First of all, let me introduce you to my best friend, Keith. Keith is a 53-year-old web designer who runs his own company from home. He loves water, the sun, gadgets, and his friends; not necessarily in that order but pretty close. It was his love of water that changed his life forever one beautiful Mother’s Day thirty-four years ago. ‘Love’ may be putting it mildly, his insatiable need to be in the water was practically necessary to his survival. And it was that need that drove him to dive head first into the shallow waters of a nearby lake, severing his Spinal cord at C4. C4 is a crucial level of Spinal cord injury. Keith is a quadriplegic, paralyzed from the neck down. Nowadays his love of water has had to take a back seat to his love for the sun. It is now the sun that he has grown to depend upon for survival, for health and for life, and as long as he is healthy and the sun is shining, you will find Keith outside sporting his long hair and a killer tan, forever the surfer dude he once was.
So what can a 53-year-old tech geek, surfer dude, quadriplegic buddy teach me?
1. We Are All Same
Everyone is basically the same at their core. We all want the same basic things, happiness, love, and acceptance. Even if someone seems drastically different than you, talk to them, get to know them and you may be surprised to find you aren’t really different at all.
2. Love People
You may not always like what someone says or does but love them and be there for them anyway. It is amazingly rare to find a person Keith doesn’t like and he is always willing to drop whatever he is doing or to put his own troubles aside to help a friend. I once asked him how it didn’t drive him crazy to listen to people who go on and on about their piddly problems when his were so much greater, and he just said, “I try to put myself in their shoes.” and he explained that to them their problems aren’t so small. His heart is so huge and he cares so much about everyone, it isn’t hard to see why he has so many good friends.
3. Be Patient
Patience CAN be learned. I struggle with this one constantly. I am such an “I want it right now!” personality while Keith, entirely on the other side of the spectrum, is practically a Zen master. Imagine that itch you just have to scratch and being entirely dependent on someone else to scratch it for you, only the one person around is sound asleep and you don’t want to bother them. “How does that NOT drive you nuts!?” I asked. “I just had to learn patience” was his reply. Now that’s a Zen master, if it were me I think I would end up in the looney bin!
No matter how bad things may seem, life is amazing and is worth fighting for at all cost. I know that if I ever had to make a life or death decision for him if he were to be incapable of doing so himself that I could absolutely positively choose life without any doubts knowing that is what he would choose for himself, no matter how hard he had to fight. And Keith does fight, hard and often. More often than anyone should have to. I am always so grateful and relieved when anxiously awaiting to hear how a particular surgery went to have this message pop up on my screen as soon as he is out of surgery, mostly awake, and back to his room, “Holy shit! Did you happen to catch the serial number on that cruise missile that hit me!!!???” What else can you expect from a tech geek?
5. Celebrate Life
Life is Amazing! Appreciate and enjoy every moment of it while you can because you never know what may be taken away from you at any time. Bask in the sun, smell the flowers, appreciate your abilities. Enjoy what you have while you still have it because it could all be gone tomorrow. Even after all he has already lost, Keith chooses to focus on appreciating what he has. At any time a UTI, kidney stones or an array of other issues could pop up resulting in the next several months being spent in a hospital bed with nothing but fluorescent lights shining down on him and ceiling tiles to count.
6. Don’t Wallow
There is no point in wasting time being sad and depressed about what you have lost or don’t have. It doesn’t help you to feel any better and it certainly won’t change anything. When I asked Keith how he always manages to stay so positive he told me that when he feels down he allows himself a 15-minute pity party and then he moves on. There is no point in anything more than that. Take a moment to grieve, then move on. In the ten years that I have known him, he has only broken that rule once, and it was over the “L” word, but as always he overcame shining.
7. Roll With Life
Troubles come and troubles go. Whenever something particularly hard comes up, whether it be having to fight social security to keep basic necessary benefits, another surgery, or another hospitalization, I ask Keith how he is handling it emotionally and I always get the same reply, “It’s just one of those things“. This too shall pass so why waste too much emotional energy worrying about it.
8. Don’t Act Miserable
Just because you feel miserable doesn’t mean you should act miserable. Keith endures various levels of pain on an average of nine days out of ten. A completely pain-free day is rare and celebrated. Most people would never know he was ever in pain, he’d never just come out and tell you. I have learned his tells over the years, basically, he doesn’t talk as much. He once apologized to me on a particularly painful day for being so shitty towards me. I was baffled, apparently, silence equals shitty. I assured him I understood and told him that he could be as shitty as he wanted towards me. No matter what you are going through, don’t take it out on those around you. It won’t help you to feel any better. You need those people in your corner, don’t run them off by acting miserable. Not only that, but appreciate those that are around you and are standing by you. I notice that especially when Keith is feeling the most miserable the smallest act of kindness such as simply expressing sympathy is always met with the utmost genuine gratitude and appreciation. Don’t let your misery make you miserable and be sure to appreciate those around you.
9. Always Better Yourself
Take the time to learn something new. Follow your passions and expand your horizons. Sometimes you may find that all you really have is you and you had better like yourself and enjoy your pursuits or you will be miserable. Keith is always reading, learning and experimenting. He educates himself on the things that interest him and works hard at finding ways to do things that he previously could not do. Just one small example of that is Keith has always loved HAM radio and he wasn’t going to let being paralyzed keep him from that. He worked hard and never gave up until he came up with a way to be able to operate the radio on his own. Now he is the highest class of Ham Radio operator that he can go and he loves every minute of it. Keep striving!
10. People Are Resilient
It is amazing what people can overcome when they need to. Don’t be afraid, take “can’t” out of your vocabulary and just try. You will be amazed at what you can do. I am sure there was a time when Keith would have never imagined himself to be running his own business and in charge of his life. I know there was a time when he never imagined he would ever feel happiness again. Just look at him now in charge and loving life! You are resilient and you can make it through anything.
Knowing Keith has impacted my life and changed me in many ways but I am still a long way off from the person I hope to become. I don’t know if I will ever become as great of a person as Keith has become. If you ask him about it though, he will just shrug like he doesn’t know what the heck you are talking about and say “I’m just plain old Keith”. I say he is Superman. He may not always feel like it, but even Superman has his kryptonite and he overcomes.