This is not a tale about race, culture or any other categorization of mankind. Rather, the story addresses the universal human trait of will, in this case determination driven by love of family, particularly parental devotion. It’s a brief account that might better be titled, The Anatomy of Heroism.
I remember it was winter. Los Angeles is not known for rainstorms but this day brought a rare downpour to my neighborhood. Owing to the inclement conditions I left home early. As I was walking down the hallway to my office, I noticed a man in a wheelchair waiting for me. In broken English he introduced himself as Juan Rivera (name is fictitious to protect true identity of individual and family), the gentleman scheduled as my first client of the day. I opened the office and invited him in, informing him in worse Spanish than his English that an interpreter would soon be arriving. I knew from my review of his medical file that he had suffered a severe spinal injury after falling from a tree, a new safety belt bursting, resulting in him tumbling fifteen feet on to a firm dirt surface below, crushed the lumbar region such that he’d already had three surgeries—qualifying him for the label of a “failed back syndrome.” I was seeing him owing to a malpractice case against the equipment manufacturer.
Juan was forty-seven when I met him. He would have measured a bit over six feet had he been able to stand. His build was slight, alerting me to the fact that he was neglecting his diet—generally patients fitting his category blow up from inactivity and increased intake of food: Juan appeared depressed, and in great pain, both of which tend to weigh down on appetite. His eyes were deep set, with dark shading and a notable glassy sheen confirming the chronic discomfort he was experiencing. When he spoke his voice produced broken sounds and his breathing was heavy.
In Spanish, he explained to me that he had been working as a tree trimmer for many years for a landscape company. He was assigned to do a routine job on a day after it had rained; a giant limb from the tree was dangling dangerously. The surrounding branches were heavy from saturation, weakening the strength of the old or diseased members. These were not conditions unfamiliar to him but what was shocking was that the safety harness he had used seconds earlier to tie himself in, gave way just as he stepped his weight on to a thick branch that appeared strong and healthy: Juan’s body did a freefall. He lay unconscious for several minutes before he came to. In a matter of a fraction of a second his life had been forever transformed.
Juan was not the first fit and proud man I’d seen broken in body initially and later in spirit. Sadly, I’d witnessed innumerable similar cases, too many in fact to permit me even a grain of the arrogance and smugness I’ll admit to owning earlier in my life. Truthfully, the experience of seeing one Juan after another makes a person understand words like “grateful” and “blessed.”
This gentleman had been sent to me not for treatment but for an evaluation—I knew at the time that I would likely never see him again. Of course, I couldn’t have forgotten his genuine kindness and graciousness, but that’s not what this story is about. Instead, it pertains to a fortuitous event that took place months later, one that enlightened me to a truth I had to know already but that deserved to be highlighted.
My friends’ son was graduating high school. He had attended a Catholic school close to my home so I knew the place well. The bleachers were filling up with family and friends of the students. I was standing on the ground of what would otherwise have been the football field, scanning the seating before making my way up the stairway. I felt a pull on my pant leg, as if somebody had grabbed the material near the knee and was attempting to yank them off. I jerked back, simultaneously turning to see who was behind what had to be a prank.
Instinctively I glanced downward. “Dr. Nehamen. I’m Juan Rivera,” the man in the wheelchair informed me. “I come to your office,” he reminded me.
“Of course, I remember, Juan. What are you doing here?”
Through the agony of his physical and circumstantial pain he beamed. “My boy, Daniel, graduate. No…not before…”
Juan had run out of English. He spoke in Spanish to the girl about eight-years old standing next to him. “My father wants me to tell you that nobody in his family ever went to school. His dream is that his children will have an education. My brother was an honor student.”
“Tell your father that I understand how proud he must be,” I commented to the girl who turned out to be his youngest daughter.
I listened to the commencement speeches and the rest of the ceremony leading up to the issuing of the diplomas. There was about a hundred young people having their name called. When the headmaster called Daniel Rivera there was applause from several people—Juan had invited his entire extended family and all their friends.
At first I wanted to weep. Juan had come to this country as a young man seeking work. He had nothing but his will to survive, and a sense of responsibility to his family. Out of pennies he saved enough to send money to help his parents feed the younger siblings at home. Then after marrying, he and his wife still managed to squirrel away money to provide for their children’s educations.
Why were people willing to endure any degree of suffering in order to support the achievements of their offspring? What was the reward? Few, if any, ever anticipated public recognition or fame for the role they dedicated themselves to fill. What was their motive?
There was only one answer that I could find. Love. Juan loved his son and was willing to play the unsung hero knowing that his only reward would be knowing that he was instilling in his boy a value that would in turn command Daniel to do likewise for his loved ones. This drive is etched into the human psyche, a necessary ingredient to insure the survival of the specie.
Juan Rivera, in spite of his impaired state, was no different than millions, even billions, of people around the globe. His story was hardly different from ones I recall hearing growing up pertaining to my grandparents, and to some extent my parents. The same theme; it repeated over and over. You could put the man in a wheelchair, take away his dignity, leave him in chronic pain and suffering, but you could never take away the will to do anything imaginable to look after his children.
I’m not a hundred percent sure, but the statement, “Only in America,” might be true; where else could this happen? Daniel’s opportunities exceeded what his father and grandfather before him had—and owing mostly to the man in the wheelchair.
As I review my work, the creation of my novels, I find that I’ve unwittingly integrated the theme, love, total devotion to child, into most of my works, into several of my key characters. I realize now that I had no choice—how else can we triumph over hate and evil?
In an instant, I grew up by a million years. I knew right then that Benny Wright had a purpose that would shadow him on every path he roamed, that would share in every breath he took, that would take a piece of every laugh, cheer, dance, song, and celebration he experienced. This purpose would be witness to every time he cheated, lied, or deceived; and gasp at every one of his sorrows, agonies, or defeats—there was something on earth that exceeded the worth of Benny Wright, that deserved his devotion until he was no longer a living being. – Benny Wright regarding becoming a parent, Crushing Dreams
“You listen to me, son. I still have no idea what evidence there is to hold you; these people are very tight with information. Even Feld. I held a damn gun to his fat head and threatened to pop him like a zit, but all he’d tell me is this rot about you and Amir knowing each other in America and you coming here to harm Israel.” What amazed me was her balls-to-the-wall assurance that I had done no wrong. I never felt the need to defend myself. “I love you, Zacchaeus Miller. Don’t forget who you are. That’s all that matters.” That was just what I needed to hear. “Remember, I’m here. I won’t stop until you are out of this mess.” — Kaye Miller to her son, Zach Miller, Mistaken Enemy