When I met Ginny and John a couple weeks ago, I liked them immediately.
John is a stroke victim whose disabilities mirrored my wife’s almost exactly, although he was able to speak haltingly while my wife was robbed of speech altogether.
But all the other signs were there – the paralyzed right arm and wrist-curled fist, the ankle brace and 4-legged cane that allowed him to walk a few halting steps without falling.
When my wife passed away in February, I was eager to pass her battery-powered wheelchair on to anybody who might need it, so Ginny and John showed up in my driveway to pick it up.
There is a kind of fellowship that exists between people who are no strangers to misery.
Anybody who lives outside the pain walks on eggs when it comes to talking to grieving people, but fellow sufferers cut right through to the bone. There is no need for fellow sufferers to express words of sympathy. The gap instead is often filled with humor.
And so Ginny smiled at the whimsical Harley Davidson decal I had affixed to the back of Gail’s power wheelchair. And I laughed at her calling John “Speed Racer” when he sat in the wheelchair and took test laps around their SUV.
I also wanted them to take the wooden ramp I built to get the wheelchair in and out of the house, but neither of our cars could handle the width or length of the ramp. But they had a caregiver – Josephine – who took care of John three days a week, and Josephine’s husband had a truck, so he could come sometime in the next few days to pick it up.
When I walked Ginny to the back of the house to show her the ramp, she told me of John’s stroke, which happened in 2006 – four years before my wife Gail’s stroke.
And then, surprisingly, Ginny seemed to choke up a bit.
“It was five years after we lost our son,” she said. “He was a NYC fireman. He died on 9/11 at the Trade Towers.”
And then we were both choked up. Was there no limit to the grief?
They lived only a few blocks away, so Ginny and Josephine got into the car while John scooted down the sidewalk toward home on his new chariot.
“Go right home,” they called after him. “Don’t pick up any chicks!”
A couple days later, I got a call from Josephine’s husband, Jay. He was ready to bring his truck and pick up the ramp if I would be home.
And when he showed up, he pointed at my house and said, “Aw, that’s too bad that somebody vandalized your home.”
Panicked, I spun around to see that he was pointing at the Chicago Bears flag my wife insisted we fly from the front door during the winter, and I hadn’t gotten around to taking down. When I looked back at him, he had pulled up his sleeve to show a Minnesota Vikings tattoo on his arm – another joker poking fun at Chicago, a drinking town with a football problem.
As we loaded the wooden ramp into his truck, he spoke of the character strength of Ginny and John, who had gone through so much tragedy and emerged with so much grace and humor.
But I noticed that he spoke with a strong New York accent, so I asked him how a New Yawker ended up with such a hideous Minnesota “birthmark,” and also how he got to know Ginny and John.
Was he, too, a NYC fireman and a friend of their son?
He tried to explain his Minnesota connection, but it was too convoluted for me to follow – what passes for New York “logic,” I guess.
“I didn’t know their son,” he said. “I wasn’t a fireman. I was a New York City cop.”
He too was there when the towers fell. He too labored through the nightmare and the misery, and he goes yearly for mandated health screening for survivors, just to see how he’s getting by with the grief. His connection with Ginny and John came later, through family friends, but he found a bond that was strong enough for him and his wife to join them and become the kind of extended family that Gail and I had found through our occasional caregivers, Margaret and Alejandra.
And – fresh from the grief of my wife’s passing only weeks earlier – it occurred to me that, just when you think nobody possibly could have suffered more than you have suffered, along comes a crowd of people who have had it so much worse. And yet they get by with a smile and a joke.
When Jay left, we shook hands. He wished me luck with my healing. I wished him luck with his.
There were no elaborate words. There were no delicate niceties to dance around. None were needed.
Because there is a kind of fellowship that exists between people who are no strangers to misery. And a handshake or a hug is all you need to remind you that you, too, will find a way to get through the grief.
Even if it means you end up being friends with a Vikings fan – from New Yawk, fer crissakes!
• Tom “T. R.” Kerth is a Sun City resident and retired English teacher from Park Ridge. He is the author of the book “Revenge of the Sardines.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.