Today on the way to class, loaded down with an arm load of books, a back pack, my purse and a cloth bag for the books I couldn't carry or fit in my backpack, I happened by an elderly man in an electric wheelchair. He was similarly loaded down, and he and his aide made their way towards the same building I was headed for. I greeted him and called out, "Now you've found an easier way to haul everything," and he laughed and raised up his hand in a salute. I called out, "Have a good day," and then bustled off to my class. I was cutting it pretty close. I'd headed out on a bright clear mountain morning. However, by the time that I got off the hill and headed towards the New York State line, I was running into some very unexpected pea soup fog. It had slowed me down. I was running a bit late.
So I hauled into class and plopped down at the back of the class as is my custom, and the next thing I know, this man is wheeling in our door. Heck. If I'd have known he was headed my way, I'd have asked him to carry some of my books!
In any case, this man is Henry Wesley. Henry is about the most amazing man that I've ever met in my life.
He was dropped off at the doors of Willowbrook Mental Institution when he was just three years old. He spent his formative years in a crib. Because he could not speak, he was erroneously assumed to be retarded. Through his speaking computer, he told us what it was like to be a child in such a place, the squalor and the abuse, straight jackets, isolation, dead bodies stacked in the halls sometimes. Later, when I got home, listening to clips from the institution, the first thing was the noise. Imagine listening to that noise for all of your life, day in and day out. But he did, and eventually Geraldo Rivera was part of a big expose that exposed the goings-on there, and the facility was closed down. Mr. Wesley's life seems to have begun at that point. I listened to his story, and tried to imagine what it would be like to simply have no voice. No choice. No advocate. I couldn't, frankly, and the thought of such a life left me with tears in my eyes. Now he is an activist for people with disabilities. We were allowed to ask questions. Of course I had some, but we could not ask him open ended questions, due to the time constraints for the class. And to pick only one question? Dear heavens. I had so many I didn't know where to start. I finally picked the one I was most curious about. Mine was: "How old were you the very first time you had a choice?" The answer came back. "15." My very next question would have been "What was that choice?" "What did you pick?" "Where did you learn about God?" "Was there always a fire in you to get out, to be someplace else, to do something else?" "What did it feel like when it began to happen?" "Could you hardly believe it?" "What was it like, to be loaded up and leaving that facility?" "What was your first night outside that facility like? Could you even sleep for the joy?" On and on it would have gone. You know me. Imagine my delight when cards were offered, so that people could ask their questions via e-mail, for longer answers. I went up to get one, and I said, "Mr. Wesley, I'm so glad to have this because I have a hundred questions." And he laughed and we shook hands. I looked at him. "I hope you understand that I'm serious." And he laughed again.
What a great day I had. What a totally excellent day! And when I get the rest of this story, I will be sure to pass it along to you.