Thursday, May 19, 2011

The First Time Greg Heard About Cerebral Palsy

The summer of 1962 in a working class neighborhood on the south side of Chicago. Greg is age 8. He’s heading for the Tastee Freeze with Tommy the Polish kid.

They come across a hubbub. A buzzing crowd. Fire trucks. Tommy and Greg wiggle through to the front of the crowd. They see the front end of a car perched atop a dislodged fire hydrant. The firemen have turned off the geyser but a pond has formed around the hydrant. The pond gurgles and swirls like a whirlpool. Fireman divers dive in.

A diver surfaces with a saturated pair of jeans about the same size as Greg’s jeans.

“It’s Teddy Birch!” a voice says.

“Who’s Teddy Birch?” Greg asks Tommy.

“The cerebral palsy kid,” says Tommy.

Cereal bowl what, thought Greg?

A diver surfaces cradling something in his arms. Greg can see a pair of limp legs. A fireman on the street throws a tarp over the bundle in the diver’s arm. The diver passes the sagging bundle up to the fireman on the street, who whisks the bundle into an ambulance.

“Poor Teddy Birch,” somebody says. Somebody says the geyser eroded the ground around the hydrant. A sinkhole opened. The kids ran but Teddy Birch was too slow to get away. He’s got cerebral palsy, after all. Teddy Birch got swallowed.

Cerebral palsy must be one of those diseases that make you crippled, Greg surmised. He didn’t know for sure because there were no crippled children in his church or school. The nuns talked about crippled children a lot, but he never saw a real one.

Cerebral palsy must be like that other disease that makes you crippled: multiple sclerosis. His mother told him about multiple sclerosis in one of her many scary stories which she always ends with, “And let that be a lesson to you.”

Greg and mom were in the car at a railroad crossing. Mother said one dark and terrible night at this very crossing, a car got stuck on the tracks. Two men were in the car. A train was coming. One man escaped but the other man couldn’t escape and he was killed when the train crushed the car. That man had multiple sclerosis.

“And let that be a lesson to you.”

But what does it all mean, Greg wondered? Why couldn’t the man with multiple sclerosis escape? Was multiple sclerosis a disease that makes a person paralyzed with fear when something terrible is about to happen, so they can’t run away? Is that what the nuns meant when they said some crippled people are paralyzed? Poor Teddy Birch. When he saw the sinkhole opening, did he get paralyzed too? Is that why he couldn’t run away?

Or was the man with multiple sclerosis just slow, like Teddy Birch? Is that why he couldn’t run away? Was that why the nuns sometimes referred to some crippled children as slow? But weren’t the slow children the just children who were mentally crippled?

Or were all crippled people slow, even the adults? So when you see those signs that say SLOW CHILDREN CROSSING, is that how you know where all the crippled people live?

What does it all mean?