This morning I thought about a man that I haven’t remembered in a while. Back in the days of my old blog I wrote about him once or twice and he deserves to have his story told a little more often, or at least, to have my part of his story told.
His name is Jim Heller, and he was an artist. He was also almost completely paralyzed; anything from the neck down was immobile, except for very slight movements in his right hand.
It was those movements that allowed him to become a precise artist. I got to see him work every now and then because we went to church together, and our ward would divide up service assignments to help him out.
On the 2nd of every month, my brother and I would ride our bikes down to his place and make him dinner. This was always a bit of a process because Jim was a slow eater. He would wheel his electric chair into the doorway of his kitchen and tell us what to pull out of the fridge or the cabinets, then have us nuke it in the mike.
We had to cut everything up for him and feed it to him one small bite at a time. He had to tell us every time he was ready for another bite, or a drink through the straw. It took a few hours.
Not that it was an imposition or anything; he was very easy to talk to and we had great conversations. Jim loved movies too, so we would put on a John Wayne flick, or a cheesy sci-fi, or a WW2 film. I watched Anaconda and Tora! Tora! Tora! while feeding him. The only time I’ve ever seen The Ghost In The Darkness was while I was spooning peas into Jim’s mouth. (Awesome movie, btw.)
In my teens I didn’t have a lot going on that wasn’t scheduled for me by my parents. Go to youth activities at church, go to piano lessons, go to Boy Scouts, go go go. When I had time to myself, I spent it ignoring my homework so I could sit at my drawing table while blasting KoRn or Offspring on my CD player.
The lack of a full schedule made it easy for me to visit Jim. I don’t remember seeing it as an imposition or anything, because what else was I doing with my life? Goofing off and daydreaming about girls who would never date me because I was the weird kid?
No, go take one night in thirty and feed someone. That’s a kind of service I don’t do any more. I’m too busy, too dialed in on my own stuff. Plus, obviously, I’ve got a wife and kids now, it’s just different.
But back then, I think it was really good for me to see up close the life of someone who had to rely on others for absolutely everything. Jim had a nurse come by who helped him with his medical stuff, his pill sorting, his bathing and dressing, getting in and out of bed, all that. He always had to have his remote on his tray and his LifeAlert right next to it.
One night he called his neighbor at 2AM because there was a bug chewing on the soft skin under his arm and the pain was excruciating. Jim tried to ride it out without calling and it just got to be too much.
Think about that next time you have an itch and you scratch it and it goes away. Think about a life where you couldn’t do that for yourself.
I never once, in the three or four years that I regularly visited him, heard Jim gripe about his condition, or pity himself. Dude got diagnosed with whatever had put him in a chair in his 20s. Doctors said he would probably die in his 40s. He made it to his 60s.
And to the utter extent that he was able, he worked to support himself.
Every time we came by, we wrapped up the night by setting his art supplies out on the tray on his wheelchair. Pencils and brushes with long sticks attached. Paint pallets with just a drop of this color here, a slight mixture of these two there. Throw some water droplets on to loosen up this shade here, I don’t need much.
He painted scenery, animals, westerns, faces. Indians and mountain men, cowboys and pioneers. Wolverines battling wolves for a kill. Lynxes in the wild. Temples. Christ. His friends.
A few times a year we would load his stuff into his big old van, then help him onto the ramp so he could get inside. Hook his chair to the floor with ratchet straps and drive him to convention centers so he could sell prints and originals. It was heavy and repetitive, and tiring in the Vegas heat.
Yet the whole time you’re doing it, you’re saying to yourself, what am I going to do? Cry about it to the guy who can’t walk? Can’t take a leak without help? Come on, man. Even when I was just a low-ambition punk@$$ from Henderson I could figure that part out.
There are still times that I feel bad about not being there when he died, in July of 2001. I had missed our appointment on the 2nd of that month because I finally had things on my calendar. I had a job (tire tech) and a sport to train for (cheerleading).
He called our house and asked if I was coming. It was 6:30. I apologized profusely, I can’t even remember what I was doing that night but I was busy. He said NBD, he would call his niece, she was over there all the time.
I said I would make it up to him next month. He died about two weeks later.
I made it a point to sing at his funeral. Felt I owed him that.
Often I make the mistake of assuming that everyone has had the same life experiences I have, that they’ve known the same kind of people and have shaped their expectations of life accordingly. I have to remind myself that that isn’t the case.
We’ve all had unique struggles, they just happen in the same vein sometimes. And there will always be someone who has it worse than we do–not that it’s a competition. The point is that someone else’s trials can help you realize not only your blessings, but the limitations you are putting on yourself.
Especially today, in the age of competitive victimhood, with social media being such an easy platform for you to scream your hardships into the void of the world, looking for validation.
When that temptation arises, think of men like Jim. He dealt with those demons at some point in his life, I’m sure of it. That kind of stoicism is usually a destination, not a starting point, and he got there.
I for one am very grateful that he did, and for what he taught me in our short time together. Men like that ought to be remembered.
Learn from that. And get back to work.