connection with Chris because of our shared vulnerabilities, although mine paled in comparison to his. I'm reminded of a time as a small child when I found a baby bird that had fallen from its nest. It was so young it could not hold up its head and struggled on the hard concrete to move back to safety. I took it home and tried to care for it but was gently reminded by my parents that sometimes we don't know enough to care for something properly and even when we do, some beings are just too vulnerable to survive.

I feared I was too vulnerable to survive, for I too often fell on sidewalks; sometimes I bent my braces and was unable to get up. I could not trust my body to overpower gravity. I could not trust my body to keep me from feeling burning shame when I fell in front of family, friends, strangers, and worse, boyfriends. My body was unable to protect me from the judgments of it made by others and it failed to keep me from my own judgments of it as well. My body, as my closest friend, was not a friend I could depend on, another feeling Chris and I shared.

From the first time I saw him, long before we met, Chris was a reminder of my own vulnerability. He chose to live his life with seeming disregard for all its countless vulnerabilities: dangerous intersections and treacherous trolley tracks; wheelchair failure; screwed-up van service; unopened doors; stares (both spellings); a full bladder; thoughtless remarks, cruel remarks, demeaning remarks; private acts unwillingly made public; losing good personal care attendants; enduring lousy personal care attendants; the knowledge that he had already outlived his life expectancy; and the worst vulnerability, falling or being dropped.

A few years ago I visited Chris at San Francisco General Hospital. Once again he had been hit by a car. In pain from broken bones, he had to be moved frequently to prevent bedsores. Two hospital attendants asked us to step outside his room, taking no notice that, through the open door from the corridor Chris was naked to the world. I was surprised to notice how much longer his body was, stretched out on the hospital bed, than the accordion fold of his body I was accustomed to seeing in his power chair. His skin was creamy white and there was nothing about him that I found "untouchable." Chris had his own beauty. He was proud of his hands, writing that people with his condition, osteogenesis imperfecta, often have long, slender, beautiful fingers. He was right, he did.

It's only as an afterthought that I could have joked with Chris about his unlucky relationship with automobiles. I could say, "Chris, now that I use a power wheelchair too, maybe we could be two queens playing bumper cars." I can only guess at his response, but it might be "Go to Hell, Michael!"

Chris was, by no means, a perfected human being. His reliability was often in question and on more than one occasion he irritated the hell out of me by running over my toes or backing into me without asking where I was. "Chris, get a rear-view mirror, damn it!"

There is nothing neat or tidy about disability; in fact, it's often quite the opposite. I helped Chris pee a couple of times. He got more pee on his pants and fanny pack than ever hit the urinal. I say this only to emphasize the huge social vulnerability, in addition to the physical one, that he lived with daily. He had to ask anyone, absolutely anyone, to help him with some of the most personal things he needed. I can't imagine doing that every day. He gave new meaning to Blanche Dubois' assertion, "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers."

Some might call him brave, courageous, heroic—but those labels sound too much like Charlton Heston-John Wayne crap to me. Nor did he possess the kind of Superman heroics non-disabled people enjoy attributing to us, not, that is, unless you see his wheelchair as the phone booth in which he transcended his vulnerabilities to emerge wearing an invisible cloak that protected him in an unfriendly world. Heroic? No, I think Chris would rather have been thought of as pretty rather than courageous.

I believe that what kept Chris going was something more powerfully ordinary than heroics. He wanted to live, to have friends, to write, to be a part of life, and in order to do those things he needed to carry all of his vulnerabilities with him on a daily basis. That's what I'm in awe of, his willingness to live his life with all that he had to carry, day in, day out, every day.

In what has become one of his best-known poems, "The Lifting Team," Chris wrote about being lifted, at the moment of death, "up, up, high up into the fields of stars." I like to think that Chris found his Lifting Team and will be carried and cared for by them until he returns as the mighty poplar tree he wrote about in another poem, "Reincarnation," the tree that, like Chris, is vulnerable, sensitve to every gust, but is strong and beautiful nonetheless.

© 2004 Michael Perreault

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BENT: A Journal of CripGay Voices/September 2004