Invisible Disability

The most severe disabilities are invisible.

If you had met my friend Loon, you would have bet he was nondisabled, but you would have been wrong.  Although cheerful and fun to be around, he carried a disabling wound most of his life.

I met Loon in grade school after the wound had been inflicted. As a small boy he had witnessed his father shooting a man. Loon’s father went to prison for the rest of his life, even though the man he shot survived. And that man, the one who had been shot, became Loon’s stepfather. While Loon grew to love this man, he had to give up loving his father. He had to make an impossible choice, and the choice inflicted the wound.

When Loon dropped out of community college several years later, he was drafted and went to war. No choice this time. In Vietnam the enemy might be the young girl smiling and carrying flowers on the village street or the sniper hiding in the trees. While there, Loon received a “Dear John” letter — his high school sweetheart no longer loved him and would marry another man. Loon’s wounded heart bled.

When he returned from Vietnam, he was spat upon by war protesters when he arrived at the airport in San Francisco. He had given two years of his life to a war he did not understand and had lost the girl he wanted to marry in return for his service to his nation. By now, the scarring in his heart had created a hard place, and he began to resent authority. Still, he hid it well. He carried on, his sense of humor teetering on the sharp edge of irony.

One day, a lifetime later, his doctor discovered a malignant mole on the back of his skull. They operated, then removed his lymph nodes. The cancer began to spread, showed up in his brain and spinal cord. They operated on both. Then came radiation, chemotherapy. In November 2008, after a two-year battle and eight operations, he got a call from his doctor. Finally, good news. Loon called me and left this message: “Dude, what’s up? My trip to UCLA was highly successful. I just have two spot tumors and I’ll go next week to have them taken out. And the guy said just have an MRI every three months and go down there and they’ll zap ‘em. So it looks like my head is in good shape. How’s your head?”

But once again he would be betrayed, this time by our convoluted health care system. A week later the doctor informed him he had read the wrong MRI. Loon’s latest images told a different story. His brain was riddled with cancer. He had less than three months to live.

Just a few days ago my cell phone rang and the automated voice told me I had a message. It was Loon. “Dude, what’s up? My trip to UCLA was highly successful …” I smiled as the tears welled, knowing this was one message I would never delete. “… So it looks like my head is in good shape. How’s your head?”

It’s OK, Loon. But my heart will never be the same.

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