How a Man with Cerebral Palsy Taught Me the Secret to Happiness

By the time I knocked on Richard’s front door, one of the few things in life I’d learned for certain was that a dream rarely materialized to code; it came with leaky pipes and shoddy wiring and usually didn’t offer a second walk-through. I’d never wanted to work with the physically challenged, and in fact, I was standing there only because I had to find a job and this was it. I was out of time. A man with cerebral palsy needed a tutor, so here I was.

Then Richard appeared in the doorway, his mouth hanging open, his torso slumped to his left in his black wheelchair, his fingers curled as if he were trying to ball them into fists but they’d frozen in transit. His short brown hair was parted to the left, his face clean-shaven and pale, and he wore navy blue dress pants and a long-sleeved, white dress shirt stretched over a small potbelly. My eyes returned to his gnarled fingers. His right hand rested on the joystick that directed his wheelchair’s movement, while his left hand waved at me. Instinctively, I took a slight step backward in his driveway. But Richard wasn’t going to let me get away that easily. He lurched out of his duplex in his motorized wheelchair straight for me. I realized that even if I tried to race to my car, he could chase me down. There was no way out. He’d trapped me as soon as I’d exited my car. This was the moment I was certain I didn’t want to work for him.

As much as I resisted, though, Richard snagged me in his web and slowly won me over. His optimism was unrivaled, and his appreciation for my time and help unconditional. Each morning I showed up, it felt as if I’d made his day, and in time I realized that I had. He’d been let down so often, when someone actually took the time to enter his world, every last second was savored.

No Such Thing as Enough

Richard owned a service dog, plus he employed four part-time attendants through his assisted living program. He also got food stamps and affordable housing. From the outside looking in, it would’ve been easy to conclude he was taking advantage of a broken system. Even from the inside, I found myself wondering these same things. I felt guilty, like I was betraying Richard, yet I couldn’t stop the traitorous thoughts from crossing my mind. It seemed like he got more than he needed, more than enough.

But that was the whole point. From someone else’s perspective, Richard should’ve been content and grateful to receive assistance from the government, generosity from his friends and loving support from his family. He was a lot better off than many others with terminal illnesses or mental challenges or excruciating daily pain or the absence of any family or friends. Compared to them, Richard was doing just fine.

Yet that didn’t prohibit him from wanting more—like the rest of us. His physical challenges didn’t disqualify him from seeking complete fulfillment. Just because he’d already received plenty of help didn’t rule him ineligible for more. And his CP and wheelchair definitely didn’t lower the acceptable standards of joy.

People like Richard were courageous to me, not self-absorbed. He wasn’t being greedy; he simply had the guts to ask, regardless of how it might be received or perceived. He had the will to ignore embarrassment as if it didn’t apply to him and carried no votes in the outcome, which it didn’t. Whatever happened was up to him, and he was going to find out either way. It wasn’t enough not to know. There was no such thing as enough for Richard’s kind.

A Part to Play

And he always had enough time to encourage me. I wondered if it was a reaction to a lifetime of neglect and mistreatment, but Richard couldn’t stand seeing me, or anyone, disheartened. I found it incredibly ironic that a man slighted so much in life was one of the biggest encouragers I’d ever met. He wasn’t immune to melancholy, yet he didn’t overindulge in self-pity. Feeling sorry for himself was a bottomless hole Richard couldn’t afford to dig, because there was no one else to help shovel him out.

Although he was pushing 50 years old, Richard remade his life. He went back to school, graduated and remarried. He was living proof that it was never too late to start over, to change direction to a better course, and that everyone had something to offer.

Most people, including me, felt they didn’t have anything truly insightful to share with others, a significant, life-altering word to impart. But Richard showed me it was impossible to know who needed to hear exactly what only I could say, and that if I withheld it, that person lost out. I held the power to hurt someone just with my silence. It was a sobering thought. How many people had I met who could’ve used a little encouragement or a simple piece of advice from my unique perspective that would’ve made a world of difference to them? How many friends had wanted to vent anxieties and fears yet needed me to inquire first? How many had just wished I’d listen?

Everyone had something to offer because everyone else had a need. No one was exempt, and no excuse valid.

There was no getting off the hook with this, Richard taught me.

We all have a part to play.


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