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Ellen’s Slim Chances
A Driving Force
The aisles were narrow between rows of crystal placed with precision on fragile glass shelves. Jack walked closely behind Ellen. His hands were ready to catch Ellen if she fell or if one of her crutches accidentally brushed against a display.
Ellen imagined shattered Waterford crystal on the floor. Just one slip or involuntary movement of one of her arms or legs would do it. She felt wobbly and tense, but she strategically placed each crutch tip in a free-fall line away from the displays as she walked carefully through the shop. Ellen knew the odds were with her, but, to someone without her particular brand of cerebral palsy, they probably looked slim.
"Somebody like me doesn't belong in a shop like this," Ellen whispered to Jack. Jack chuckled, and Ellen could see relief in his dancing eyes. She then knew Jack was thinking the same thing. It was time to get back out into the street.
All Ellen wanted was a Waterford goblet for her condo back in Maine. When would she get back to Nassau with a fellow traveler and inside a Waterford crystal shop with prices this reasonable?
The clerk behind the counter kept shooting nervous glances in Ellen's direction as she and Jack slowly and cautiously walked through the shop.
"I'll take that one," Ellen said without checking the price. She just wanted to get out of the shop without causing any more stress than she had already generated.
To ease the clerk's concerns, Ellen laid her crutches down in front of the counter while she paid for the crystal by credit card. She then retrieved her "sticks" to go out the door with her package.
"I'll carry it," Jack offered.
"How am I going to get that thing home without breaking it?" Ellen asked Jack once they were on the street.
"Don't worry about it," he assured Ellen with a chuckle. "I'll take care of it."
It was 1981 – long before relationship marketing had entered the lexicon of business, but Ellen was impressed by Jack's selling savvy. Ellen was one of twelve prospective buyers Jack was escorting to New Providence Island during a long June weekend in the Bahamas to look at a new condo development with units available under a time-share arrangement.
Ellen knew Jack had read her right. Ellen was a high-potential prospect: a single woman with a solid job who needed an escape from the pressures of work at least once a year. Ellen was 39 (about Jack's age), had crutches, but knew how to travel.
"You're a gambler," Jack joshed later, when Ellen bought a single bedroom, ocean-side unit for the first week in February. That was a little strong, Ellen thought. At the time, she believed what Jack meant was that she was a risk taker. Ellen could visualize what he must have seen in one of his sales training classes: a chart which divided prospects into categories (conservator, risk taker, entrepreneur etc.).
But Jack was probably right. Ellen now had a week in the Bahamas every year with no companion. Did Ellen really want to spend the first week in February each year on the beach alone? No. She bought the time-share week on a chance she would have a friend or a companion to accompany her within the next 10 months.
That convoluted rationale made sense to Ellen. After all, every day presents choices. It's always tempting to play it safe, stay home, and gradually mummify. Yet, since childhood, Ellen had learned to go out into the world and risk rejection, harassment, or failure that could ultimately eat away at her self-esteem because there was also always an outside chance she could meet a snippet of acceptance, regard, or success to encourage her to go even further.
Either way, Ellen, now 80, is always surprised by what each day brings and intrigued by the roll of the dice, the game of life.
At birth, she was dealt a handful of cards that didn't add up to much at the time. Her mother had rickets as a child, probably due to a poor diet during the Depression. Before Ellen was born, her mother’s doctor didn't do a thorough checkup on her and didn't realize she couldn't have natural childbirth due to the rickets.
A C-section should have been done right away, but trying natural childbirth caused Ellen's brain injury. The family minister, a jack-of-all trades who was interested in medicine, recognized the danger Ellen was in and recommended the doctor do a spinal tap on the new child and arranged for a rushed baptism.
The spinal tap released the pressure on Ellen's brain and prevented further damage. That's what saved her. Further brain injury could have left her deaf, speechless, spastic beyond any control, or mentally disabled. The capabilities, both mentally and physically, Ellen received at birth depended on what portion of her brain was damaged.
Perhaps that's why her physician suddenly left the room while Ellen was going through a routine physical for high school.
"I'm telling you, Mrs. Benson," Ellen heard him tell her mother out in the hallway. "Cerebral palsy makes me nervous."
Ellen's luck of the draw was an unusual combination of muscles that are, in some cases, too relaxed and, in other instances, too rigid; a set of motor skills that are severely affected but not too limiting; and a degree of intelligence that was not touched by her birth injury. The chances of developing a somewhat normal life were slim, possible but not probable. But that's what kept Ellen in the game for 80 years.
By the way, she kept the timeshare in Nassau until 1985 and used it as a relaxing getaway each year with colleagues from work. But then she met Tom, who also has cerebral palsy. They eventually married, decided to build an accessible home and sold the Nassau unit.
They now gain respite from the Maine winter weather by booking 10 weeks each year with a Florida firm that specializes in providing accessible vacation rentals.
And Ellen still agrees with Jack more than 40 years later. Yes, she's always been a gambler who is willing to take slim chances. Why? She lives with the continuing recognition that her functionality is based on slim chances, and she needs to make the most of them to see how far she can go.
Over decades, Ellen's life goal has evolved into this: Show others that the opportunity to sometimes beat slim chances can provide a compelling reason for living today as though it is the last day of life.
Ellen’s takeaway tip from her story: Make the most of slim chances.
Here’s to elderhood and vulnerability!
Jim Hasse, ABC, GCDF retired, author of “Opening Up” newsletter
“Story-guided Discussion for Finding Peace with Age-related Limitations”
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