For the last thirteen years, Ethan Cooper had worked in housekeeping at the large metropolitan hospital. He was shy and quiet, but when he did speak, he had a harsh raspy quality to his voice that made him difficult to understand unless you paid close attention, which few bothered to do.
Ethan was a person that people came in contact with but never really noticed. He was there, but he wasn’t acknowledged. It almost seemed as if he passed through life as a ghost. His slight build, his long stringy hair, the hearing aids, and thick glasses, along with his distinctive voice, all combined to make him seem different in a way that most did not consider flattering.
However, there was one person at work who did care about him. Her name was Joanne. She was a nurse that had reached out to Ethan when no one else would – and, without his knowledge, she had become a guardian angel of sorts. Several years before, there had been a round of budget cuts and a significant number of support personnel were terminated. Joanne had fought long and hard to make sure that Ethan was not let go. She also went to great lengths to make sure that he was treated as an equal and was not disrespected.
Because she was so nice, Joanne was Ethan’s favorite nurse. Although she was busy, she always made time for him. His raspy voice tended to isolate him from others, but Joanne was different. She was willing to listen carefully and engage him in conversation. She also had a great sense of humor, and he loved to hear her laugh. He knew her job was not easy, and at times could be very sad, but she always seemed happy to see him.
But she was the only one. To the rest of the world, he was just a fifty-nine-year-old man with a developmental disability, whose chief responsibility in life was to empty wastebaskets.
But there was so much more to Ethan Cooper than that. He was a survivor of the very worst that life had to offer.
In serious ways, 1970 was a difficult time. The nation had survived the sixties, but many of the problems remained, and there were significant divisions in the nation. Although social awareness and political activity had begun to make a difference in everyday lives, one group, in particular, still lagged behind in receiving the equal treatment they deserved.
People with disabilities were still too often kept out of sight or simply ignored. They were relegated to being second class citizens, and some people did not consider them to be citizens at all. It was especially difficult for men and women with intellectual challenges, or as it was routinely referred to in those days “mental retardation”. They were often manipulated and taken advantage of. Many secretly became victims of systemic abuse, as an uncaring society turned its back on them.
Ethan was born in 1956 to Alan and Lisa Cooper. The birthing process was traumatic, and the young couple was distraught to find out that their beautiful baby had sustained brain damage that left him with a developmental disability. Although several different doctors tried to persuade them to institutionalize their son, they refused. It took courage to go against the prevailing medical opinions of the day, but they loved their child and they wanted him to be part of their lives.
Three years later, Lisa got pregnant again, but it ended in a heartbreaking miscarriage. At that point, they knew Ethan would be their only child.
As he was growing up, everything about their son’s life was a struggle. But it was not so much because of his disability but rather society’s attitude towards it. Just trying to get Ethan into a classroom to receive even some limited form of education was a huge battle. Finally, he was placed into a Special Ed class that kept him removed from the student body. The isolation only made it more difficult for him to build self-esteem and self-confidence.
At home, Alan and Lisa loved their son unconditionally, and if someone could not accept him, they were not welcome in their lives. They treated him just like any parents would treat their child. He was given chores and responsibilities that were within his capabilities, and he was expected to give his best effort when attempting a new goal.
Ethan’s two great passions in his young life were baseball and The Beatles. He was a huge fan of the St Louis Cardinals and would never miss a game when they were on television. He and his dad also spent countless evenings listening to the games on the radio. His favorite players were Bob Gibson and Joe Torre. His ultimate dream was to one day get to go to a Cardinals game in person. He did not know that his father was planning on taking him to one in August for his fifteenth birthday.
But it was The Beatles that completely consumed him. On February 9, 1964, he sat in front of a black and white TV, just like seventy-three million other Americans, and watched them on the Ed Sullivan show. It was an event that changed his life. There was something about their songs that made him feel good. Their unusual look, their humor and most of all their music, came together in a way that touched him. He could never decide if he liked Paul McCartney or John Lennon the best. They both seemed so talented that it made him sad when the band broke up. But for the rest of his life, The Beatles remained his passion.
By the time he was in his early teens, he had even convinced his parents to let him grow his hair long. It was still rare for boys to look that way in their part of the country, and his school was certainly not happy about it, but his mom knew it was important to him, so she convinced Alan to let him do it. Although Lisa was not particularly a fan of The Beatles, she loved to dance with her son to their music. It always made him happy and that in turn made her feel good.
The small family enjoyed their lives together, and Ethan made progress in important areas at his own pace. Each step forward was met with heartfelt joy from his mom and dad. No matter how delayed the milestone, they knew their son was doing his best to reach his potential. But that effort was made more difficult because their family had no help or assistance. There were very few supports or services in those days, but thankfully Ethan was blessed to have parents who were committed to helping him live his life to the fullest.
But their love and devotion came to a tragic end in July of 1970.
Alan and Lisa were driving back to her mother’s house to pick up Ethan. He had stayed with his grandmother over the weekend. As their subcompact crested a small hill on the highway, a mistake was made that changed the future forever. A large truck swerved crossed the centerline onto their side of the road. Alan had no time to react as the vehicles collided head-on. Ethan’s parents lost their lives in the midst of twisted steel and smoke.
There would be no father, son trip to St Louis to see his beloved Cardinals. Ethan’s mother would never again dance with him to the music of The Beatles.
In the length of time required to take a single breath, Ethan’s world collapsed. His mom and dad had meant everything to him. Because people rarely gave him a chance before they passed judgment on him, his father had stepped in and lovingly fulfilled the role of his best friend. His dad was always there for him. He was patient and encouraging as he supported Ethan in each goal he attempted. But it was his mother who was easily the most important person in his life. She took care of her son, whether the pain was physical or emotional. She stood up for him and fought for his rights in a time when advocacy was not common.
Losing his parents left him feeling shattered and lost. And as a result of their deaths, Ethan began to experience the loneliness that would haunt him for the rest of his life.
Because he had no other recourse, he was forced to move in with his grandmother. But she too had suffered an agonizing loss with the death of her daughter. Along with the emotional devastation, she was also frail and in poor health. She was simply not up to the challenge of raising a teenager with a developmental disability. However, she loved Ethan, so under the most challenging of circumstances, she did the best she could.
Of course, moving to where she lived also meant he had to change schools, and that was something that filled him with dread.
Once he transferred, Ethan was, of course, immediately placed in a Special Ed class, away from the other students. The children with disabilities even had their own lunch period. The only opportunity he had to see the other kids was in the hallways when he was going to his locker, but they made it clear that he did not exist to them. For weeks no one spoke a single word to him. He was completely ignored – but that was about to change.
At the tender age of thirteen, Ethan felt broken. The only stability he’d had in his life was gone. His spirit was crushed, and he was consumed with grief over the deaths of his parents. But even after enduring so much misery and heartache, he was about to find out that life could get even worse.
It began on the day he met the bully who would delight in tormenting him.
Owen Nichols was large for his age. He towered over his classmates, and he did not hesitate to use his immense size to intimidate those around him. But his physical stature was not as frightening as his quick temper. Owen stalked the school’s halls each day, searching for his next victim. When the other students saw him coming, they typically looked down or turned away in an attempt to avoid eye contact. Each person tried to make themselves invisible, in the hope of escaping his notice.
Almost everyone in the school feared him, and with good reason. However, he was discriminating in who he chose to bully. He preferred individuals who he thought were the most vulnerable. Based on that standard, he found the perfect victim in Ethan. He was new in school, and he had no friends. Even better, he had few relatives that could intervene over the treatment he was going to receive.
Owen despised Ethan from the first moment he saw him. His soon to be target was meek, timid and barely half his size. And since he was stuck in Special Ed, there was obviously something wrong with him mentally. Everything about him made Owen want to be as cruel as possible. He knew he was going to enjoy making Ethan’s life a nightmare.
The first few months of bullying consisted of only verbal abuse. But it was enough to scare Ethan. He was called every disgusting name imaginable. Owen made fun of his disability, his appearance, his lack of friends and he even taunted him about his parents being dead. Ethan recoiled in terror anytime he saw his antagonizer. He did everything he could think of to avoid him, but that didn’t always work. However, it wasn’t long before Owen grew tired of just humiliating Ethan with words.
To satisfy his need to dominate another human being, Owen soon switched to physical attacks. Ethan was tripped, thrown against his locker and his school books were torn up. On many days, the food in his lunch kit was thrown on the floor. Eventually, his glasses were stepped on and both of his hearing aids were smashed. And each time an attack took place, he was warned that if he told, Owen would get even by hurting his grandmother. Ethan believed him. He had seen how bad his temper could be. When he became really angry, he seemed to lose control.
Owen knew that his victim had suffered greatly over the last six months, but he didn’t care. His need to wield power over another person shut down his conscience, leaving him guilt free. For this fifteen-year-old, the line between right and wrong was blurred to the point of being indiscernible. His intense desire to threaten and intimidate allowed him to push aside any moral qualms he might have had. The pleasure he took in making another person suffer was addictive. Therefore, the mistreatment had to steadily escalate to provide the satisfaction he craved.
Over the last couple of years, Owen had bullied so many individuals that he couldn’t remember them all, but there was just something about the helplessness of Ethan Cooper that drove him to a level of behavior that he had never reached before.
In order to avoid running into his tormentor, Ethan walked home from school each day through some woods. Even though it was a much longer walk, it was worth it not to have to face the daily abuse. But, unfortunately, Owen eventually discovered the secret route, and he immediately realized that the wooded area would be the perfect place for what he had in mind for his favorite victim.
Ethan enjoyed the afternoon walk. As he moved through the woods, he always found it calming. There was something peaceful about nature. He felt more comfortable around animals than he did around people. He liked listening to the birds, and sometimes he would stop and watch the acrobatic displays of the squirrels. Alone in these woods, he felt comfortable. He felt at peace. He felt safe.
On this particular afternoon, he continued to follow the well-worn trail enjoying the shafts of sunlight that broke through the tree branches and warmed his face. At least for a brief time, he had no worries. But suddenly his entire life changed as Owen Nichols stepped out of the shadows of a large group of trees to block his path. And he wasn’t alone. For this bit of fun, he had brought along two of his sidekicks. Ethan stopped in his tracks, and as an icy wave of fear swept over him, he dropped his books and lunch kit.
For months Owen had teased Ethan relentlessly about his long stringy hair, and now he intended to do something about it. The other two boys jumped Ethan before he had a chance to react. They quickly threw him to the ground, and although he struggled as best he could, they easily held him down. Owen slowly walked over and smiled in a way that terrified Ethan. Then he casually reached around to the back pocket of his jeans and pulled out a large pair of scissors.
His young victim instantly realized what was about to happen and a surge of adrenaline made him struggle even harder – but it was no use. The two boys were much stronger, and their firm grip kept him pinned on the dirt path. Owen slowly knelt down, taking his time as he relished the moment.
Methodically he went to work with the scissors. As his hair was pulled and cut, Ethan repeatedly tried to turn his head away, but each time, he was jerked back into position. The struggle continued for a minute or so until Owen clamped his hand over his victim’s mouth and chin to keep him still. But the sudden lack of air caused Ethan to panic even more, and almost as a reflex he bit his assailant’s hand. That was when things turned violent.
The boys held him tightly as Owen lost control of his temper and began to hit Ethan with his free hand. He drove his fist over and over again into the young boy’s face. Ethan struggled to remain conscious during the repeated blows. Finally, after punching his victim into submission, Owen went back to violently yanking and cutting hair, almost down to the scalp in some spots. The beating had taken its toll on Ethan. He laid motionless, bleeding from his nose and mouth, with both eyes almost swollen shut. Worst of all, the sickening dizziness and ringing in his ears were clear evidence of the severe concussion he had sustained.
But the worst was yet to come.
It was the sudden sound of Owen laughing madly at his handiwork that brought Ethan out of his pain-induced daze. Suddenly all of the humiliation, shame, and fear of the recent months exploded inside of him, causing him to make one final desperate effort to wrench free. But as he made the frantic jerking motion, the scissors slipped in Owen’s hand, and he stabbed Ethan in the left side of the throat. As the scissors penetrated deep into the flesh, they nicked his vocal cords, just missing the jugular vein. Without thinking, Owen instinctively pulled the scissors from the ragged puncture. For a moment he was frozen, staring at the stab wound while Ethan made gurgling noises as he choked. Suddenly the young victim gagged violently and bright red blood began to spurt from the tear in his neck with each heartbeat. The three attackers clamored to their feet and began to run. Their only concern was for themselves.
Ethan was left writhing in the dirt, gasping for air, slowly being drenched in his own blood.
Fortunately, only a minute later a jogger came down the path and discovered the helpless boy. It was his efforts that saved Ethan’s life.
From the moment he woke up from surgery, Ethan decided he would never disclose who had hurt him. Throughout the criminal investigation, he consistently maintained that he did not know his attackers. Remembering Owen’s threat to harm his grandmother, he was terrified for her safety, therefore he believed he had no choice but to lie. He hated to be dishonest, especially with the police, but he loved his grandmother – and she was the only family he had left. If something happened to her because of something he said, he didn’t see how he could go on living. Consequently, no one was ever charged with the crime.
Within a few weeks, most of the cuts and bruises had healed. However, the effects of the concussion lingered. The lightheadedness and double vision continued to plague Ethan for months, leaving him nauseous a good bit of the time, but slowly he began to feel better. As far as his appearance was concerned, within a year, he had grown his hair back out to what he considered to be the proper Beatle length, however, he was left with a nasty scar on his throat.
But of all his injuries, the worst was the irreparable damage to his voice. Ethan hated the hoarse raspy sound because it was a constant reminder of that day in the woods. Although he eventually recovered from his physical wounds, no matter how hard he tried, he was never able to come to terms, mentally or emotionally, with the brutality of the attack. He struggled for years with terrifying nightmares and flashbacks that left him feeling overwhelmed with anxiety and fear. It seemed in many ways that the psychological damage was even greater than the physical trauma.
Ethan never went back to school. His ability to trust people was shattered, causing him to be even more isolated from society than before. He spent the next four decades drifting from one menial job to another, with long stretches of unemployment between each one. His current vocational placement at the hospital had been the most stable of his life.
In May 2016, Ethan was working his usual shift. Every day was pretty much the same as he emptied wastebaskets, did some sweeping and vacuuming and hoped he would see Joanne. That always made the day much better.
He continued down the long hall emptying the trash in each room and replacing the plastic liner. He always knocked if the door was closed, and, as best he could, he would hoarsely identify himself as “Housekeeping”. When he entered each room, he was careful not to disturb the person who was resting. Because patients came and went fairly quickly, he rarely interacted with them. Occasionally, however, someone would be there for a week or more, and he would exchange pleasantries.
As he came to room 213, he knocked and identified himself. A man with slurred speech weakly answered. Ethan wasn’t sure what he said, but at least he knew the patient was awake. As he stepped into the room, he saw that the man was lying on his side facing away from him. This person was new from yesterday. Ethan moved over to the wastebasket and began to remove the liner. Concentrating on what he was doing, he did not notice that the man had raised up and recognized him.
Although they were faint, Ethan heard the man’s slurred words. “Oh my God.”
He turned towards the patient and was stunned to be face to face with Owen Nichols. For a moment he had no reaction. He could not believe that after forty-six years they had met again. But this was not the person he remembered. Owen was almost unrecognizable, and he was no longer someone who appeared physically threatening. His body seemed small and frail. He’d lost a tremendous amount of weight and his face looked different. Ethan did not know that much about medical things, but through the years he had seen many patients who’d had strokes, and he knew without a doubt that was what had happened to Owen.
Ethan was at a loss about what to do or say, so he finished the trash and started for the door. From behind him, he distinctly heard the distorted words, “I’m sorry.” He left the room as quickly as he could.
He stepped into the hallway with his heart pounding. It had never occurred to him that he would ever see Owen again. As he leaned against the wall, trying to gather his thoughts, Joanne came around the corner.
It was immediately obvious to her that something was wrong. “Ethan, are you okay?”
Ethan looked at her with an expression of disbelief and shook his head. “I know that man in there.”
Joanne was surprised by his answer, and it piqued her curiosity. “How do you happen to know Mr. Nichols?” She thought it was an innocent question, therefore she was not prepared for Ethan’s reply.
Pointing to the scar on his neck he rasped, “Owen almost killed me.”
Joanne stood in shocked silence as she watched Ethan walk away.
An hour later, Ethan’s shift ended. He was still reeling in shock from encountering Owen after all these years. He had never dreamed he would have to see him again, but finding him in that condition was troubling. Although he felt he had every right not to care about what happened to someone who had been so cruel, there was still a part of him that felt sympathy for Owen. He paced around as he debated what he should do. He knew he was going to have to go into that room tomorrow. There was no way to avoid it. And he knew he heard him say he was sorry – but Ethan wasn’t sure that just words could make up for what Owen did.
After another twenty minutes of worrying, thinking and worrying some more, Ethan finally decided not to wait until the next day to face him. He knew he would sleep better that night if he just got it over with. Slowly he walked back to room 213 and stood by the door. As he tried to work up the courage to knock, he was unaware that Joanne was watching him from down the hall.
After learning that the two men knew each other, she had gone into Owen’s room and casually mentioned that she was aware of their relationship. It gave Owen the opportunity he needed to open up to someone and confess his guilt and shame. She had listened carefully trying to make out the words he struggled with, as he told her about the disgusting way he had treated the young boy.
He was brutally honest and did not try to downplay the horrific facts. Joanne could sense that it was cathartic for him to tell the story, so she tried to remain impartial as she listened to him. But because of her genuine concern and feelings for Ethan, it was not easy. However, she knew that Owen was seriously ill, so there was no point in passing judgment at this point in his life.
That was why Joanne was waiting to see what Ethan was going to do. She held her breath as she watched him knock and then enter the room.
Owen looked up and was surprised to see that Ethan had come back.
In his raspy voice, that was now also shaky with nervousness, Ethan asked, “Can I sit down?’
Owen struggled to position himself so they were facing each other. “Of course. Please, sit.”
Ethan pulled a chair a little closer to the bed and sat down. He took a moment to study the man in front of him. His appearance had changed so dramatically that he barely resembled the fifteen-year-old boy from almost five decades before. Physically he seemed to be very weak and his face was drawn and contorted.
Owen seemed to read his mind. In his slow slurred speech, he said, “I had a stroke. I just got out of ICU.”
With genuine feeling, Ethan said, “I’m sorry to hear that.”
Owen shrugged as if resigned to his fate. “What about you? How have you been?”
“Okay, I guess.”
Owen looked away so Ethan wouldn’t see the emotion he was fighting. Hearing Ethan’s harsh rasp hurt him to his core. The way he had treated this man was unforgivable. After a few moments, he turned back to him. “Can I ask you a question?”
“Why did you come back in here? It can’t be easy for you. I saw the look on your face when you realized who I was.”
Ethan shifted in his chair. When he felt stressed, the hoarseness of his voice seemed to increase. “You’re right. It’s not easy. But it bothered me to see that you’ve got something wrong with you.”
Owen shook his head. “I can’t believe you could possibly care about me. You certainly have the right not to.”
Ethan knew that was true. “One thing I’ve learned while working in this hospital is that being in here can be the worst time in someone’s life.”
“Well, I’m sure that’s true for most people, but for me, that day in the woods was the worst time in my life – and, other than your parents’ accident, I’m sure it was for you too.”
Ethan nodded in agreement.
At that point, the conversation died, and they lapsed into an awkward silence that neither one of them could seem to escape.
Owen struggled mightily to come up with something to say. Finally, in desperation, he asked, “Are you still a Cardinals fan?”
Ethan replied, “Oh, big time. Between TV and radio, I never miss a game.”
Owen did his best to smile. “And with that long hair, I’m sure you still love The Beatles.”
“Yeah. I stopped listening to them for a while when John was killed. Hearing his voice made me too sad, and I couldn’t enjoy their albums. But eventually, I missed their music so much I couldn’t stand it.”
Owen asked, “What’s your favorite song?”
“All You Need Is Love.”
Owen took a labored breath and with sadness said, “It took me my whole life to realize that John Lennon was right about that.”
As Ethan watched him twist in the bed, he realized that Owen was paralyzed on his left side. He could not use that arm or leg at all.
Owen hesitated and then continued, “Listen, there is something important I want to tell you. There’s no reason for you to believe me – but it’s the truth.” He took a moment to think about the words he wanted to say. “That day in the woods, after the scissors slipped in my hand and we started to run away, I stopped and looked back at you laying there bleeding. At that moment, something happened. Seeing what I had done, changed me. I want you to know that I never again hurt another person. I was ashamed of what I had become.”
Ethan wanted to believe him. “But why did you do it? Why did you always pick on me more than other people?”
“I picked on you because I was a coward. I knew you didn’t have any parents to run to. I knew you wouldn’t be able to physically fight back. But you are not a coward. You showed a lot of courage coming back in here today.”
They sat quietly for a few moments, as Owen worked up the nerve to ask the most important question of all. Trying to enunciate each word as clearly as he could, he asked, “Do you think you could somehow find a way to forgive me for what I did to you? … I mean, if you can’t, I understand …”
As Owen waited uneasily for the answer, he had no way of knowing the decision was already made. Ethan had forgiven him the moment he saw the effects of the stroke. This was no longer the bully who haunted his dreams. For decades, every time he looked in the mirror and saw the grotesque scar on his throat, he had seen the face of a fifteen-year-old boy sneering at him. But now he saw someone who faced challenges like him. Although Ethan was not familiar with the word empathy, he was experiencing it.
“It makes me glad to know that you stopped bullying people after I was hurt, and I can see how you’ve changed inside. So, yes, I forgive you.”
Owen felt tears burning his eyes. “Thank you. Thank you with all my heart.” He reached up with his right hand and brushed the tears away. “You’ll never know how often I’ve thought of you over the years.”
It made Ethan feel good to know that everything was okay between them, but he still didn’t understand why a person would want to hurt someone else. “I have a question for you. I know that people become bullies for different reasons, but why did it happen to you?”
Owen looked away. “If I tell you, it will only sound like I’m making excuses, and I don’t want to do that. I was old enough to know right from wrong. I knew what I was doing. I was responsible for the way I mistreated you. I can’t blame anyone else.”
“I know, but you weren’t just mean for no reason, right?”
Owen sighed deeply. “No, it didn’t just happen for no reason. You lost your parents when you were a teenager, and just like you, I had a tough childhood. Most people don’t know this, but I had a brother eighteen months younger than me. When he was four years old, he drowned in a swimming pool. My mother couldn’t handle it, and she struggled with grief for the rest of her life.
“But it was my father that it affected most. He slowly changed into someone we didn’t recognize. By the time I was a teenager, his temper had become uncontrollable, and he would beat me over nothing. Just one wrong word or even a look and he would let me have it. I guess he was just mad at the world, so he took it out on me. I felt powerless to do anything about it.
“When I came to school all bruised up, everyone just assumed it was because I’d been fighting with other kids. I quickly got a reputation for being tough, and I began to try to intimidate and scare people. But you were the person that pushed me over the edge. You did nothing wrong. You never hurt me or anyone else. But you were powerless just like me, and it made me want to take out my anger and frustration on you. I know this probably doesn’t make any sense to you, but for years I actually blamed my little brother for tearing our family apart. Of course, that is ridiculous. He was a child. Falling into that swimming pool was just a horrible thing that happened”.
Ethan was stunned by his story. It had never occurred to him to even consider what was going on in Owen’s life that could make him act that way. He suddenly realized they were both victims of the circumstances they grew up in.
Owen looked at Ethan and in a pleading voice said, “Please don’t think I’m using all this as an excuse. I should’ve found a way to handle my family problems without bullying you. After all, your whole life was torn apart when your parents were killed, but you didn’t take it out on anyone else.”
Ethan replied, “I guess when bad things happen to people, they deal with it in different ways. I just never thought about hurting someone else because I was sad.”
Owen was impressed by his wisdom and directness.
Ethan said gently, “Maybe if you would’ve talked to me about what was going on in your life I could have helped you. We both went through a lot, and I would have liked to have someone to talk with. That would’ve been better than what happened.”
Owen thought to himself that he would give anything if he could go back in time and do exactly that. “Ethan, you’re a good person. I do wish I would’ve talked to you all those years ago. You would have been a great friend.” Owen paused because he hated to admit the truth. “You know, I’m sixty-one years old, and I’ve never had a real friend.”
Ethan knew exactly how he felt. “Me either.” And then, as he tried to soften the raspiness in his voice, he said, “But it’s not too late for us. If you think it would be okay, I would be your friend.”
Owen could hardly speak as emotion overwhelmed him. “Why would you want to be my friend after everything I did to you?”
Ethan answered as honestly as he could. “You’re not that person anymore. You’ve changed. You’re not scary or mean now, so you deserve another chance.”
“No.” Owen shook his head. “I don’t deserve a friend like you.” He used his right hand to motion around the room. “I got what I deserved.”
“Please don’t say that. It’s not true.”
Owen said, “This may sound strange, but I always wondered what it was like to have a disability – and now I know.”
Ethan replied, “It’s funny, but having a disability is something I almost never think about. I’m just who I am. I’ve always been me, so it’s what I know. But for you it’s new. It’s a big change. That has to be really hard.”
Owen grimaced. “It’s tough, but it doesn’t compare with you laying there in the woods bleeding, thinking you might die. My stroke just happened, but I personally caused your pain and suffering. That’s a big difference.”
Ethan nodded. “But now there’s nothing we can do about those things. We just got to keep going.”
Owen wearily agreed. “You’re right, of course – but I wish I could change the past for you.”
The two men continued to talk for a while, but as Owen’s speech became more difficult to understand, Ethan realized the stroke had left him with little energy.
“Well, I better go. You need to rest.”
As he stood up to leave, he asked Owen, “Would it be okay if I stop by again tomorrow when I get off work?”
Owen quickly raised his hand to cover his face, but despite his best effort, he began to cry. Ethan slowly walked over and patted him on the shoulder. After a few moments, Owen choked out the words, “Yes, yes. Please stop by anytime you can.”
And so began a daily ritual.
Each afternoon after his shift ended, Ethan would go straight to Owen’s room. Over the next few weeks, these two men, who each had such difficulty speaking, had the most important conversations of their lives.
They discovered they had much more in common than they could have ever imagined. They had shared a moment in time that had changed both of them, but in addition to that, they had each led difficult lives. They had searched in their own way for love and understanding but had come up short. They talked about their fears and regrets, and they found a way to move on from the past and to embrace the present. They accepted each other as they were now.
Three weeks later, Ethan got off the elevator and headed for 213. He had really begun to look forward to talking with Owen each day. The two men had developed a great respect for each other, and they enjoyed the time they spent together. They had even watched a couple of Cardinal games on TV. But as he came around the corner, he saw the code blue team leaving the room and closing the door. His heart sank because he realized it was over.
Joanne knew that Ethan would be coming there after his shift, so she had waited for him. When she saw the look of pain cloud his face, she went to him.
“Ethan, I am so sorry.”
He looked at her, and with his voice shaking he asked, “Was he in pain? Did he suffer when it happened?”
She gently smiled and said, “No, no. It was very peaceful. He just went to sleep.”
“I wish I could have been there with him.”
“You were more than kind to him, especially considering what he did to you.” Joanne touched him on the arm and said, “For his entire hospital stay, you were his only visitor.”
Ethan was struggling with a powerful mix of emotions. He never could have imagined all of this would happen.
Joanne said, “I know for a fact that he couldn’t wait for you to come by each day. It meant the world to him.”
“I guess it was good for both of us.”
Joanne had been so impressed with his compassion and ability to forgive that she felt compelled to ask him the question that had been on her mind for several days. “Ethan, why did you do it? Why did you spend so much time with him?”
With tears filling his eyes, he replied, “I’ve always been alone, and I hate it. So, I figured Owen didn’t want to be alone either, especially being sick in the hospital because……”
But Ethan stopped at that point without expressing his worst fear. He dared not say out loud, even to Joanne, that he was afraid that someday he too would be forced to die alone. It was something that had worried him for years, as he watched patient after patient come to the end of their life.
But he quickly forced that thought out of his mind. Today he did not want to worry about the future. For the moment, he felt alive. He felt renewed. Owen had stolen his innocence and his ability to trust, but by sincerely asking for forgiveness, he had, in some small measure, given Ethan his life back. The image of the bully, furious with rage, hitting him over and over again was now replaced in his memory by that of a man who had learned what it is like to be vulnerable.
Ethan had lived with his disability for almost sixty years, while Owen lived with his for only a month. Yet in that short span of time, Owen had learned what it is like to face challenges that others don’t understand.
After so many years, the two men had met again, and they were wise enough to use that opportunity to discover the truth about themselves and each other.
Together, Ethan and Owen had finally found a way to let go of the past.