Sunday, January 12, 2014

High School Hero...

When I was 12, I loved Donny Nelson.  I wasn't the only one.  He was funny, charismatic and ridiculously handsome in that sudden, surprising way that some boys were in junior high… manly and confident while the rest of us were flopping around in a confused pile of hormones. Donny strode through school hallways with his shoulders thrown back, booming voiced, never doubting that things would go his way. I didn’t know then what Don had gone through as a child with his alcoholic mother.  Later I heard through the grapevine what he endured as an adult. 

Hang in there, baby.
Curly hair products are
coming in 10 years.

With my bad glasses, hair that refused to feather like Farrah’s and my loud, hopeful laugh, I was star struck when this larger than life boy chose me for a friend.  Donny was an equal opportunity lightning bolt, striking up friendships with an interesting assortment of kids.

Didn't mind hanging out
with frizzy haired nerds.
We drifted apart in high school when Donny became Warren Township High School’s star quarterback, surrounded by athletes and prom queens.  We were still friendly and I cried on his shoulder when his father died our freshman year.  Our bond had been forged as kids, singing dopey old songs for hours – me on piano, Donny on guitar.  We sang “My Blue Heaven” at the top of our lungs while walking from my house to his grandparents.  We threw a rock through a neighborhood window and hid in the woods from the angry victim.  At 13, I got into some serious trouble with Donny involving alcohol, a beach and the hospital.  He always deflected any blame, regardless of it being all his idea.  He wasn’t interested in a quiet life; he wanted action.

Don’s college football career ended abruptly when a neck injury left his right arm numb.  When he recovered, he joined the Marines.  During boot camp, an accidental blow to the head left him with the same numbness and he was discharged.  Determined, he joined the police force. 

He married Sheryl Corder, one of the loveliest girls in school whose shiny hair was a feathered masterpiece. She planned our ten year high school reunion - a perfect three day extravaganza that cost us relatively little because of Sheryl’s tireless fund raising.  In the book of alumni bios that she compiled, hers was the longest… a small town Hollywood fairytale about marrying the football star turned police officer, a new baby boy, and happily ever afters.  I was a little jealous that she’d been chosen by the boy who had been a comet in my life, that she was so amazingly perfect. 

Just months after the reunion, when Sheryl and Don’s son, little Donny, was six months old, Sheryl was diagnosed with breast cancer.  Shortly after, she underwent a double mastectomy, then ovarian surgery.   Just days after her surgery, Don pulled his squad car over to assist a fellow officer with a routine stop.  A passing driver dozing at the wheel veered, striking Don as he stood next to the stopped vehicle.  The impact broke both Don’s legs and six ribs, bruised his lung, separated his shoulder and sent him flying 55 feet into the middle of the road.  He was flown to a hospital in Milwaukee on a Flight for Life helicopter.  Don’s frightened sister, Kim, picked up his recovering wife and took her to the hospital to wait through his seven hour surgery.

After he was out of danger, Don’s doctor told him the difficult news that he wouldn’t walk for six months.  Within a year, he might be able to overcome a limp. 

Don told them he was leaving, that day, with crutches.  And did.

Neither of the recovering new parents could care for little Donny, so Sheryl’s mother took the baby home with her each night and brought him back in the morning, caring for all three of them.  Don worked relentlessly on his rehabilitation and walked without crutches within two months. 

As they were fighting their individual fights, Don and Sheryl traveled to California to visit friends.  Before the trip, Sheryl had shaved her remaining hair and was wearing a wig.  “In the land of fruits and nuts,” Don joked, “Sheryl could go ahead and walk around bald.”  Pausing, he added, with pride, “She had such a beautiful head.  She could pull it off.  She looked great.”

Don ignored the advice of his doctors, pushing limits, and returned to work as a dispatcher.  Unhappy on the sidelines at a desk, he insisted he was ready, and returned to active duty only four months and 12 days after he was told he wouldn’t even walk for six.  His legs were never right, but boredom was worse than pain.

Four years later, things were looking up.  Sheryl had been healthy and little Donny was growing like a weed, the spitting image of his mother.  Don had a mole removed from his chest that indicated melanoma.  The next day, Sheryl’s cancer was back.

“You always have to one-up me,” Don accused her.  “I get hit by a car, you get cancer.  I get cancer, you get it twice.  Knock it off.”

Don’s brush with cancer was over quickly after a minor operation.  Sheryl’s road was steeper and they prepared again for battle.

On the 4th of July, Don was golfing with a group of detectives.  He drove his golf cart down an incline approaching a tunnel and started to slide.  Trying to regain control, Don braked hard and when the golf cart hit dry ground, it flipped.  Don tried to bail out and the canopy of the cart struck him in the back of the neck. 

“That was The Crippler.”  Don told me, using his favorite term to distinguish between his accidents.  “The moment it happened, I told the guys I knew my neck was broken.  It hurt and I couldn’t move anything.  So that was my second Flight for Life helicopter ride.  I have Flight for Life frequent flier miles.” 

Between rounds of chemotherapy, Sheryl visited Don during his four months of hospitalization. 

He was paralyzed from the shoulders down. 

“After my legs were broken,” Don told me, grinning, “Donny would jump on me and Sheryl would freak out.  But I’d tell her, hey, it’s not like he can break them again.  There are steel pins in there.  After I broke my neck, there was a bracket in there.  Let him jump. It won’t break again.”

Don's buddy

Don gave motivational speeches for patients treated by the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.  “It doesn't matter how you got here.  It may not feel fair, but pissing and moaning isn’t going to make anything better. You can sit around feeling sorry for yourself, or you can start thinking about what you’re going to do next,” he told his fellow patients.  Don was selected to give a private showing to Christopher Reeves of their new robotic therapy developed for spinal cord patients.  Don and his sister were able to meet Christopher and spend some time with him just days before he died.  Don’s tough love approach inspired spinal cord patients and his sessions were full of laughter.  He was paid multiple times to speak to therapists in training.

 Don and Sheryl fought their battles valiantly side by side.  Two years after Don’s crippling accident, Sheryl died, at 34 years old, leaving her quadriplegic husband to take care of seven year old Donny. 

Don felt that his son had been as well prepared as possible for the loss of his beautiful mother after so many years of hospitals.  Every word Don spoke about his son was with pride in his toughness.  And yet it is hard for any father, let alone a severely injured one, to replace a mother’s tender touch.  “Sometimes he wants his mom,” Don told me in a rare vulnerable moment. “And all he has is me.  We do the best we can do and most of the time it is enough.”

When little Donny began playing his father’s beloved football, Don considered coaching but figured he couldn’t until he saw a documentary of Knute Rockne coaching from a wheelchair. “So I figured, what the hell?” Don laughed.  He volunteered to coach his son’s football team.  For ten years, Don was the heart and soul of our home town youth football organization, serving as president and resident hard ass.  He asked me to draw a portrait of his son and himself in their Warren uniforms.

“I do feel that everything that happens is a necessary step to the next thing,” Don stressed, “but I don’t know why Sheryl’s death had to be a part of the mix.   As far as the shit I’ve gone through, now I’m a stay at home dad.  I don’t have to work anymore.  I’ve been to Vegas a bunch with good friends, traveled more than I ever did before I was injured.  I figure I owe it to Sheryl, to Donny and myself to live every day to the fullest.  I’ve always seen my brothers and sister saving, waiting to enjoy life in retirement.  You just don’t know how much time you have.  You shouldn’t be reckless, but you need to live for now.” 

As our 20 year high school reunion approached, I had heard bits and pieces of Don’s story, but I’d lost touch with him.  I had thought about trying to reach out.  But what would I say to my lost friend in his wheelchair?  What would I say about Sheryl after all these years? 

Beautiful Sheryl
In her honor, Don planned the reunion and we reconnected as if no time at all had passed.  He invited my family to his big parties, full of all the friends he’d kept from our childhood.  I was floored at how little he’d changed, despite everything he’d been through.  He held court as always, telling stories in his commanding voice peppered with loud guffaws.  Don suggested that I draw memorial portraits of Sheryl's yearbook photo and a few other classmates who we’d lost for the reunion book.  I had just lost my job and he wanted to give my brand new portrait business some exposure.  Over the following years, he was always promoting me, ordering portraits, recommending me.  He supported his friends fiercely.

Yet Don is an acquired taste. 

When my husband first met him, he found Don to be a bit of a know-it-all.  Don states his opinions as fact, loudly debating any disagreement.  It can be abrasive, but there is always an edge of affection and humor there.  I was touched that such a large group of high school guys would stay so close, like family, for more than 25 years - vacationing together, hanging out weekly.  The more time I spent with them, the tighter their bond seemed.   Don doesn’t let you in deep, but he shows you in many ways that he cares.  He’s heroic with a little devil thrown in… on the football field, in his commitment to his family, in his arguably courageous attitude to not let anything get him down.  I can’t imagine going through the shit storm that Don has and still wake up each day, eager to make it a great one.  He’s a smart ass, he’s arrogant, he’s bossy.  He’s also unwaveringly loyal and passionate about making the most out of life. 

Don believed, with all his heart, that he would walk again.  He believed that everything happens for a reason.  When the reason continually evaded him, when his body repeatedly betrayed him, his positive attitude began to flicker, to fade.  After such a long, long battle, wouldn’t you feel angry?  Wouldn’t you just get tired? 

He began to push family and friends away, lashing out in anger, then trying to joke it off.  He moved to Vegas with his son in late 2013, living the last days of his life in the place he loved with the boy who had become a young man, and who, like his father, has faced far, far too much adversity.

At Don’s memorial, he wore our high school’s Blue Devils jersey.  I should have expected it, but I didn’t, and it tore every one of us up.  It took us all back to those swaggering days when he was so very alive.  I was overcome with guilt for letting him push me away.  I loved him and I always had.  Why didn’t I understand that he was angry and lonely?  Why didn’t I reach out to him more?

I remember nagging Don about his biography for the 20th reunion book.  Stubborn as ever, he refused to write anything. 

“You’re planning the whole thing!” I argued with him.  “You need to put something.  Besides, who has more interesting stuff to say than you?”

“Okay,” he smiled, “just write, ’You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.’”

So we did.