Bully Pulpit: Bye, Bye, Lenny

Tim GIlmerBy the time you read this, Lenny will have been gone about three weeks.

I’ve known Lenny all my life, but I was a freshman in high school before I learned his name. At the time I was playing varsity baseball. A good friend of mine, Hulsekin, a superior player in his own right, called attention to him. “You should see yourself running the bases,” said Hulsekin. “When you’re chugging around second on the way to the third, you run like a one-legged man. Your right leg does all the work. Your left leg’s just along for the ride.”

From that moment on I started calling my left leg Lenny. My right leg I called Riggs.

Not that Lenny was useless. He just fulfilled a role that was suited to his personality. In football when I dropped back to pass, I planted my strong leg, Riggs, and stepped forward with Lenny to release the ball. Riggs was like an anchor, but Lenny was first to take the hits from onrushing defensive linemen.

Lenny and Riggs were a pair. It took both of them to fulfill a single role.

Walking, running, jumping, dancing, even waterskiing on a single ski. Both were essential to just about everything I did.

All that changed when I was 20. You know the story by now. Plane crash, mangled spinal cord, paralysis. Riggs and Lenny were out of commission from that moment on. But they stuck around, and I took care of them the best I could.

I remember a summer day in 1967, the second anniversary of my plane crash. I was sitting in the sunny backyard of a home I was renting. Riggs and Lenny were hanging out with me, and I suddenly remembered that two years earlier a doctor had told me that if I had not regained any sensation or motor ability in two years, that my paralysis would be permanent. I felt very close to Riggs and Lenny that day in the backyard. I pledged to carry them with me wherever I went. It didn’t matter that they were lifelong passengers. I was just happy to have them with me.

That was a long time ago. Decades.

For the past four months I’ve been pretty much housebound, in bed or in my recliner, trying to heal up some very serious wounds that devastated Lenny after a virulent infection caught us by surprise. At first he improved. Then the infection returned, and Lenny was hit extra hard. My 3-year-old grandson became concerned about Lenny and me.

“Papa, can I bring you some tea?” he asked one day at Grandma’s urging.

“Yes, Cooper, I would love some tea.”

And later: “Papa, did the tea make your leg better?”

“Yes, Cooper, much better,” I lied.

And each day after that: “Papa, can I bring you some more tea?”

My prayer, once Cooper realizes that Lenny had to go away forever, is that he will not blame himself for not bringing me enough tea. And that Riggs will not be lonely.

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