You might not think a young man from rural Mexico seeking his fortune in America and a middle-age Jewish mother of three boys would have much in common, but physical devastation has a way of bringing out a common humanity.
The Mexican gentleman in question is Rafael. My brother Jon and I met him five years ago during a project we did about undocumented Latino immigrants who become disabled on the job.
The middle-aged woman is Alice Adelman Lowenstein, my mother.
Both suffered accidents that had instant and permanent consequences for their bodies.
For my mother, it was a car crash on a snowy President’s Day in 1986.
And for Rafael, who had just arrived in this country with dreams of glory, it was a huge metal object falling on his back during his second week of work at a popcorn factory.
“My old life had ended,” Rafael told Jon and me, in essence. “I had to accept that a new one had begun.”
His words stunned me because Mom had used almost exactly the same language about her accident.
Both took a long time to adjust to their new realities.
Mom had to deal with physical changes and an inability to sleep through the night that continues until today.
In some ways, though, the most profound challenged for her was coming to terms with having sustained a massive closed head injury.
In the beginning, she spoke in ways that only made sense to people who had known her and understood the references she was making.
She could not handle too much stimuli like conversation switches and exposure to sunlight while talking.
She also had a very low frustration level.
Yet, through her own tenacity, her considerable financial resources, her access to some of he world’s finest health care and the loving support of family, she gradually got better.
The improvement was not just physical and mental.
She eventually came to have a different perspective on her life.
Rafael’s new life came slowly, too.
He wallowed in depression and self-pity for most of a year before his uncle told him to get out of bed and into life.
His uncle did more than talk.
So did his brothers and his mother, all of whom moved here to support Rafael.
Rafael also had a dedicated lawyer outraged by what had happened to the young man. With the family’s blessing, the lawyer pursued Rafael’s case for years.
In the end, Rafael received more than $100,000 to purchase a home and car. For the rest of his life, he gets a monthly check of $1,200. For the first 20 years following the accident, Rafael receives additional payments of $15,000 per year. And the company paid for all of his medical bills for the first five years.
Gradually, he got stronger.
He started using his hands to propel a racing chair.
He learned how to use a computer.
His car was altered so that he could drive.
He also jumped out of a plane.
He did this, he said, not of any reckless, self-destructive urge, but rather to show himself that nothing was impossible.
Mom and Rafael also expanded beyond themselves to give meaning to their personal struggles by helping others.
Mom created a non-profit organization, and to this day works to support and encourage other people.
In the spring of 2007, Rafael joined dozens of other people with disabilities and thousands of other people, pumping their first and chanting, “Los discapacitados no van estar discriminados!”
The people with disabilities will not be the victims of discrimination.
I don’t want to paint an overly rosy picture.
More than a decade after his accident, Rafael’s wound at being unable to marry and have children was still tender.
Mom still cannot sleep through the night and lost friends who were unable to make the transition to her new life.
But, if this is true, so is it also true that their acceptance of the loss and embrace of the change is something from which all of us can learn.
The message is not to be joyful that their accidents happened, but rather to use their dramatically changed circumstances to come to a different understanding of and attitude toward life.
Through their paths, Rafael and Mom have done that.
And for that I am grateful to both of them.