Remembering Michael

By Diane Phillips

Michael Wells passed away on Saturday. I tried to pack away his life in a box to give to his sister and mother. But Michael’s life couldn’t fit in a box. The pictures, the emails, the notes – his heart was just too strong, his mind too sharp to be confined.

I took that cardboard box and dumped all the papers out, the trail of more than 35 years of my looking after his affairs.

And then I just sat there, alone in the office, on the floor on a Saturday morning, hours after he left us and thought about Michael. And cried.

The first time I met Michael he was hanging in a metal contraption. His legs and arms dangled like a stick figure drawn by a child. Fruzan Langdon, a special ed speech therapist, introduced us, never guessing –or maybe she did – that it would lead to a four-decades long bond that is hard to explain.

I gave, but I got so much more. And that is what everyone who knew Michael would say. For here was a quadriplegic who could move neither a muscle nor a nerve lower than his neck. His hands and arms and feet and legs and torso were all but frozen, though they took it upon themselves occasionally to indulge in a slight jerky movement. Never was Michael able to feed or dress himself, shower, walk, run, swim, play, write his name. He could not speak though he had a way of letting you know if he was happy. If he thought what you said was funny, his eyes would light up and a smile would reveal every tooth in his child-sized mouth.

That is all for background, for understanding the challenges that Michael faced. He had been given nothing, the result of a badly breached birth that led to cerebral palsy, attempts to treat it that came too late and at great cost to his parents, four years of abject loneliness in an institution in Florida where he was supposed to be receiving therapy, a return to Nassau at school age but no public school would take him because of the severity of his disability. Doctors predicted early death. He was not expected to live past 25.

He defied every odd. Three days before he died, Michael turned 62.

He never attended a single day of school, but he taught himself how to read and write by watching Sesame Street and every day he would try to learn one new word. He started communicating by hitting one keyboard letter at a time with a unicorn stick attached to a band around his head, hanging in that metal contraption. A few of us raised enough money to get him a wheelchair and a new computer and software making the task of writing less stressful through laser focused reflective dots.

He began publishing a magazine for the specially abled called The Unicorn.

By the time he passed away, he had finished his 100th short story and was on his 10th book.

Every one of his first nine books sold out. If you had asked Michael about himself, he would never have chosen the word quadriplegic or disabled or crippled or paralysed from the neck down. He would have told you exactly who he was – an author.

What no one counted on when Michael was young – the doctors, the therapists, the educators who turned him down – was the power of his mind. He took what potential he had, the only thing he had that made life worth living, and he gave it everything he had. He stretched it, exercised it, bombarded it with incessant will to improve. He had one way to communicate with the world around him, to tap that unicorn stick to the letters on the keyboard and get his message across and to that exercise he brought the kind of incredible discipline that makes Olympian athletes gold medalists. Once when he felt no one was paying enough attention to his desire to learn, he refused to communicate with his father (now deceased) who looked forward to coming home from work to see what new word Michael had discovered for him to use in a sentence. For four days, Michael maintained his non-communication by computer, his utter silence until others around him remembered to take him seriously.

That was the secret to Michael’s greatness. Stripped of everything but determination, Michael had little, gave it his all and did so much. His frailty later in life never hampered his love of chocolates or visitors nor his dreams that one day he would find a woman who would love him for who he was. He had no self-pity and could not stand for anyone else to look at him as if they felt sorry for him. He had a plan and he had his own potential to live up to. It was a full slate for someone who could not scratch where a mosquito bite caused an itch.

Kareem Mortimer’s 2011 docu-drama on Michael Wells “I Am Not A Dummy” which has aired on ZNS numerous times, shows us through Michael why greatness cannot be measured in titles or deeds or acts of kindness alone but in its truest sense digs deep into a soul to find its capacity to encourage others.

We fool ourselves. We tell ourselves we are trying to live up to our potential. Michael Wells lived beyond his. In so doing, he taught us all that more is possible. Michael also had the support of a few very special people outside his family, including Lesley Spencer who served as his editor all these years. His mother, Shirley Francis, though abroad most of the year, was his emotional goalpost. Candace Brown who, next to his sister Cheryl, was the last to visit him at PMH has been a heart-warming part of Michael’s life, his cousins and uncles, relatives like Kendal Hanna and Gail Hanna, providing a ‘staycation’ respite once or twice a year. Looking after Michael was a full-time job, a task his family and most recent caregiver, Raquel and her sister and family, accepted with grace and love. His late father’s protective care of Michael was boundless.

Candace visited Michael late Friday, hours before he would leave us. When she told him the angels would care for him, his eyelids fluttered. Perhaps there was that famous smile hidden behind the oxygen mask. As for me, I will go back to that box of papers and pictures, the many financial transactions that kept him alive and allowed for care, so prudently managed all these years, and I will make Michael a silent promise, to bring to every goal that I know is important, a little slice of the dignity and determination that you brought, Michael, when no one expected anything and you sure showed them you were something else.


birdiestrachan 1 week, 2 days ago

And I will never complain again and give thanks in good times and bad times after reading this what do I have to complain about ,

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