Thursday, April 6, 2017

The French Connection

I can’t believe I have to do this again, so soon after another beloved family member was taken too soon. Worse, when Mike Connors passed away, he did so knowing how much he was loved and appreciated, but I’m not sure if Steve French ever got that same feeling  As much as he hated it, much of Steve’s life was dependent on others, and I fear he died feeling more like a burden than a benefit.  And while 1000 words will not be enough to set the record straight, I’m going to try. To do so, I will focus on MY relationship with the guy, as to try and capture the incredible story behind my brother’s bond with him would take a book. In short, my brother Richard has done some pretty impressive things in his life: traveling the world, getting into top schools, becoming a doctor, running several practices - but what he did for, and with, Steve is what makes me most proud to call him my brother.

Back when I was 12, Richard was in a terrible car accident that left him with two shattered legs and a broken jaw, and during his year-long recovery, he spent some time at Gaylord Hospital, where a classmate of his was “recovering” from an even more horrific accident that left him in a coma due to a traumatic brain injury. His name was Steve French.

Prior to the accident, Steve was not what you would call a good guy. From what I understand, he was a bit of a bully with a mean streak and short fuse, and the Gold Glove boxing skills to back it up. So much so, that at the time of his accident, there were people saying it was karma, and he got what he deserved.

I’m not sure anyone deserves to go through what Steve did, but I do know that he came out of it a better man. Even while still in the hospital, he was making changes. I’ll never forget wheeling him through the hospital so he could deliver a daily orange to his friend Gary, who was in even worse shape than Steve was. It took ten minutes for Steve to pass the orange to Gary, who could hardly hold it, never mind peel it. Gary lacked speech, and his face was typically contorted into a grimace, but he always managed a smile for Steve. I have no idea what he did with all those oranges, but they certainly brightened his day.

So, regardless of what he was like before the accident, Steve left that hospital a good man. A true source of inspiration and living proof about the power of the human spirit.

He was also a pain in the ass!

From Day One, when I first met him slumped in a wheelchair (which in itself was amazing, as he spent weeks in a fetal position that doctors thought he would never come out of) he was a prankster. Mind you, I was 12, and unaccustomed to dealing with brain damaged people in wheelchairs, so I was nervous the first time I wheeled Steve into an elevator and pushed the button for his floor. Next thing I know, he’s screaming, with his finger apparently stuck in the door. I start to panic, and the guy pulls his hand away from the door and starts laughing, pointing the finger he faked getting stuck at me in a “Got you!” manner

That was the first of many.

After he graduated to using a walker, his favorite trick was to pretend to be falling. He’d flail his arms and yelp, and I’d come running to catch him. Every time. And every time, he’d laugh, happy that he had fooled me again.

And when he started driving, he’d convince me to check his oil, or windshield wiper fluid, or headlights. And EVERY time I stuck my head under the hood or on front of the grill, he’d beep the damn horn, causing me to jump and bang my head.

But it wasn’t just me. He had a knack for tricking pretty girls into groping him. His posture, gait, and garbled voice gave away that he had a brain injury, which made people more inclined to be helpful - so when he’d approach a stranger and ask for help getting his keys out of his pocket, many obliged. They’d reach into his front pants pocket, feel around, and come out empty. He’d then convince them to check the other pocket., then his back pockets, and so forth, until they caught onto the joke. Some never did!

I’m sure most of it was pure fun and games, but I think part of it was Steve doing whatever it took to feel in control. He had lost so much control over his own life, physically, mentally, emotionally, that it must have felt good to have some situations he could take charge of.

What I don’t think he realized though was how much of an influence he did have on me, and pretty much everyone he met. He was not easy to deal with. He was slow, hard to understand, and stubborn - and to this day, I attribute my fairly high level of patience and tolerance to him.

And he was equally tolerant. I've seen him in pain, but never heard him complain. For Steve, every thing was a struggle, but he insisted on doing everything himself, no matter how much extra time it took. And for someone who was never supposed to walk again, he sure got around. He traveled Europe, worked in a grocery store, frequented Danny O's, lived on his own, retaught himself how to drive, and had an active social life.

He was proud. Maybe even a bit of a bragard or show-off, always flexing his muscles and squeezing my hand in a death grip - and well, since that annoyed me, I learned to be humble! But the way he went about getting those hard-earned muscles; the hours spent in the gym, willing his body to do things deemed impossible by others, taught me about perseverance and dedication.

But under all those muscles, Steve was still a little mama's boy! He bought a house right next to his amazing mother, and when not visiting with her, was talking about her. Not that I needed any help in that department, but it was still nice to see their sweet relationship. Same goes for his siblings and nieces and nephews. He was constantly pulling out his wallet to show me their latest pictures and raving about their exploits.

I was a teenager during the years that Steve was an integral part of the family, and while I’m sure I was no less self-centered than your typical teen, there was never any resentment over him being there. Sure, I got frustrated and annoyed with him, like any brother, and I had to train my girlfriends not to fall for the “Find my Keys” trick, but he added so much more to my life than he took.. And really, all he “took” was a little more time, patience, and understanding; three things we should all be grateful to share. And in return, he taught us all that life truly is what you make of it. People can change. Adversity can be overcome. Friends and family are important. And when life gives you lemons, give someone else an orange.