Today’s story is about another quadriplegic patient I met at Rusk in 1976…it’s a happy story that followed a very tragic and sad occurrence.
The sad occurrence I mentioned in an earlier daily posting. In that posting I talked about the death of my wife’s 39 year old sister to Cancer…leaving a loving husband and 4 young children…. well, until her death, my wife and I did not realize how much of our time was spent on weekends and holidays in bumper to bumper traffic going on the Grand Central Pkwy to the Southern State Pkwy. to stay overnight with our son at her home in Suffolk County…. we felt like part of her family as she and her husband were so loving to us and treated us like their home was our home…. we went to the beach often both at Robert Moses State Park and also took the ferry to Fire Island. our son played with his cousins and I felt like we were one big happy family…. so needless to say, our hearts had a big “hole” to fill after she died and the weekly trips went down to a trickle.
My dear wife came up with the solution to our sadness and all the free time we had on our plate now…. so what to do?…. so she said, “let’s join a club with a pool and tennis courts and let’s learn to play tennis as a family. you, me and frank, who was now 11 years old. one of our friends, I don’t remember who, suggested a club called the Jackson Heights Country Club located near us. It was off the Grand Central Pkwy and LaGuardia Airport…. Once I saw it, calling it a Country Club, made me LOL ! It was anything but…. it showed it’s age. It was all concrete,not a blade of grass to be found. It had 3 tennis courts, one behind the other and the courts were not even regulation size. They were a little smaller in size. The pool was very large and inviting and the club house had food and drinks available to purchase… we also had lockers and for extra money we bought 2 padded lounge chairs, to lay down and get a nice tan. so we joined and began learning tennis on the hand ball court….. and the rest is history as we became “tennis addicts”.
However, years before we became addicted to playing tennis, I had become addicted to “watching” pro tennis. and this is when I was asked by my boss at the East Harlem Center to take my teenage gang, The Demons, to the U.S. Open Tennis Tournament as he was given a block of free tickets. The year, I took the gang to the Open was 1969, when the open was at Forest Hills, Queens and it was not the World Wide event that it is today…. plenty of empty seats to see players like Tom Ocker, whom I never heard of…..I didn’t even know the rules of tennis back then. but the Stadium was not new to me because I had taken my wife to a few Concerts there. We got to see “live’ performances “outdoors” under the stars for Simon & Garfunkel, Tom Jones, Englebert Humperdink, Peter, Paul & Mary and a few more performers over the years…. but I never saw live tennis before until this end of summer day in 1969. to go to my first tennis match with the Demon’s gang was a very tall order…. these kids didn’t have a clue about the game or how we had to stay “silent” when the ball was in play….. so to be as safe as possible…. I took them to the top of the stadium to watch the match…..we lasted about an hour and a half before the guys said to me, “hey Joe, let’s get the F— out of here” this sport is “BORING” !…. my relieved reply was “let’s go”!
My dad hated tennis with a passion…. whenever he saw tennis shown on the sports segment of the TV news broadcast, he would rant and rave that tennis was for rich white people and not a sport for the masses……..and his dislike for tennis as an elitist sport rubbed off on me… but as me and the kids left the stadium, I looked back and said to myself, “I think I will be back here again”….
…and sure enough in 1977 I got lucky enough to meet my new patient at Rusk, whose name was Bob… he was from Forest Hills, was becoming a lawyer, was 28 yrs. old. He became paralyzed by an unknown virus that rendered him a Quadriplegic but he had enough arm movement and strength to learn how to drive his own van. It had a motorized lift, so he could stay in his wheelchair as he drove…the driver’s seat was taken out….. he was some talker…and I knew that his becoming a lawyer was perfect for his analytic mind….he didn’t miss a thing…and he debated most everything I would say, just for the fun of it. I was able to “do my thing” and helped Bob by breaking down his defenses, getting to his feelings, as he began to mourn the loss of who he was, what he had to give up (he was a very good tennis player, who had thoughts of becoming a professional), and what kind of life was ahead of him… he had a very positive attitude and he felt that being a lawyer in a wheelchair would be an asset not a liability. He possessed a brilliant mind and I, also, thought he would make a great lawyer….. as he got close to discharge, he kept repeating to me that when he got home he was going to take me to the U.S. Open Tennis Tournament at the Forest Hills Country Club Stadium, which was just down the block from where he lived. He lived with his mom, who was an elementary school teacher. His dad had died of a heart attack 4 years earlier.
Discharge day finally arrived and as he got in his van to go home, he said to me that he would call me in a few weeks when the Open Tennis Tournament would begin at Forest Hills Stadium…. I said, somewhat sarcastically, “I won’t hold my breath waiting for the call”….. I really thought he was just playing with my mind. …..Boy was I in for the surprise of my life! …. two days before the tournament began I received Bob’s call. I told him that my wife had to work days this week (private duty nurse) so I took the week off work to baby sit my son until Maria went back to working 4pm to 12pm again the following week. That was her normal work schedule as our son had a wonderful neighborhood woman as a baby sitter from 3pm til 6pm when I picked him up after my work day…. so even though I was not working, I had to watch my son…Bob didn’t miss a beat, he said his mom was a retired elementary school teacher and she loved kids and she could watch my son Frank while we went to the Tennis Tournament…. I told him I would discuss it with my wife and if it was ok with her I would take him up on his offer. Maria agreed to have me take Frank, who was only 5 years old to Bob’s home, and be watched by his mom while me and Bob went to the Tennis matches.
I drove to Bob’s home, on a beautiful September day… low and behold, his home was just down the street from the stadium. His mom was a delight as she quickly bonded with my son. Bob was in his manual chair so I was charged with pushing him up the block to the stadium….. as we got close up to the stadium, I asked him for the tickets…. he sternly told me that we did not need tickets. I thought to myself, “this guy is nuts”…..as we got to the entrance and the ticket taker recognized Bob, he gave Bob a big hello and just waved us into the stadium…. Now I was really puzzled but also very excited… so I asked Bob, where will we sit without having a specific seat. Bob smiled at me and said, “you will push me right onto Center Court and you will put my chair in the corner right near the linesman, just follow my directions and we will go on the court during the change over stop in play….. and that is exactly what I did…..when the players got up to change sides, I recognized Stan Smith coming over to our side, sure enough as he got close to us, he recognized Bob and came over to give Bob a hug, and went back to play the match in progress with Tom Ocker as his opponent… as I stood behind Bob, who was smiling like a fox who just caught a hen, my knees were knocking together as I couldn’t believe where I was and what had just transpired in front of my shocked eyes…… the match picked up and one of my job’s was to catch any out balls from the server’s first serve so the ball wouldn’t hit Bob….. that’s how close we were to the action… Smith came over after he won the match, and chatted with Bob, shook my hand at Bob’s introduction. but that wasn’t the end of the story…..The next match featured Jimmy Connors, and the same thing happened when Jimmy came over to say a quick hello to Bob before he warmed up against his opponent, whom I don’t remember who he was. What I do remember was how unbelievable a day I had at the U.S. Open, I saw myself and Bob on Warner Wolf’s sports news highlights on CBS that evening…. and when I bought my Daily News paper the next morning….there was a picture of Jimmy Connors reaching for a ball and Bob and me were in the background just behind Jimmy’s racquet. once again “unbelievable.” After that day, I fell in love with tennis for the rest of my life.
My wife, when it came to tennis, was a female Joe Mosco…. she competed like the match was life and death each time…. her competitiveness and desire to win was even greater then mine….when she saw all the trophies I won from the age of 13 thru college, she was amazed…she polished each one and found a place in the house to display them….then, when done, she swore to me that she would win more trophies and tennis awards then I had won in baseball, basketball and bowling…… I just LOL…but slowly and surely, over the years until our bodies couldn’t take it anymore she did! my trophies went in boxes and put in storage in my garage to make room for all her tennis trophies….some mixed doubles with me, then with men players better then me (yes, she fired me for not being good enough), doubles with her women friends, and what she loved best: “singles”. Just her against the world…. she became a lifetime member of the National Senior Women’s Tennis Association and played in tournaments at Forest Hills, on grass. In Delaware on grass. and we flew down to Miami for tournaments on Clay… I was in charge of carrying her Tennis Gear and just looking like I was her coach,even though she would never take my advice….LOL. ……..She sure brought an abundance of “sunshine” into my life.
I stayed in touch with Bob. He drove me and my son to Long Beach Island to visit Ralph Marino…..Bob, using his hand controls, was a better driver then I was and he became a very successful lawyer as well…. He bought a condo in Brooklyn Heights with a spectacular view of the tip of Manhattan and the Brooklyn Bridge.
Life is what you make it…..and Bob, instead of feeling sorry for being stricken down by a virus which took most of the use of his body away, did not lie down and give up his dreams. He is another example that as long as you have a strong ‘spirit’, no one can take away your mind, your heart or your soul…..and I strongly believe that our mind, heart and soul are the essence of who we are as humans….. so I humbly thank Bob for giving me some memories for a lifetime.