You try to do it, but you can’t.
How could anybody?
And then, for the briefest of moments, after Annette Clark has left you alone in her son’s bedroom while she greets well-wishers in the front room, it comes.
The world shrinking, shrinking.
The inability to move, however contrived.
The loss of independence, dominance, arrogance.
The briefest foray into the depths of the imagination, and – like a passing shudder – the sense of paralysis. For life.
Then the grieving mother of Rocky Clark, the 27-year-old quadriplegic who died Thursday night, 111/2 years after he was paralyzed in a high school football game, returns.
Annette Clark sits beside me on the cheap new futon couch in the tiny room – a bright, sky-blue cell no more than eight feet by 15 feet – and sighs.
Her eyes are still swollen from the intermittent crying bouts she goes through. She has no idea how she will pay for the funeral on Saturday or the house mortgage or the medical bills that could be stacked higher than the trophy case that holds a half-dozen NFL game balls donated by the Bears.
Most of all, she misses the ball and chain that held her down, made her a captive servant for more than a decade. Her son.
Rasul ‘‘Rocky” Clark was a fine athlete, and even after the blow that crushed his vertebrae in what is called the ‘‘hangman’s break,” he loved football, he loved all sports, and he never gave up.
Cliches, yes. But true.
‘‘His hospital bed was right here,” says Annette, smiling with eyes that are half a note from weeping. ‘‘I took it out the other day, and I put in this couch so if I want to sit here and think about Rocky, I can.”
No one can fathom what it’s like to be unable to move or the amount of care that must go into keeping a helpless human alive. It’s not pretty. Feces, urine, vomit, infected bed sores, lung secretions – it’s routine stuff. It’s why we turn away from paralyzed people because we intuitively comprehend the ripple effect of such a devastating wound.
Two years ago, I came down with a weird thing called transverse myelitis. I’d never heard of it, and I haven’t found anybody who has, except neurologists. It’s a rare, inexplicable auto-immune fire in the sheathing of the nerves of your upper spinal cord, and if it’s not put out fast, you’re a paraplegic forever, or a quad. For four days in intensive care, I got to think about that. I came out with a cane, no triceps, no right quadriceps, no pectoral muscles, a foot that didn’t work and fingers that couldn’t type, play guitar or do much of anything.
Almost all of it has come back. But I got to think about a lot. I was able to envision – for a moment – the horror of our worst fears.
And yet, I will tell you this, and it might sound insane – I was ready to be a cripple.
The overriding sense was: What choice do I have?
‘‘I’m not upset or angry,” Annette says when I ask her if the catastrophic insurance coverage that was not there at the end has made her furious. ‘‘But I’m disappointed. The insurance, well, it was like Rocky said, ‘I’m a citizen!’â€‰”
Without the most obvious thing every football player at every level should receive – lifetime health insurance for the worst of injuries – Annette had to become the round-the-clock nurse in a role that stole her life.
Rocky’s main insurance coverage ran out nearly two years ago, and Annette was forced to cut his pills in half, sleeping no more than three hours at a time, becoming a kind of Mother Sisyphus, rolling the medical stone up the hill each day so her only son could live.
She had helpers – her two daughters, Deacon Don Grossnickle of the Archdiocese of Chicago, the Rev. Anthony Williams of the Good Shepherd Evangelical Lutheran Church in Robbins – but it wasn’t enough.
The tragedy was a kid like Rocky Clark never really got to live.
An old guy like me, gazing at paralysis, who cares?
But a young man like Rocky, with his future ahead, a kid who wanted to help others in sport?
It hurts Annette like a dagger in the heart to think of the waste.
But Rocky was always upbeat.
‘‘He would smile and say, ‘Mom, I have to play with the cards I was dealt,’â€‰” says Annette, looking at the computer, the TV, the medals and the varsity letters that were her son’s viewing companions.
The great physicist Stephen Hawking, who has been paralyzed for half a century and now communicates by twitching his left cheek, has written of his always-fatal disease, ‘‘I didn’t die. In fact, although there was a cloud hanging over my future, I found, to my surprise, that I was enjoying life in the present more than before.”
Rocky seemed that way, too.
In his 1995 book, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, the 44-year-old abruptly paralyzed editor and father Jean-Dominique Bauby, who could communicate only by blinking his left eye, dictated these words, a letter at a time: ‘‘My mind takes flight like a butterfly. There is so much to do. You can wander off in space or in time, set out for Tierra del Fuego or for King Midas’ court. You can visit the woman you love, slide down beside her and stroke her still-sleeping face.”
The late and paralyzed actor Christopher Reeve, unable even to breathe on his own but ever thankful, said that in his dreams he was ‘‘always whole.”
Rocky Clark is gone, but he lives on.
And his dream flies forever.